Doctoral Degree Requirements

General Philosophy of the Ph.D.  Program

Biology is the most diverse of all the disciplines in the natural sciences. Consequently, the allied fields to which the various subdisciplines in Biology share natural affinities differ. For example, molecular biology makes connections with physical chemistry, biomechanics with engineering and physics, and ecology and evolutionary biology with statistics, mathematics, geology, and atmospheric sciences. The goal of the Biology Doctoral Program is to train young scientists who:

  • excel at research and teaching in their own subdisciplines;
  • demonstrate competence in fields allied to their subdisciplines; and
  • display a breadth of knowledge in Biology as a whole. 

Trajectory through the program

  • At the beginning of your Ph.D.: you will be assigned a temporary advisor (typically the sponsor of your admission).
  • Before registering for the first semester: discuss with your advisor which courses you should take. As a first-year student, you are encouraged to interact with other faculty in your research area to ask them about courses you should take before the preliminary exam—these faculty may very well become members of your Ph.D. committee.

The philosophy of the department is that you need not spend a great deal of time in coursework.  You should take only the courses that fill gaps in areas that will be needed in your research, and spend most of your time starting your research.

  • During the first three semesters: take up to three tutorials with different faculty members in the department. The tutorial requirement is waived as soon as you declare an advisor. Tutorials may involve laboratory work, directed reading in the primary literature, greenhouse or field studies, mathematical or computer modeling, or any other activity that would assist you in identifying a suitable dissertation topic. Other goals of the tutorials are to expose students to the diversity of faculty research interests in their specialty and to help them to identify an appropriate advisor and dissertation committee. 
  • By the end of the 3rd semester, you must choose an advisor and the advisor must convene an initial meeting of the dissertation committee. Dissertation committees will consist of at least four faculty members, one of which will represent your minor (see below). The goals of the initial meeting are to assess the novelty and feasibility of your proposed dissertation topic, to ascertain whether you need to take any additional courses to demonstrate preparedness for the preliminary exam, and to decide the format of the written dissertation proposal (see below).  If you fail to meet with your committee before the end of the 3rd semester, the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) will notify you in writing, and will discuss with you and your advisor ways to resolve any difficulties. 
  • Preferably by the end of the 4th semester, but certainly by the end of the 6th semester, you must pass an oral preliminary examination to establish candidacy for the Ph.D. One week prior to the exam, you must present a written essay describing your proposed dissertation research to your committee. The exam itself will cover the specific research areas addressed in your proposal, but will also test your depth of knowledge in your area of specialty and your breadth of knowledge in Biology as a whole.
  • When the dissertation research is completed, you will present the written dissertation to your committee two weeks prior to the dissertation defense (the dissertation also has to be submitted to the Grad School two weeks before the defense). You are also required to present your results in a seminar. You are expected to complete the degree requirements as soon as possible, but students making progress toward their degree will be considered to be in good standing through the 12th semester. 


You are required to declare a minor at the time of the initial meeting with your dissertation committee. At least one member of the dissertation committee must represent the minor field, and will be charged with assessing your knowledge in the minor during the preliminary exam.  The goal of the minor is to ensure that you acquire a breadth of knowledge beyond your immediate specialty, either in a different area of Biology or in an allied field. Dissertation committees have the freedom to determine the specific nature of the minor, to tailor it to your needs, but minors are subject to approval by the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Affairs Committee.

The minor may:

  1. lie entirely outside Biology (e.g., Statistics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Chemistry, Engineering, Atmospheric Sciences, Geology);
  2. require the student to acquire knowledge about a group of organisms that differs from those on which the student’s dissertation research focuses; or
  3. represent a biological subdiscipline that is distinct from the student’s own subdiscipline.  For example, a student whose advisor is in the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology sub-department might choose Developmental, Cellular, and Molecular Biology (DCMB) as a minor, with appropriate representation by a DCMB faculty member on the preliminary exam and dissertation committees. A student in ecology might choose evolutionary biology as a minor.

Scholarly productivity

To become recognized as independent scientists and to have an impact on their fields, graduate students must communicate their findings to their colleagues. Therefore, all students are strongly encouraged to begin submitting the results of their research to refereed journals as soon as possible (ideally well before the dissertation is completed). In order to give their committee members an opportunity to comment on them, manuscripts that are intended to be included in the dissertation will be given to all committee members at least two weeks prior to submission. You should submit copies of papers accepted for publication to the Director of Graduate Studies, to be included your file. 


You will be required to serve as a teaching assistant for two semesters. Teaching is not simply a mechanism to provide financial support to graduate students. Rather, it is an integral part of your professional development as both an educator and a researcher.

Annual evaluation of student progress

  • After your 1st year you will meet with your committee annually.
  • In your 2nd year, your first committee meeting serves as the annual committee meeting.
  • In your 3rd year, your Preliminary Exam will serve this purpose if you take it in the Fall.

You MUST have an annual progress meeting with your committee each Fall, UNLESS:

  1. you are in your 1st or 2nd year;
  2. you are in your 3rd year and are taking your prelim this Fall (not Spring, and not in your 2nd year); or
  3. you are defending your dissertation this year.
  • Prior to November 15, you are expected to present to your committee a written report on the progress made over the previous year, and on any difficulties encountered, as well as a plan for completing the dissertation.
  • Before the end of the final exam period in December, your advisor will then convene a meeting of the committee to discuss the progress report with you.
  • By January 1, your advisor must send a letter to the Director of Graduate Studies summarizing this discussion, providing the committee’s evaluation of your progress, and recommending whether you should receive continued financial support from the department. The progress report you submitted to your committee should be attached to this letter. All faculty members not on your committee will also be able to submit to the Director of Graduate Studies any written commentary on the student’s performance (e.g., as a student or teaching assistant in a course taught by that faculty member).  
  • After January 1, the Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the Graduate Affairs Committee as needed, will review the written materials to determine whether you shall be granted departmental support for the following academic year. You will receive a letter from the DGS if any remedial measures need to be taken. Your written progress report, your advisor’s letter to the DGS, any letters from faculty not on your committee, and any letters from the DGS will be placed in your folder as a record of your annual progress and evaluation. 

Committee Meetings, Exams, and Defenses during Summer

Scheduling committee meetings, preliminary exams, and dissertation defenses during the summer is strongly discouraged, because faculty members typically have research or other travel plans that must take precedence during this time. Summer meetings, exams, and defenses can only be scheduled by agreement of all members of the committee. In accordance with Graduate School regulations, such meetings can only be held while the summer semester is actually in session, and the student must be registered for the summer semester.

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