top of page

Choosing Your Path: Differences Among Life Sciences Degrees Explained

Many of us pursuing careers in biology, medicine, or related fields have faced the challenge, at some point or another, of choosing between degrees which have similar names and content. You may have wondered, "What’s the difference between biological and biomedical sciences?" or "How does pharmacology differ from pharmacy?" In this article, we hope to summarize and compare these degrees, and highlight their subtle and not-so-subtle differences which will hopefully help you make an informed decision when choosing a degree program which best aligns with your interests.

First, it is important to note that programs with the same name can differ in different countries and even universities. At the same time, degrees with different names can have similar content and structure. So, while this article provides an overview, it is very important to research each course carefully, and not rely solely on our descriptions. 



Let’s first focus on bio-related degrees: biology/biological sciences, biochemistry, biomedicine/biomedical sciences, and molecular biology. 


Biology/biological sciences focus on the study of living organisms, their processes and their functions. It’s a very broad degree which encompasses everything from large plants and animals to microorganisms. Within biology, you can expect to cover topics such as cell biology, microbiology, genetics, evolution, ecology, physiology and computational biology. The course will have an emphasis on understanding biological processes within organisms and species, as well as topics like conservation, evolution, and interactions between species. A degree in biology can be a steppingstone to a career studying the impact of climate change on crops, working on cancer therapeutics, or computationally discovering cancer biomarkers.  


Biochemistry focuses on the chemical processes and molecular interactions within cells and organisms. The curriculum often includes courses in organic chemistry, molecular biology, enzymology, structural biology, and bioinformatics. Compared to biology, biochemistry focuses significantly more on how the processes of the cell can be studied at the level of chemical interactions, but the applications of this can be very broad, and as you may expect, a lot of basic biology is also taught. 


Molecular biology is a branch of biochemistry that specifically focuses on the study of biological molecules and their interactions and functions within cells, including DNA, RNA, proteins and other macromolecules. Molecular biologists aim to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying biological processes such as replication, translation, transcription, gene expression and others. This course can be quite similar to biochemistry but tends to involve less chemistry, and instead focuses more on gene expression and protein function. 


A degree in biomedicine/biomedical sciences combines knowledge from biology, chemistry, physiology, and medicine to understand human health and disease. Here you can expect to learn a lot of biology within the context of human health, focusing on disease diagnosis and treatment. For example, investigating and discovering new biomarkers or drug targets for diseases, or uncovering disease mechanisms would be key focuses of biomedicine. You will likely learn about anatomy, physiology, diseases (immunological, infectious, neurological, cardiovascular or cancer), biological chemistry, cell biology, and genetics.

We summarized the main similarities and differences between these degrees in the table below: 


Biology

Biochemistry

Molecular biology

Biomedicine

Focus of the degree

Living organisms, biological mechanisms such as genetics or protein translation, interactions between species, conservation

Using chemical approaches to study biological processes

Interactions of biological molecules, especially DNA/RNA and proteins, and related processes 

Studying medical problems from a biological and biochemical perspective  

Where would you work?

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry, nature conservatories, oceanography centers

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry 

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry


Lab or field-based 

Lab-based

Lab-based

Lab-based

What subjects should you be interested in? 

Biology

Biology, chemistry

Biology, chemistry

Biology, medicine, chemistry

*the examples in the table are non-exhaustive


It is important to note again that there is a lot of overlap among these subjects, and career prospects are quite similar across all of them. For example, you can choose to specialize in protein research, genetics, or immunology within any of these disciplines. A graduate in biochemistry and biomedicine can end up working on the same topic, just as graduates with a  biology degree can find themselves in a lab studying DNA or working in a nature conservation site.  The key factor isn't the degree itself, but the specialization and focus within the field. It is also common to switch between fields within a career. For example, a researcher might initially focus on the biological functions of proteins and later specialize in studying these proteins as biomarkers. Overall, these areas of study aim to prepare students to become researchers, whether in academia, the pharmaceutical industry, or biotechnology companies.



Next, let's briefly discuss medicine-related fields.


Medicine itself is fairly straightforward – studying medicine aims to prepare students to become doctors and work directly with patients. Students are not usually trained to conduct research or work in a lab through medical school (although exceptions exist), but rather to practice medicine at a hospital. Some universities offer a degree called “applied medical sciences,” which can be confusing – to clarify, such degrees do not train students to become doctors, but rather focus on bridging the gap between science and medicine – for example, learning how scientific research can lead to improved patient outcomes and clinical practice. However, the subjects studied are quite similar to biomedicine – physiology, medicine, biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, etc. The emphasis is on how laboratory science translates to real-world patient treatments rather than unraveling biological mechanisms and would be well suited for someone who is interested in working in clinical trials, for example. 



The last group of subjects are pharma-related – pharmacy, pharmacology, and pharmaceutical sciences.


These fields are also a combination of chemistry and biology, however, unlike some other bio-related fields, these focus more on translational research and therapeutic treatments. An important distinction is that pharmacy is not a research degree – pharmacists are trained to work at a pharmacy, recommending and administering treatments to patients, advising patients on how best to take their medicine, and preparing drug formulations. The training focuses on existing drugs - their dosing, interactions, contraindications, and so on. 


On the other hand, pharmaceutical sciences is a research degree with a focus on the development of new therapies. For example, you can expect to learn about how drugs are discovered and developed, from cell studies to animal studies and clinical trials, marketing of medicines and their safety monitoring. This degree is also heavy in chemistry and biology but in the context of developing new treatments. Career prospects for pharmaceutical sciences graduates include research positions in academia, the pharmaceutical industry, or government regulatory agencies like the European Medicines Agency (EMA) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as other local agencies. 


Pharmacology is a branch of pharmaceutical sciences which focuses more specifically on how drugs interact with their targets to exert their therapeutic effect. Pharmacologists often work in pharmaceutical companies and biotech industry, in different stages of the drug pipeline, which can entail studying pharmacokinetics (absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of drugs) and pharmacodynamic processes (interactions of drugs with their targets and subsequent changes in cell functions). Within pharmacology, you can also expect to learn where medicines come from, their chemical properties, biological mechanisms and therapeutic uses, however compared to pharmaceutical sciences you will likely not focus on clinical trials or marketing of medicine. 

With training in pharmaceutical sciences or pharmacology, you can pursue similar career paths. However, to become a pharmacist, you need to graduate with a degree in pharmacy specifically. While transitioning from a pharmacist to a researcher might be more challenging, it is still very possible.

The similarities and differences between the pharma-related degrees are summarized in the table below: 


Pharmacy

Pharmaceutical science

     Pharmacology


Patient-oriented

Research-oriented

Research-oriented

What would you study?

Studying existing drugs and their formulation

Studying discovery and development of new drugs, their formulation, safety/efficacy testing, evaluation

Studying how drugs function within the human body (focusing on the mechanisms)

Where would you work?

Pharmacy, hospital, pharma/biotech industry

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry, government agencies

Research institutions, pharma/biotech industry

What subjects should you be interested in? 

Biology, chemistry, medicine

Biology, chemistry

Biology, chemistry



In summary, if you are interested in biology or biological chemistry, many degrees can be suitable for you. Choose a degree based on what excites you most within these subjects, how you want to apply your knowledge, and the type of job you aspire to have. However, the exact syllabus and teaching methods can vary greatly between courses, and many of the courses will have overlapping classes, so it's important to consider these factors when making your decision.


Comments


bottom of page