Life Sciences Degrees: PhD, MBA & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a life sciences degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of MBA and PhD degrees and potential careers.
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Studying the Life Sciences: MBA and PhD Degrees at a Glance

The life sciences field encompasses a number of biological subjects, from botany to neurology and immunology. If you have a life science background and you're considering a position in management, an MBA with a life sciences focus could edge you into this spot.

Combining research with teaching is a common career route for graduates of PhD programs. An interdisciplinary PhD in the life sciences could lead to independent research on the ecology of microbes, the manifestation of cancer in the body or how plants interact with their environment. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of employed postsecondary teachers was expected to increase by 17% from 2010-2020, though competition for tenure-track spots was expected. Faster-than-average employment growth of 31% was forecast for biochemists and biophysicists (life scientists who typically conduct independent research); however, slower-than-average growth of 8% was projected for natural science managers.

MBA PhD
Who Is This Degree For? Individuals who already have a bachelor's degree in the life sciences and want a management position in their field Individuals who already have a bachelor's and/or master's degree in one of the life sciences and want a career in research or teaching
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Natural science manager ($115,000)*
- Environmental science manager (salary specific to management position not available)
- Postsecondary teacher in biological sciences ($74,000)*
- Biochemist ($79,000)*
- Medical scientist ($76,000)*
- Microbiologists ($65,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-6 years full-time (shorter program duration may apply to students with a master's degree)
Common Graduation Requirements Choose a concentration - Research projects
- Qualifying examinations
- Dissertation
- Laboratory rotations
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in a life science Bachelor's or master's degree in a life science
Online Availability Some courses available online None available at this time

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

Master of Business Administration in Life Sciences

Programs leading to a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in a life science subject include both business classes and a set of courses specifically tailored to a life science topic, like bioprocessing, biotechnology or healthcare. Some schools offer programs that can be completed full- or part-time, but choosing a program with a life science component usually has a stricter completion timeline compared to a regular MBA program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A natural science manager can potentially make a median annual salary of over $100,000*
  • Programs are usually friendly towards applicants already in the workforce and offer part-time options
  • A detailed thesis paper isn't usually required

Cons

  • Life science manager positions are competitive due to the job's high salary*
  • Expected job growth for natural science managers is low (8% from 2010-2020)*
  • With only an MBA, you can't perform the same level of independent research as someone with a PhD

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

Courses and Requirements

Since each program is industry specific, coursework varies from school to school. Some courses common to most life sciences MBA programs include leadership, entrepreneurship, business law and decision making. A program with a healthcare concentration may cover healthcare economics and health systems technology, while a biotechnology program may have courses that focus on certain lab procedures and protocols. Each program modifies these basic courses to make them specific to the life science emphasis, but here's a list of possible topics:

  • Economics
  • Design and development
  • Logistics
  • Management
  • Finance
  • Current issues

Online Degree Options

Although there are some general MBA programs that can be completed online, most programs with a life science concentration require students to take all classes on campus. If a program doesn't have any online options, it may offer evening classes.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

It may be helpful to learn the specific technology of your chosen field, like data analysis and modeling tools. Some MBA programs have industry-specific technology courses included in the curriculum. If your program doesn't require these courses, you could add technology classes to your elective coursework, or gain experience with that technology through an internship.

PhD in Life Sciences

If you have a variety of interests within the life sciences, consider enrolling in an interdisciplinary PhD program. Your classes may cover immunobiology, cancer genetics, molecular virology, protein bioinformatics and plant metabolism. You can develop your abilities to synthesize concepts across numerous life science subjects, but you also need to focus on one research question for your dissertation.

Research projects are integral to PhD programs. Current topics within the life sciences that you might investigate include evolutionary genetics, cell neurobiology, benefits of viruses and plant cell dynamics. Up-and-coming research in the life sciences field requires you to learn technological skills so you can carry out techniques like computer-based modeling.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • There are many departments and professors to collaborate with on interdisciplinary research projects, allowing diverse interests to be pursued
  • A PhD in a life science can open up research careers in various areas, such as biomedical sciences, horticulture or genetics
  • Life scientists typically have a higher-than-average annual salary over $65,000*

Cons

  • As a postsecondary teacher, it may be difficult to find time for both teaching and independent research
  • Most life science PhD programs require a large investment of time, with some taking up to six years to complete
  • Strong competition for tenure-track positions

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

Courses and Requirements

You have a multitude of options when it comes to selecting courses in an interdisciplinary program. Regardless of your elective choices, you take classes that teach ethics, proposal writing, data analysis and scientific data presentation. The rest of your coursework focuses on integrating principles from biological sciences through classroom lectures, laboratory training and research.

Some topics you're likely to study include:

  • Microbiology
  • Biophysical chemistry
  • Neuroscience
  • Plant science
  • Gene expression

If you enter with a master's degree, the amount of coursework required in the PhD program is typically less. In addition to coursework, you must research, write and defend a dissertation to your academic advisors.

Online Degree Options

Online PhD programs in the life sciences aren't currently available. If they do exist, they may not be accredited. Because lab- and field-based research is such an important aspect of these programs, almost all of your coursework is offered exclusively on campus.

Stand Out With This Degree

According to the BLS, gaining teaching experience through assistantships can help your prospects of obtaining an academic position. Relevant professional experience is also beneficial; look for programs that offer internships or the opportunity to get involved in faculty research.