Field of Study: Physiology
Physiology programs teach people about life processes in plants and animals. Students learn about chemical and physical events at all levels within living things. For example, they learn how animals move and breathe, how plants grow, and how both reproduce.
Think of the cell as an industrial facility. Raw materials come in. Like a power plant, the cell may burn the materials for energy and dispose of the waste products. Many animal cells are like this. Or like a manufacturing plant, the cell may assemble the raw materials into useful products and ship these out. Many plant cells are like this. Physiology studies the biochemical processes that go on in cells. And it also looks at the processes of whole systems. Why do muscles get tired? What are brain cells doing when you're asleep? Why do some people develop more brittle bones than other people?
A few colleges offer a bachelor's degree program in physiology. Usually this takes four years of full-time study beyond high school. Like most biology majors, it includes several lab sciences. You study biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry. You may also study biochemistry, especially if your aim is graduate school. From these subjects you learn the basics of how to do scientific research. You learn laboratory skills and how to do experiments. You also study calculus and perhaps statistics.
You study the biochemical processes of the body right down to the molecular level. You learn about the various systems of the body and what functions they perform. You study the various kinds of tissues and the properties of their component cells. Your exploration of the cell includes learning about the various organelles and the role of genes.
With a bachelor's degree you may work as a research assistant. You may go on to professional study in medical, dental, or veterinary school. You may get a graduate degree in occupational or physical therapy, or in another branch of biology. If you want to teach biology in school, you may get a master's in education. But if you want to play a responsible role in physiology research or teach in college, you need a graduate degree.
Many universities and medical schools offer a master's program in physiology. This usually requires two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree. This degree is not an option in a few graduate programs, which proceed directly to the doctorate. And probably most people who study this field aim for jobs for which it is useful to get a doctoral degree. That usually requires an additional three years beyond the master's. It may take longer if you take on part-time work teaching or assisting with research, but such work helps offset costs and advances your career. Over 100 schools offer a doctoral degree program.
In graduate school you study a variety of biochemical processes. You learn how hormones regulate body functions such as respiration, reproduction, and sleep. You study how cells burn energy, reproduce, and (in the case of nerves) transmit signals. You also study statistics so that you can draw meaningful conclusions from the data that you derive from experiments.
A graduate program in physiology is not just textbook-learning or lectures. The graduate program is designed to teach you research skills, so you do much of your learning in the lab. Usually you take several seminars, in which you do research and present it to the class. In many programs you are also expected to do a series of lab rotations. Working with different researchers exposes you to various topics and methods of research. Thus you decide where to focus your own master's or doctoral research projects and whom to choose as a faculty advisor. In a doctoral program, you undertake an original research project under the guidance of this advisor. Then, you write up your procedures and findings as your dissertation.
You can prepare for this program by taking courses in high school that prepare you for college. This typically includes four years of English, three years of math, three years of social studies, and two years of science. Some colleges also require two years of a second language.
- English Composition
- Advanced Biology courses
Admission to graduate programs is competitive. You need a bachelor's degree (usually in biology, chemistry, or biochemistry), good grades, and good test scores.
Additional requirements at some schools include:
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General
- Letters of recommendation
Typical course work
A bachelor's degree program in physiology typically requires that you study courses such as the following:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Applied Calculus
- Cellular and Molecular Biology
- Comparative Animal Physiology
- Elements of Physics
- English Composition
- General Biology
- General Chemistry
- Introduction to Toxicology
- Organic Chemistry
A graduate program in physiology typically includes courses such as the following:
- Biostatistics for Health Sciences
- Lab Rotations
- Metabolic Regulation/Molecular Endocrinology
- Molecular/Cellular Physiology
In addition, graduate programs typically require the following:
- Thesis (master's degree)
- Preliminary exams (doctoral degree only)
- Dissertation and dissertation defense (doctoral degree)
You may be required to teach biology to undergraduates.
Things to know
Your master's program may offer you a non-thesis option. Usually this means that you take a comprehensive exam to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject. The thesis option makes more sense if you intend to continue to the doctorate. Researching and writing a master's thesis helps you acquire skills you need in the doctoral program.
Similar fields of study
- Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Animal Physiology
- Animal Sciences, General
- Athletic Training
- Biological Sciences, General
- Biomedical Sciences, General
- Cancer and Oncology Biology
- Cell Biology
- Electroneurodiagnostic Technology
- Exercise Physiology
- Exercise Science and Kinesiotherapy
- Health and Medical Physics
- Massage Therapy
- Medical Illustration
- Medical Laboratory Assisting
- Medical Laboratory Science
- Naturopathic Medicine
- Nurse Anesthetist
- Nurse Midwifery
- Nurse Practitioner
- Occupational Therapy
- Orthotic and Prosthetic Therapies
- Osteopathic Medicine
- Pathology and Experimental Pathology
- Pharmaceutical Sciences
- Physical Therapy
- Physician Assisting
- Plant Physiology
- Podiatric Medicine
- Ultrasound and Sonography Technology
- Vision Science
- Zoology and Animal Biology
Careers you may qualify for
American Physiological Society
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Becoming a Scientist (Howard Hughes Medical Institute)
Schools that offer program
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University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
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