How do I Earn a Life Sciences PhD?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2018
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Earning a life sciences PhD typically means getting a doctorate in one of the areas that is classified as a life science, and there is variance on what specializations students will undertake in doctoral studies. Life sciences include topics like microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, gerontology, and neuroscience. Each school that offers a life sciences PhD or several of them differs in areas of focus, and exactly how students must prepare to apply for programs typically depends on what specialization area they choose. It can be said that applicants need to show some competency or background in their area of interest, and there are other general requirements for most of the available programs.

The first step to earning a life sciences PhD is to identify programs with specializations that match education. This is easily accomplished by searching the Internet or by speaking with professors at a current school to get recommendations on programs that are a good fit with present studies. Students then need to investigate each school to determine requirements for entry. At minimum, applicants usually need to have an undergraduate degree in a closely matching life science field. Some schools only admit students who possess a master’s degree.


Some fairly standard requirements for any PhD program include strong grades, particularly demonstrated in the major. Good grades overall may be sought after, since many schools assess students at least partially by grade point average. A number of life sciences PhD programs additionally call for students to take standardized testing like the general and subject Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Most schools will want students to furnish letters of recommendation that are either academic or professional. A number of schools either require or look with favor upon students who have already worked in a science field, and thus, professional letters from employers may be of use.

The variations on specific majors and requirements of the life sciences PhD don’t end with application. Each program is constructed differently, but again, may share some similarities. Like most PhD programs, students will take core coursework and electives, and they may have either requirements to teach or to work in laboratory settings. Many programs have comprehensive examinations, which students must pass before beginning work on a dissertation. In all cases, an extensive dissertation that represents original research is expected.

Work in the dissertation usually begins at the end of the second or third year, after coursework and exams are finished. Students will only earn the life sciences PhD when this is complete and has been approved by faculty. Total time it takes to complete a program may vary, but usually students need at least four years, and some students take longer, up to six to seven years, before they’ve met all requirements and earned a doctorate.



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