Biotechnology: Master's, PhD & Online Degree Info

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Earning a master's degree or PhD in Biotechnology can lead to a career in the private or public sector. Learn about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Study Biotechnology: Master's Degrees and PhDs at a Glance

Biotechnology professionals use biological processes to create new products, such as pharmaceuticals, biofuel and agricultural chemicals. Biotechnology is used in many industries, including healthcare, food production, environmental protection and manufacturing. Earning a master's degree in biotechnology can lead to careers in scientific research and development or management positions with biotechnology firms. Graduating with a PhD in this field can help you pursue leading positions in research and development, in addition to teaching opportunities at the postsecondary level.

The outlook for biotechnology jobs varies greatly among occupations. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) foresees employment of biochemists and medical scientists increasing much faster than the average for most occupations from 2010-2020 (36% employment growth is expected for medical scientists and 31% for biochemists), whereas employment growth for agricultural and food scientists was expected to be average, at 10%.

Master's Doctorate
Who is This Degree For? Individuals who have some industry experience and an undergraduate degree who want to pursue advanced positions People wishing to carry out independent research in the private or public sector
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) While these jobs may only require a bachelor's degree for an entry-level position, a graduate degree may be needed for advanced positions

- Food scientist ($64,000)*
- Soil/plant scientist ($64,000)*
- Microbiologist ($72,000)*
- Chemist ($75,000)*
- Biochemist or biophysicist ($88,000)*
- Animal scientist ($74,000)*
- Medical scientist ($88,000)*
- Biological science professor ($86,000)*
- Materials scientist ($87,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-7 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements Thesis or independent study Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in biotechnology or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in biotechnology or related field
Online Availability Yes, in a hybrid format None found at this time

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

Master's Degree in Biotechnology

Master's degree programs in biotechnology provide a broad interdisciplinary science curriculum and an emphasis on independent research, often requiring a thesis or independent study. Many programs allow students to tailor the curriculum to their specific needs. In some programs, students can focus on business aspects of biotechnology, such as regulatory issues, environmental ethics and project management. Students who elect to participate in full-time programs often can expect to earn their degree in a year, but part-time programs are available for working professionals. Some programs also offer internship opportunities.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Some programs offer training in business administration and management for students who want to pursue leadership roles with biotechnology labs or companies
  • Might allow for movement into a variety of career fields (including research positions in medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and food-related industries)
  • Can expand your knowledge without committing to a lengthy and arduous PhD program

Cons

  • Admissions requirements can be strict (some schools don't admit students who haven't completed all prerequisite courses, and other schools require at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA)
  • Many biotechnology positions only require a bachelor's degree*
  • Most employers require you to have a PhD to perform independent research*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Master's degree programs in biotechnology usually focus on biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology and genomics. These programs offer students the ability to explore a variety of concentrations and are designed to give you training in practical and theoretical aspects of biotechnology. Concentration options might include such areas as biodefense and biopharmaceuticals. Upon completion of a master's program, you should know how to research biological processes as well as how these processes can be applied to research and development. Coursework may include:

  • Molecular structures
  • Biomaterials
  • Immunology
  • Bioinformatics

Online Degree Options

While fully online programs aren't available, you can find accredited universities that offer hybrid biotechnology programs at this level. These programs can be attractive alternatives to attending classes full time for busy adults who wish to increase their employment options. In a hybrid program, you can expect to complete lab work or specific courses in your concentration on campus.

Stand out with the Degree

One way to stand out among your peers is to take elective courses that cover technological advances in areas such as molecular genetics, computerized lab technology and medicine. You also might choose to join a student or professional organization and take advantage of the opportunities it can provide for networking and training. For instance, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) offers research journals, internship opportunities and social networking options to members.

PhD in Biotechnology

PhD programs in biotechnology can prepare students for advanced research opportunities in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, environmental engineering and industrial processes. These programs are often multidisciplinary, covering aspects of science and engineering. In a PhD program, students develop research projects within a specialty area, such as bioprocess engineering, biomedical science or bioinformatics. You can expect to complete a dissertation and may be required to take preliminary and final exams testing your knowledge of core biochemistry areas, including molecular genetics, biochemistry and bioprocessing.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Increase career options (academic research and teaching positions, government research jobs)
  • Opportunities to lead research teams and perform independent research*
  • Access to state-of-the-art labs for research projects

Cons

  • Can be lengthy (up to 7 years to complete some programs)
  • Some biotechnology career fields are competitive (biochemistry, biophysics)*
  • Intensive, hands-on nature of the program doesn't generally allow for part-time or online work

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

In these PhD programs, students acquire knowledge of microbiology, genetics, environmental science and engineering techniques. Students may also have the opportunity to learn about this field of study through interactions with biotechnology professionals. Program coursework is specialized and allows students to focus more intensely on their specific research area. In addition to research, students can expect to participate in seminars, perform lab work and take courses in topics such as:

  • Proteomics
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemical engineering
  • Biomechanics
  • Cell biophysics
  • Tissue culture

Online Degree Options

Since biotechnology is such a physical discipline, often requiring the use of chemicals and laboratory equipment, doctoral degrees are generally earned through on-campus attendance. Doctoral students can expect to spend a sizable amount of time performing research and working with faculty advisors, and in some cases, they may need to present their in-process research in required seminars.

Stand out with this Degree

Networking, joining professional associations, attending conferences and subscribing to biotechnology journals are all excellent ways to increase your exposure to your academic peers and gain notice by the biotechnology community at large. Some professional associations you might consider include the Biotechnology Industry Association and AIBS.

You can also look for ways to expand your research skills by working with students from other schools or with various professionals in the biotechnology field. You might consider schools that offer you the opportunity to participate in laboratory rotations that include time spent in private research labs or faculty labs. You may also look for opportunities to engage in funded research or participate in fellowships.