Should I Get a Master's Degree in Biotechnology? Pros & Cons

You already know the answer to this question: it depends. But the variables that go into deciding whether or not to get a master’s degree in biotechnology make it a complex—and possibly quite profitable—calculation.

Many jobs in biotech require no more than a bachelor’s degree to get started, but a master’s degree is a proven way to differentiate oneself and gain expertise in a sub-discipline of the industry. Many master’s programs in biotechnology offer electives, specializations, and concentrations that can turn a generalist into an expert. Some or all of the program may be available online, meaning it’s never been easier to advance one’s education in the subject.

The possible benefits of advanced education in biotechnology are compelling: higher salaries, greater job opportunities, and increased levels of professional responsibility. But it’s always going to be context-dependent and a master’s in biotechnology is not for everybody. These degree programs can be costly, time-consuming, and, in some cases, irrelevant to a particular career.

To find out if a master’s degree in biotechnology is truly worth it, we have to consider cost, career path, and any other educational alternatives. Let’s take a look.

The Cost of a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology

In determining the ROI of a graduate program, then finances are a decent place to start our calculation. Tuition rates can vary widely from school to school, but you’re going to be spending about as much on a master’s degree as you would on a brand new car. Whether that car is a Mazda or a Benz is up to you.

The University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) has an online master’s degree in biotechnology that costs $659 per credit for non-residents of Maryland. Core courses cover the following topics: societal issues in biotechnology; an introduction to bioinformatics; bioprocessing and the business of biotechnology; and techniques of biotechnology.

From there, students can choose to specialize in one of four areas: bioinformatics; biosecurity and defense; biotechnology management; and biotechnology regulatory affairs. For the entirety of the 36-credit program, students can expect to pay approximately $23,724 before any grants or scholarships are considered.

On the higher end of the spectrum, you have Johns Hopkins University, which has a hybrid master’s degree in biotechnology that costs $4,495 per course. The program starts with a comprehensive overview of basic science, applied science, and lab science—all with an industry focus. Students can then customize their education with one of six concentrations: biodefense; bioinformatics; biotechnology enterprise; regenerative and stem cell technologies; regulatory affairs; or drug discovery. For the entire ten-credit program, students can expect to pay $44,950 in total.

But a calculation of cost has to go beyond the price tag to find the hidden fees. Master’s in biotechnology programs generally take two to three years to complete when taken full-time. That means two to three years without a full-time salary. Online programs can help: students can be flexible with both their time and their geography. If taken on a part-time basis, it’s possible to maintain a job at the same time as one studies, but expect the time to completion to double (and your average stress levels to rise as well).

So to get a master’s degree in biotechnology, you’re probably going to have to dip into the financial red, at least for a little while. But how long until the degree starts paying you back? That depends more on your career path, which we’ll take a look at below.

Career Paths with a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology

A good clue as to what careers benefit from a master’s degree in biotechnology is the specializations these programs offer.

In addition to the options profiled above, consider Northeastern University’s MS in biotechnology program, which allows students to choose from one of eight concentrations: molecular biology; process development; manufacturing and quality operations; biopharmaceutical analytical sciences; pharmaceutical technologies; scientific information management; regulatory science; and biotechnology enterprise.

An important clarification should be made: master’s programs are not just teaching students about the area of concentration but also teaching them how to lead teams and enter senior roles within that area of concentration. As a result, graduates should expect to receive higher-than-average salaries for their positions, given enough time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), the median annual wage for biomedical engineers, for example, is $88,550 per year. But the top 10 percent of biomedical engineers make more than $144,350 per year.

A master’s degree doesn’t automatically put you in the top 10 percent of earners, of course, but it does set you on the right track. And, over the long run, it’s hard to imagine not recouping the initial financial investment that a master’s degree requires.

Alternatives to a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology

If you want to become an animal scientist, biophysicist, doctor, professor, or microbiologist doing independent research, a master’s degree in biotechnology might not go far enough as these career paths typically require PhDs. But there are instances where a master’s degree in biotechnology still might be a good option for these career paths. If your undergraduate degree lacked a biotech focus, a master’s program can be a way to transition into the field. Or, if you didn’t perform as well academically as your dream PhD program would like, a master’s program can be a way to set the record straight.

However, if you’re looking to cover some gaps in your record or simply level up your skills, you should be aware of a quicker (and cheaper) alternative: certificate programs. Certificate programs generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is designed to catch a student up on required courses that their undergraduate program didn’t cover. The second category is for those who have undergraduate or graduate level biotech degrees already, but want to add niche specializations.

The professional certificate program in biotechnology at MIT combines elements of both categories. It’s designed for professionals who hold a bachelor’s degree in a technical area and have at least three years of work experience. Core courses cover subjects like biotherapeutics and downstream processing. Electives cover a host of topics designed to boost one’s managerial skills and sub-discipline expertise, including instruction in engineering leadership; machine learning for healthcare; and the design and analysis of experiments. Each class lasts no longer than five days, meaning you can bolster your skillset and your CV at a rapid pace. But in this instance, it’s not necessarily cheaper: classes range from $3,900 to $4,900 each.

Johns Hopkins University also has a certificate program that falls into the second category: it offers students a chance to gain a specialization in biotechnology enterprise. This program cuts all the general education and focuses specifically on the subject of merging business with science. It can be completed entirely online in less than a year. Tuition rates are similar to the master’s program ($4,499 per year), but with only five classes instead of ten, it could be an alluring option for those looking to save some time and money.

Do note that certificate programs and master’s degrees are not mutually exclusive. Those who complete the certificate program at Johns Hopkins University, for example, may transfer three of the program’s five classes towards the completion of a master’s degree at the school. Conversely, those who have already earned their master’s in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins can count three of their enterprise courses towards the certificate.

The Bottom Line

A master’s degree in biotechnology could be the right choice for you if you are looking to:

  • Complement an undergraduate degree in a related field (i.e. engineering or biology) with a thorough understanding of biotechnology
  • Get promoted into leadership roles within the biotechnology industry
  • Boost your salary closer to the top 10 percent of your profession
  • Become an expert in a specific niche of biotechnology

For those who remain undecided, there is little downside to entering the workforce first. Most master’s programs in biotechnology want candidates who have some work experience that can serve as a framework for understanding the curriculum’s topics.

Furthermore, that early work experience can help determine whether a master’s program is right for you, and what kind of specialization is best suited to your goals. Because, in the final calculation, whether a master’s in biotechnology is worth it or not depends on what you do with it. But you knew that was the answer from the beginning, didn’t you?

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.