The PhD in Biology degree is an in-depth, research degree and the highest level of education in the field. In most biology PhD programs, students choose a specific area in the biological sciences to anchor their studies. Some of the options might include Cell and Molecular Biology, Ecology and Evolution, Neurobiology and Computational Biology. Through lectures, seminars, research and laboratory rotations, students could work to build expertise in their area of interest and contribute new research to the field.
written by Rana Waxman
Coursework in any PhD in Biology program sets up the formal basis upon which an effective dissertation project and thesis defense is built. To accomplish this, some universities divide their curriculum into different parts. This is a feature that could help students gain knowledge and skills tailored to specific interests, while still providing key information in a technical area. Most PhD Biology programs consist of the following.
In biology core courses, students could study how to effectively teach at the college level or think critically in the life sciences. Because research is a big feature of a biology doctorate degree, you could also expect to see a course in quantitative analysis.
Electives are often chosen to reflect a students interests and may support a dissertation. Often, a biology department will include courses from other graduate programs to foster cross disciplinary inquiry. For instance, you might get to choose courses in applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, computer science, or integrative neuroscience. Electives vary by school so make sure to check out your options.
While PhD in Biology program requirements can vary between schools, there are some common features. First, candidates are expected to successfully complete all the core and elective credits taken within their program. In some universities, programs involve about 64 credits, although this is certainly a variable. Also, students typically must remain in what is called ‘good standing’. This usually means the school sets a bar of a 3.0 GPA or better for students to achieve in all their courses.
Comprehensive / Qualifying Exam: While specifics vary between PhD biology programs, once a candidate has finished their coursework, they usually take what is called a ‘comprehensive’ written exam. This tests the student’s grasp of course material.
Dissertation: From there, doctoral candidates may need to submit a proposal for independent study and their dissertation. The dissertation has its own requirements, which are generally outlined by a graduate school. Essentially, the goal is to represent a student’s original research or creative scholarship. The prospectus for the dissertation must also be completed and then approved by several bodies. These might include the readers, the director of graduate studies, and the department chair/program director.
Oral Exam: Candidates must then undergo a final oral examination. Here, they defend their dissertation as a valuable contribution to knowledge in their field and show a mastery of their field of inquiry.
Teaching Requirement: Some biology doctorate departments require students to teach while they are students. When this is the case, candidates might need to enroll in a first-year seminar course that provides guidance on pedagogy. Contact individual schools to learn if this might apply to you.
Admission to a PhD in Biology program could require applicants to have a bachelors degree in biology or a related science. It might also be necessary to have a strong foundation in mathematics (calculus), chemistry (general and organic) and physics. But that’s not all. Some schools set a minimum grade point average of 3.0 or better, and GRE scores in at least the 50 percentiles. Letters of reference, and some indication that you have the potential to research are also required by some schools. Follow up with preferred programs for individual specifics.
DID YOU KNOW?
A PhD in needed by microbiologists to carry out independent research and to work in universities. i
The type of PhD in Biology program you choose to undertake should reflect your goals and interests. In a general program, students might explore some of the broad sub-fields within biology. For instance, your program could cover cell and molecular biology, neurobiology, ecology, behavior, evolution, and marine biology. You may also seek programs with a narrow focus that might provide more courses in one topic. Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, and Genetics are several categories to consider.
We have listed a few Phd in Biology programs you might explore below. Remember, each program may have unique courses, requirements and admission criteria. So reach out to a program adviosor to learn more.
The PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program could provide you with an in-depth grasp of the life sciences at the molecular level. Future students could need one (undergraduate) year each of inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics courses.
Research programs in this area tend to weave the application of DNA technology into the study of gene regulation and protein structure - function relationships. As a result, you may get underway with laboratory research early on in your PhD program.
Opportunities for research usually depend on what the faculty projects are. You might figure out just what type of phenomena you want to explore, then match your goals with a great program and faculty. As a general example, research projects could touch on the topics listed below.
A PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG) program might appeal to those who are highly motivated to pursue a career in biological or biomedical research. Typical applicants have a strong undergraduate background in the physical, biological or behavioral sciences. They might also have a desire to explore the basic principles of microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and molecular genetics.
As you work towards a PhD in microbiology degree, your program is likely to explore microorganisms and microbial development. These courses are designed to prepare students to use microbial models to investigate basic problems in molecular genetics. In your research, you might choose from a wide array of topics. Antibiotic resistance, vaccine development, bacterial genetics and gene regulation are just a few examples. As you study these topics, you might also build skills in critical analysis. Often, at this level, students are expected to conduct an extensive review of literature and assess current theory. You could also study how to construct your own hypotheses and design experiments to test them.
The PhD in Molecular Bioscience program focuses on advanced study in the modern life science disciplines. These include genetics, cell and developmental biology, biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, pharmacology, molecular ecology and immunology. As with other PhD programs, students can expect foundation courses and dissertation research. In fact, some students may team with biotechnology and pharmaceutical institutions to further their inquiry.
The PhD in Genetics and Molecular Biology program could explore both the fields of genetics and molecular biology, as well as their related disciplines. This means students could get a dose of biochemistry, bioinformatics, cell biology, developmental biology and epigenetics. In addition to coursework, first-year students often take part in research rotations in faculty laboratories of their choice. These rotations generally help individuals figure out the area of genetics in which they want to build expertise.
The PhD in Cell Biology program covers the broad areas of cell biology and neuroscience. Coursework is likely to explore the study of individual cells and their organization in tissues and organ systems. Programs of this nature might also discuss current topics in the field such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, students might take a seminars on the neurobiology of memory and learning and neural plasticity.
The PhD in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics program could prepare students to investigate key biological processes that range from the cell level to the whole organism. Core courses could cover cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, and human physiology, all of which serve as the basis for dissertation research. To tailor the program further, students might choose a specific area of emphasis. These could include Biophysics and Bioengineering, Cardiovascular Sciences, Metabolism, Neural and Muscle Physiology, and the Physiology of Cancer. If any of these topics appeal to you, this type of PhD degree might be a great fit.
The PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology program might appeal to those with an undergraduate degree in the biological or chemical sciences. As it is a cross-disciplinary research degree, it could pique your interest if you are curious and creative as well. Students might expect to formally study how to conduct scientific research, present, write and design hypotheses, and teach diverse biological disciplines.
Coursework in biochemistry, cell and developmental biology may be expected. Other courses could include biostatistics, hypothesis development and experiment design. These courses might provide insight into how to write a grant proposal. Students are also likely to get research experience through lab rotations. These labs might help individuals to focus on dissertation research in their chosen area.
The PhD in Developmental Biology program could be a dynamic and integrated research degree which may help students develop a grasp of complex biological processes. Interested applicants may be able to apply with a bachelors degree in any major, but it may help to have research interests and goals.
Developmental biology PhD students could get the chance to study and use a wide variety of approaches, instruments, and techniques of modern, biological research. Courses are likely to span molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, imaging, physiology and genetics and genomics.
Students could also study how to use diverse model systems (e.g. worms, fruit flies, frogs, chickens, fish) to dissect some of the processes that affect human development, health and disease. This allows candidates to delve into areas like organ and tissue regeneration, stem cells and the aging process. Some of the common research areas in developmental biology might include neurobiology, cancer biology, cell death, gene therapy, and reproductive development, among others.
Another choice to make is how you want to earn your PhD in Biology degree. Most universities have onsite programs where you could communicate and interact with professors and classmates, on top of all your science courses and labs. Check out PhD of biology schools in your preferred city, state or country if this sounds like a plan.
If you can’t make it to campus, an online PhD program could be the answer. Hybrid programs can also be great because they mix some of each – independent study and face-to-face experiences. See what is offered and make a decision that works for you.
Any of these formats could be available at regionally or nationally accredited universities. These schools undergo a review process every few years to make sure their curricula, faculty, finances and resources are up to industry standards. Accreditation statuses vary, so check with schools and accrediting bodies if this is important to you.
If you have a love of the laboratory, seek to pursue a career as a top-notch scientist, or teach what you know about the science of life to others, a PhD in Biology program might be a wise choice. Usually, PhD graduates kick off a career in temporary postdoctoral research positions. Here, they could work alongside experienced scientists as they develop a broader grasp of their chosen field and possibly publish research findings. To research independently or pursue a career in colleges and universities, biologists, biochemists and biophysicists tend to need a PhD. i/ii
To find the PhD in Biology program that meets or exceeds your needs, use the on-page tools. Choose a subject (e.g. general biology, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, or genetics and genomics). Then scroll programs and easily contact them from here! Take the next step in your education now.
[i] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/microbiologists.htm | [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/biochemists-and-biophysicists.htm