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Making a Thorough Decision About a Graduate in Biology Degree

written by: Leyla Norman•edited by: Ronda Bowen•updated: 7/30/2011

An undergraduate degree in biology may not be enough to get you the job you want. An advanced degree is likely the answer to finding a higher-paying biology job. Think carefully through your decision before you commit to earning your master’s.

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    Why a Master's Degree?

    Biology Getting a master’s degree in biology opens up more employment opportunities than only having a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree is required to teach at the community college level, and a doctorate is required to teach in universities and to manage many research projects. If you do not want to teach or do research, a master’s degree can still help you move beyond being a laboratory technician into more complex positions in fields such as agriculture and conservation. A master’s degree can also help you gain entrance into medical school or to a Ph.D. program. Very few undergraduate students are accepted straight away into doctoral programs without first earning a master’s degree.

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    Specializations

    The field of biology is so broad that, at the master’s degree level, you may choose to focus your research and study on one particular area. For example, you may find microbiology, zoology, population biology, ecology, nutrition, public health, immunology or genetics fascinating. When you begin to narrow down your choices of graduate schools, consider whether they offer a master’s degree in only general biology, or whether they offer a degree in the specialization that interests you most. Take a close look at the expertise of the faculty at the colleges you are considering as well. When you write your thesis, you will want to work with someone who is knowledgeable about the area you want to specialize in.

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    Colleges

    Colleges' tuition and fees vary widely for biology master's programs. The University of Alabama, Huntsville offers concentrations in cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, environmental biology and physiology, among other research and course work concentrations. The program costs $556 per graduate hour for residents of Alabama, and $4,989 for 12 graduate hours for residents for the 2011 to 2012 academic year. Each additional hour is $358 for residents. A master’s degree in biology from California State University includes directed research that allows a student to specialize in an area of interest. A list of research areas can be obtained from the Biological Sciences Graduate Office. California State University students pay fees instead of tuition if they are residents of California. For the 2010 to 2011 academic year, graduate students pay $5,214 per year if they take more than six credits per term and $3,024 if they take six or fewer credits.

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    Entrance Requirements

    Colleges typically require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) before they apply for admission. They may also require applicants to have a certain grade point average (GPA) as undergraduates before they will be considered for admission. Student may have to write a personal statement or essay to include with their applications. Foreign students may have to take an English language exam and earn a certain score before they will be admitted as well. Colleges also typically require students to have a certain number of undergraduate credit hours in biology before they are admitted. For example Seton College in New Jersey requires applicants to its MS in Microbiology program to have 24 hours in biology at the undergraduate level. They also have to have a GPA of 3.0.

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    Salary

    The salary of individuals with biology master’s degrees can vary dramatically from job to job. Location, industry, specific position, employer and experience all play a role in determining salary. The average salary of a microbiologist, according to the Bureau of Labor of Statistics, as of May 2010, for example was $72,030. Working as a microbiologist typically requires a master’s degree or higher. Biochemists and biophysicists earn an average salary of $86,580, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2010. Marine biologists with a master’s degree earn between about $40,000 and $70,000 per year, according to David Campbell, founder of MarineBio.org.

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    Paying for It

    Colleges typically offer scholarships and fellowships to master’s degree students at the university and departmental level. Contact the biology and financial aid departments of the colleges you are considering before you make your final choice of which to attend. Also ask about research and teaching assistantships, which are paid positions at the university in which you gain practical and valuable experience teaching and performing research. These positions can help you pay for your tuition and fees. Private organizations also offer scholarships, fellowships, grants and other forms of financial aid to biology students. Governments also provide educational financial assistance. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, for example, provides support for master’s and doctoral students in environmental study. The fellowships are for two years for master’s students, and pays for up to $42,000 of support per year.

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    Making a Choice

    Colleges typically offer scholarships and fellowships to master’s degree students at the university and departmental level. Contact the biology and financial aid departments of the colleges you are considering before you make your final choice of which to attend. Also ask about research and teaching assistantships, which are paid positions at the university in which you gain practical and valuable experience teaching and performing research. These positions can help you pay for your tuition and fees. Private organizations also offer scholarships, fellowships, grants and other forms of financial aid to biology students. Governments also provide educational financial assistance. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, for example, provides support for master’s and doctoral students in environmental study. The fellowships are for two years for master’s students, and pays for up to $42,000 of support per year.

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    References

    Image: Chilodonella uncinata.jpg by Wolfgang Bettighofer under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

    Seton Hall University, Master’s in Microbiology, http://www.shu.edu/academics/artsci/ms-microbiology/admissions.cfm

    California State University, Long Beach, Master of Science in Biology, http://www.csulb.edu/depts/biology/pages/msbio.shtml

    California State University, Campus Costs of Attendance for 2010-2011

    http://www.calstate.edu/SAS/fa_coa.shtml

    New Mexico Tech, Biology, Why Get a Master’s Degree?, http://infohost.nmt.edu/~biology/why_get_a_master.htm

    Cliffs Notes, Master’s Degree in Biology-Choosing a Grad School, http://www.cliffsnotes.com/Section/Master-s-Degree-in-Biology-Choosing-a-Grad-School.id-305396,articleId-55326.html

    American Institute of Biological Sciences, Careers in the Biological Sciences, http://www.aibs.org/careers/

    Bureau of Labor Statistics, Biological Scientists, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos047.htm

    Bureau of Labor Statistics, Biochemists and Biophysicists, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191021.htm

    Bureau of Labor Statistics, Microbiologists, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191022.htm

    University of Alabama, Huntsville, Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate Program Description, http://www.uah.edu/biology/Program/Program/graduate.html

    University of Alabama, Huntsville, Office of the Bursar, 2011-2012 Tuition, http://bursar.uah.edu/tuition.php

    MarineBio.org, for Students, http://marinebio.org/students.asp

    United States Environmental Protection Agency, Funding Opportunities, http://www.epa.gov/ncer/rfa/2011/2011_star_gradfellow.html#SUMMARY