Bioengineering and biology are easy to confuse. If you don’t want to make this mistake, read on.
“Biologist” is an umbrella term encompassing many professions involving the study of life and living things. Biological engineers, conversely, use engineering principles for biological study and problem-solving applications.
Here, we dig deeper into the difference between bioengineering and biology. We look at the tasks, requirements and career prospects for each profession.
What do biological engineers do?
The goals of biological engineering are to solve biological problems and improve biological processes to better meet the needs of society.
Biological engineers design and create technologies that help us analyze, understand, improve and use biological systems. They can work with agricultural, animal, environmental and microbial systems.
Biological engineers specialize in many areas, including:
- Medical technologies
- Physiological functions and processes
- Energy-saving technologies
- Energy systems
They may work with advanced models, machines, instruments, genetic manipulations, artificial organs, or molecular and nanomaterial technologies.
Their daily tasks may include research, programming, designing models, or performing statistical analysis.
Biological engineers can get hands-on by developing and testing equipment or devices, taking measurements or installing equipment, and providing support.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), biological engineers typically work in manufacturing, healthcare, life sciences, and education industries.
What do biologists do?
Biologists study all types of plant and animal life.
They can specialize in sub-disciplines such as aquatic, marine, zoological, wildlife, botanical, and molecular biology. Biologists strive to better understand the living world so that society can preserve, benefit from, and live in harmony with other living things.
Biologists conduct extensive research on living organisms and their environments. Their work environment depends on their specialization and study focus, which can take them to the bottom of the ocean, zoos, farms, or laboratories.
They may study living samples, examine ecosystems, work with models and simulations, or conduct field experiments.
A typical day for a biologist might include modeling and analysis, investigation, research, or fieldwork.
According to ONet, biologists primarily work for government and the professional and technical services industry. Other industry opportunities include education and consulting services.
Compare biological engineers and biologists
Biological engineering and biology careers differ in their requirements and outlook. Below, we explore these differences in detail.
According to the BLS, bioengineering generally requires applicants to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in engineering, usually in a field such as biomedical or biological engineering.
Specific employers and positions may require a college degree or extensive experience for the job.
Prior to graduation, students can gain experience through co-op programs or internships. Employers value hands-on experience in hospitals, laboratories, research, and field work.
Biologists need a bachelor’s degree as a minimum for many jobs. Most professionals in this field have a master’s degree.
Master’s degrees generally qualify graduates for scientific research positions, while a Ph.D. qualifies them for academic positions.
Biologists may also need extensive fieldwork experience, which they can gain through internships, fieldwork and research teams, and volunteerism.
The median annual salary for bioengineers was $92,620 in May 2020. The top 10% in the field earned more than $149,440, while the lowest 10% earned less than $56,590.
Biological engineering salaries also vary by industry, with instrument manufacturing paying a median annual salary of $104,050, medical equipment manufacturing paying $94,960, and life science research and development paying $93,630. $.
Salaries for biologists vary by role – and the roles of biologists vary widely. Microbiologists earned median salaries of $84,400 in May 2020, wildlife biologists earned $66,350, and environmental scientists earned $73,230.
Industry and job title also impact potential salaries. For example, in May 2020, microbiologists earned median annual salaries of:
- $112,940 to the federal government
- $108,300 in life sciences research and development
- $73,830 in pharmaceutical manufacturing
Employment Growth and Job Demand
Our growing technological capabilities are driving growth in the field of bioengineering. The BLS predicts 6% growth for professionals between 2020 and 2030, led by the biomedical field.
Other industries providing opportunities for these professionals include research and development, medical equipment, healthcare, instrument manufacturing, and education.
The needs of society – including the preservation of our natural resources, wildlife and the environment – drive the demand for biologists.
The BLS projects growth of 5% for wildlife biologists, 5% for microbiologists and 8% for environmental scientists. Fiscal restrictions limit growth in each of these areas.
Most jobs in these fields come from the government, scientific and technical consulting services, and education industries.
Next steps on the career ladder
Biological engineers may pursue additional training, such as a master’s or doctoral degree, for roles in medical science or post-secondary education. Combining their engineering background with a business or medical background can help them land interdisciplinary positions.
Laboratory, research, and field experience can also go a long way in elevating a biological engineer to a leadership position.
To progress into independent research and project management roles, biologists often need a master’s or doctoral degree. At this level, they can teach and conduct their own research projects.
With experience and additional training, biologists can manage organizations and oversee their own team of technicians, researchers, and scientists. They can also teach at the post-secondary level with a doctorate.
Which suits me best: bioengineering or biology?
When choosing between bioengineering and biology, prospective students should think about their career goals, strengths, and interests.
Although the fields may overlap in many ways, a degree in biology provides a foundation for future specialization. Biological engineering degree jobs lead to a more specific career path.
Budding engineers may be more drawn to problem-solving and innovation, while budding biologists may value research and discovery.
If you aspire to provide benefits to society, engineering might be a better choice. Want to preserve the living world? Biology may be more aligned with your values.
Biologists and biological engineers study and work with living things, but the fields have very different career goals and opportunities.
By understanding the differences between bioengineering and biology, you can better choose the most appropriate path for your future.
Unless otherwise noted, wage and employment growth data are from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics to April 13, 2022.