Dealing with School in General

There are a number of handbooks and brochures that give you the technical details of how an ideal graduate student gets through school. However, there are also some things you may not find in those other handbooks. So here, we will give you a guide to some of the important milestones in your graduate school career.

Ph.D. Program

For the Ph.D. programs, your school timeline will look pretty much like this:

  • Rotations/Classes
  • Choosing an Advisor
  • Choosing a Committee
    (and meeting with them)
  • Take Your Prelim
  • Defend Your Thesis

Take the time to think about who to rotate with. You want to make a good, informed decision about your advisor (see below), and this is the best way to investigate potential faculty. It’s EXTREMELY easy to talk to a number of professors in your program. What kind of work are they doing? What kind of projects are they doing? DEFINITELY ask graduate students, too, about the lab. Rotations are a nice time to see how different labs are run, to learn different techniques, and to learn about the lab in general.

Check with your Area of Concentration regarding courses.

You will also take a Journal Club every semester and possibly some advanced seminars depending on your program.

Choosing an Advisor
This will probably be the most important decision you will make here, so choose wisely! There are a number of important questions you should ask about a potential advisor and their lab:

What kinds of projects are they doing? Are they interesting to you?
Don’t just ask what the scientific community thinks about their work – what do YOU think about it? Are they doable? Do you think that YOU will be able to do the kind of work they’re doing? Will you want to use the techniques they’re using?

Some projects may be extremely interesting, but risky. Other projects may be less interesting, but straightforward. Some have a better chance of yielding useful data than others. ONLY YOU can decide where on the spectrum you want to be!!! Take the time to think not only about the projects themselves, but what TYPE of project you would be most happy with.

What is the funding situation in the lab?
Do not be afraid to ask this question. It is a reasonable factor to consider, and some people are too embarrassed to ask. Of course, funding level does NOT necessarily correlate with how good a lab it is for you, so do not make this your sole criterion, but it IS important that the PI can afford you!

What are the personalities in the lab?
Do NOT underestimate the importance of this! It is extremely difficult to do good research if you are not happy in your lab.

Other lab personnel: Have you gotten a chance to know any of them (through classes, rotations, etc.)? How well do they interact with each other? How well would you interact with them? Do you have a “gut feeling” that you will get along with them (great!) or have difficulty working with them (uh oh)?

Your advisor: Do you have a “gut feeling”? Do you have a sense of whether your personalities are compatible? Do you feel like this person is approachable? What is his/her teaching style? Hands-on or hands-off? How often do they check up on the work of people in the lab? How often do they make suggestions? How much time do they spend next to you on the bench top, talking with you in the hallways or in their office? There is no right or wrong answer here. Think about:

What kind of style do you think you want?
What kind of style do you think you need?

If you are already experienced in the lab, and want to go off in your own direction, making your own progress and your own mistakes, you are looking for a DIFFERENT style advisor than someone who feels a little inexperienced and is looking for close guidance and direction. In all likelihood you want some kind of mixture of both; look for someone who is at the same place on the spectrum as you are.

Gather information! Ask students who have been around for a while, both inside and outside of a lab that you are interested in. How do they feel about their advisor? Their lab? Obviously, no advisor and no lab is perfect, so make SURE you talk with a few people. And ask tough questions! If they are unhappy, why? If they are happy, why? The same things that make one person miserable can be exactly what someone else is looking for. And just because some students love an advisor who leaves them completely on their own and is always away at meetings, does not mean YOU will! You should not CARE how other graduate students feel! You should only care how YOU would feel in that situation!!! So choose wisely.

Choosing a Thesis Committee
You will have to pick some professors to critically evaluate your work. However, do not misunderstand the goal – these are NOT your enemies! They’re here to HELP you along, in both your training and work. Be sure to ask for guidance from your major advisor.

Do not just choose “easy” people!
You want people you respect, that are respected by the scientific community. You want people who can think clearly, critically evaluate your work, and tell you what you are doing wrong even though you don’t want to hear it.

Choose people who use different approaches!
Find faculty who will understand what your project is about, but who are good at different aspects of it. Multiple perspectives can only help.

Choose people you find approachable!
You also want faculty who you feel comfortable approaching and discussing your work. These people know your project, and are available to help you along even if there is no committee meeting approaching.

Meet with them!
Don’t wait for “that next piece of data” to come in! Meet with your committee regularly, as they often have helpful suggestions.

Taking Your Prelim

This is quite program specific. However, you can generally expect it to suck up about one to two months of your life.

Defending Your Thesis

Congratulations! You can find out most of the technical details from the Registrar.

The graduate program is divided into seven Areas of Concentration (AoCs). A short rundown of the AoCs follows:

Cell Biology
Courses: Core curriculum, Journal Club; most students also take Immunology I and Critical Analysis.
Prelim: Grant proposal. This needs to be completed by December of the 3rd year unless prior permission is given by Program Director. You write an NIH-style grant proposal (that is not restricted to any topic), and have an oral defense, with the committee asking ANYTHING about the grant proposal.

Genetics and Developmental Biology
Courses: Core curriculum, Advanced Developmental Biology (seminar each year), Journal Club.
Prelim: Grant proposal. This needs to be done by the end of 2nd year. You write an NIH-style grant proposal (based on your current research project), and have an oral defense, with the committee asking ANYTHING about the grant proposal.

Courses: Core curriculum, Mechanisms of Immunity, Advanced Molecular and Cellular Immunology, Journal Club.
Prelim: Grant proposal. By the end of the second year, prepare an NIH-style research grant. Pick your own subject, which will be outside your thesis work and previous lab work. There is also an oral defense.

Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Courses: Core curriculum and MBB Journal Club. Electives include: Advanced Genetics, Cool Techniques in Biochemistry, Molecular Basis of Disease, and Molecular Biology and Pathogenesis.
Prelim: Grant proposal (by end of February of 2nd year). You write an NIH-style grant proposal (based on your current research project), and have an oral defense, with the committee asking ANYTHING about the grant proposal.

Courses: At least 7 credits of graded coursework in Neuroscience, Journal Club and Neuroscience seminar.
Prelim: Research proposal prepared in NIH-format and defended orally. Specifc aims developed by student in consultation with Thesis Advisory Committee during Fall semester of 2nd year. Proposal written by student with oral defense based on broadest possible interpretation of proposal. Should be completed by early February of 2nd year.

Skeletal Biology and Regeneration
Courses: The SCOB course curriculum consists of taking 9 course credits from both the BMS and SCOB cores and must include Contemporary Topics in Oral Biology I and II.
Prelim: Grant proposal. Before the end of the second full year, you prepare an NIH-style grant-proposal and defend it orally. Once a grant abstract is approved by the examination committee, you have four weeks to write the proposal. Approximately 1 to 2 weeks following submission of the grant proposal there is an oral examination in which students are questioned on topics at the discretion of the examiners.

Master of Dental Science (M.Dent.Sc.)

This Master of Dental Science program functions a little differently than the others. There is no qualifying exam. A thesis is required, and the M.Dent.Sc. is linked to a certificate residency training program in one of the dental specialties (orthodontics, endodontics, etc.).

Master of Public Health (M.P.H.)

The Master of Public Health Program has its own core curriculum consisting of the following courses:

  • Introduction to Public Health
  • Principles of Epidemiology
  • Law and the Public Health
  • Environmental Health
  • Introduction to Biostatistics
  • Health Administration
  • Social Foundations of Public Health

Beyond the core curriculum, students take electives in Health administration, Health research and Public Health.

There is no preliminary exam. Students pursue the M.P.H. degree under either “Plan A” (thesis project) or “Plan B” (masters essay).