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

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

Whether you are interested in studying the structure of human DNA or the impact of society on wildlife and nature, a degree in biology may be right for you. Biology is the study of natural life, encompassing the foundation and cellular makeup of living creatures and plants, in addition to the composition of germs, bacteria and molecules.

Most careers in biology require a higher degree, so pursuing a master's or Ph.D. degree could increase your chances of getting a job in one of the many biology-related career fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the overall job outlook for one such career, medical scientists, was predicted to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 36% from 2010-2020. A graduate degree in biology can also open the door to other high-paying jobs in the field, such as environmental scientists, who earned a mean annual salary of $69,000 in May 2011, the BLS reported.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in teaching biology at the high school level, or people who want to work in the field as wildlife or plant biologists, conservationists or research assistants. People who want to work in biological research as scientists, or individuals who want to teach biology at the college or university level.
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Wildlife biologist ($62,000)*
- High school teacher ($57,000)*
- Microbiologist ($72,000)*
- Environmental scientist ($69,000)*
- Natural sciences manager ($128,000)*
- College professor ($74,000)*
- Medical scientist ($88,000)*
- Animal scientist ($74,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 30-36 credit hours of graduate level courses
- Master's thesis/capstone project
- Master's exams
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
- Residency (requirement to complete work on campus)
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in science-related field
- GRE scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Bachelor's or master's degree in science-related field
- GRE scores
-Letters of recommendation
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

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

Master's in Biology

Master's programs in biology are designed to give students a firm grasp of the foundations of biology while still providing them with the flexibility to tailor their degree to their interests. When you begin a biology master's program you will be given the option to choose from several different learning tracks and select an area of specialization if you desire.

Graduates of master's biology programs will have a strong foundation of knowledge in DNA and protein sequences, molecular physiology, sensory ecology, molecular structures and living ecosystems. Master's programs also provide education in research techniques, methods of gathering statistics and how to conduct lab- and field-based experiments to prepare graduates for a successful career in a number of biology-related careers in both the public and private sectors.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Biology is a fast-growing field with some careers predicted by the BLS to experience as high as a 36% growth rate from 2010-2020.
  • You can teach advanced placement (college level) biology classes in high schools after obtaining proper licensing required by your state, and you may also teach at the community college level.
  • A master's in biology with a track that included a thesis may qualify you for jobs working as a research assistant in both the private and public sectors.

Cons

  • Most research-based careers require a doctoral degree, so a master's may not be enough to get the job you want.
  • Many higher-paying careers in biology require a doctoral degree.
  • Biology programs include required lab hours in addition to coursework and independent research, making this a potentially time-consuming degree in comparison to other master's programs.

Courses and Requirements

When pursuing your master's degree in biology, you will take a diverse set of courses to acquire a comprehensive foundation in this natural science. Many schools offer specializations within their biology departments that give students the opportunity to select a sub-field of biology, such as cellular biology, molecular biology, neurobiology and microbiology. If you choose a specialization over a general studies program, your coursework will include more emphasis on the sub-field you are studying in addition to required general studies that apply to all biology programs. Some general biology courses you might take while completing your master's degree include:

  • Molecular genetics
  • Advanced toxicology
  • Physiological ecology
  • Molecules and cells
  • Systems of evolution
  • Statistics in biology

Some programs offer different tracks of study to graduate students. One common track combines coursework and lab time with independent research and requires students to prepare and write a master's thesis in order to obtain a degree. This track is recommended if you plan to continue your studies at the doctoral level or want to pursue a career in biological research. Another common track option is completely coursework-based and does not require the completion of a thesis. This track is recommended if you want to teach biology at the high school level or pursue another non-research based career. Both tracks require you to take master's exams to prove you have a firm grasp of the knowledge you have obtained in the program before you are awarded a degree.

Online Degree Options

Online master's programs are becoming more common as online colleges gain regional accreditation and long-established campus schools continue adding distance learning programs to their curriculum. An online master's degree in biology will provide you with the same opportunities after graduation as a campus degree, so long as your online program is regionally accredited.

When researching online master's programs in biology, you will find that some are completed exclusively online while others, known as hybrid programs, require some coursework and labs to be completed on campus. Either option will provide you with a flexible schedule and coursework that is comparable to what you would complete at a campus-based program.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Some schools offer paid assistantships that offer either a living stipend or tuition reimbursement in exchange for spending time assisting a professor in either research, developing curriculum or grading papers. Participating in an assistantship can provide you not only with money or a break on college costs but also with hands-on experience as you work alongside your professor. You can also list your assistantship on your resume when applying for doctoral programs or jobs after graduation.

Ph.D. In Biology

If you want to pursue a research-based career focusing on advancing the field of biology by contributing new information to the science, you may want to consider earning a doctorate. A Ph.D. degree is fairly self-directed and will involve a lot of self-motivation and independent research as you work on discovering or improving new or existing technologies within the field.

Like master's programs, doctoral biology programs allow you to choose an area of specialization to study, making it easy to pursue your interests and passions. Upon graduating with your Ph.D. in biology, you will be considered a leading authority on the subject of your dissertation and will have a firm grasp of advanced methods of research, compiling statistics, completing lab- and field-based experiments and research and documenting the findings of any research you conduct.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Biology is one of the fastest-growing fields in the United States, with some careers having predicted growth rates of as high as 36%, according to the BLS.
  • A Ph.D. in biology will open up doors for research-based careers at both state and federally funded labs and through privately owned businesses, such as pharmaceutical companies.
  • A doctoral degree in biology will enable you to teach biology at the university level.

Cons

  • Ph.D. programs in biology require you to be self-directed and self-motivated, which can be stressful and overwhelming if you are not used to having so much responsibility.
  • Doctoral programs in biology are time-consuming since they require lab time, courses, a residency, independent research and writing a dissertation. You will have very little free time while completing your doctoral degree and may not have time to work outside of school.
  • You could end up spending 9 years total in college.

Courses and Requirements

Ph.D. programs in biology offer students a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing what they want to study. As a Ph.D. student, you will select an area of specialization to study through the duration of your doctoral program. Some programs include a master's degree as the first phase of study, while others require applicants to have already obtained a master's degree before entering the program. Some general courses you may complete during the first phase of your doctoral program include:

  • Advanced research methods
  • Ecology and evolution
  • Microbial ecology
  • Scientific writing
  • Research and problem solving

In addition to completing any required coursework, you will be expected to complete a mandatory residency, or on-campus study, in compliance with your program's guidelines. In addition, you will be required to complete research work for your dissertation. Some schools participate in collaborative research programs, which can offer Ph.D. candidates opportunities to do research at government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, or pharmaceutical and biotechnical companies.

Online Degree Options

There are no accredited online doctoral programs in biology available at this time.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Apply for writing or research internships through academic publications related to biology while you are still in school. Doing so will continue to improve your critical analysis, writing and research skills and will also give you experience to add to your resume upon graduation.

Degree Alternatives

Biochemistry and biophysics are two secondary fields of biology that are generally offered as separate programs by universities. According to the BLS, the overall outlook for biochemists and biophysicists was predicted to rise by 31% from 2010-2020 and the average annual salary for these fields was $88,000 as of May 2011 statistics.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Trident University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Health Sciences (Ph.D. HS)
      • Health Sciences (Ph.D. HS)
  • Worcester, MA

    Worcester Polytechnic Institute

  • Morgantown, WV

    West Virginia University

  • Middletown, CT

    Wesleyan University

  • New York, NY

    Weill Cornell Medical College

  • Cold Spring Harbor, NY

    Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

  • Winston Salem, NC

    Wake Forest University

  • Tulsa, OK

    University of Tulsa

  • Walden University

  • Toledo, OH

    University of Toledo

Featured Schools

Trident University

  • Health Sciences (Ph.D. HS)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

West Virginia University

Wesleyan University

Weill Cornell Medical College

Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Wake Forest University

University of Tulsa