Complete Guide to an Online Biology Degree
Biology is the study of living things, from single cells to complex organisms and their habitats and life processes. Earning an online biology degree can be a starting point for students looking to become laboratory technicians, teachers, researchers, zoologists, doctors, and veterinarians. Admission to undergraduate and graduate online biology programs is generally the same as any other program; undergraduate programs require high school diplomas, while graduate programs require bachelor's degrees. Graduate programs also prefer students to have some formal research experience.
Students who are researching biology programs are encouraged to choose a school that is accredited by a reputable accrediting agency. Accreditation indicates that the school has been thoroughly evaluated and that it is recognized by the US Department of Education. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation provides a database of agencies and accredited schools that meet quality standards. Read More
Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Biology Degree (46)
Overview of Available Online Biology Degrees
Students in associate and bachelor's degree programs take general education courses with an emphasis on mathematics and other sciences like chemistry and physics. Biology coursework includes classes in the origin of life, cells, genetics, organic evolution, phylogeny (the evolutionary history of organisms), plant form and function, animal form and function, and ecology. Students in bachelor's degree programs may take additional courses in biodiversity, anatomy and physiology, human genetics, microbiology, developmental biology, and bioethics.
Master's and doctoral degree programs prepare students to conduct original research in biology. Students take courses in biological statistics and learn how to design and conduct experiments, collect and analyze results, and report conclusions. Students take elective courses in advanced biology topics like scientific illustration, animal behavior, microbial diversity, environmental biology, and human evolution. Students seeking a master’s or doctoral degree in biology will find that the program concentrates on research; however, in an online setting, this is less prominent. Online graduate study concentrates on reading material and original writing, so, depending on your learning style, it can be even more challenging to earn a graduate degree online than it is in traditional school.
The program you choose should align with your career goals. Online biology degree programs can be a starting point for many different careers, and each biology-related career has different educational requirements. If, for example, you want to become a teacher, choose a program that best prepares you to meet your state's requirements for teacher certification. If you want to become a veterinarian, research admission requirements for veterinary schools, and choose a biology program that best fits with those requirements.
Online associate degrees in biology and biochemistry prepare students for a wide range of entry-level positions in the life sciences. Studies focus on a broad range of life fundamentals, including animals, bacteria, fungi, and plants. Prerequisites may include biology, calculus, chemistry, and physics. Most programs require completion of 60 to 67 credits, which typically takes 2 years of full-time study to complete. An associate degree program in biology is used almost exclusively to prepare students to transfer to a four-year degree program. By choosing to complete an associate degree before a bachelor's degree, students may be able to bypass several very challenging courses, get extra help when they need it, and avoid taking classes in large lecture halls.
Students develop a comprehensive knowledge base of principles in the fields of biology and build foundational skills for practice. The coursework covers areas such as anatomy and physiology, animal biology, biology of plants and fungi, biology of sexually transmitted diseases, biotechnology techniques, botany, cell and molecular biology, cell culture techniques, ecological systems, general botany, genetics, history of life, human ecology, human physiology, microbiology, and organismal biology and ecology. Training also includes laboratory practice, which gives students the opportunity to build research competencies in the biological sciences.
Graduates may pursue a wide range of entry-level careers in biochemistry, biology, botany, forestry, microbiology, and zoology. Employment opportunities are also available in the fields of medical technology and pollution control. They may take up positions such as laboratory technicians or research assistants in biological and medical laboratories. Online associate degrees in biology also help to lay a strong foundation for individuals who wish to pursue upper-division studies in biology, botany, wildlife science, zoology, or other programs in the natural sciences. Others opt to pursue medical-related studies such as dentistry, medicine, physical therapy, or veterinary medicine.
Online bachelor's degrees in biology prepare students for successful careers in the biological sciences. Programs focus on building a strong foundation in cellular, ecological, evolutionary, molecular, and organismal biology. Prerequisites include calculus, physics, and statistics. Bachelor's degree programs require completion of 120 to 128 credits, which takes four years of full-time study.
Many students choose to major in biology because they are planning on going into a medical field like veterinary medicine, pharmacology, or nursing. Several different biology courses are included in the curriculum, and in some programs, students can choose to specialize in one particular area of biology. There will also be electives offered in everything from pharmacology and psychology to physiology and environmental sciences. Students can often choose to structure their degree program in a way that leads to further medical and graduate study.
The bachelor’s curriculum combines content from biology, biochemistry, and chemistry. Coursework covers topics such as anatomy and physiology, biology of sex, cancer biology, cell and molecular biology, chemistry, genetics, field ecology, medical terminology, molecular modeling, organic chemistry, organic evolution, and vertebrate physiology. The curriculum also teaches students about laboratory techniques in the field. Bachelor's programs usually require completion of a capstone course. Graduates of online programs may increase their job prospects by gaining laboratory experience through internships in a biological, medical, research, or other similar approved facility.
Employment opportunities for bachelor's graduates are available in agriculture, animal science, biotechnology, ecology, human medicine, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, and wildlife management. Work settings include government agencies, industrial research facilities, and medical laboratories. Bachelor's degrees also help to establish a strong foundation for those who wish to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry, biotechnology, dentistry, forensics, medicine, or veterinary sciences.
The biology master's degree allows students to delve into advanced natural science topics and conduct original research. Applicants to these degrees need an accredited bachelor's degree in biology, biochemistry, or a closely related discipline. Graduate degrees are competitive, and a certain amount of knowledge and experience is assumed, so students should ensure that they have taken enough classes to build the basics if they did not major in a related field. Graduate degrees are recommended only for those who are planning on participating in research projects, generally, as they are expensive and require a strong commitment to mastering original content and ideas. A typical 36-credit master's program can be completed in two years of full-time study.
Students enrolled in a biology degree program take a core of classes in topics like current issues in biology, biological research methods, and statistics. Other courses in the program may look at plant pathology, conservation of birds and mammals, human genetics, animal behavior, principles of ecology, human evolution, or essential human anatomy. Most master's programs in natural science areas require the completion of a thesis or and a comprehensive exam. The thesis requires students to conduct original research into a particular biological question. Depending on the student's interest area and the degree focus, they may do field work or conduct experiments in a lab.
Depending on the focus of their master's program, graduates can begin careers as microbiologists, epidemiologists, medical laboratory technologists, natural science managers, or wildlife biologists. Graduates may also pursue various research-based careers in biochemistry, biology, chemical engineering, consumer products, forensic chemistry, geochemistry, hazardous wastes, or material science. The master's degree in biology also qualifies graduates for teaching positions in some community and junior colleges. Others may go on to earn a teaching certificate and become biology teachers in public high schools.
Students who are seeking doctoral degrees in biology usually have a master's degrees in a related area. A strong resume with experience in research and applied biology is important for applicants. Students will spend between four and six years earning a doctorate in biology.
Doctoral students take only one or two courses per semester for two to four years. The coursework is demanding and will include major research and laboratory components. The curriculum is designed to enhance student creativity and problem-solving skills. During their final year (sometimes during their final two years) students will complete their dissertations. Dissertations are extensive research papers on an original topic that is preferably related to the student's future research interests or career experiences.
Biology doctorate students are typically expected to hold part-time jobs or participate in internships or research fellowships that enhance their education and resumes. Some schools give students credit for internships. Those attending major research universities often find their place right there on campus, participating in major research studies in their school's laboratories or hospitals. Graduates of a biology doctorate programs may pursue positions in medical research or academia.
Undergraduate certificates in biology introduce students to concepts in the life sciences. These programs generally include three to eight courses and can be completed in one to two semesters. To apply, candidates need a high school diploma or the equivalent, along with high school natural science coursework.
The required coursework in the biology program will vary, depending on the certificate's focus. Students enrolled in a general biology certificate program may take courses in human biology, microbiology, biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology. Other certificates specialize in areas like plant biology, marine biology, aquaculture and fisheries, or animal behavior. Depending on the program, students may have the option to choose elective courses to complete the requirements for their certificate. Offerings may include courses in bioethics, bioinformatics, and biometry.
Online biology programs must rely on bookwork, videos, and prerecorded lectures to reach students. This can be extremely challenging, as traditional students will spend a considerable amount of time gaining exposure to laboratory equipment and research, and they have direct access to professors and instructors. Traditional students learn in a group-based environment. Online students must be very comfortable learning alone.
The graduate biology certificate is generally used to support a student's current profession or to prepare for additional study. For example, current technicians in fisheries or aquaculture settings could use a biology certificate to improve the health of their fish. Others use the undergraduate certificate to see if they might like to study biology in a longer associate or bachelor's degree program.
Biology degree programs place a strong emphasis on lab work. Students in on-campus programs take lab components of courses in laboratory classrooms. The benefits to this hands-on approach are that students gain laboratory experience, interact with classmates, and receive guidance from instructors. Online programs are typically lecture-based, though some programs require students to perform some limited lab work. Consider your learning needs when researching online programs.
The program you choose should align with your career goals. Biology degree programs can be a starting point for many different careers, and each biology-related career has different educational requirements. If, for example, you want to become a teacher, choose a program that best prepares you to meet your state's requirements for teacher certification. If you want to become a veterinarian, research admission requirements for veterinary schools, and choose a biology program that best fits with those requirements.
The purpose of accreditation is to provide public recognition that a school or individual degree program meets established academic standards. Attending a biology degree program provided by an accredited college or university helps ensure that you will receive a well-respected education. Students who plan to use a biology degree as the foundation for graduate study are especially encouraged to attend an accredited school. Only degrees and credits earned from accredited schools can be applied toward future degree programs.
Students can verify the accreditation status of a school on its website or via national or regional accrediting boards. The US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation also offer lists of accrediting agencies and accredited schools.
Graduates of bachelor's degree programs in biology can begin work as biological technicians helping scientists conduct research in laboratories. Biological technicians can work for colleges and universities, government agencies, research and development labs, and pharmaceutical companies. Graduates of online programs may increase their job prospects by gaining laboratory experience through internships.
Technicians looking to advance their careers may earn industry certifications. The American Society for Clinical Pathology is one professional organization that awards certification. Those who want to move into research careers or begin working in academia can earn master's and doctoral degrees.
Teaching is another career path open to graduates of bachelor's degree programs. Teacher certification requirements vary by state, but all states require high school teachers to hold at least a bachelor's degree. Prospective teachers may also be required to complete college courses in education and child psychology and complete supervised field work to earn certification. Some states require teachers to hold a master's degree in their subject area or in education.
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Accessed June 17, 2014. http://www.chea.org/search/default.asp.
- Biological Technicians. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 17, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/biological-technicians.htm.
- High School Teachers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 17, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm.
- The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. US Department of Education. Accessed June 17, 2014. http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation.