Ulyanov graduated from Kazan University's Department of Physics and Mathematics in 1854. In 1850s and 1860s, he was a mathematics and physics teacher at Penza Institute for the Dvoryane, and later at a gymnasium and a school for women in Nizhny Novgorod. Around that time, he married Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova. While in Penza, Ulyanov conducted meteorological observations, on the basis of which he would write a couple of scientific works called On the Benefits of Meteorological Observations and Some Conclusions on Their Use for Penza (О пользе метеорологических наблюдений и некоторые выводы из них для Пензы) and On Thunderstorm and Lightning rods (О грозе и громоотводах).
In 1869, Ulyanov was appointed inspector of public schools in the Simbirsk guberniya (in 1874-1886 - their director). In 1882, Ulyanov was promoted to the rank of Actual Civil Councellor, which gave him a privilege of hereditary dvoryanstvo and accompanied with the award of the Order of St.Vladimir, 3rd Class.
Ilya Ulyanov was a well-educated man with excellent organizational and teaching skills. Some Soviet historians believed that his pedagogical views had been formed under the influence of the revolutionary ideas of Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Dobrolyubov. Ulyanov contributed immensely to elaboration of theory and practice of elementary education. He was an advocate of equal rights for education regardless of gender, nationality and social status. In 1871, Ulyanov opened the first Chuvash school in Simbirsk, which would later be transformed into Chuvash teacher's seminary. He also established national schools for Mordvins and Tatars. Furthermore, Ulyanov organized and presided over many teacher's congresses and other events of the similar kind.
Ilya Ulyanov's work is generally considered to have greatly influenced his children.