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Meet our careers agony aunt

Are you unsure what to do after your GCSEs, Standard Grades, A levels or Highers? Confused about which subjects to take? Determined to get into a science career but not sure how? Keen on medicine but don’t have the grades to be a doctor? We asked some experts in careers and training to answer some crucial questions. Is there something you want to ask that isnt covered below? Email us and let us know.


Why should I think about going to university or college?

There are more than two million students in higher education in the UK. Being one of them means you will be able to study something you are interested in over several years and in depth.

There are lots of other benefits of going to university or college – for example, you are likely to meet lots of new people and be exposed to different cultural and social experiences. Studies show that graduates earn more on average over their lives than people with A levels but no higher qualifications. There is lots more information on higher education and university on the UCAS website.

It’s always hard to predict what the world of work will look like in the future, so having skills that are required across a range of employment sectors is the best way of making yourself employable for the longer term. Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates develop key analytical, numerical and problem-solving skills, together with an awareness of science and technology. This gives them a firm foundation and helps them to remain employable in an uncertain future.


I don’t know what I want to do at university – which A levels should I take?

According to the guide ‘Informed Choices’, some university courses require you to have A levels or equivalent in a specific subject or subjects, but other courses do not. The ‘facilitating subjects’ listed below are those subjects that are required more often than others for getting onto university courses.

So, if you have no fixed ideas about what you might want to study or go on to do as a job, these ‘facilitating’ A levels are good choices for keeping your options open:

  • mathematics and further mathematics
  • English
  • physics
  • biology
  • chemistry
  • geography
  • history
  • languages (classical and modern).

In fact, facilitating A levels such as the subjects listed above are sometimes described as ‘hard’ A levels (economics and politics can be also be considered in this way). A levels with a vocational or practical bias (eg media studies, art and design, photography, and business studies) are sometimes described as ‘soft’ subjects.

Some facilitating A levels are required for entry into particular degrees, especially at competitive universities (eg those in the Russell Group). For many biology-related degrees, a second science – often chemistry – is required. Maths is also often useful, though is unlikely to be required for a biosciences degree.

Generally speaking, taking one ‘soft’ subject as part of a wider portfolio of subjects will still keep open the option of gaining a place at a Russell Group-type university, assuming you also achieve the necessary grades across all of your chosen subjects. For information about the A levels you need for particular degree courses, refer to the UCAS website or ‘Informed Choices’.


How can I get into a science career without a degree?

Taking an A level (or equivalent) in biology or a BTEC national extended diploma in applied science will give you a wide range of skills. Employers will like the fact that you are numerate, a clear logical thinker and a good researcher.

Most biology-related jobs suitable for entry after GCSEs or A levels (or equivalent) are as a technician or an assistant to a healthcare or science professional – for example, pharmacy technician, healthcare assistant or laboratory technician. These positions can, in practice, be taken by those with higher-level qualifications, if there is a high demand for the position. They are likely to require further training while working to gain level 2–3 work-based qualifications, possibly via an apprenticeship at an advanced or higher level. Find out what these levels mean here.

If you are mainly based in a laboratory or working at technician level, there are various part-time, distance-learning and work-based qualifications that might help you progress in your career. These include:

A BTEC national, BTEC HNC, foundation degree or degree in applied science or applied biology.

For example, a pharmacy technician will need to study for a qualification that is accredited by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), such as a BTEC national diploma in pharmaceutical science, NVQ/SVQ level 3 in pharmacy services, or National Certificate in pharmaceutical science. You will need to be working in a pharmacy to apply for one of these courses, probably as a trainee pharmacy technician or dispensing assistant. You will usually need four GCSEs (at grades A–C – or, from 2017 under the new system, grades 4–9 – including English, maths and science) or equivalent to get a place on one of these courses. Find out more here.


How can I progress beyond technician/assistant level?

If you want to progress in your scientific career, you will need to go on to higher education at some point and take a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma or degree, depending on the career area. These can be studied on a part-time basis in some professions, but not all. They usually require that you have a level 3 qualification and/or the equivalent of A levels before applying.

Gaining entry into a scientific job via an apprenticeship would be a good way to ensure further training and possible career development in your role. Apprenticeships give you the chance to learn the skills required for a particular job while getting paid and gaining qualifications.

They are available across all kinds of sectors and are flexible, so you can apply to start when you’re 16 or 18. That said, apprenticeships are not just for people at the start of their career – they are for anyone looking to begin working in a new job.

Many apprenticeships relate to biology. In England, for example, science-related Intermediate and Advanced Level Apprenticeships, leading to qualifications at levels 2 and 3 respectively, are available in:

  • health, public services and care
  • agriculture, horticulture and animal care
  • engineering and manufacturing technologies (food and drink industries offer intermediate, higher and advanced apprenticeships).

Lots of information on apprenticeships in England is available, including apprenticeships by sector. There’s also information on opportunities in Wales and Northern Ireland and on apprenticeships and other training in Scotland.


What can I do in the NHS besides being a doctor?

There are many roles in healthcare besides being a doctor. For example, you can work as a support worker alongside healthcare professionals – as an assistant to a physiotherapist, radiographer, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, pharmacist or pathologist. This diagram shows how NHS jobs fit together, and this A to Z shows the different jobs available.

You can get jobs via an advanced apprenticeship lasting at least a year, although timescales vary with each apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are offered in the NHS at intermediate level (level 2 – GCSE) in a number of career areas and advanced level (level 3 – A level) in other areas. You can see the range for England here.

For more ideas, see the NHS careers website and Skills for Health.


How do I get work experience?

The Future Morph website has loads of great tips on getting work experience.

If you’re trying to find somewhere to do work experience, one thing you can do is to find the name of someone at the place you’re interested in working and write to or email them to see if you can come in. Talk to your teachers, friends and relatives to see whether they have any connections in the industry you’re interested in. As you are looking for a chance to experience the world of work, try to be professional when you make contact with people, and think about the language you use and how the way you communicate will come across.

It’s worth remembering that although you might not be able to get work experience in the exact field you want, experience working in a similar area is still useful. Any work experience you undertake will help you develop lots of skills important for employment, such as working in a team and time-keeping. It will also help build your awareness of the world of work. You may also find that while on work experience the reality of the day-to-day job you’re experiencing isn’t what you want to do – and that’s OK too! It’s just as important to rule out future careers, as this will help you find out what you really do want to do, so make sure you take every work experience opportunity.


What’s a good science-related area in which to try to get a job?

A report published in 2010 (the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ National Strategic Skills Audit) identified areas of growth in the economy, including the following STEM-related sectors: advanced manufacturing, the life sciences and pharmaceuticals, the low-carbon economy, professional and financial services, the digital economy, and engineering and construction. Health and social work and business services were also mentioned as areas of growth.

The UK will also need to develop a new generation of wealth-creation sectors in areas such as fashion, the creative industries and energy generation, all of which are likely to increase demand for graduates with STEM skills and awareness. Other areas with growing demand include health, agriculture and aquaculture, and the environmental sciences.

It’s always hard to predict what the world of work will look like in the future, so having skills that are required across a range of employment sectors is the best way to make yourself employable for the longer term. STEM graduates develop key analytical, numerical and problem-solving skills, together with an awareness of science and technology. This gives them a firm foundation and helps them to remain employable in an uncertain future.


Where can I get more information?

  • The Russell Group’s ‘Informed Choices’ is a guide to making decisions about post-16 education.
  • Careers services for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offer advice for students on career and education options.
  • Prospects provides information on career options with an A-to-Z list of degree subjects.
  • Find out about careers, work experience and more – for 11- to 19-year-olds, parents and students – at Future Morph.
  • Find apprenticeships, college courses and work experience through Not Going to Uni.
  • Get career guidance from Inspiring Futures.
  • STEM Ambassadors offers inspiration to young people on science, technology, engineering and maths.
  • The National Careers Service guide to careers in biology.

Many thanks to all those who provided information and guidance, including Kat Sandford at STEM Ambassadors, Debbie Steel, Ella Bujok and the team at Inspiring Futures, and Jane Pooler at Imperial College London.

Lead image:

GotCredit/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development