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

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What will you learn in a computational biology degree program? Read about program requirements and the pros and cons of a master's and Ph.D. degree and potential careers.
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Studying Computational Biology: Degrees at a Glance

Computational biology is an interdisciplinary field requiring a broad knowledge of biology, computational science and mathematics. As a computational biologist, you'll apply mathematical modeling and simulation techniques to the study of biology. You might choose to specialize in subareas such as genetics, macromolecular biology, cellular biology or related areas of math and computation. You may find programs in biology departments, research institutes or schools of medicine.

With a master's degree, you may qualify for a university or industry position within software development, healthcare or pharmaceutical organizations in non-profit, government or corporate environments. Master's holders have also pursued careers in scientific publishing, biotech, biomedical ventures and science administration. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 14% increase in jobs of all types from 2010-2020, and 36% growth for medical scientists with doctoral or professional degrees.

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this Degree for? Individuals interested in a career in industry or in enhancing professional skills Students interested in research, research management or academic careers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median wages) - Bioinformatics scientist ($71,000)*
- Biostatistician ($74,000)*
- Scientific programmer analyst ($101,000)*
- Molecular and cellular biologist ($71,000)*
- Biology professor ($74,000)*
- Medical scientist ($76,000)*
- Biotech scientist ($102,000 - 3-5 years of experience)**
Time to Completion 2-3 years, full-time 4-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Typically 35-45 credits
- Internship
- Thesis
- Approximately 70-80 credits
- Laboratory rotations
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's, quantitative or biology discipline desirable Bachelor's in quantitative or biology discipline preferred or master's
Online Availability Rare to nonexistent Rare to nonexistent

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 figures), **Salary.com (2012 figures).

Master's Degree in Computational Biology

Master's degree programs in computational biology may prepare you for a career in science, healthcare, education or industry. This degree may be especially helpful if you want an immediate career in industries related to genetics, pharmaceuticals, environmental health or neuroscience or you have experience in these areas and want to add to or update your credentials. You'll learn to apply computer science disciplines, statistics and math to solve biological issues. This may require laboratory work.

Schools may look for previous coursework in calculus, linear algebra, biostatistics, biology or organic chemistry. You'll probably complete several core courses and choose electives from computer science, math, statistics, chemistry, biomedical engineering, biology or information management disciplines. You could participate in research projects and internships. Part and full-time programs are available.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Shorter-term return on investment
  • Potential to convert credits to Ph.D. track
  • Emphasis on computer science may lead to well-paid scientific programming options
  • Potentially more employable than Ph.D.s with this degree because you're more affordable and companies might want to provide position-specific training

Cons

  • Less time to develop a specialty and to participate in on-campus enrichment activities such as seminar series
  • May be competing with Ph.D.s, computer scientists and engineers for some jobs
  • Employment commitments may make later completion of a doctorate difficult

Courses and Requirements

You'll probably earn credits for core courses in scientific writing, biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology followed by electives in molecular medicine, computer science, biomedical engineering, math and statistics, epidemiology and biostatistics. Your program may require taking courses in more than one department, so you'll have a comprehensive understanding of the field. More than likely, you'll prepare a thesis and/or complete an internship. Electives might include:

  • Molecular basis of disease
  • Information technology in medical care
  • Bioinformatics in biomedical engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Computational statistics
  • Design of experimental studies
  • Biostatistical inference

Online Course Availability

Complete programs may not be available online, but your school might offer some courses online that can be completed without access to on-campus laboratories and other facilities. If any online courses are available, you'll meet the same requirements as in similar on-campus courses. You may have more scheduling flexibility, which could be attractive if you're employed or have other commitments. Your course may require that you use specific computer programs, browsers or equipment.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Dramatic increases in science and technology and developments in the healthcare system may be opening new career opportunities in computational biology. Besides thorough grounding in a biological specialty, you might impress potential employers by developing proficiency in gene finding and sequencing analysis, motif search, database and secondary structure prediction software programs. Early identification of a potential subfield and leveraging a related external internship and your thesis topic may help you land a position in the organization of your choice.

Ph.D. in Computational Biology

A doctoral program in computational biology will be research-intensive. It may be best suited to candidates interested in basic research or in leading research initiatives in for-profit, not-for-profit and government-funded settings. You'll work with a permanent faculty advisor doing research in an area that interests you.

Your program may require research and laboratory rotations and teaching responsibilities as well as completing and defending a dissertation. If you have a specialization in mind, your studies might be enhanced by relevant research institutes in fields such as genomics and genetics and your school's affiliations with corporations and government agencies in the field.

Pros and Cons

Newly-minted Ph.D.s may be immediately eligible for academic and non-academic careers. Graduates often pursue postdoctoral research opportunities supported by corporations or federal entities such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Pros

  • Cutting-edge understanding of a computational biology subdiscipline
  • Capable of assuming a leading role in research in your field
  • Career satisfaction addressing important issues in DNA and protein sequencing

Cons

  • Length of program and opportunity cost of being out of the labor market for 5-7 years
  • Initial income may not be significantly greater than that for master's recipients
  • Master's recipients may be less expensive hires in a tight market

Courses and Requirements

You'll likely have considerable flexibility after completing 2-3 core courses, typically in research methods, quantitative or biology subjects. The first year might include math and molecular biology courses. Afterward, you'll be encouraged to take courses and seminars that support your dissertation research interests. You'll design algorithms analyzing DNA, protein sequences and biological data. Quantitative and biological courses like these might be taken in a computational biology Ph.D. program:

  • Biophysics
  • Theoretical machine learning
  • Analysis and visualization of large-scale genomic datasets
  • Cellular biochemistry
  • Genetics of multicellular organisms
  • Molecular basis of cancer
  • Virus strategy and tactics

Online Course Availability

Although some of the lower level courses could be offered online, you're unlikely to find many online options at this level. During your program, you'll need access to research facilities to complete requirements that are central to developing an understanding of your discipline. You'll also need to establish a relationship with your mentor, which could be more difficult if you're not on campus. Students accepted into doctoral programs and funded may be required to work as a campus-based teaching or research assistant.

Stand Out with This Degree

You may be laying the groundwork to being hired as a professor, so you might want to focus on an emerging or under-represented field. You could be a pioneer. Both academic institutions and for-profit organizations may appreciate a record of journal publication and conference presentations. The reputation of your advisor could also be important in getting funding and setting yourself up for a high-quality postdoctoral appointment. It could help to become highly visible through networking affiliations with organizations in your subdiscipline.