Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

MCDB Program Introduction

The graduate program in the Department of Biological Sciences is organized into three divisions: The Program in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), the Program in Neurobiology, and the Program in Ecology and Evolution. Several members of the MCDB participate in more than one program. The Department of Biological Sciences offers both PhD and MS degree programs. Because of its emphasis on training research scientists, the MCDB graduate program is primarily intended for students interested in obtaining a PhD degree. The success of this training is attested by the number of recent graduates of the MCDB program who have gone on to postdoctoral positions in top laboratories at renowned institutions.

MCDB Program Summary

The first year of the graduate curriculum provides entering students with immediate exposure to laboratory work as well as the academic background necessary to become successful scientists. The MCDB has a laboratory-rotation program to aid students in selecting the area of research that best suits their interests. At the beginning of the fall semester, MCDB faculty give a presentation of their research interests and are available for questions and discussion. The new students then designate three or more laboratories for first-year laboratory experience. Typically, after three rotation periods, a thesis advisor is chosen.

The required "core" courses for MCDB students include a two-semester molecular biology series that covers current research in prokaryotic and eukaryotic molecular biology. The course proceeds through a hierarchy of experimental systems currently under intense investigation. Emphasis is placed on providing sufficient familiarity with the terms, concepts, and significant issues within each subject area to enable the student to read and interpret current literature rapidly and critically. The content of the core sequence is updated each year to reflect developing trends and technologies. Students who have not taken biochemistry prior to starting the graduate program must also successfully complete the Department's two-semester biochemistry series during their first year.

At the end of their first full year in graduate school (i.e., in August), students meet with their thesis advisor, the MCDB Program Director, and the Coordinator of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology for a careful review of their progress. Both the student's performance in course work and his or her accomplishments in research since joining the mentor's lab will be evaluated during this conference.

Advanced courses covering a wide range of the biological sciences are available both within the Department and in the health science departments at the University. Each student's second year course sequence is chosen in consultation with an advisor and advisory committee. Advanced seminar courses are offered by individual faculty, which allow in-depth critical analysis of the current literature. Several additional formal and informal seminar programs and journal clubs serve as educational adjuncts for students and faculty.

An important goal of the MCDB graduate program is to help students develop their communication and presentation skills. Once each year, each MCDB graduate student gives a formal seminar describing his or her thesis research. Students are also encouraged to attend national professional meetings. Travel support is provided for presentation of research results at such meetings.

Program Requirements

The requirements for the PhD degree program include satisfactory completion of a body of coursework, laboratory rotations, oral presentations, and thesis research. A description of the requirements in each of these areas follows.

Course Requirements For Graduate MCDB Students

The MCDB general course work requirements for the PhD are at least 20 credit hours of letter graded 400- and 500- level courses, including a minimum of 10 credit hours of 500-level courses. Project, thesis, independent study, or seminar courses, which are graded Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, do not count toward the 20 credit hours.

The specific MCDB requirements are as follows:

  1. The Molecular Biology series (BioS 522/524 and 525/528, 12 hrs) must be completed in the first year of the program. Failure to complete these requirements in the first year may result in dismissal from the program. (The biochemistry prerequisite for this series must be fulfilled by the end of the first year.) Students must maintain a "B" average or better in BioS 522/524/525/528 to remain in the MCDB program. Furthermore, a B average must be maintained for all classes if a student is to remain in good standing with the university. Any student considering withdrawing from these courses for any reason should consult the MCDB Program Director.
  2. Eight additional hours of 400- or 500-level course work, including at least three Seminar or Topics courses. Note that these are the minimum requirements for course work; a student's advisor or advisory committee may require additional course work. Many of our students will take BioS 526, Molecular and Genetic Analysis of Development.
  3. Students register for a total of 9-16 hours in the Fall and Spring Semesters, and 5 hours in the summer. In the first year, students should register for BioS 593 (Introduction to Lab Research), BioS 592 (Research Seminar), and BioS 599 (Doctoral Thesis Research) for the requisite number of hours to total 16.

Research Laboratory Rotations
The student is required to spend a minimum of three rotation periods doing research in different laboratories before selecting the laboratory for his/her thesis research. Students are expected to submit a report that describes each of their rotation projects no later than one week after the end of the rotation. One copy of the report should be given to the professor and one copy to the program office. No formal commitments between an MCDB faculty member and student are made until the rotations have been completed. Rotation laboratories are chosen by the student following a series of research presentations by the MCDB faculty early in the first semester. When the rotations have been completed (sometime in the middle of the second semester), the first year students are matched to the laboratories in which they will pursue their thesis research in accordance with their preferences and the wishes of the professors. It is the responsibility of the student to find a thesis advisor by the end of the spring semester.

Rotation reports

At the end of each rotation students are expected to prepare a written report (2 – 5 pages, not counting literature cited). The purpose of these reports is to provide a written record of what was accomplished during the rotation and to provide an opportunity for students to work on their writing skills. Optimally, a draft will be submitted to the rotation lab advisor a week before the due date so that he/she can provide guidance on writing of the report. Written reports are due 1 week after the last day of the rotation and should be turned in to Judith Edwards, the MCDB Program Coordinator, and the rotation lab advisor.

The reports should be organized along the lines of a short research publication with:

  1. Title
  2. Summary (a few sentences)
  3. Introduction – one or two paragraphs describing the purpose of the work and any relevant background information.
  4. Materials and Methods – a concise description of the methods learned and used during the rotation.
  5. Results - text describing the rationale for the experiment(s) and what was observed. The report can cover a single experiment or a few closely related experiments. At least one figure should be included, along with a legend. The figure may be a data figure or a diagram describing a product of the rotation, e.g. a strain or construct that was generated.
  6. Discussion – describe the implications of the experiment and results. If the results are negative that should be described along with any possible recommendations for trouble-shooting or alternative approaches.

Standard literature citations should be used and a literature cited section in a journal format suggested by the advisor should be included at the end.

Committees and Oral Presentations
Oral presentations made by students outside of class take several forms. These include advisory committee meetings, the preliminary examination, an annual MCDB student seminar, and the thesis defense seminar. Beginning the second year, each student is required to present a formal seminar to the MCDB on his/her research progress as part of the MCDB Graduate Student Seminar Series held at 12:00 pm each Friday. Also beginning the second year, each student is required to schedule an annual meeting with his/her five-person advisory committee (selected by the advisor in consultation with the student). Prior to this meeting, the student must submit a written report to his/her committee that outlines his/her research progress and plans. Additional committee meetings may be scheduled as necessary.


All MCDB graduate students are required to attend the student seminars held at 12:00 pm each Friday. Graduate students are also expected to attend all regular MCDB seminars, typically held on Tuesday mornings at 10:30.

Guidelines for the Preliminary Exam

  1. Students schedule their preliminary exam and assemble an examination committee during the fall or spring semesters of their second year. The examination must be completed before the start of the third year.
  2. The examination committee is composed of five faculty members, one of whom must come from outside the department. The student requests that one of the committee members other than his/her thesis advisor serve as the chair of the committee. The composition of the committee is mutually agreed upon by the student and his/her advisor. The requested committee composition must be submitted to the Graduate Advisor at least 1 month prior to the exam for college approval.
  3. The preliminary examination is based on a written research proposal presented to the committee.
  4. An outline of the proposal is mutually agreed upon by the student and his or her committee in a pre-prelim meeting held one month before the prelim. At this time, the student provides the committee with a 1-2 page description of the background and the specific aims of the project. Proposals are based on the research the student intends to complete for his or her thesis and are expected to contain preliminary results generated by the student.
  5. The proposal follows a standard NSF grant format. It is limited to 15 pages, excluding the bibliography. A biography page should be included, but sections on the budget, budget justification, facilities and resources, and certifications are omitted.
  6. The proposal should emphasize experimental approaches towards answering an interesting (and current) biological question, and must contain at least one specific aim that is entirely of the student's own design. The student should anticipate potential problems in the experimental approach and address them in the proposal. It is permissible (and recommended) for the student to show one draft of the proposal to his or her adviser for comments on the writing. The proposal is to be distributed to the committee no more than four weeks after the pre-prelim meeting and at least one week before the examination date. The student will defend the proposal during the examination (a 15-20 minute oral presentation on the proposal should be prepared). The questions asked during the examination may relate to the proposal or to any area of molecular, cell, and developmental biology that the committee feels is of importance.
  7. Preliminary examinations typically take 2-3 hours. The student schedules a room for the examination after agreeing upon a time that is acceptable to all committee members. The student must notify the Graduate Advisor and all committee members of the time and place for the examination at least one month prior to the examination date. If a student fails the preliminary examination, the committee may permit a second exam. A second failure will result in dismissal from the program.

Thesis Research, Publications, and Dissertation
Toward the end of the first year, the student selects a faculty advisor for the thesis research project and assembles an advisory committee of three MCDB faculty members. Students are required to hold advisory committee meetings at regular intervals (at least annually) to receive additional advice concerning the research project. The student must provide the committee with a written progress report at least one week in advance of the annual meeting. When the student has completed the thesis research and prepared the thesis, he or she defends this work in a meeting with his or her thesis committee. Once the committee approves the thesis, the student must present and defend it in a formal departmental seminar that is open to the public.

Authorship on a number of published papers appropriate for the field of research, as determined by the thesis committee, is generally considered to be one of the requirements for earning a PhD in the MCDB program.

Time Limits

The college, the department, and the MCDB program have set certain time limits for completion of the degree program. Failure to comply with the time limits may jeopardize students' ability to receive support or, in certain cases, lead to dismissal from the program.

  • The preliminary examination must be completed before the start of the third year. If the PhD degree is not completed within five years of passing the preliminary examination, the exam must be taken again.
  • PhD students are not eligible for departmental support after the seventh year.
  • A student must complete the PhD program within seven years from entry into the program, or face possible dismissal.

Application Requirements and Information

New students are admitted for the Fall Semester only. For fullest consideration, application materials should be submitted by December 1st. Admission requires a grade point average of at least 3.0 (A = 4.0) for the last 60 hours of undergraduate study, and for all graduate study. All applicants are required to submit scores for the GRE General Test. The GRE Subject Test (in either biology; or biochemistry, cell and molecular biology) is optional. Applicants whose native language is not English are required to submit a TOEFL score no older than 2 years. Successful applicants have typically scored at least 620 on the TOEFL PBT exam, 260 on the TOEFL CBT, or 100 on the TOEFL IBT.

Application Instructions and Forms

Financial Assistance

Full-time students in the MCDB program receive full financial support ($22,961 per year) and a waiver of tuition and the service fees: Sources of support include individual faculty research grants, the MCDB, the Department of Biological Sciences, and the University. University Fellowships are available for new and continuing students through a campus-wide competition. Nine-month departmental teaching assistantships carry a stipend and a tuition/service fee waiver. In addition, MCDB trainees are supported in their efforts to obtain fellowships from outside agencies and foundations.


1st Semester
BioS 452 Biochemistry (4 hrs)**
BioS 522 Molecular Biology Methods (3hrs)
BioS 524 Molecular Biology Principles (3 hrs)
BioS 593 Introduction to Laboratory Research (6 hrs)
BIOS 595 Departmental Seminar (0 hrs)
2nd Semester
BioS 454 Biochemistry II (5 hrs)**
BioS 525 Principles and Methods in Cell Biology (3 hrs)
BioS 528 Current Literature in Cell Biology (3 hrs)
BioS 593 Introduction to Laboratory Research (6 hrs)
BIOS 595 Departmental Seminar (0 hrs)
**Elective courses may be substituted here if Biochemistry is waived.

Suggested elective courses include the following:
BioS 430 Evolution
BioS 526 Molecular and Genetic Analysis of Development
BioS 586 Cell and molecular Neurobiology

400-and 500-level courses offered by other departments (e.g., Biochemistry, Chemistry, Genetics, Microbiology) may also be used for elective courses.

Seminar and Topics Courses Include the Following:
BioS 520 Topic in Genetics
BioS 528 Current Literature in Cell Biology
BioS 559 Special Topics in Biochemistry
BioS 592 Research Seminar
BioS 594 Special Topics in Biological Sciences