What is a Physiology Degree?

Physiology explores how the human body functions in health and disease. Physiologists study organs such as the brain, heart, and lungs, as well as the respiratory, nervous, and cardiac systems. Their goal is to better understand cell and system physiology to discover new ways of preventing and curing disease. In the words of physiologist Ernest H. Starling, ‘the physiology of today is the medicine of tomorrow.’

Physiology is closely related to anatomy. Anatomy is the study of the bodily structure of a living organism – the form. Physiology is the study of its mechanisms – the function. The two are intrinsically linked, and together with foundational courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, they form the core of the physiology curriculum.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Physiology – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s program in physiology provides students with foundational knowledge and skills. The curriculum is composed of coursework in developmental biology fundamentals, physiology fundamentals, key principles of cellular and molecular biology, evolutionary science, chemistry – general, organic, and biochemistry – and physics. Effective writing and analysis and laboratory techniques are also covered.

Here is a snapshot of the typical physiology bachelor’s program:

  • Evolutionary Medicine – how Darwinian principles can be applied to understand problems in medicine and public health; the principles of evolution and genetic processes
  • Molecular and Cellular Biology with Laboratory – structure and function of protein and nucleic acid; current models of biology at the molecular level; molecular and cellular biology techniques laboratory
  • Science of Biology – the scientific method, cell theory, biochemical unity, bioenergetics, reproduction, and evolutionary theory
  • Cell Biology – cell structure and function; analytical methods used by cell biologists; designing, conducting, and analyzing experiments
  • Genetics – genetic mechanisms, their nature, and interactions
  • General College Chemistry with Laboratory – atomic and molecular structure
  • Organic Chemistry – bonding, structure, and reactions of organic compounds
  • Biochemistry – molecular components of cells, chemical structure and function, enzymes, metabolic transformations, and photosynthesis
  • General Physics – mechanics, heat wave motion, and sound
  • Human Anatomy with Laboratory – structure and function of the human body, gross and microscopic anatomy of all major organ systems; lab instruction with prosected human cadavers
  • Tissue Biology with Laboratory – human anatomy and histology (the study of the microscopic structure of tissues), function of cells in tissue, early stages of embryology
  • Advanced Physiology with Laboratory – molecular structure and properties, physiological system functions, organ system homeostasis; computer simulations of muscle function, endocrine disease, and human physiology
  • Developmental Biology – invertebrate and vertebrate development biology; gene function and cell signaling
  • Physiology and Developmental Biology Seminar – research presentations in physiology and developmental biology
  • Academic Internship: Physiology and Developmental Biology – off-campus learning experience in laboratories with a focus related to physiology, biophysics, or developmental biology
  • Advanced Neuroscience – principles of neural science; structure-function relationships of the nervous system
  • Exercise Physiology Laboratory – applying principles of exercise physiology to assessing physical fitness and physiological responses to exercise
  • Infection and Immunity – principles of bacteria and viruses and the diseases they cause
  • Dissection Techniques in Human Anatomy – techniques of human cadaver dissection

Master’s Degree in Physiology – One to Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, students typically complete a thesis based on original laboratory research in a specific area of physiology. Some schools may offer the option to submit a non-laboratory / literature-focused research thesis. Each student’s program is designed around an individualized curriculum consisting of required courses and electives.

Required courses may include:

  • Molecular Mechanisms of Human Disease and Targeted Therapies
  • Cellular and Integrative Physiology

These are some sample research fields:

  • Comparative respiratory and cardiovascular physiology
  • Neurophysiology
  • Vascular function, ion channels, and endogenous gases
  • Calcium channels and neuroendocrine secretion
  • Cardiovascular pathology

Doctoral Degree in Physiology – Four to Seven Year Duration
Doctoral degree programs in physiology prepare students to become leading scientists that will shape research and education in universities, hospitals, and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Coursework at this level varies widely, allowing students to concentrate on areas related to their career goals.

Core courses may include:

  • Biostatistics
  • Critical Analysis of Physiological Literature

These are examples of elective / specialization courses:

  • Neural Systems
  • Pulmonary Pathophysiology
  • Vascular Physiology
  • Nutrition Epidemiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Foundations of Motor Control
  • Advanced Human Movement
  • Cellular and Systems Neuroscience
  • Systems and Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Biology of Neurodegenerative Diseases
  • Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior
  • Membrane Biochemistry and Cell Signaling
  • Neurobiology of Learning and Memory
  • Neurobiology of Aging
  • Quantitative Methods for Public Health

Degrees Similar to Physiology

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Cardiovascular Technology
Degree programs in cardiovascular technology prepare students to work as cardiovascular technologists (CVTs). These technicians assist doctors with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and conditions of the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular).

The curriculum is threefold in nature. Students learn (1) the structure, function, and pathology of the heart and blood vessels, (2) the diagnostic tools and procedures used to test them, and (3) the care of cardiovascular patients.

Endocrinology is a subspecialty of internal medicine that focuses on the organs of the endocrine system – the network of glands in the human body that make the hormones that help cells communicate with one another. Endocrinologists are concerned with hormone deficiency and excess and how these conditions affect metabolism, growth, weight, sleep, digestion, mood, reproduction, sensory perception, menstruation, lactation, and organ function.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

A kinesiology major studies the mechanics of body movements. A degree in the field can prepare students for a wide spectrum of careers in health, wellness, fitness, and education. It provides solid footing for prospective personal trainers, athletic therapists, and exercise scientists. It also lays the foundation for advanced study in kinesiology and in the complementary fields of medicine, physiotherapy, and chiropractics.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature.

At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.

Occupational Therapy
Students of occupational therapy learn how to help patients adapt to loss of function by improving their fine motor and cognitive skills through therapeutic everyday activities.

Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Pathologists are the medical doctors who analyze organs, tissues, blood, and body fluids to search for medical conditions and diagnose disease and illness. In other words, their job is to solve often complex medical mysteries.

Pathologists typically do not have direct contact with patients, but they work closely with primary care physicians and other medical specialists. This unique position in medical practice has earned them the moniker of the ‘doctor’s doctor.’

Physical Therapy
Physical therapy majors learn how to treat patients for whom movement has become strained or limited due to injury, illness, or aging.

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Psychobiology is the interaction between biological systems and behavior. It is concerned with how what we think and what we feel combine with biological events. Research in the field covers topics such as how psychological stressors can impact the brain and behavior. An example is how an exam or job interview can cause heart palpitations.

Skills You’ll Learn

Physiology students develop several transferable soft skills:

  • Ability to work both independently and in teams
  • Conviction, imagination, an open mind, and capacity and willingness to question
  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Information technology
  • Methodical approach
  • Observation
  • Organization
  • Pattern recognition
  • Problem solving
  • Research, investigation, and analysis
  • Synthesizing and communicating information
  • Understanding statistical data
  • Visual aptitude / the ability to build pictures in your mind

What Can You Do with a Physiology Degree?

Physiology graduates have various career options, depending on the level of degree that they earn.

A Bachelor’s Degree in Physiology provides a solid foundation for medical or dental school and training in other health professions:

  • Medicine – physicians, surgeons, physician assistants
  • Dentistry
  • Nursing
  • Chiropractic Medicine
  • Physical Therapy
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Speech Therapy
  • Pharmacy
  • Optometry

‘Career physiologists’ hold a master’s or doctoral degree in the field and typically work in research, teaching, and administration in:

  • Universities
  • Research institutes – clinical and basic sciences
  • Medical and dental schools
  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Government agencies – health protection, environment, and science policy
  • Industry – biomedical, pharmaceutical, environmental, and technological

With further studies in other areas, holders of a physiology degree may also work in professions such as:

  • Science journalism
  • Medical illustration
  • Bioinformatics
  • Epidemiology


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