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PhD Curriculum


This guide outlines important milestones towards completion of the Ph.D. degree.



 Normally completed by:


 18 credit hours of course work

 End of first academic year

 Lab rotations – minimum of 2; additional rotations are possible

 Earliest possible date: March 15 of the first academic year

May 30 if pusuing additional rotations

 Select permanent lab and mentor

 March 15 or May 30

 Complete preliminary examination -- Checkpoint 1

 End of first academic year (first week in May)



 Advance to candidacy

 Beginning of second academic year

 Form thesis committee

 December 1st of second academic year

Hold first thesis committee meeting

Dissertation Evaluation--Checkpoint 2

 Second semester, or summer of second academic year

 Hold subsequent thesis committee meetings

 At least once each academic year; more often as determined by committee

First-Year Students

Year 1, Fall Term

The typical student will take the following sequence of courses. It is expected that all students will maintain a 3.0 GPA, which is a “B” average, and will not receive less than a B- in any given course.

  • MCDB 527 Molecular Biology: This course teaches beginning Ph.D. students all aspects of molecular biology to establish the core foundational education in MCDB. It also emphasizes appropriate experimental design and strategies. It aims to help students learn to effectively read and critically evaluate research papers. Topics in this course will be used during the Preliminary Checkpoint #1 exam at the end of the first year.
  • ONE of the following cognate courses: Biological Chemistry 550 (Protein Structure), Cell and Developmental Biology 530 (Cell Biology), Human Genetics 541 (Gene Structure), or Neuroscience 611(Neuropharmacology), 612 (Neural development), and/or 613 (Circuits/Comp NS), (1 credit each) are examples of cognate courses. This serves to fulfill the 3 additional cognate credits needed to advance to candidacy.
  • MCDB 800: Weekly Department Seminars. This one-hour seminar series includes speakers from other institutions and helps students broaden their understanding of MCDB research. Attendance is mandatory for all first-year students and highly recommended for second year students. An attendance sheet is kept to verify compliance and for grade assignment.
  • PIBS 503: This course covers issues in research ethics. PIBS 503 is a one-credit course and counts towards the requirement for four cognate credits.
  • Research Rotation: Students will complete one (full) or two (half) research rotations in the Fall term.

Year 1, Winter Term: 

  • MCDB 528 – Cell Biology: This course is a core component of the curriculum for MCDB students. It also emphasizes appropriate experimental design, strategies, and it aims to help students learn to effectively read and critically evaluate research papers.  Topics in this course will be used during the Preliminary Checkpoint #1 exam at the end of the first year.
  • MCDB 600, cognates or other course: It is recommended that students take a “journal club” style course to develop their critical thinking and primary literature evaluation skills.
  • MCDB 800: Weekly Department Seminars. Attendance is mandatory for all first-year students and highly recommended for second-year students. An attendance sheet will be kept to verify compliance and for assigning grades.
  • Research Rotation: Students will complete one (full) or two (half) rotations in the Winter term.

Students should select a permanent mentor by March 15, unless they are completing a Spring rotation, in which case the permanent lab should be selected by May 30.

Preliminary Examination (Checkpoint 1):

To demonstrate that they are qualified to proceed in the PhD program, first-year MCDB students are given a preliminary examination at the end of the Winter term that covers MCDB 527 and 528, the two core courses. 


The Graduate Studies Committee of MCDB determines whether or not to recommend a student for advancement to candidacy. This decision is based upon the performance of the student in the preliminary exam (Checkpoint 1), their individual research rotations, their course work, and their performance as a GSI, if applicable. The Graduate Studies Committee will file a report of its recommendations for discussion by the full faculty of MCDB. Said report will be forwarded to the Chair of the MCDB Department for final action, which would normally lead to candidate status being awarded, beginning in the Fall Term of the second year.

A Candidacy Certificate will be issued when it is determined that the student that the student has completed all requirements for the doctorate except for the dissertation.  In addition, the combined Department and Rackham requirements for Candidacy include:

  • Submission of an official undergraduate transcript with the degree posted
  • Satisfactory completion of any course deficiencies (prerequisites to program)
  • Completion of all required graduate coursework (other than 995)
  • Completion of at least 4 hours of cognate coursework
  • A minimum GPA of 3.0 (“B” average)

Individual Development Plan (IDP)

To facilitate extensive and open communication between mentor faculty and students, first-year MCDB students will complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP). The IDP is intended to track student accomplishments, goals, and performance during the year, with direct feedback and input from mentor faculty. Students will initially complete the IDP form in late April of their first year in the MCDB doctoral program, together with their chosen research mentor. The IDP is intended to be updated and modified yearly, requiring input from both the student, mentor, and thesis committee. Completed IDP forms will be sent to the MCDB Graduate Coordinator and will be kept in confidence. IDPs must be updated yearly in order for students to remain in good academic standing.

Second-Year Students

MCDB 615

This course is offered in the Fall Term and is intended for second-year students.  It trains students in the preparation of research proposals and the appropriate design of experiments.  A principal focus is to prepare students for their Dissertation Evaluation (Checkpoint 2), which they typically will take in the Winter Semester of their second year.


Each student is required to serve as a Graduate Student Instructor (Teaching Assistant) for two semesters prior to receipt of a Ph.D. degree.  Typically, students serve as a GSI for one term in year 2 and then another term after the 2nd year. MCDB 801-Supervised Teaching: Graduate student instructors who are teaching for the first time are required to take this course.

Dissertation Evaluation (Checkpoint 2)

Second-year students, in consultation with their thesis mentor, will decide on the composition of their dissertation committee (consistent with Rackham requirements). The student will submit the dissertation committee membership form within three months after advancement to candidacy, usually by the end of November of the second year.

The first meeting of the student’s dissertation committee will be a dissertation evaluation (Checkpoint 2), designed to assess the student’s progress in the PhD program and determine whether they are qualified to proceed in the program.  This meeting is to occur within 6-9 months after advancement to candidacy (typically, March-June of the second year).

Students are expected to prepare for the dissertation evaluation throughout years 1 and 2 by reading primary literature, discussing scientific issues with mentors/colleagues, engaging in appropriate coursework, and by performing relevant laboratory research.  In advance of the dissertation evaluation, the student will prepare and submit a dissertation proposal to the members of their dissertation committee.  Immediately before the dissertation evaluation meeting, the student will present a public talk that describes the background, preliminary research findings, and major future aims of their proposed thesis project.  At the dissertation evaluation, the committee members will examine the student’s knowledge of the proposal topic and their ability to defend their central hypothesis and aims.  Students who pass the Checkpoint 2 will receive approval from their dissertation committee to continue with their dissertation research.

Students Beyond the Second Year

Annual Committee Meetings: Annual meetings of the thesis committee are mandatory for all doctoral students in their third year and beyond. At the meeting, the committee chair and/or co-chairs must summarize the student's progress on the Dissertation Committee Meeting Form (obtained prior to the meeting from the Graduate Coordinator) and the student must sign the form indicating that he/she has reviewed their comments. The form must then be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator. The Dissertation Committee will be responsible for reporting to the Graduate Affairs Committee whether the student is making satisfactory progress toward completing the Ph.D.

Research Presentation:  MCDB Doctoral students are required to make at least one oral presentation of their research (aside from the dissertation defense seminar) to a broad audience at some point during their time as a PhD student. This requirement is normally satisfied by a public talk given by the student immediately prior to their dissertation evaluation in Year 2, but it may also be satisfied by giving a research talk at a scientific conference, at the annual Departmental retreat, in a multi-lab research club, or another academic venue, but it cannot be satisfied by giving a lab meeting talk.

Travel to Scientific Meetings: The MCDB Program encourages students to participate in the discussion and dissemination of recent research findings through attendance at local, regional, and national scientific meetings. The MCDB Program provides a contribution of up to $500 per academic year for second, third, fourth, and fifth year students for student travel to these meetings. Request forms for this money can be obtained from the Graduate Coordinator’s office.  Students must present a poster or research talk at the meeting and must request these funds prior to the meeting. Receipts are to be submitted through the CONCUR system within 15 days of returning from the meeting.

Defense of Dissertation: Upon completion of research, students write a dissertation in accordance with the requirements of the Graduate School. Once the dissertation is read and approved by the committee members, the student must present an oral defense of the dissertation. It is a policy of the Graduate School that dissertations be published. The Dissertation Handbook is available from the Office of Academic Records and Dissertations in Rackham outlines guidelines for preparing and submitting the dissertation.

Seven-Year Limit: The general progress of individual students in graduate work is monitored annually by the Graduate Studies Committee. A student must complete all doctoral work within seven consecutive years from the date of first enrollment in the Rackham degree program.