The top colleges for life sciences are concentrated in the US and the UK; more than half the 100 universities in a Times Higher Education ranking for life sciences are in one of these two countries.
Old prestigious schools take the top spots, including Harvard University in first place and Cambridge, Oxford and Stanford following close behind.
Best universities by discipline
- Best universities for arts and humanities
- Best universities for business and economics
- Best universities for clinical, pre-clinical and health
- Best universities for computer science
- Best universities for engineering and technology
- Best universities for physical sciences
- Best universities for social sciences
Life sciences include a range of subjects, from forestry to biotechnology. A full list of degrees covered by the ranking appears below the table.
Graduates of life science degrees go on to work in various different fields. Many jobs directly use life science research and knowledge, such as roles in pharmaceutical companies, environmental work and even forensic science.
The life science ranking assesses universities using 13 indicators of excellence that evaluate teaching, research, research influence, innovation and international outlook.
Some 100 universities are ranked in total, and the methodology is the same as for the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, with more weight given to research influence to reflect the priorities of the discipline.
Best universities in English-speaking countries
- Best universities in the UK
- Best universities in the United States
- Best universities in Canada
- Best universities in Australia
Top five universities for life sciences degrees
1. Harvard University
As is the case at many American colleges, undergraduates at Harvard have the opportunity to take various courses before declaring a major subject.
Within life sciences there are many interdisciplinary foundational courses grouped in nine concentrations to help students “explore the diversity of living systems”. The majors include biomedical engineering, neurobiology and human evolutionary biology.
Students are encouraged to do their own original research and many courses are hands-on.
According to the university, life science graduates often go on to postgraduate work, including medical school or science research. Other students have recently pursued careers in business, consulting and environmental advocacy.
Harvard is perhaps the best-known university around the world; it regularly takes the top spot in global reputation surveys. It was founded in 1636, and has built its reputation, wealth and influence over more than 300 years.
Although tuition is expensive, students from low-income families are fully supported by university grants. For the class of 2019, only 5.3 per cent of applicants were accepted in the competitive application process.
2. University of Cambridge
Cambridge, in the UK, is one of the world’s most prestigious and oldest universities, and follows a collegiate system.
Its School of Biological Sciences contains nine different departments and various research centres, including the department of biochemistry, the department of pharmacology and the department of zoology.
There is also a Graduate School of Life Sciences that is responsible for master’s degrees and doctorates.
Only three major undergraduate programmes in life sciences are offered: biological sciences as a natural science specialism, a pre-clinical veterinary science programme and a newly created psychological and behavioural sciences programme.
Students have close interaction with teachers through the tutorial system and are automatically members of their college community, where they can eat meals, live in college-owned buildings and attend recreational activities.
Charles Darwin, perhaps the most famous life scientist throughout history, was an alumnus of Christ’s College in Cambridge, and many other prominent biologists have studied or taught at the university.
3. University of Oxford
Life science degrees at Oxford are spread across a number of specialised departments within both the science and clinical divisions of the university.
Oxford is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. It lies just an hour west of London and is renowned for architecturally impressive colleges dotted around the centre of the small town.
Many world-leading academics work at the university. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist, is affiliated to the university and can often be seen around town or at public events.
Oxford students belong to a college where they live, eat and attend small tutorials with teachers. Postgraduates are more likely to live outside college and will not necessarily be taught within their college.
In general, Oxford alumni go on to high-profile careers, and many prominent politicians, cultural figures and award-winning scientists are associated with the university.
4. Stanford University
With one of the largest and most beautiful campuses in the US, Stanford is a popular destination for US and international students.
It is particularly renowned for science and innovation, and university researchers, students and alumni significantly contribute to technological development in Silicon Valley, located right by the university.
Stanford’s department of biology leads the way for life science research, while the bioengineering department creates a fusion of engineering and life sciences by inventing new technologies.
The biology department offers courses in biochemistry, biophysics, computational biology, conservational biology and many other subdisciplines.
Many Stanford alumni have won prestigious awards, such as Nobel Prizes, Rhodes Scholarships and Turing Awards.
Almost 90 per cent of undergraduate students live on campus, and all first-years are required to live on campus.
Of more than 15,000 students in total, more than 20 per cent are international.
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Many different departments at MIT offer courses in life science topics, to contribute towards either a major or a minor degree subject.
Courses range from biological engineering – a pioneering new discipline combining principles of engineering and biological systems – to 'Science, Technology and Society' which offers a more comprehensive overview of life sciences and its applications.
The university attracts both undergraduates and postgraduates for life sciences degrees. Even though an undergraduate major in a life science subject is excellent preparation for many different jobs, further study in health sciences or engineering is a common post-graduation option.
Many life sciences graduates will continue to medical school. Other career paths suggested by the school of life sciences are finance, intellectual property law and forensics.
Across all science and technology disciplines, MIT has an excellent reputation, and admissions are accordingly very selective; only 8 per cent of applicants win a place, although life science programmes are not quite as competitive as computer science and engineering courses.
More than 80 affiliates of the university have won Nobel Prizes, and many more have achieved recognition through other awards.