Degrees in Phycology: Job Options and Program Information

Phycology is a branch of science devoted to algae. Students in the United States can study this subject at the graduate level as part of a master's or doctoral degree program in marine biology or botany.

Essential Information

Phycology is a subdiscipline of the botany field. While no schools in the U.S. offer degree programs entirely devoted to the subject, it is sometimes offered as a concentration or even just a course within larger botany or marine biology master's and doctoral degree programs. Concentrations for the doctoral program include ecological physiology, stream ecology, population genetics or macroevolution. Since many jobs in phycology involve conducting research in industry or academia, students wishing to enter these fields may benefit from obtaining one of these degrees.

For these programs, students must complete a thesis, research project or dissertation.


Master's Degree in Botany

A master's degree in botany is typically a two-year graduate program. It culminates in the completion of a master's thesis or a significant research project. To enroll in a master's program in botany, a student must typically have completed a bachelor's degree in botany or a related area, such as biology. Individual programs may have more specific prior coursework requirements, including subjects outside of biology such as chemistry, physics, or statistics. Students in botany master's programs study the biology of plants and their interactions with the rest of the natural world. They take courses such as following:

  • Plant anatomy
  • Plant geography
  • Ecology
  • Biology and properties of fungus
  • Molecular and cellular botany
  • Plant genetics

Many schools also offer courses specifically on algae. Master's students interested in phycology can conduct their research in this area. Prospective students should research universities' faculty rosters to identify professors interested in algae with whom they might work.

Master's Degree in Marine Biology

A master's degree in marine biology is awarded after a two-year graduate program involving the study of animals, microbes and plants that live in salt water, like oceans and bays. This program allows students to refine their laboratory and research skills while focusing on advanced topics in specific fields of interest, such as phycology.

Working with professors who share their interests, students complete a master's thesis or a research project of similar scope. Master's students take advanced courses in areas of marine biology related to their research. These are a few such courses:

  • Cellular biology
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Physiology
  • Ecology
  • Biological oceanography

Find schools that offer these popular programs

Doctor of Philosophy in Marine Biology

A Ph.D. in marine biology takes on average five to six years to complete, though the pace of students' research largely determines the speed with which they earn their degrees. Under the guidance of a professor who shares similar research goals, a student will complete a research project leading to a dissertation.

A student who wishes to pursue a doctorate in marine biology must have demonstrated significant academic achievement, as well as success in a research environment. Students often apply to Ph.D. programs directly after completing their undergraduate degrees, though many others apply after completing master's degrees.

Doctoral students take courses for only the first one or two years of their program. Students spend the rest of their years in the program working on original research for their dissertations. Doctoral students can choose to specialize in one of many areas of concentration within marine biology.


Popular Career Options

A master's degree in botany prepares students for a wide range of jobs in botanical science, conservation science and administration. People with master's degrees in marine biology usually work in one of three sectors: government, industry, or academia. Graduates with master's degrees in marine biology are hired for jobs, which require a higher level of specialization and more developed laboratory skills than those open to bachelor's degree holders.

Students graduating with Ph.D.s in marine biology have many of the same options open to master's degree holders, although they have an advantage in the hiring process and may earn a higher salary. Additionally, they may apply for tenured academic positions (such as assistant professor at a university) or postdoctoral fellowships. As professors, they are qualified to run labs and direct their own research. Jobs may include the following:

  • Marine biologist
  • Biologist
  • Scientific consultant
  • Field botanist
  • Conservation scientist
  • Biochemist or biophysicists

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Conservation scientists had a median annual salary of $61,110 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). The BLS estimated that the field would experience 7% growth from 2014 to 2024, which is about average. Biochemist and biophysicists received a median annual income of $82,150, while the median annual income for postsecondary biological science teachers was $75,320 in May 2015. Employment opportunities are expected to rise 13% for post-secondary teachers from 2014 to 2024, as reported by the BLS.

In January 2016, Payscale.com listed a median annual salary of $50,175 for biologists and $51,288 for marine biologists. According to Salary.com, the median annual wage for botanists was $64,417, as of September 2016.

Continuing Education

A graduate of a master's degree program in botany who wishes to continue in the field may go on to earn a Ph.D. This program requires students to conduct a longer, more in-depth research project resulting in a dissertation. A Ph.D. allows graduates to apply for higher positions in research and is a key qualification for becoming a professor.

Master's students in marine biology who wish to continue their studies may choose to move on to Ph.D. programs. Some students choose to stay at their current schools and continue working with their master's thesis advisors, while some choose to move to another program. Both options require the student to submit new applications and receive new funding.

Even though it is not possible to enroll in a graduate-level program focused solely on phycology in the United States, students can learn about this subject as part of a broader master's degree program in botany, a master's degree program in marine biology, or a Ph.D. program in marine biology. Once they graduate, students can find jobs in a variety of industries and sectors, including administration, conservation and academia.


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