Best Master's Degrees in Biology

Oct 19, 2021

What is a Master's in Biology Degree?

A master's degree in biology incorporates the rigorous study of the life sciences, with students studying the overarching principles of biology as well as selecting a narrower concentration of interest. A master's degree program will differ from a bachelor's degree program by requiring more student research and subsequent writing. A master's program in biology will generally require around 30 credit hours, which will take most students two to two and a half years of study to complete. The master's program will usually require a master's thesis in which the student plans and conducts original research and compiles a paper on the research and its findings.

Common Undergraduate Degrees for Biology

A master's program in biology will usually require an undergraduate degree, and it's one of the best graduate degrees for biology majors. Any completed bachelor's program focused on a life science that teaches the key principles of research methodology and writing would serve to prepare students for master's work in biology. Students who already know what field of study or concentration they wish to pursue at the graduate or professional level (zoology, for example) may benefit even more from a bachelor's in that specific field.

Admissions Requirements for Biology Master's Programs

Most master's programs in biology require a 3.0 or better GPA from their undergraduate studies, and many will want to see that the specific coursework taken is similar to that of the graduate program. Some universities require that prospective master's students in biology identify and contact a faculty member who will agree to serve as the student's mentor during the program; some programs require this be done as part of the application while others allow it to be done once the application is submitted. This requirement means that students applying to a master's biology program should already know what kind of research, and in what area, they would like to undertake during their graduate program.

Other admissions materials might include a statement of purpose and letters of recommendation.

Why Should I Get a Biology Master's Degree?

A master's in biology isn't a one-size-fits-all program. Because of the wide range of concentrations offered, the degree can appeal to students with a variety of scientific interests, from marine biology to molecular biology. Students seeking a master's degree in biology have the opportunity to plan and conduct their own research projects, which means they choose what they will spend much of their time doing during their studies. Depending on the project, the research could take place in a lab, or it could take place outdoors.

A biology master's degree can help graduates move into more advanced roles in the field and can often lead to higher salaries.

How to Choose a Master's in Biology Program

Because there are many concentrations offered in biology master's programs, no university or program will offer every concentration, though most will offer several. Students should know what field of study they wish to pursue before selecting a program so that they can select an appropriate concentration and a program that offers that concentration. Students would be well-advised to look at the areas of expertise of the program's faculty members, especially if considering programs that require that students arrange for a faculty mentor as part of the admissions process. Find a faculty member whose previous or current work suggests she or he would be interested in mentoring your similar research.

Biology Master's Degree Courses

Despite the wide range of concentrations offered in biology, they rely on the same scientific fundamentals. This is largely because they are all doing the same things: planning and conducting research and then writing about it. They also largely use the same skill sets, such as scientific reasoning, and incorporate many of the same fundamentals of biology. The following courses, most of which focus on skill sets and processes rather than on area-specific subject matter, will be relevant for every concentration:

Biology Foundational Courses

  • Introduction to Biology Research. This course may also be called Research Methods, Research Methodology, or Hypothesis Testing. It typically takes an advanced look at the scientific method and how students can responsibly and accurately conduct research to reach sound scientific conclusions.
  • Evolutionary Biology. An understanding of evolution is fundamental to biological studies: how it happens, what drives it, and the impact it has.
  • Laboratory Courses. Whatever your concentration, some of your courses will have lab components in which you conduct your research on-campus.
  • Master's Thesis. Most MS programs in biology will culminate in a master's thesis that displays the work, research, and conclusions the student reached during his or her thesis project. The student will plan the research with a faculty advisor, conduct the research, write the thesis, and then defend it before a university panel.

Biology Specialist & Elective Courses

  • Statistics. Correctly understanding and representing statistics is crucial in a wide range of scientific studies is the main focus of these courses.
  • Biochemistry. Many biology fields of study will also require a sound understanding of chemistry and how biochemistry is important in biological studies.
  • Communicating in Science. This course focuses on how to correctly use scientific terminology and how to clearly express scientific concepts. Its primary purpose for master's students is to assist them in thesis writing.

Licensure & Certification in Biology

There is not a general licensure or certification program for biological studies. There are, however, some certifications available for those who seek them and for careers that require them. One example: the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) certifies degree programs, but it also certifies students (as early as the last year of their undergraduate studies) who pass a one-hour exam to show that they have mastered the skills in this area of study. To be eligible, students must be attending an ASBMB-accredited program.

Another example is the Ecological Society of America (ESA), which certifies qualified scientists in the field of ecology who have completed a bachelor's degree or higher education. Those who wish to use their master's degree in biology to teach at the K-12 level will require certification by the state in which they want to teach. For most careers related to a master's in biology, however, students needn't worry about the certification.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's in Biology Degree

Biology is the study of the life sciences and, given the diversity of life on Earth, there are a lot of life sciences. These concentrations are sometimes also called research areas. Here are a few common concentrations:

  • Ecology: the study of the relationships between organisms that share an environment and their environment itself.
  • Marine Biology: focuses on marine life (animal and/or plant life).
  • Molecular Biology: also called cellular biology; the study of the structure and activity of cells and their interactions.
  • Neurobiology: the study of the nervous system (usually humans', but not always).
  • Zoology: biology studies of the animal kingdoms.

Post-Graduate Options After a Master's in Biology

Students who wish to further pursue academic research in a biology field may choose to continue their education by applying to a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. programs will be interested in two main things: your master's research and the quality of your research (your master's thesis). Prospective students should look for a program with faculty members whose areas of expertise align with the research they wish to pursue, just like with their master's program. Biology Ph.D. career options will require the intensive research and writing skills of a Ph.D. program plus extensive knowledge of the life sciences.

What Can I Do with a Biology Master's Degree?

Career options for students with a master's of biology vary substantially based on the concentration, but they generally include a few commonalities. They often involve scientific research or processing scientific information. While there are many careers in biology labs, others, particularly animal-related biology careers, take place outdoors.

The former set of careers would line up with a master's concentration in microbiology, for example, that would involve substantial lab work. The latter would be more applicable for a zoologist or wildlife biologist who focuses on field research. The skill sets for careers in biology will include a sound understanding of biological principles, the ability to analyze and present data, and for some jobs the ability to conduct research; all of these are skills that a student should develop through graduate study. There are also several cross-field biology careers, such as careers involving psychology and biology.

Job Outlook for a Master's in Biology

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) assesses that the average annual wage for biological scientists as a whole is $89,910. The mid-Atlantic is the highest-paying part of the country for biological scientists, particularly Maryland and DC. (Maryland also has the most biological scientist jobs per capita of any state.)

If you're looking for somewhere less urban, Alaska and Montana are also good states for biological scientists, especially those in wildlife biology. For most of the life science careers tracked by the BLS, it anticipates they will have an average career growth of around 4% from 2019 to 2029, which is the national average.

How to Become a Microbiologist

Microbiologists are concerned with studying microorganisms, microscopic organisms like bacteria. They perform laboratory experiments to better understand these microorganisms and compile the research they discover. Because graduate programs focus much more on research than undergraduate programs do, a master's degree in biology, especially one with a concentration in microbiology or molecular biology, is a good start to a career as a microbiologist.

While a Ph.D. will be required to lead research teams and work in other senior research positions, students who have completed a master's degree would be good candidates for other laboratory positions because of their university laboratory experience. The familiarity and comfort with a lab setting that comes from a master's program will go a long way for potential applicants. Employers will likely be looking for someone whose research (your master's thesis) shows solid critical thinking and innovation while respecting scientific standards.

The BLS shows that microbiologists earn a median wage of $75,650 annually. Their 2019-2029 growth outlook is projected to be 3%, just shy of the national average growth.

How to Become a Zoologist

Zoologists, also known as wildlife biologists, study animal life, ecosystems, and their interactions. Relevant master's program concentrations would include zoology, ecology, and marine biology. While some zoologists work in the ecosystems they study, others work in labs. Like in other biology careers, the abilities to plan and properly perform research, draw correct conclusions from data, and express these findings in writing are important skills for zoologists, and they are skills that are developed during a master's program. Again, a Ph.D. will be required for high-level research positions, but a master's degree is good preparation for career entry. Zoology is a great career path for animal lovers in particular, as zoologists will get the chance to interact with wildlife, but even when they're not doing so, their work serves to benefit wildlife populations.

The BLS reports that zoologists make over $63,000 a year on average. Their 2019-2029 job growth expectancy is 4%, the national average.

Master's in Biology Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources

To see what federal financial aid is available for graduate students, it's a good idea to fill out a FAFSA application. Some other aid opportunities are often contingent on students having submitted a FAFSA application, as well.

MS programs in biology generally try to support students in their research; they may give students who have excelled in their coursework and have proposed interesting research projects (such as for a master's thesis) a research grant, though this covers research costs more often than it does tuition. Some programs offer financial aid to graduate students who are research assistants for faculty members. Like with the application process at many universities, this is one of the reasons that student-faculty relationships are so important. Alternatively, some programs will offer financial aid to graduate students who teach undergraduate classes.

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