Molecular Biology Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in a molecular biology program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and Ph.D. and potential careers.
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Master's and Ph.D. Degrees in Molecular Biology at a Glance

Molecular biology is the branch of biology that studies the chemistry of macromolecules necessary for life. It focuses on proteins, RNA, DNA and related molecules. Many of the recent advances in such areas as gene sequencing have come from research related to this field. It has roots in common with biochemistry and genetics, and important techniques include those used to copy genetic material, or to form proteins from it, as well as analytical tools for examining the informational content or other properties of nucleic acids and other biologically significant molecules.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this Degree for? Individuals interested in pursuing academic Ph.D. programs, as well as those interested in working in scientific roles in industry or entering medical school Those seeking to work as professors or scientific researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Biochemist ($79,000)*
- Biological scientist ($71,000 - based on all non-specified biological scientists)*
- Graduate assistant ($64,000 - based on all non-specified postsecondary teachers)*
All master's options except graduate assistant, and also:
- Medical scientist ($76,000 - may require medical degree as well)*
- University biology professor ($74,000)*
- Academic administrator ($84,000)
Time to Completion 1-2 years full time 4+ years full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 8-12 graduate level courses
- Research requirements
- Master's exams
- 20-25 graduate-level courses
(some master's program courses may transfer)
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement
Prerequisites A bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry or a related field Same as master's, although may also include those who have completed a master's degree program
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

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

Master's in Molecular Biology

Master's degree programs in molecular biology, and sometimes also in molecular and cell biology, offer a transitional program between bachelor's degree completion and doctoral programs. These programs are designed to allow students to gain experience in professional research settings, develop their scientific acumen and take part in research projects. After these programs, some students continue in academia, while others go to medical schools or enter industry.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • These 1-2 year programs designed to familiarize students with research in the field of molecular biology.
  • Not all molecular biology master's programs have the thesis requirements demanded by other academic master's programs.
  • These programs can open opportunities to become involved in research and bench science.

Cons

  • Programs vary greatly in their requirements in terms of research and thesis, so students must take care to select a program that fits their needs.
  • Students considering an academic career path may benefit from moving directly into a Ph.D. program.
  • Online programs with a thesis option require access to a research setting.

Courses and Requirements

Coursework in molecular biology programs are often supplemented with research and laboratory requirements, including rotations through research labs, where the students take part in ongoing research. Coursework may cover such topics as:

  • Advanced biochemistry
  • Ethics in scientific research
  • Graduate-level cell biology
  • Molecular cell biology
  • Reproduction and the human genome
  • Techniques in molecular biology
  • Topics in molecular genetics

Further requirements vary by program, and may sometimes include a thesis or other capstone project. Program goals include familiarizing students with research methods and developing their scientific judgment and bench skills.

Online Program Info

Online master's degree programs in molecular biology are available. These programs may have different requirements than face-to-face programs, and may require that the student be present at a supervised research site. Non-thesis options may eliminate the need to have an on-site research advisor.

Stand out With This Degree

In order to stand out in a master's program in molecular biology, students may benefit from taking part in ongoing research opportunities. Because the focus of many of these programs is on basic research and bench-science skills, students may have the opportunity to take advantage of these options to develop mentors in the field of molecular biology and experience in lab settings.

Ph.D. in Molecular Biology

Unlike master's-level programs, which have the goal of developing scientific research skills, the goal of Ph.D. programs is to help aspiring scientists eventually become independent researchers, often in academic or professional research settings. Completion of the doctoral program is generally followed by postdoctoral research and eventual independent research scientist status. These programs, as part of preparing graduates to function in an academic environment, require not only knowledge-based learning and laboratory activities, but also teaching and professional-level research activities.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other scientific organizations may provide funding opportunities for research (www.nih.gov).
  • Training opportunities at national laboratories such as NIH may help students develop their skills as well as scientific reputations.
  • Cross-disciplinary programs such as molecular biology may allow coursework to be tailored to specific research questions.

Cons

  • Molecular biology covers many challenging topics, and not all students will be able to perform cutting-edge research.
  • Competition for funding is intense.
  • Ph.D. programs may take several years to complete, during which time graduate students are not earning salaries.

Courses and Requirements

In addition to research, teaching and dissertation requirements, Ph.D. programs in molecular biology may have extensive choices for coursework to prepare students for their research. Topics cover such areas as:

  • Biomolecular structure and function
  • Cellular macromolecular interactions
  • Computational biology
  • Diet, aging, cancer and heart disease
  • Ethics, stem cells and the law
  • Genetic and genomic analysis
  • Mechanisms of enzyme reaction
  • Tumor biology
  • Virology and molecular biology

Online Degree Options

As of August 2012, no options were available for those seeking to begin or complete their Ph.D. program in molecular biology online. The laboratory and research requirements, combined with the relational aspects of training that come from working under an advisor, would make such an option difficult to design and deliver.

Stand out With This Degree

Students looking to stand out in these programs should do their best to make certain they are involved in progressive research from the earliest stages. In addition, they may benefit from working toward developing mentorship relationships with established scientists and pursuing both funding and experiential opportunities to further develop their scientific and research acumen.

Becoming involved in such duties as grant writing provides a familiarity with processes that may become critical at later stages of career development. Schools may also maintain lists of funding opportunities, and students looking to stand out may wish to take advantage of these opportunities.

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