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Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences

Ph.D. Program

biology department

Students in a lab

The Biology Ph.D. program at Boston College teaches students the research and communication skills needed for a successful career in the sciences. Our graduates have gone on to productive careers at universities and research institutions across the country, as well as within the biotech industry, intellectual property and patent law and related fields.

Our program provides a firm foundation in the principles of modern biology, and enchances critical thinking, experimental skills, and presentation abilities throughout coursework, lab rotations, seminars, and teaching experience. Further, our faculty are skilled in teaching and advising students as well as advancing cutting-edge research. As a result, students enjoy a unique atmosphere in both the laboratory and the classroom that is defined by a mixture of academic rigor and personal relationships.


Learning Outcomes


When students complete the PhD program in Biology, they should be able to:

  1. Conduct original, publishable research in a field of Biology.
  2. Formulate a novel research question and design the experiments required to make advances in the field.
  3. Demonstrate a broad knowledge of theory and research in several areas of Biology and an in-depth knowledge of a specific area of expertise.
  4. Display an understanding of the ethical guidelines for biological research and be able to follow such guidelines.
  5. Communicate the findings of their research both orally and in writing to professional and lay audiences.

The minimum curriculum for Ph.D. students consists of five Graduate Core Courses (BIOL 6110 Advanced Genetics, BIOL 6350 Graduate Biochemistry, BIOL 6140 Graduate Molecular Biology, BIOL 6150 Advanced Cell Biology, and BIOL 6160 Graduate Bioinformatics), three additional Biology-approved Graduate Elective Courses (e.g., BIOL 5000+, BIOL 8000+), BIOL 6180 Scientific Proposal Writing & BIOL 8800 Responsible Conduct of Research (both beginning with students who entered into the program in 2012F)

Throughout the academic year, the Biology Departmental Colloquium hosts distinguished researchers in many areas of biology.  Attendance is expected of all full-time PhD students.

Lab rotations occur during the first year, which allows students the opportunity to explore important questions in different areas of biology and to determine if a particular lab environment is suitable for their thesis research. Students are expected to have joined a permanent lab by the end of this year, with permission of the lab's P.I.

Students are also required to be a Teaching Assistant for at least 2 semesters, beginning in their first semester. Depending on the availability of funding from their lab P.I., they may then transition to a Research Assistantship.

Amendments to these program requirements


Example of the Ph.D. Program Timeline

Attendance at Departmental Colloquia is expected of all full-time students throughout their program participation.

Semester One

Grad Core Biology (Genetics), BIOL 6110 - two credits

Grad Core Biology (Biochemistry), BIOL 6350 - two credits

Biology-approved Graduate Elective or Seminar - two or three credits

Lab Rotation 1

Lab Rotation 2

Teaching Assistantship

Semester Two

Grad Core Biology (Molecular Biology), BIOL 6140 - two credits

Grad Core Biology (Cell Biology), BIOL 6150 - two credits

Biology-approved Graduate Elective or Seminar - two or three credits

Lab Rotation 3

Teaching Assistantship

Semester Three

Grad Core Biology (Bioinformatics), BIOL 6160 - two credits

Thesis Research Biology-approved Graduate Seminar - two credits

Semester Four

Biology-approved Graduate Seminar - two credits

Grad Core Biology (Scientific Proposal Writing) BIOL 6180 - two credits

Thesis Research

Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

Semester Five

Thesis Research

Semester Six and afterward

Thesis Research

Remaining Biology-approved Graduate Seminars

Optional additional courses

Completion of Ph.D. Dissertation

Public Presentation of Ph.D. Thesis

Defense of Ph.D. Thesis


Completion of Biology Core

While it is expected that Ph.D. students will have completed their Core courses by the end of the second year, a student's Ph.D. advisor may request a waiver under rare circumstances. For example, if another course is seen as critical for a student's preparation for the Comprehensive Exam, and taking it precludes a student from taking a Core course, the Graduate Program Committee may approve the deferral of the Core course to the third year. It is expected that the student will take the deferred Core course at the earliest opportunity.


Academic Guidance  

Course Registration is subject to oversight and approval by the Graduate Program Director and the student's PhD advisor (when applicable).  


Overview of Multiple Ph.D. Committees

There are several committees that shepherd a Ph.D. student through the Biology Graduate Program. While the committees have different names to reflect their different functions, there is usually a substantial continuum of faculty membership. The committees are described below, in detail. For clarity, they are briefly summarized here in their order of appearance in each student’s training.


Ph.D. Candidacy Examination Committee

Three faculty (two chosen by the Department, one by the student), who administers the candidacy examination.


Thesis Advisory Committee

Three or more faculty members (the student's PI and at least two other faculty members) who advise each student in conducting her/his thesis research.  The chair of the committee will be selected at the first meeting and is someone other than the student's direct PI. Students must have their first meeting before the end of the academic third year, as well as annual meetings until their defense.  Before each meeting occurs, the student must supply their committee as well as the Graduate Program Administrator with a research summary (three-page limit; provided one week before the committee meeting) of the past year's accomplishments. At the start of each meeting, the student will be asked to leave the room briefly while the faculty confer with each other.  Subsequently, the PI will then be asked to leave the room briefly while the rest of the committee members confer with the student.  After each meeting a student must submit to the Department a completed and signed Thesis Guidance Committee Meeting form which the chair of the committee fills out. If a student is not in compliance with the committee meeting requirements, the Department reserves the right to freeze summer funding until the student meets the above requirements. Missed payments will not be retroactively paid. Please note: An unsatisfactory progress report from the committee necessitates a follow up meeting within six months rather than the standard twelve month period. Two consecutive meetings with unsatisfactory progress can lead to the dismissal of a student from the Ph.D. program after a formal review of the situation by the GPD, the Department Chair, and the student's guidance committee. In this case, a student may write up and defend his/her research as a Masters thesis should a sufficient body of work exist.

If a student has not had their guidance meeting by the end of the summer, they will be removed from the program. The student has the ability to speak to the Graduate Program Director, Associate Chair or the Department Chair should there be a problem with the actions of the PI or other committee members, but it is up to the student to arrange these meetings in a timely fashion. Missing the deadlines due to getting a late start in scheduling is not an excuse.


Ph.D. Defense Committee

The committee is composed of five faculty (out of the five the chair as well as two other members must be from Boston College) before whom the Ph.D. candidate must defend her/his thesis in public and private sessions. The student's Thesis Advisor will serve as the Chair of the Committee.

*For continuity, the members of the Thesis Advisory Committee typically continue as members of each student's Ph.D. Defense Committee; however, substitutions are allowed.


Ph.D. Candidacy

To advance to candidacy for the doctoral degree, the student must pass a Ph.D. Candidacy Examination otherwise known as the Comprehensive Examination. A student who has passed the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination, but still must complete one or more seminar courses becomes a doctoral candidate only after completing the seminar course(s). Only students who have been admitted to candidacy are allowed to register for BIOL 9911, Doctoral Continuation.


Ph.D. Candidacy Examination (Comprehensive Examination)

Comprehensive Examination Form

The examination for admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. will take place during May of the second year. Passing the exam on that occasion, or on the basis of a "re-take" examination held no later than end of December of the third year, will be required for continuation in the Ph.D. program.

This examination will be based on a written research proposal (approximately 15 pages in length. See example of format prepared by the candidate on an appropriate topic, which may be identical to the intended thesis research project of the candidate. Should the actual thesis topic not be chosen for the defense, the candidate should select three topics to present to an examination committee for approval prior to writing the proposal.  The candidate will defend the proposal in an oral examination, administered by the faculty committee. Successful defense of the proposal will be required for the student to be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D.

Potential topics for the written proposal will be submitted by each second-year Ph.D. student to a faculty committee, during the first week of March. The committee will inform each student of the topic of her/his proposal, based on the list submitted by the student, by March 14. Written proposals will be provided to the candidacy examination committee by April 14 or no later than one week before the date of the oral examination, and oral examinations will be completed no later than May 20.

On the basis of the written proposal presentation, the candidate's understanding of the proposed project and relevant background information, the Examination Committee will vote on whether the student is qualified to advance to Ph.D. candidacy. If a student passes the examination and has completed all other requirements for the Ph.D. degree, with the exception of the thesis and its defense, the student will be considered to have formally advanced to candidacy for the degree. If the student does not pass, he or she must re-defend the initial proposal or prepare, submit, and defend a new proposal, as the Examination Committee deems appropriate.

If a student does not pass the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination within the limits outlined above, she/he will be terminated in the Ph.D. program. The Examination Committee may, in such circumstances, recommend that the student be offered a transfer into the M.S. Program, with sufficient and stated time limits to allow the student to reasonably complete the requirements for that degree.


Ph.D. Thesis and Defense

In addition to the original members of Thesis Advisory Committee, who serve as formal thesis readers, at least two other faculty are added as additional examiners to form the Ph.D. Defense Committee. A maximum of two persons from outside the Biology Department may serve on this committee. All members must hold a faculty appointment and a Ph.D. or equivalent degree.

The dissertation shall be defended by the candidate in the public oral examination. A copy of the dissertation shall be distributed to each of the examiners at least 14 days prior to the defense.  The chairman of the Defense Committee must contact the committee members 72 hours prior to the public defense to make sure there are no major concerns with letting the candidate proceed.

To receive the Ph.D. degree, official approval of the written dissertation by the members of the Ph.D. Defense Committee is required, in addition to a vote of pass on the public presentation and defense. Committee members certify their acceptance of the written thesis by signing the title page of the dissertation and their vote on the defense by completing the appropriate forms. The student must file two signed copies of the approved dissertation in the Registrar’s Office, following the guidelines established by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.


Voting Rule for Thesis Advisory, Ph.D. Candidacy, and Ph.D. Defense Committees

Voting options, when voting is required, are pass or fail. Committees should strive in each case to reach an unanimous decision. However, if this is not possible, the rule shall be that if more than one member of any of the above committees votes fail, then the student will be considered to have failed to complete the requirement being addressed by the committee.


Evaluation of Teaching/Research Performance

The Graduate Program Director will monitor and evaluate a student's teaching/research performance. The Graduate Program Director will forward any cases of sub-standard performance for review by the faculty. Sub-standard performance may result in the loss of a student's stipend.


Incomplete and Deferred Grades

All required work in any course must be completed by the date set for the course examination. A student who has not completed the research or written work for a course taken in the fall or spring semester or is absent from the course examination in either semester, may, with adequate reason and at the discretion of the instructor, receive a temporary grade of Incomplete (I). All such I grades will automatically be changed to F on March 1 for the fall, August 1 for the spring, and October 1 for the summer.

A J grade is recorded when the grade is deferred. A faculty member may only assign a grade of J for courses that continue beyond the normal semester period. Such courses may include Internship, Dissertation Direction, and Student Teaching.


Schedule and Time Limitations

Students are required to join a permanent lab after their lab rotations are complete, usually at the end of their first year.  Labs are joined with permission of the lab's P.I..

Students are expected to pass the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination within five consecutive semesters of entering the program.

For the purposes of this time limitation: Students whose native language is not English, and who need remedial study in English, may be granted a one or two semester extension for completion of the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination. Such extensions may be approved by the Department Chairperson, acting in consultation with the Graduate Program Director and the student’s research mentor.

If a student continues in the program past their 7th year the student will not be eligible for any departmental tuition remission nor will they be able to be placed on a teaching assistantship within the department.


Requirement for Good Standing

In order to continue in the Biology Ph.D. program as well as receive financial funding from the Department and University, graduate students are required to remain in good standing. To be in good standing, a student must maintain a cumulative grade point average of a B or higher as the satisfactory standard of scholarship. Upon completion of a student’s first year, the student will be evaluated by the full faculty on their coursework, lab rotation work, and other aspects of participation within the department. If the faculty determine that a student is not meeting expectations, they have the option of either placing the student on a one-semester probation period or asking the student to withdraw from the program. If placed on a one-semester probation, the faculty will re-evaluate the student’s performance at the end of the Fall semester of their second year to determine whether the student should come off of probation or be asked to leave the program.

At the end of a student’s second year, the student must take and pass a Ph.D. Candidacy Exam as described in other departmental policies. If a student fails the qualifying exam, the student may retake the exam within six months of the last test date. If the student does not pass the exam on the second try, the student must either withdraw from the Ph.D. program and take a Masters (if there is sufficient work done to write a thesis) or withdraw from the program completely.

Subsequent to passing the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam, students must assemble a Thesis Advisory Committee that meets at least annually to review the progress toward completion of a thesis project. The committee should report after each meeting whether or not the student is making satisfactory progress. If the committee determines that the student is not making satisfactory progress, a follow-up meeting will be held within six months. If progress is still not satisfactory at the follow-up meeting, an appropriate course of action will be taken by the committee, which could include termination in the Ph.D. program with the option of writing and defending a Masters thesis if a sufficient body of work exists to make this possible.


Amendments to graduate requirements for Bioinformatics students

*(added 12/2008) Bioinformatics students may substitute required graduate seminar courses with non-seminar courses, with permission from the department. The purpose of this is to provide students with more opportunities to take quantitative courses in the CS or Math departments.

Note: Opportunities for cross-enrollment also exist within the Boston-Area Consortium (Boston University, Brandeis, and Tufts). Graduate students in Arts & Sciences are eligible to cross-register for one course per semester during the academic year (not including summer sessions). Cross Registration forms can be picked up at the Associate Dean's office in McGuinn 221.

(Previous amendments from Feb 2008)

  • Currently, biology Ph.D. students are required to take four core graduate courses (not including graduate bioinformatics): genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry. Because occasionally bioinformatics students enter with a predominantly computational/mathematical background, bioinformatics students with weaker biology training will have the option to take two of these courses at the undergraduate level instead, with department permission. Students with sufficient biology background are recommended to take the standard graduate core courses. Bioinformatics students must complete the four core courses, with the two potential substitutions, by the end of the second year.
  • In certain cases, a first year bioinformatics student may not have undergraduate experience suited to TAing a non-bioinformatics biology course. Such students will be given preference to TA one of: the intro bioinformatics courses (BIOL 4200 and BIOL 6160), Biostatistics (BIOL 2300), Computational Foundations of Bioinformatics (BIOL 4424), or Molecular Evolution (BIOL 5610). Bioinformatics students beyond the first year will be expected to be competent to TA other biology courses.
  • Some entering bioinformatics graduate students have already taken courses equivalent to the graduate bioinformatics core course. In such cases, decided on a case-by-case basis, the student will be allowed to substitute an upper level Bioinformatics, CS, Math, or Statistics course.
  • Bioinformatics graduate students are allowed to substitute up to three of the five graduate biology elective (non-core) courses with upper level CS, Math, or Statistics courses.

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