Biology is the core science behind many of today's most exciting medical discoveries and technological innovations. Genome research, biomedical technology, environmental science, and cancer treatments all proceed from the study of basic biological processes and phenomena.
A master's degree in science with a specialization in biology can earn you a spot among the leading researchers in these fields. A year or two of intensive study and research can prepare you to design your own research studies, direct a scientific R&D lab, or consult with government science agencies. The option to earn a master's degree online makes it possible to upgrade your qualifications without taking time off from your current job.
WorldWideLearn.com guides you through the process of preparing and applying for a master's degree in biology. By planning your career trajectory around your education options, you can set the stage for a successful academic journey.
Guide to Master's Degrees in Biology
A graduate biology program can transform your scientific career from support technician to laboratory director. Building on core undergraduate courses, the master's degree in biology deepens your knowledge of specialized biology disciplines such as genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology. In addition, you can build advanced laboratory research skills and learn to use quantitative software to manage, process, and analyze lab results. The master's degree program culminates in an original research thesis. Working professionals who earn a master's degree online can design a capstone research project that draws on lab resources and current research at their workplace.
Professional and Academic Master's Degrees
The Master of Science (MS) in biology, an academic science master's degree, is the most common postgraduate qualification. In view of the rising educational bar for professional scientists, however, universities are developing a new class of master's degrees--the professional Master of Biological Science (MBS).
Master of Science. The MS in biology offers a basis for advanced scholarship and professional research in the biological sciences. The curriculum builds a broad foundation in biology fields and research methods, before sending students into the lab to pursue original research projects. The degree is designed to prepare graduates for either professional research careers or academic scholarship. Aspiring academics continue on to a PhD in biology, where they expand their scholarly research, build teaching skills, and establish themselves within the academic community.
- Professional Master of Biological Science. The professional MBS or MS is a relatively new phenomenon. The degree is designed to accommodate mid-career scientists and practitioners who want to deepen their knowledge of a specific issue or emerging field in modern biology. The emphasis is on advanced coursework rather than research, with considerable latitude in the curriculum. Students can tailor their studies to their area of professional interest, updating their knowledge and building credentials. The degree is widely available online, which enables industry professionals to stay current in their field, change professional emphasis, or expand their expertise.
Master's degree programs offer the opportunity to specialize in a particular field of biology research including:
- Animal and Plant Biology
- Molecular Biology and Neuroscience
- Ecology and Environmental Studies
- Food and Science Nutrition
Biology has evolved into a vast field encompassing every form of life, from molecules to cells to organisms to ecosystems. In addition, biologists can focus on a particular research method or application of biological research. You can find a rich array of opportunities in today's graduate biology research labs. Most programs encourage you to shape a research project that reflects your own interests, in consultation with a faculty expert. Whether you're fascinated by astrobiology and its implications for climate change, or ichthyology and its implications for evolution, you'll have the opportunity to define your own academic path.
Lab research is just the beginning of the career opportunities available to graduate-level biologists. Career options include:
- Research: Academic labs and industry R&D departments rely on biologists for groundbreaking discoveries in a range of fields, from basic molecular and integrative foundations to commercial applications. Research scientists develop high-performance materials, pharmaceuticals, medical treatments and diagnostic technology, and more.
- Education: Biology teachers are in demand at every level of the education system, from K-12 to universities. University professors pursue a PhD in biology upon completion of the master's degree, where they produce scholarship and acquire teaching skills.
- Policy: Biologists play an important role in developing public policy with respect to environmental management and conservation, biomedical research, healthcare, and agriculture.
- Applied Biology: Biologists apply their expertise in a range of industry sectors, from law enforcement to healthcare. Specific roles include forensic science, scientific sales and marketing, economic forecasting, and science writing.
A master's degree offers not only the credential for these career tracks, but also the opportunity to do prospective work in your target field. Choose a related specialization or research project, and you can accelerate your progress toward your career objective.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Biology
Developing insight into your academic and career objectives is half the battle; the other half is lining up the resources to help you achieve those goals.
Step One: Find the Right Graduate Biology Program
There are literally hundreds of master's degree programs in biology in the U.S., many accessible via online education. Finding the perfect match for your interests and career goals takes careful research. Consider these factors in your quest for the right school.
Accreditation is the bottom line in any school search--no master's program deserves your consideration without this stamp of approval. Independent agencies conduct regular program reviews to ensure that the degree meets accepted quality standards. A passing grade ensures the value of your degree and factors into your eligibility for financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education website posts a searchable database of approved regional and national accreditation agencies.
WorldWideLearn.com represents selected institutions offering campus and online master's degrees in biology. Search Degrees by Subject to access a list of accredited master's degree programs.
Peterson's Graduate Programs in Biological Sciences offers a useful resource guide to biology degree programs. Updated annually, the hard-copy guidebooks feature key information about each program.
2. Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?
Program format can be a key factor in your search. Your life circumstances, learning style, and career goals determine which format works best for you.
- Online. Advances in digital learning media have made it possible to earn a master's degree online. Log into the virtual classroom and view lectures or connect with peers via wikis and discussion boards. Video feeds and web conferencing technology even give distance education students access to live lab demonstrations.
Online master's degrees are ideal for working professionals who are completing the degree alongside other obligations. Online programs are also more likely to support applied capstone projects designed in concert with a work initiative.
- Campus. The traditional master's degree remains popular among aspiring academics and students who don't have access to lab resources through an outside employer. Academics rely on close contact with an academic advisor and peers as well as the state-of-the-art research resources available on site.
Some universities have established a middle ground between the two formats: an online program with temporary campus residency periods. The campus visits foster a sense of academic community and offer access to research facilities.
3. Academic Programs
This critical step in the matchmaking process challenges you to research each potential master's degree program in turn. Look for the program with the best resources in your field of interest--faculty experts, courses, research facilities and technology, and industry relationships.
- Curriculum. Examine course lists and descriptions, as well as specialization options.
- Degree Format. Depending on the degree type, requirements can include a capstone project, internships, teaching assistantships.
- Faculty. Investigate faculty research publications, and assess the proportion of academic professors and industry practitioners among the faculty.
- Research Facilities. Your field of interest dictates which equipment and technology you need to complete your master's degree research.
- Industry Relationships. Depending on your career goals, a school's industry contacts could be a major selling point. Look at recruitment participants and internship listings to identify industry partners.
Access to the right academic resources is as important to your success as talent and dedication.
WorldWideLearn.com offers several tools to facilitate your research. Browse links to school information pages, or fill out a form indicating your academic program criteria. The automated matching tool puts you in touch with school representatives who can answer your questions about the program.
School websites publish information about degree requirements, course descriptions, and campus facilities, as well as links to faculty bios and publications.
Informational interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students offer valuable insight into the program.
4. Program Quality
Finally, focus your search by taking into account program quality and selectivity. Consider these factors as you evaluate schools:
- Admissions statistics
- Job placement and salary statistics
- Career support services
- Student demographics
To find a school that matches your academic profile, take into account your own academic record. Admissions committees evaluate your application based on your academic GPA, standardized test scores (GRE), faculty recommendations, and any research or professional experience you bring to the table.
Admissions departments collect useful information about selectivity, job placement, and student demographics. Also check the school Web site to get a sense of career support services.
Rankings give you a general sense of the program's reputation. Influential publications include U.S. News & World Report, Biological Science Graduate Schools.
Step Two: Apply to Graduate Biology Programs
With a list of five to ten target programs, you're ready for the next stage of the application process, convincing schools that you're an ideal match for their master's degree program. Expect to encounter the following steps en route to the (online or campus) classroom:
1. Complete Prerequisites
Graduate biology programs generally require:
- A bachelor's degree in biology or a related science such as biochemistry or biophysics.
- Prerequisite courses. If your undergraduate degree is in another field, plan to take basic undergraduate courses in fields such as biology or organic chemistry.
- Standardized tests. The GRE and the TOEFL (for international students) are the typical required exams. Some schools request the GRE subject exam as well.
2. Prepare Application Materials
In addition to a basic applicant information form, plan to assemble the following supporting documents:
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation
- Test scores
- Personal essay or Statement of Research Interests
- Resume or CV
Because some of these documents arrive under separate cover from different sources, it's important to start the process well in advance of the application deadline.
3. Secure Financial Aid
Your master's degree in biology is a great investment in your future earning power. Your present tuition costs, however, may call for financial aid. Look into the following sources for funding your graduate education:
- University grants and scholarships
- Federal, state, and local scholarships and loans
- Private foundation scholarships and fellowships
- Employer tuition assistance and loan-forgiveness programs
- Low-interest student bank loans
Financial aid advisors at your top schools can help you determine the best strategy for funding your education. Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which covers all federal financial aid programs, including Stafford Loans. You can also rein in the cost of your graduate education by keeping your job while you work toward the degree. Earn a master's degree online while you earn a living at your job.
Step Three: Build an Academic Network
You don't need to wait until the first day of class to take advantage of academic networking opportunities. Build relationships with peers and potential mentors by:
- Joining professional associations. The American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science offer excellent networking prospects, with local chapters nationwide. Also look for organizations representing your academic niche, such as the American Medical Informatics Association.
- Reading journals. High-profile journals like Science, Nature, BioScience, and the Journal of Life Sciences give you an overview of the field and current research trends. Also check out publications in your area of interest, such as Developmental Neurobiology, Genomics.
- Attending networking events and conferences. Universities and professional associations host lectures and networking events. Meet your peers face-to-face, and develop an inside track on recent research and trends in your field.
Whether you go into academic or professional science, you rely on the support of your scientific colleagues. The relationships you build in the course of your master's degree can sustain you throughout your career.
A master's degree in biology offers access to an unimaginable array of opportunities and resources. To make sure you take full advantage of the experience, plan your academic and career trajectory well in advance of your arrival in the graduate program. For support before, during, and after the program, look to WorldWideLearn.com to find study aids, advice columns, and many other resources to thrive in graduate school and beyond.
- "All About Graduate School in Biology," Holy Cross University.
- American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Careers in the Biological Sciences, American Institute of Biological Sciences.
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
- Graduate Schools in Biological Sciences Ranking, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
- Master of Biological Science, University of Minnesota.
- Master of Science in Biology, University of Michigan-Flint.
- Schwartz, Jill, ed. Graduate Programs in the Biological Sciences 2010. Peterson's Guides (2010).
- Science Careers, Science magazine (AAAS journal).