The PhD in Biology is a research degree requiring graduate-level coursework, completion of a dissertation, and two semesters of participation in teaching (usually as a teaching fellow in laboratory or discussion sections of lecture courses led by Biology faculty). For most students, this typically involves five or more years of full-time study. The Biology Department guarantees academic year support for five years for all PhD students, contingent on satisfactory performance in the program. Applicants to the PhD program must have completed a bachelor’s degree in biology or a closely related field. We favor applicants with both strong academic records and a demonstrated aptitude for research.

PhD Learning Outcomes:


  • Demonstrate academic mastery in one of three areas of Biology—Ecology, Evolution & Behavior; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
  • Attain research expertise, including grand writing experience, and complete original research that advances a specific field of study within one of three broad subject areas represented in the department—Ecology, Behavior & Evolution; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
  • Attain teaching experience and expertise in one of three broad areas of Biology— Ecology, Behavior & Evolution; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
  • Attain the skills and qualifications needed for employment in an academic, government or private sector position related to the life sciences.

Please refer to the Graduate Program Guide for more details.

Course Requirements

Students must complete sixteen 500-level or above courses (64 credits) with a minimum grade point average of 3.0; at least eight of these courses must be lecture, laboratory, or seminar courses. Courses will vary depending on program discipline. Students with prior graduate work may be able to transfer course credits. See the GRS Transfer of Credits policy for more details.

Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination must be completed no later than six semesters after matriculation. In most graduate curricula in the department, this consists of a research proposal—often in the form of a grant application—which the student submits to his/her committee and subsequently defends in an oral presentation. In the cell and molecular biology and ecology, behavior, evolution & marine biology curricula, this is preceded by a comprehensive written examination testing the student’s general background from coursework.

Dissertation and Final Oral Examination

Candidates shall demonstrate their abilities for independent study in a dissertation representing original research or creative scholarship. A prospectus for the dissertation must be completed and approved by the readers, the director of graduate studies, and the department chair/program director. Candidates must undergo a final oral examination in which they defend their dissertation as a valuable contribution to knowledge in their field and demonstrate a mastery of their field of specialization in relation to their dissertation.The results of the dissertation must be presented at a department colloquium. All portions of the dissertation and final oral examination must be completed as outlined in the GRS Graduation GuidelinesPlease refer to the Graduate Program Guide for more details about the preparation and submission of the dissertation.

Teaching Requirement

The department requires a minimum of two semesters of teaching during a student’s graduate career as part of the Doctor of Philosophy program. During the first semester of teaching, students are required to enroll in our first-year seminar course, GRS BI 697 A Bridge to Knowledge. The course provides guidance and training on pedagogy and other aspects of graduate school.

A PhD student who has advanced to candidacy (as demonstrated by passing the PhD qualifying exam), and has completed 32 credits of graduate-level coursework (not including research), may apply to the Graduate School for a Master of Arts in Biology. This must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies within the Biology Department. The student’s major professor should receive notification of this application process.

A PhD student who has not been advanced to candidacy based on the PhD qualifying examination may still receive a master’s degree. This student may receive a master’s degree if at least three members (including at least two faculty members from the Biology Department) of the PhD qualifying examination committee vote that the student’s performance on the qualifying examination was of sufficiently high quality for a master’s degree. In addition, this student must have completed at least 32 credits of graduate-level coursework.