Online Degrees in Science

Scientific and technological innovation is the engine that drives the U.S. economy. A 2005 study by the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine reported that up to 85 percent of income growth in the U.S. comes from technological advancement.

The same report suggests that in order to maintain its role as a leader and science and technology, the U.S. must invest in science and technology education and the high-paying jobs open to graduates of those online degree programs.

Scientists by nature are inquisitive and dedicated to understanding and solving problems in the physical world. Scientists generally specialize in a particular area of the natural sciences, which include biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, oceanography, and other branches of science concerned with the natural world. Emerging fields in the sciences harness new technologies and discoveries to push the envelope further in fields such as biotechnology or green technology.

A science degree program is made up of both lecture and laboratory classes. In lecture classes, students learn about the history of their discipline as well as important theoretical principles and discoveries. Laboratory classes may ask students to recreate classic scientific experiments or conduct their own investigations to solve new problems.

Most science degrees are awarded at the bachelor's degree level or higher, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports. A 2009 NCES study found that associate degrees made up only 2 to 9 percent (depending on the field) of degrees in biological/agricultural sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering in 2005-2006.

The same study found that about 15 percent of all bachelor's degree students in 2006 were enrolled in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field.

With a bachelor's degree in science, students can pursue a number of jobs, including work as a science technician or laboratory assistant. To advance in the sciences, graduate training is generally required. The NCES reports that in 2007-2008, biological and biomedical sciences was the fourth most popular field for doctoral degree students. That same field was far less common for master's degree students, although health professions and related clinical sciences--a field that may be attractive to students with a bachelor's degree in science--was the third-most popular field at the master's degree level.

By nature, science is a hands-on discipline, and online laboratories are becoming recognized as a promising tool in the sciences, according to the Sloan Consortium, a non-profit organization dedicated to researching and improving online education.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks looked at teaching methods in online science classes and found that teachers made wide use of online discussion tools, and that students were asked to analyze data and draw conclusions from evidence much as students in a brick-and-mortar classroom would. The same study reported that students earning online degrees in science may be asked to articulate and reflect upon scientific theories more than their counterparts in the classroom, leading to a deeper understanding of underlying principles.

Some online degrees in science combine lecture classes via the Internet with laboratory work in a campus setting.

Scientists who work in the private sector are often employed in research and development positions for private industries. Research and development in physical, engineering and life sciences account for about 90 percent of the jobs in science, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The states of California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania employ more than half of all scientists who work in research and development.

In the public sector, scientists may work as researchers at universities or government facilities such as the National Institutes of Health or NASA.

Ongoing training in sciences and management at the post-graduate level can prepare scientists for advancement. Some 20 percent of scientists are employed in management, business and financial operations roles for their industry.

Science is a diverse field and wages for scientists reflect this diversity. Salaries vary based on level of education, related experience, employer, industry and location. Listed below are some representative science careers along with the 2009 median annual wage from the BLS and the typical education requirements:

  • Chemists, $68,220 (bachelor's degree minimum, master's or PhD for many positions)
  • Environmental scientists and specialists, $61,010 (bachelor's degree required for entry-level positions, but master's degree is preferred)
  • Medical scientists, $74,590 (PhD required)
  • Microbiologists, $66,580 (bachelor's or master's degree for positions in applied research, PhD required for academic research or administration)
  • Biological technicians, $38,700 (bachelor's degree)

Job projections fluctuate along with the economy and political priorities regarding governmental funding for research. Private industry also can fuel or decelerate job growth based on its investment in research, development and production. The BLS reports the following projected job growth for these top occupations:

Occupations In-Demand for Science
Job Openings (2014-24)
Average Salary (2016)
Total Employment
Job Outlook (2014-24)
Computer and Mathematical Occupations1,156,800$87,8804,165,14013%
Farming, Fishing, and Forestry Occupations253,100$27,810463,640-6%
Life Scientists116,600$83,080286,3906%
Physical Scientists92,700$87,310262,6407%
Mathematical Science Occupations73,000$88,230167,77028%
Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists42,400$95,000108,8708%
Environmental Scientists and Specialists, Including Health39,300$75,36084,25011%
Biological Technicians26,300$46,13074,7205%
Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, Including Health18,600$47,93032,95010%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2014-24 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

In any of these fields, applicants for jobs in academic positions should see the strongest competition as the number of candidates is expected to exceed the number of projected openings.

Science at a glance

  • Between 2008 and 2018, jobs for biological scientists are expected to increase by 21 percent.
  • An estimated 40 percent of all biological scientists take jobs with governmental agencies and entities, with the balance being employed by the private sector research laboratories or manufacturing firms.
  • Most jobs in science require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree or PhD is often necessary for advancement
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