What Is a Master's in Biology

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Earning your master's in biology can advance your career in teaching, research, or public health, or allow you to specialize in an area and strengthen your subject knowledge.

[Featured image] Three students in a Master of Biology program work on a laptop in a lab.

A master’s degree in biology is a two-year graduate program for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree either in the same subject or a related field. Earning your master's in biology can lead to more advanced positions and higher salaries thanks to the more specific subject knowledge you acquire.

At the master's level, you may find programs that offer the option to earn either a Master of Arts or a Master of Science in biology. Each has different requirements and career outcomes. In this article, we'll review what it takes to earn a master's in biology and what you can do with the degree.  

What's a master's degree in biology?

A master's in biology takes around two years to complete when you're able to attend full-time. When you're still earning your bachelor's degree, you may be eligible to apply for five-year programs that reduce the amount of time it takes to earn your master's by about one year.

The average cost of a master's degree is $66,340, according to the Education Data Initiative [1]. You can sometimes lower that cost by working as a graduate teaching assistant, taking on a part-time job while in school, or attending a more flexible program—like an online master's program—to continue working full-time.

As a master's student, you may be asked to specialize in an area of biology to further advance your knowledge.

Biology specializations include:

  • Cell biology

  • Biochemistry

  • Bioinformatics

  • Microbiology

  • Molecular biology

  • Genetics

  • Animal science 

  • Ecology

  • Nursing

  • Public health

  • Cancer research

Biology coursework

Unlike at the undergraduate level, which requires taking several general education credits, your master's coursework will largely involve 30 to 60 credits of advanced science courses. A portion of your coursework will likely pertain to the specialization you choose.

Sample biology courses include:

  • Cell biology

  • Microbiology

  • Systems biology

  • Metabolic disorders

  • Human genetics

  • Genomics

  • Toxicology

  • Evolutionary genetics

  • Population genetics

  • Biological physics

  • Cancer biology

  • Stem cell biology

  • Neurobiology

MA vs. MS in biology

Not every school offers you the choice between an MA and an MS in biology. Instead, you will likely apply to programs that offer one type of degree or another. In that case, understanding the differences between the two can be useful.

While MA programs often require a thesis after you complete your coursework, MS programs may emphasize completing a research project. That's because many MS degree graduates go on to pursue a career in research. Beyond the end project, MA programs may emphasize more theoretical approaches to biology, while MS programs offer more scientific approaches to biology. As you explore various programs, take time to review the course catalogue so you can understand what you'll need to take to complete the degree and whether those courses align with your larger goals.

Learn more about the differences between the two degrees so you can decide which is the best one for your educational and career goals.

Admission requirements for biology master's programs 

Most schools expect applicants to have earned their bachelor's degree and have a minimum GPA, usually a 3.0, in order to apply. Colleges may also provide unconditional or provisional admissions to their biology master’s programs.

  • Unconditional admissions: For students who have a bachelor's degree and significant scientific coursework.

  • Provisional admissions: For students who don’t fully meet the requirements for unconditional admissions. In this case, you’ll be required to complete the scientific coursework required in the unconditional admission after enrolling and have a GPA of at least 2.7.

Beyond having your bachelor's degree and minimum GPA, you may need to submit an official application, a personal statement, a resume or CV, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores. Not all schools require graduate entrance exam scores, like the GRE, so it's a good idea to check on the specific requirements for the programs you're interested in applying to.

Jobs you can get with a master's in biology

Many students earn a master's in the subject to eventually pursue a doctorate, or to advance their teaching, research, or public health careers.

Your job opportunities will change depending on the specialization you choose for your degree program. Consider these jobs and their average salaries if you’re looking to earn an MA in biology [2]:

  • High school teacher: $53,188

  • Ecologist: $61,764

  • Project manager: $65,632

  • Account manager: $48,455

  • Paleontologist: $61,518

Learn more: 9 Jobs for Former Teachers

With an MS degree in biology, you can have access to research- or lab-related job opportunities and salaries including the following [3]:

  • Zoologists and wildlife biologists: $66,350

  • Microbiologists: $84,400

  • Agricultural and food scientists: $68,830

  • Environmental scientists and specialists: $73,230

  • Epidemiologists: $74,560

Salary and job outlook

The vast number of careers that fall under the scope of biology have varying salaries and job outlooks. What you make will ultimately depend on what you do, your seniority, and where you live.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, specialization and location factor into salaries. The mean wage can range from $62,280 to $130,350, with east and west coast states holding the highest salaries [4]. Job prospects and growth vary by profession, with microbiologists seeing a growth rate of five percent and environmental scientists seeing a growth rate of eight percent.

Next steps

Learn more about what it’s like to earn your master’s degree online from a top university on Coursera. Many degree programs offer open classes to give you first-hand experience of what the degree program is like before you apply. 

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Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. "Average Cost of a Master's Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed November 7, 2022.

2. Payscale. “Master of Arts (MA), Biology Jobs by Salary,    https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Degree=Master_of_Arts_(MA)%2C_Biology/Salary.” Accessed November 7, 2022. 

3. BestAccredited Colleges. “MS in Biology: Jobs & Salary,   https://bestaccreditedcolleges.org/articles/ms-in-biology-jobs-salary.html.” Accessed November 7, 2022. 

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2020:  19-1029 Biological Scientists, All Other, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191029.htm#nat." Accessed November 7, 2022.                                              

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