Masters in Biology Programs

Masters in Biology programs are graduate courses of study that could lead to a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) in Biology degree.  

Biology master degree students are investigators into the study of life. But the field of biology extends beyond natural wonders like human, plant, animal and marine organisms – not to mention the cell itself.

How to earn a Masters in Biology written by Rana Waxman

Because it is such a wide field, students could be encouraged to tailor their degree in biology to align with personal interests and research goals. Some of the exciting areas of emphasis are biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, genetics and genomics.

Masters in Biology Basics

Masters in Biology programs could be a dynamic blend of lectures, molecular biology labs and independent research. In their courses, students may discuss basic principles like human evolution and cell biology. Along with this, they might examine current experimental techniques in modern biology and its sub-disciplines. Finally, electives play a major role since they often help define an individual’s research goals and deepen knowledge in areas of special interest.

Potential Master in Biology Coursework

Many Masters in Biology programs offer a research-intensive course of study. As a graduate student you might work directly with faculty in their labs. Because of the strong ties between research and coursework, some schools offer classes in their faculty's areas of study and expertise. To see what kinds of topics might be on a biology masters syllabus, read below for a few examples.

  • Immunology
  • Bioethics
  • Human Genetics
  • Bioinformatics
  • Human Physiology and Disease
  • Darwinian Medicine
  • Enzymology
  • Environmental Risk
  • Microbiology
  • Wetland and Watershed Resources

Sometimes, students take extra graduate biology, chemistry or science courses, or participate in independent study. These additions might help fulfill specific program requirements. Generally, students would seek approval by the graduate advisor and director for their Masters in Biology program.

Admission to Masters in Biology Programs

Admissions to masters programs in biology varies between graduate schools. Applicants to some schools may be strongly encouraged to contact prospective advisors. This is the case when admission to the program requires that an advisor agree to supervise an applicant. Here are a few requisites to keep an eye out for, but always refer to individual schools for accuracy about the material and processes they use.

Undergraduate Degree: Some students might enter a Masters in Biology program with a bachelors degree in biology and the prerequisite courses under their belt. Where this isn’t the case, (e.g. if you hold a bachelors in health sciences) it might be desirable or necessary to have completed coursework in general or organic chemistry, physics, genetics, evolution and/or mathematics.

GRE Scores: Students may also have to furnish GRE scores for the general exam and in biology.

Letters of Reference: Some schools ask for two or three letters of reference. These letters could be from professors, supervisors or others who can speak to a candidate’s successes or potential. For instance, they might evaluate recent research, work-related performance or any relevant scholarly activities. 

Statement of Purpose and Resume: A school may want to know why you want to study there and more details about you, from the specifics of an email address to previous academics, employment and other facts.

Masters in Biology Requirements

The path to searning a Masters in Biology degree can vary between schools. Most biology grad students must pass an oral comprehensive exam that covers current theory, research and practical applications in the student’s technical area. In addition, students must complete their credit requirements, which could differ among MS and MA tracks.

Types of Biology Masters Programs

There are two main types of Biology Masters programs – the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS). Students in either program might choose a concentration. Some typical areas of emphasis include botany, ecology, biodiversity, zoology, microbial and cell biology. Make sure to compare programs to see what other fields of study are offered. Then, make a choice that reflects your interests, career and academic goals.

Master of Science (MS) in Biology

The Master of Science in Biology is a research-focused degree that requires the completion of a thesis. This option is usually suggested to students who want to pursue a terminal degree (e.g. PhD in Biology) because it delves into more complex research experiences.

In class, students might develop their ability to form scientific hypotheses as they design and execute experiments. Often, there is also a laboratory component where students could collect, analyze and interpret data. Another key aspect of the MS biology program is that it tends to highlight research design. This is tied into the expectation that each learner will conduct experimental work for their thesis.

Master of Science (MS) in Biology Requirements: Students who work towards a MS degree in biology could be required to complete a minimum of 30 credit hours. This could be comprised of 24 credits of coursework and six credits of masters-level research. Students also usually must submit and defend a research thesis. Both the written thesis and oral defense are used to show the student’s ability to conduct independent research.

Master of Arts (MA) in Biology

The Master of Arts in Biology program tends to focus less on research and more on professional biological skills. In their coursework, MA students could develop a deeper grasp of the scientific issues of an area of biology as they read and interpret literature. They might then study how to integrate and apply biological research to various occupations in clinical, commercial or policy settings.

Master of Arts (MA) in Biology Requirements: Students who work towards a MA degree in biology could be required to complete a minimum of 33 credit hours. Or, they may take fewer courses with a for-credit internship. The intern experience is designed to help students acquire professional experience as targeted in their program.

Because there is no thesis, in some universities, the MA could be referred to as an MS “non-thesis” option. Read program details so you can lock into the one that aligns best with your goals.

Other Masters Degrees in Biology

Other masters degrees in biology programs could tackle a specific area such as biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology or biomedical sciences. Below are a few examples to help you pinpoint a degree that mirrors your preferences.


Study at the masters level in biochemistry is generally considered good preparation for those interested in doing hands-on laboratory work.i

Master of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The Master of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program could provide students with the solid framework in theory. This thorough background in modern biochemistry and molecular biology might help them develop a grasp of the life sciences at the molecular level.

In their courses, students could explore gene expression, protein structure and function. Electives for this type of program could include nutritional biochemistry, vitamin and mineral metabolism, medical biochemistry and cell signaling.

Some students may want to engage in literature review and independent study. Others could focus on masters thesis research and the thesis itself.

Master of Science in Molecular and Cell Biology

The Master of Science in Molecular and Cell Biology program could delve into cell composition and function. Students might study advanced theory, lab techniques (DNA and protein methods) and research methods.

Core coursework could blend topics such as advanced biochemistry, cell biology, molecular genetics and other sub-fields. Electives in a molecular biology masters program could include topics such as bioinformatics, human embryology, biostatistics, immunology and virology. Students could also explore specific illnesses such as cancer and leukemia, or related courses such as forensic pathology and transplantation immunology. Students who are interested in pharmacology, drug discovery and development might take courses to further studies in these areas as well.

Molecular biology masters students may have the choice of a thesis or non-thesis track. In the thesis track, they could carry out significant laboratory research under the guidance of faculty in an on-campus, industrial or hospital lab setting. The non-thesis option might enable students to take extra courses, and may require an all-inclusive written exam.

Master of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry

The Master of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry program might allow students to explore the five branches of chemistry - Physical, Analytical, Biochemistry, Organic and Inorganic chemistry.

Students in some programs might have several options with this degree. These are a research-based M.S. with thesis, a coursework-based M.S. without thesis, a MS with a minor in business administration, or a research-based M.S. that could prepare them for Ph.D. candidacy within their university. Check with individual programs to learn what might be available to you.

Master of Science in Biological Sciences

The Masters in Biological Sciences program may help students broaden their basic knowledge of the biological sciences. They could also refine their ability to think critically about their discipline and communicate their scientific ideas to others.

  • Master of Arts in Biological Sciences programs might prepare students to pursue a career as a biology teacher at the elementary, secondary, and community college levels.iiMA students are not required to complete a research thesis.
  • Master of Science in Biological Sciences programs typically do require independent research in an area of emphasis, and are thought of as a platform to a doctoral degree.
  • Master of Science in Biological Sciences and Regenerative Medicine programs could prepare students to conduct research into areas such as stem cells. Students may complete an internship in a stem cell research laboratory and present a report to cap their studies.

What Format Works for You? Online, On-Campus, Hybrid

Some universities might offer a choice of formats to try and appeal to today’s often busy, or at work grad student. Two of these options include distance education – online and hybrid. Online Masters in Biology programs might be flexible and enable you to learn from wherever you are via computer. Hybrid programs are also flexible but include a low residency requirement. You might take part of your courses online, then have brief visits to campus labs or meetings. Naturally, campus programs could open the door to live demos, onsite labs, interaction, and one-one time with a mentor. But if you can’t get to class, maybe the class can come to you.

What Might I Do with a Masters in Biology?

Some masters programs in biology are oriented to help students achieve another level of education, such as a PhD in biology. If you hope to teach at post-secondary schools or carry out independent research in microbiology (as an example), a PhD degree is required.iii It is also necessary if you aspire to a career in agricultural or food sciences and biotechnology.iv But these are not the only potential biology careers that you might strive for.

  • Conservation scientists and forestersv
  • Aquatic Scientistvi
  • Environmental Analystv
  • Zoologist and Wildlife Biologistvii
  • Forensic Science Technicianviii
  • Biological Technicianix
  • Biochemists ix

Each of these careers have their own entry level education requirements and some, such as Biological Technician, may only require a bachelors degree. However graduate study may help you develop advanced knowledge and support your goals.

Per the BLS, the continued demand for new drugs and procedures to cure and prevent diseases means that employment for life scientists, biochemists and biophysicists is still on the rise. Employment of biochemists, for instance, is expected to grow 8 percent to 2014. The median annual wage for biochemists as of May 2016 was $82,180.ix

Take the Next Step

Choose a Masters in Biology program tailored to your different career or research goals. Whether you want to pursue a life in the research, teaching, or the business side of biology, a supportive degree might help you get there. Easily scroll through programs in general biology or refine your search by subject . Narrow your results even more to pull up hybrid, campus or online masters programs in biology. Then, contact biology grad schools directly with the on-page form. Take your next step today!

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