Cell Biology Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a cell biology program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and doctorate degrees, as well as potential careers.
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Master's Degree and PhD in Cell Biology at a Glance

Ideally, graduate programs in cell biology offer the opportunity to get involved in research. It is the opportunity to work in research laboratories with ongoing projects - and to meet with both mentors and peers on a regular basis - that makes graduate school fundamentally different from the undergraduate experience.

The fields of biochemistry and medical research were expected to grow at rates well above average - at 31% and 36% respectively - for all industries in the years 2010-2020, according to the BLS. This is partially because of the basic science research they perform to develop new products, and partially because the aging baby-boom generation will be creating demand for new medical technologies.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in teaching at the junior college level or working on research in the public or private sector People who want to work in the private sector or in academia as researchers or university professors
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Medical scientist ($76,000)*
- Biological technician ($39,500)*
- Research biologist ($71,000 - based on salary for biological scientists across all fields)*
Same as master's, plus:
- University biology professor ($74,000)*
- Academic administrator ($84,000)*
Time to Completion 1-3 years, full time 4-6 years, full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 8-12 courses
- Master's thesis option
- Master's exams
- Lab rotations
- Roughly 8-15 courses
- Lab rotations
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
- Dissertation defense
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in biology or a related field Bachelor's or master's degree in biology or a related field
Online Availability None found at this time None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Cell Biology

There are three paths that can be taken in earning a master's degree in cell biology. Some programs have a non-thesis option, which is usually used for professional development by those who are already established in their career. These programs can be completed through coursework and a comprehensive test. For those who choose to write a thesis, a master's program in cell biology is an opportunity to get involved in research, either preparing for doctoral programs or before moving to the private sector. Some students who enter PhD programs and complete the doctoral coursework but do not move to candidacy will earn a master's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Master's programs are considerably shorter than PhD programs, while providing opportunity for research and promotion
  • These programs can provide a background in cellular biology for students looking to attend professional schools such as medical school, veterinary school, or dental school.
  • Completing a master's program before entering PhD program can provide two sets of research for publication, and two sets of mentors to assist with the job hunt.

Cons

  • A master's program may be unnecessary before starting a PhD or medical program, depending on academic background and career goals.
  • Graduate students do not make very much money, so adding extra time to complete school can get in the way of family obligations.
  • Some graduate programs only accept PhD applicants.

Courses and Requirements

Those who seek to earn a master's degree in cell biology generally study both research techniques and advanced knowledge of cell biology. Master's programs seek to develop a student's ability to design and perform laboratory research, may cover such topics as the following:

  • Fluorescence microscopy
  • Human disease at the cell level
  • Cell structure and the cytoskeleton
  • Cell membrane porosity and traffic
  • Advanced research techniques
  • Confocal microscopy and fluorescence
  • Biological development
  • Genetics fundamentals
  • Cell dynamics
  • Cell biology and the organ system

Online Degree Options

While some cell biology courses are available online, as are a few complete non-thesis biology programs, neither of these options will successfully replace a master's degree at an academic institution with an ongoing research program. Online biology programs may not offer the selection of courses necessary for developing a new career. Those seeking research experience in their master's program should consider relocation.

Stand Out with This Degree

Three ways to stand out with this degree are to take advantage of national programs that grant funding and provide research opportunities, perform research that leads to publication, and develop relationships with mentoring professors that can widen opportunities after program completion. Research-oriented students will likely attempt to accomplish all three of these goals, helping them to launch successful careers in the field. Students may want to get involved in ongoing research early in their graduate career in order to develop their own research-related skills.

Doctorate in Cell Biology

A PhD in cell biology is an opportunity to engage in original research on a topic of interest to the student. Several years of coursework will prepare them for this research. After doctoral exams, students will propose a topic of research and select an advisory committee. The topic should be selected with care, and in consultation with the research advisor and other academic mentors. Finally, the candidate will perform the laboratory research before writing it up, submitting it to their committee for review and orally defending their findings.

Pros and Cons

  • Candidates will be able to engage in original research in an environment of cutting-edge science.
  • Graduates will be qualified for supervisory positions on their career path
  • Those who complete the PhD program may be prepared for academic and research positions.

Cons

  • PhD programs take 4-6 years to complete, during which time most graduate students will be living on a small stipend.
  • Students must complete multiple rounds of requirements, such as candidacy tests and a dissertation defense, each of which can wash students out of the programs.
  • Even for those with completed PhDs, application for research positions is competitive.

Courses and Requirements

While the master's-level programs develop research skills, PhD programs are designed to train candidates to develop original research projects through the dissertation process. Further, candidates must also perform original research that contributes significantly to the field. Preparation for this a career in advanced research and academic positions requires training in:

  • Biochemistry and immunobiology
  • Biophysics and structural biology
  • Computational biology
  • Developmental and stem cell biology
  • Ethics and research considerations
  • Gene sequencing and analysis
  • Mechanisms of enzyme reaction
  • Organic and protein chemistry
  • Organogenesis
  • Stem cells, ethics and the law
  • Structure, Function and formation of biomolecules

Online Degree Options

As cell biology PhD programs are research-focused, there are no online programs available at this time. The advanced requirements of the programs make it unlikely that such programs will be moved to an online format. While PhD programs do require coursework, the long-term focus of the program is research-driven and has hands-on and collaborative components.

Stand Out with This Degree

In order to stand out in a cell biology PhD program, candidates will want to become engaged in research that will lead to publications. Further, receiving support grants from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) will show a researcher's ability to procure funding. Effort should be made to develop close professional relationships with both mentors and peers. Once the dissertation is complete, it should be submitted for publication to maximize the possibility that peers can recognize your work.

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