What Is a Master's in Biology

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about what’s involved in earning a Master of Arts or Master of Science degree in biology, as well as what you might choose to do with your degree.

[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 program for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree in a closely related field. You typically earn your master’s at a university or graduate school through a program that can involve coursework, research, or both. 

There are two types of master’s degrees in the biological sciences—the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS or MSc)—and they have different requirements for different career goals. 

MA vs. MS in biology: What’s the difference?

Let’s examine the similarities before comparing the differences between a Master of Science and a Master of Arts. Both require a minimum GPA for acceptance that’s independently set by each university. It’s possible to complete either degree in two years with full-time study, however, completion time can be flexible based on individual needs.

Now for the differences. 

While MA programs often require a thesis and coursework, MS programs may require more research projects.

Each university and graduate school offers specific programs. For example, the University of Rochester, New York, offers students two plans for completing their MS. The plans’ requirements read as follows [1]:

  • "The Plan A (research-based) master’s degree requires an independent thesis based in part on original material. Students are not permitted to take fewer than six credits and more than 12 credits of research. Students must also pass an oral examination on the thesis.

  • "The Plan B (coursework-based) master’s degree allows students to tailor coursework to their specific interests. They may take a maximum of six credits of research and are required to take a minimum of six courses offered by the biology department. Plan B students are also required to take a comprehensive written exam."

There’s not a universal approach to master's studies, so speaking to your school counselor will help when deciding on a specialization. You can also reach out to a faculty member in the biology department or your undergraduate professors to gain insight into study areas and job prospects. 

Typical coursework for a master's in biology

Since biology is a broad subject, you can focus on one of its many specializations and expect to complete 30 to 60 credit hours, which may include fundamental graduate studies, mandated courses, and electives. Coursework will vary depending on your specialization, which will depend on your professional and academic aspirations. Some specializations in the field of biology include:

  • Cell biology

  • Biochemistry

  • Microbiology

  • Molecular biology

  • Genetics

  • Animal science 

  • Ecology

  • Nursing

  • Public health

  • Cancer research

If you’re seeking a Master of Science in biology, you’ll have the option to select a thesis topic with the guidance of a thesis advisor. Choose the right university program by reviewing the coursework offered, since not all universities offer the same specializations.

How to choose a specialization

Ask yourself the following questions when choosing a specialization in biology:

1. What discipline (or disciplines) am I most passionate about? If you’ve known all your life that you’ve wanted to become a doctor, a veterinary, a scientist, or a biologist, for example, then you’ll likely have an easier time choosing a specialization. If you’ve always been passionate about innovations in cancer studies, for instance, choosing a specialization in cancer sciences or cancer biology could benefit you in the long run.

2. What are my career goals? Picture your ideal career. If it inclines towards a technical and scientific outlook, perhaps an MS might be your best option. If it involves theoretical or critical industrial knowledge, an MA will serve you best.

3. What are the course requirements? When considering specializations, research if you meet their requirements and if not, make note of the things you need. Some requirements may include the completion of specific undergraduate courses like general chemistry, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and official undergraduate transcripts. Work towards meeting these requirements to enter the right field for your career plan.

4. What are my job prospects upon graduation? As part of your career development plan, research various job positions that can be pursued with either an MS or MA in biology. Narrow your options and tie a specialization to each one. This will help you have a better insight on what academic path you should take. 

5. Is there an opportunity for advancement? Research job outlooks for your preferred specializations and career paths and determine if they have projected opportunities for advancement. You can use the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook to gather information regarding average growth rates, job security, and median salaries.

6. Do I want to study on campus, online, or abroad? Some specializations may be exclusively offered on campus or abroad; others may have online or hybrid options. Choose an abroad education to explore other countries, or an online one to work from home or anywhere you’d like to be at the moment.

Admission requirements for biology master's programs 

Colleges may provide unconditional and provisional admissions for their biology master’s programs. Schools that provide unconditional admissions may require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree (in biology in some cases) from a regionally accredited institution, at least 24 credit hours of college-level biology coursework, which may include one year of biology or general chemistry, and a GPA of 3.0 or higher to qualify for the biology master’s program. 

Other schools may provide provisional admissions for students who don’t fully meet the requirements for unconditional admissions. In this case, you’ll be required to complete the coursework required in the unconditional admission after enrolling and have a GPA of at least 2.7.

Verify if the universities you’re interested in require the successful completion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for entrance into a biology master’s degree program. Although, some universities only recommend you take the test to gain an advantage over other candidates. Send your GRE scores to your desired school at least eight weeks before the deadline, along with your letters of recommendation,  and statement of purpose.

Gain confidence for your master's degree interview by conducting mock interviews with your family, your friends, or a faculty member of your undergraduate school’s career center.

Tuition costs

GetEducated lists tuition costs for biology master's programs that range from $12,280 for in-state students and $16,828 for out-of-state students, to $35,470 for all students [2]. Some schools, such as John Hopkins and Stanford, offer tuitions for their master’s programs from $50,000 to $60,000.

Tuition is generally more expensive for master’s programs compared to your bachelor's, but can be affordable through your employer’s company tuition reimbursement program if available. Under this program, you may also be entitled to books and supplies stipends through partnerships with local universities. Use tuition assistance to ease your financial stress and avoid extending your learning time beyond two years. 

Grants and scholarships are also available for biology majors. You can examine the ones listed by Scholarship360. If you’re enrolling in the graduate school where you completed (or will complete your undergraduate degree), check for grants, scholarships, and fellowship opportunities. 

How long does it take to earn a master's in biology?

Most master’s programs take approximately one to three years to complete depending on whether you’re enrolled full-time or part-time. With more post-graduate schools offering flexible schedules, it has become possible to complete a degree within a two-year time frame and hold a full-time job.

If you’re looking for a faster way to complete your education, enroll in a university that offers five-year (or four-plus-one) programs like an accelerated master’s degree or dual degree program. This way, you’ll complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees at the same time, in four to five years, depending on your schedule. These programs can be more rigorous, but they will eliminate a year of schooling, which saves you time and money. 

Dual degree programs can also offer more internships and cooperative educational opportunities (known as co-ops) that provide paid work experience and are part of the academic schedule. A co-op generally is a full-time position that you attend throughout the semester, while an internship is part-time and short-term, and often during the summer months [3].  

Jobs you can get with a master's in biology

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 [4]:

  • High School Teacher: $53,188

  • Ecologist: $61,764

  • Project Manager: $65,632

  • Account Manager: $48,455

  • Paleontologist: $61,518

With an MS degree in biology, you can have access to research- or lab-related job opportunities and salaries including the following [5]:

  • 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. 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 [6]. Job prospects and growth vary by profession, with microbiologists seeing a growth rate of 5 percent and environmental scientists, 8 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. University of Rochester. "MS Program: Master of Science in Biology,                                      https://www.sas.rochester.edu/bio/graduate/ms.html." Accessed March 24, 2022.

2. GetEducated.com. "The 14 Most Affordable Online Biology Master’s Programs, https://www.geteducated.com/online-college-ratings-and-rankings/online-biology-masters/." Accessed March 24, 2022. 

3. US News &World Report. “Co-op vs. Internship: Know the Differences,  https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2015/03/31/understand-the-differences-between-a-co-op-internship.” Accessed April 22, 2022.

4. Payscale. “Master of Arts (MA), Biology Jobs by Salary,    https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Degree=Master_of_Arts_(MA)%2C_Biology/Salary.” Accessed April 22, 2022. 

5. BestAccredited Colleges. “MS in Biology: Jobs & Salary,   https://bestaccreditedcolleges.org/articles/ms-in-biology-jobs-salary.html.” Accessed April 22, 2022. 

6. 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 March 24, 2022.                                              

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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