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Online schools in science

As the "S" in STEM, science is the basis for a whole slew of career options and life pathways. Some science careers take place in laboratories, mixing chemicals and testing new materials, while others focus their attention out in the field taking measurements and making observations. Still others are careers that focus on the unseen world of the human psyche.

If you've been looking for a dynamic field with great growth potential, science programs may be right for you. Even if you're not sure what specialty you want to study, a bachelor's degree in science can be used as the foundation for a graduate degree program in range of fields that includes psychology, biology, chemistry and more. Here's a table of physical and biological science degree programs available at schools across the country, with entries for both on-campus and online offerings:

Region No. of institutions with physical science degree programs No. of schools offering physical science degree programs online No. of institutions with biological science degree programs No. of schools offering biological science degree programs online
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 223 3 234 4
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 49 1 57 0
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 157 9 186 11
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 141 3 185 8
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 314 8 413 17
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 213 1 243 7
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 251 7 305 10
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 96 2 126 4
Total (all 50 states) 1444 34 1749 61

Entry-level science degrees

Science degree programs can be found in numerous disciplines and at multiple academic levels — many with study plans designed to fit around your existing schedule. Here's some information about the first few tiers of science degree programs available at campus-based and online schools across the country:

  • Associate degrees - Associate degrees in life or physical sciences are often structured as stepping stones into bachelor's study, containing the first few lecture and laboratory sections of chemistry, physics, biology or another discipline alongside English composition, algebra and a few other general education requirements. Some degrees at this level, however, particularly those in applied science, are designed to prepare students to work in scientific support roles like engineering technician, environmental science technician, clinical laboratory technologist, food science technician and more.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Completing science degree programs at the bachelor's level can make it possible for aspiring chemists, materials scientists, zoologists, environmental scientists, microbiologists and agricultural and food scientists to find their first jobs in the field of their choice. Bachelor's degrees in some physical and life sciences can even be earned mostly or completely through digital distance education, thanks to innovations in the delivery of multimedia educational content and the potential availability of lab facilities at regional learning centers.
  • Non-degree study - Some study plans in the sciences are designed to provide working skills or familiarity with specific equipment rather than lead ultimately to a degree. Scientifically oriented career diplomas and technical certificates include clinical laboratory technician, pharmacy technician, laboratory assistant, marine science technician, veterinary assistant and forensic science technician. Students can also take individual courses in the sciences to enhance their existing knowledge or find out if the discipline might be right for them.

Some disciplines in the sciences are better suited than others to delivery in the virtual classroom. Biological sciences, environmental sciences, health science, nutrition and a few other disciplines enjoy a fairly wide distribution online, but core laboratory sciences such as physics and chemistry are far more common in the traditional classroom format.

Advanced-degree science programs

If you're hoping to be employed in a position of significant responsibility, greater complexity or independently directed research, chances are that you'll need a few years or more of experience on the job and at least a master's degree in your field. Although graduate and post-graduate science degree programs tend to differ widely based on the subject matter they cover, there are some general characteristics of each academic level that tend to be common across the various disciplines:

  • Master's degree programs - Scientists hoping to move up in their fields typically go on to earn a master's degree, either immediately upon completion of their undergraduate study or after gaining a few years' experience in the workforce. The courses taken in master's programs tend to dive deeply into the subjects they cover, sometimes encouraging students to focus on a specific area of their discipline, and most plans that culminate in a master's degree require students to research, write and present a thesis project before they qualify for graduation.
  • Doctorate programs - Employers in some branches of the sciences, namely physics, biochemistry and medical science, tend to prefer candidates who have completed a PhD or similarly advanced degree. Professors of science at the highest level are typically expected to have doctoral degrees, and anyone hoping to take the lead on research projects should also plan to continue their education to the doctoral level. PhD study can also give you a taste of the excitement available after completing your terminal degree — post-graduate research assistants are often called upon to help with cutting-edge research projects conducted at their university.
  • Graduate and post-graduate certificates - Non-degree graduate certificates in the sciences can be a great addition to the skillset of someone working to craft an interdisciplinary approach in their career, not to mention the value they can bring to the resume of an aspiring high school science teacher. Graduates with a generalized degree in the physical or life sciences can also gain some of the most up-to-date knowledge and skills with a professional graduate certificate in subjects such as bioinformatics or nanotechnology.

Advanced degrees that contain intensive laboratory work are unlikely to be available completely online, although hybrid and blended programs can be found at certain universities. Some online Master of Science (M.S.) degree programs in biology, materials science, ecology, biochemistry and science education may be available, depending on the institution.

Q&A with an expert

Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy is a trained chemist, a successful entrepreneur and the current president of North Carolina's Shaw University. Here's what she had to say about science degrees and how you can prepare to make the most of them after graduation:

Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy, trained chemist and current president of Shaw University in North CarolinaWhy would you encourage someone to consider a degree in science?

Science is intricately intertwined into our everyday lives. It shapes our experiences and the innovations it births are vital to our future. I encourage students to pursue a science degree because of the versatility it affords professionally and because a science degree is rapidly becoming the common currency of the workforce.

What would have been helpful to know when you were looking into your own education?

Much like employers, colleges are looking for well-rounded individuals who, aside from academic performance, can demonstrate range. I did not articulate that in my college applications. I had learned that lesson by the time grad school came around and successfully gained entry into NC State University, my first choice.

Are there certain courses or extracurriculars that science students can add to their degree plans to enhance job prospects or better prepare for graduate work?

I highly recommend students make the most of their summers. This is the time for you to explore your field and gain essential professional experience. I credit much of my start in the field of science to the AGEP program at NCSU. This program facilitated my first real job experience as a budding chemist and allowed me to gain lab experience, research and oratory skills, and a scientific acumen that has been vital to my continued academic and professional growth. Your summer is the time to try something you may not "like", but that will give you the rare opportunity to explore a career before you commit to it professionally. Don't waste this valuable time, make the most of it.

What advice would you have for someone who's just started out on the path to a career in the sciences?

Find a mentor to help you on your path to success and growth. My mentor Dr. David Shultz, Director of Graduate Programs at NC State University has inspired, coached and collaborated with me on my journey. It was his support that guided me through graduate school and ultimately inspired me to pursue my current role in academia, first as a faculty member and now as the President of Shaw University. Now, I am the mentor for students on my campus and in my community. I am able to reach back and lift others while I climb.

Types of science careers

The list of careers available with science degrees is nearly as diverse as the list of scientific disciplines itself. Here's a quick table that shows a selection of the science careers available on today's job market, along with salary and job outlook data published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2014)
Projected job growth
(2012-2022)
Total U.S. employment
(2012)
Entry-level education
Chemical technician $47,390 9 percent 63,600 Associate degree
Environmental science technician $45,910 19 percent 32,800 Associate degree
Microbiologist $76,530 7 percent 20,100 Bachelor's degree
Environmental scientist $72,050 15 percent 90,000 Bachelor's degree
Hydrologist $81,930 10 percent 7,400 Master's degree
Biological science teacher, postsecondary $86,200 19 percent 61,400 Master's degree
Physicist $117,300 10 percent 23,300

Doctoral or professional degree

Medical scientist $90,160 13 percent 103,100 Doctoral or professional degree
Biochemist or biophysicist $91,960 19 percent 29,200 Doctoral or professional degree

Common misconceptions about science degrees

Despite the near-ubiquitous nature of science courses in elementary and secondary schools, there are still quite a few misconceptions floating around about science degrees at the college level. Take a look over this list before diving headlong into the search for science degree programs, it might save you the trouble of finding out the hard way:

Misconception: Science degrees are more difficult to get than degrees in the arts or humanities.

  • Fact: The structure of science degree programs is designed to consistently give students the foundational knowledge they need to understand and integrate the material in courses that follow. If you're naturally inclined toward the information presented in arts or humanities degrees, you might find them easier, but studying science is no more difficult than any other subject for students who engage with the material.

Misconception: The only work you can get with a science degree is as a science teacher.

  • Fact: You have scientists to thank for many of the things you use regularly, including your smartphone, climate control, microwave oven, shampoo, Wi-Fi, shoes, car and anything made of plastic. Scientists work in both the public and private sector, for the greater good as well as for profit. Bonus fact: If you think chicken nuggets aren't made in an enormous industrial science lab, you're in for a surprise.

Misconception: Online science degree programs are a shortcut to a college education.

  • Fact: Earning a degree online can often take more effort and energy than studying on a traditional, brick-and-mortar campus. Even though it might be easier on your schedule and your wallet, students taking exclusively online courses have to maintain their own course schedules and self-motivate to attend lectures and complete assignments. If you want to find out whether you're well-suited to online classes, your school may have a virtual distance education readiness test that can give you more information.

How can I enroll in an online science degree program?

Studying science in college can be an immensely rewarding experience for the right student, whether you do it online or in person. To learn more about the steps to take next, browse the school listings below, find a few programs that seem like they're right for you and contact a school representative to find out more.

Sources:
1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed November 18, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. School pages, accessed November 18, 2015: Environmental Science, Associate in Science Degree Program, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, http://www.anokaramsey.edu/classes/Two-Year%20Degree%20Programs/ASDegree/EnvScienceASDeg.aspx; Associate of Science Degree, General, North Seattle College, https://northseattle.edu/transfer/degrees/associate-science-general-degree; Physics at Colorado Mountain College, http://coloradomtn.edu/programs/physics/; Chemistry, Associate in Science, http://www.centralia.edu/academics/EdPlanners/ASCHEMISTRY.htm; Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science, Kaplan University, http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/health-sciences/nutrition-science-bachelor-degree.aspx; Marine Science Technician Certificate Program, http://www.saddleback.edu/atas/marine-science-technician-certificate-program; College of Humanities and Sciences, University of Phoenix, http://www.phoenix.edu/colleges_divisions/humanities-sciences.html; Environmental Sciences, Undergraduate Degrees Online, http://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/online-degrees/undergraduate/es/; Online Bachelor of Arts in Biology, University of Florida, http://ufonline.ufl.edu/degrees/undergraduate/biology/#overview; Bachelor of Science in Biology, Ashford University, http://www.ashford.edu/degrees/campus/bs-biology.htm; Medical Laboratory Science, Phoenix College, http://www.phoenixcollege.edu/academics/programs/medical-laboratory-science; Pharmacy Technician Degree Courses, Rasmussen College, http://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/health-sciences/pharmacy-technician/; Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences, Weber State University, http://www.weber.edu/mls; Forensic Science Program, Ashworth College, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/career-diplomas/forensic-science-training/curriculum/; Laboratory Technician, Blackhawk Technical College, http://www.blackhawk.edu/MonroeCampus/LaboratoryTechnician.aspx; Veterinary Assistant School at Penn Foster Career School, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/veterinary-studies/veterinary-assistant-career-diploma; Biology, MS, University of Nebraska, http://online.nebraska.edu/program/university-of-nebraska-at-kearney-biology-ms-master-ms-1436403146147; Graduate Program in Chemistry, University of Saint Joseph, http://www.usj.edu/academics/schools/school-of-health-natural-sciences/chemistry/graduate/; Master's Degree, Physics, University of Colorado Boulder, http://phys.colorado.edu/graduate-students/masters-degree; Physics - MS, PhD, Michigan Technological University, http://www.mtu.edu/physics/graduate/information/physics/; Professional Graduate Certificates, Harvard Extension School, https://www.extension.harvard.edu/academics/professional-graduate-certificates; Graduate Certificate in Earth Science Education, Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/earth-science-education-certificate/overview; Doctoral Degree in Chemistry, Seton Hall University, https://www13.shu.edu/academics/artsci/phd-chemistry/; Graduate Degree Programs, Arizona State University, https://asuonline.asu.edu/online-degree-programs/graduate; Online Master's Degrees, University of Florida Distance Learning, http://www.distance.ufl.edu/masters
3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed November 18, 2015: Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-science-and-protection-technicians.htm; Chemical Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/chemical-technicians.htm; Environmental Scientists and Specialists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm; Chemists and Materials Scientists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/chemists-and-materials-scientists.htm; Microbiologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/microbiologists.htm; Medical Scientists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm; Hydrologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/hydrologists.htm; Agricultural and Food Scientists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/agricultural-and-food-scientists.htm; Physicists and Astronomers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm; Biochemists and Biophysicists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/biochemists-and-biophysicists.htm
4. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed November 18, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

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