Should You Get a Master’s or a PhD in Biotechnology?

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

The job outlook for biotechnology professionals is very positive, with 2020 salaries averaging between $80,000 and $90,00 per year. As a result, many individuals are pursuing advanced degrees in biotechnology in hopes of acquiring the training and experience needed to land a role in this lucrative field.

Luckily, those with an undergraduate degree have the benefit of tailoring their graduate education by choosing to enroll in either a biotech master’s or a PhD program. Read on to explore how these two programs differ and what the five key aspects you should consider when deciding which is the right fit for you.

Masters or PhD in Biotechnology

Choosing a Master’s vs. a PhD in Biotechnology: What to Consider 

1. Your Career Goals

Perhaps the most significant question you can ask yourself when picking between a master’s and a PhD is, “What do I intend to do with my degree?”

For example, because PhDs require an extensive time commitment and provide students the chance to explore the academic side of the field, individuals who want to pursue research are best suited for this degree.

“If you want to be an academic, you absolutely have to get a PhD,” says Jared Auclair, director of the biotechnology and bioinformatics programs at Northeastern. Conversely, he explains, “if you want to go work the industry, a master’s is the way to go.” 

A master’s degree is designed to transition students seamlessly from the classroom into the workforce. These programs tend to be shorter, and they provide chances for hands-on learning within real-world organizations. In short, they are developed in a way that allows students to begin shaping their careers in biotech before they even graduate.

“Because a master’s degree takes less time schooling-wise, you can go out and work in the industry sooner, get hands-on experience, and then move up in the chain of command,” Auclair says. 

Learn More: Industry vs. Academia: Which is Right for You?

PhD candidates considering work in industry (versus academia) are not as easily set up for success. This is because, while a PhD candidate is spending years in a classroom, professionals with master’s degrees are already out in the field collecting valuable real-world experiences that will help prepare them to advance within an organization.

And while there are still some companies that might value a PhD applicant’s extensive study over a master’s degree applicant’s time in the workforce, Auclair explains that, in most cases, a master’s is really all a hiring manager is looking for among applicants.

“In most of the job postings I see…companies are looking for those with master’s [degrees], not PhDs,” he says, noting that there are only a few situations where, in C-level leadership roles specifically, a PhD candidate might have an edge. 

2. Curriculum

“A master’s program and a PhD program in biotechnology will have similar coursework,” Auclair says. Both are designed to provide students with an expansive understanding of the field, including the tools, practices, and trends that define it today.

In a PhD program, however, students will have the opportunity to specialize in a specific area of practice within the larger biotechnology field. “A master’s offers a broader depth of training…[whereas] PhDs are trained to do something very specific,” he continues.

As a result, master’s students may end up taking more classes and leaving with a much broader and holistic understanding of the field than their PhD counterparts. 

3. Program Length

A master’s program is designed to be completed quickly so that students can explore opportunities within the industry earlier in their careers. At Northeastern, for example, the master’s in biotechnology program can take anywhere from two to three years to complete, depending on whether a student pursues it in a full-time or part-time capacity.

A PhD, on the other hand, requires a much longer time commitment. After completing core classes, PhD students complete a three- to five-year research project with the faculty of their program, effectively delaying their release into the workforce.

4. Experiential Learning Opportunities

The experiential component of a student’s education is perhaps the biggest differentiator in the structures of PhD and master’s programs.

Students who pursue their master’s at Northeastern, for example, have unparalleled opportunities to practice their skills hands-on at organizations in the industry before ever entering the workforce.

“Our master program has a mandatory co-op, which is 12 weeks to six months of experience in the industry,” Auclair says. This paid and credited work provides students with the chance to explore the trends of the industry first-hand, network with leaders in the field, and begin to develop working relationships with organizations they may hope to be employed by after they graduate.

Just as industry experience prepares master’s students to thrive in the field, many PhD programs provide experiential learning opportunities for their students that expose them to the types of research and academia they can expect to pursue post-graduation.

“After you do your mandatory coursework for your PhD, you’re going to do a research project with a faculty,” Auclair says. “And that’s not industry experience, it’s academic research experience, which is completely different.”

This academic research gives students a chance to become comfortable in a lab or research setting, gain exposure to some of the technology and tools they will use in practice, and begin developing working relationships with professors and other university faculty.

5. Demands of the Industry

Some professionals considering an advanced degree do so knowing exactly what they want to do with their careers. For these individuals, the process of deciding between a master’s and a PhD may stop after consideration of their career goals.

However, some individuals embark on advanced education not to fulfill a specific career objective, but to simply pursue their passion for biotechnology. These individuals should think about not only what career opportunities each program might lead to, but which degree will best set them up to meet the current demands of the industry.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a plethora of lucrative possibilities for those in the biotechnology sector. Between a need for expedited vaccine development, a rethinking of telemedicine, and much more, Auclair notes there will be many new and exciting opportunities for those hoping to get involved.

“With COVID…sciences and new technologies are going to evolve rapidly,” he says. “The master’s degree sets you up to be more nimble and flexible [in order] to adapt to those [changes] and to really have a broader impact.”

Though there are opportunities for PhD holders to carve out a place for themselves in the industry, Auclair explains that the depth and type of training required at their level don’t as easily translate.

“Traditionally a person with a PhD is very specialized in one specific technique or aspect of the sciences, whereas somebody with a master’s is [better] able to adapt to the evolution of where the science is going to go. I’m not saying that PhDs can’t do that, but it’s typically not as easy for them.”

Weighing Your Options

If you’re considering a career in biotechnology, an advanced degree provides a perfect opportunity to gain the training and hands-on experience necessary to thrive within this ever-evolving field.

The Master of Science in Biotechnology at Northeastern, for example, has been designed with the input of industry experts and is constantly evolving to best prepare its students to meet the changing needs of the field.

“Part of my mission is to develop all of our programs in collaboration with industry,” Auclair says. “[We] monitor the trends and evolve and adapt as the trends evolve and adapt so that we’re producing people who are ready to work in the business of today or tomorrow, and not of yesterday.”

Northeastern has also taken steps to create opportunities for students who want both the industry exposure of a master’s degree with the cumulative title of a PhD.

The Experiential PhD is a unique program that allows students to work toward their PhD while simultaneously holding a full-time position within the industry. While this degree can be applied to any field, it’s particularly relevant to master’s degree holders who later realize they want to specialize their knowledge or to pivot their career toward research.

Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology is designed to effectively complement this degree, as well. The Experiential PhD allows students to build off the holistic understanding of the industry obtained at the master’s level, preventing them from repeating much of the same coursework over again as they would in pursuit of a different science-based PhD.

The way it works, Auclair explains, is that “when you have your master’s…and you’re working at a company, you find a mentor in that company and a mentor at the university, and you [choose and then] work on a project that’s interesting to all three of you.”

This type of industry-applicable PhD is ideal for those who have already spent time working within organizations in the field. It allows you to advance your education while still continuing to function as an employee at your company. “You get all the benefits and the money and the salary and everything, but you’re still getting your PhD and it [only takes] three years,” Auclair says.

Take the Next Step

No matter which program you choose, pursuing an advanced degree in biotechnology is sure to be a positive step toward success in this field. If you’re still struggling to determine which path is right for you, consult with an expert in the field. Whether that person is someone in your network that works in biotech or an enrollment coach at Northeastern, (who are well-versed in Northeastern’s variety of programs), gaining some outside perspective can help you make this important career choice.

Explore the master’s in biotechnology at Northeastern on our program page then download our free e-Book to learn more about how you can advance your career in biotechnology.

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