Ph.D. in Biological Sciences curriculum

The goal of the Ph.D. curriculum in the Department of Biological Sciences is to prepare students to be scholars and independent researchers. The revised curriculum seeks to balance the conflicting time demands on students for formal coursework and for an intensive research experience. We recognize that formal training should reflect the general area of discipline, which is best represented by the divisions rather than the department as a whole.

The curriculum will allow the student and his/her advisor flexibility in designing the plan of work while maintaining a sufficient level of departmental oversight to preserve high academic standards. As such, a student's plan of work must conform to at least one of the following formats.

First year


An admitted student is classified as a Ph.D. applicant until the Graduate School receives and approves a dissertation outline and prospectus (see below). A provisional advisor (graduate officer) is assigned for new students until a dissertation advisor is chosen.

Lab rotation

All first-year doctoral students must enroll in the lab rotation course, BIO 9996, 2 credits per term while they are completing their rotations. This is a research experience in up to four faculty labs, designed to facilitate choosing the permanent dissertation advisor and becoming familiar with a variety of faculty programs.
Before arriving, students will be asked to identify two laboratories in which they wish to complete their first two rotations. Each rotation will last one half of a semester. Ph.D. students may choose to rotate in additional laboratories in the second semester but may decide on an advisor anytime after completing two rotations.

Selection of dissertation advisor

A dissertation advisor should be chosen, with his/her agreement, any time after the lab rotation but no later than the end of the first year.

Formal coursework begins, as recommended by the faculty advisor. (Consult advising office for specific requirements.)

Qualifying exams

Qualifying exams may be scheduled as early as July of the first year. If the qualifying exam is scheduled within the first year, a Dissertation Advisory Committee must be established. See below for more details.

Second year

Continue formal coursework, and continue or begin research. (The following should be completed by the end of the second year)

Plan of work

The list of all courses to be taken must be signed by the dissertation advisor and the graduate officer and submitted to the departmental advising office (required by the Graduate School before 40 credits are completed).

Download plan of work form

Dissertation Advisory Committee

Minimum of three departmental members including advisor (four if there are two departmental co-advisors) and one outside member; obtain graduate officer signature and return the form to the departmental advising office (a subsequent change of committee membership requires FORM C-1). This committee should hold a preliminary meeting with the student to discuss the general research plan. Inform the advising office and chair of the Graduate Committee of the intended date of the written qualifying exam.

Written qualifying examination

Upon successful completion of the exam, obtain signatures of the Advisory Committee and file candidacy form in the departmental advising office.

See Graduate School Ph.D. forms

Annual advisory meeting

Following the written qualifying exam, the Advisory Committee must meet a minimum of once each year to review the student's progress until the degree is completed; verify each meeting by the Annual Graduate Student Progress Report form.

Third year

Continue annual advisory meetings, research, and coursework.

Dissertation prospectus

The prospectus format is in grant proposal style (approximately 10 to 20 pages), with sections including specific aims, background and significance, progress & preliminary data, and research design and methods. Submit to the Advisory Committee for review at least two weeks prior to the oral qualifying exam.

See Graduate School Ph.D. forms

Oral qualifying examination

The oral exam must be completed within one year of the written exam. It is primarily a defense of the prospectus (additional topics may be specified by the Advisory Committee). The arrangements are initiated in and coordinated by the department advising office.

See Graduate School Ph.D. forms

Dissertation outline

The completed outline form is submitted together with the Prospectus to the advising office, which will forward them to the Graduate School. Upon acceptance by the Graduate School, the student is classified as a Ph.D. candidate.

Dissertation research credits

Students may register for BIO 9991 (7.5 credits) in the semester in which they take their oral qualifying exams. All students must register for BIO 9991 at the latest in the semester following successful completion of the oral qualifying exam. Students must register for BIO 9992, 9993, and 9994 in the consecutive semesters following BIO 9991 (7.5 credits per semester).

Fourth and subsequent years

Continue annual advisory meetings, research, and coursework.

Dissertation writing: follow Graduate School format guidelines.

Final term

FiIe for graduation on or before last day of formal registration.

Change of Y grades (dissertation advisor must convert all 999X Y grades to standard grades).

Public dissertation defense

The arrangements are initiated in and coordinated by the department advising office. Obtain and observe filing timeline set by the Graduate School; avoid last minute scheduling.

See Graduate School Ph.D. forms