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Guidelines & Procedures

Graduate Program


Course Requirements

Qualifying Exam

Guidelines and Procedures

Student Travel Guidelines


The Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) offers a training program leading to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Vanderbilt University.  The CDB Graduate Program is designed to prepare students for a range of research and teaching careers in academia, biotechnology, or government through first-rate research training at technical and conceptual levels. The Department offers strengths in molecular and structural cell biology, cell signaling and physiology, cell and molecular imaging, neurobiology, genetics, and developmental and stem cell biology.

Admission to the Program

The CDB program does not accept applications directly and does not offer a Masters degree program. Students enter the CDB Graduate program from interdepartmental training programs, typically the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences (IGP) or the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). In rare circumstances, students may enter a CDB laboratory directly after prior arrangement with a faculty member and approval by the Director of Graduate Studies. All students interested in joining CDB, however, must apply to the Graduate School for admission.  In the first year of study, students can do a laboratory rotation with any CDB faculty member accepting students. Students join the CDB program after deciding to do their thesis work with a CDB faculty member. Acceptance in to the CDB graduate program is contingent upon satisfactory performance in coursework and rotations in the first year. Students typically spend an additional three to five years carrying out original research under the direction of their mentor and dissertation committee leading to completion and oral defense of a Ph.D. dissertation.

All student-related expenses (stipend, tuition, and fees, and research costs) are the responsibility of the mentor.  If the prospective mentor has a secondary appointment in CDB, the department in which that faculty member holds a primary appointment has sole financial responsibility for all student-related expenses throughout the full duration of the student’s training.

Administrative Structure

Steering Committee for Graduate Education. The Steering Committee for Graduate Education is responsible for all policy decisions regarding the CDB Graduate Program and design of departmental curriculum. It is comprised of the Department Chair, the Director of Graduate Studies, the IGP Admissions Representative, the IGP Curriculum Representative, and three Cell and Developmental Biology faculty members appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies in consultation with the Chair of the Department. The Director of Graduate Studies and IGP Admissions and Curriculum Representatives are appointed by the Department Chair.

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). The DGS monitors student progress, ensures that there is representation from CDB in IGP affairs, and signs or countersigns all official documents submitted to the Graduate School. The DGS leads workshops for students each year that prepares them for the expectations and requirements in the coming years. The DGS mediates all disputes involving a student, and also provides counsel to students and faculty should difficulties arise with respect to the student-mentor or student-thesis committee relationship. If a student’s concerns cannot be resolved by the DGS, the DGS will refer the matter to appropriate officials in the Graduate School for further review. The DGS facilitates referral of any student in distress to resources available through the Graduate School and monitors that they are receiving the assistance they require.

The Graduate Program Manager. The Graduate Program Manager is the primary liaison between CDB and the Graduate School. The Graduate Program Manager assists students, faculty, departmental staff, and the DGS with all CDB Graduate Program administrative matters and courses.

Requirements and Procedures

The information provided below is intended to supplement the regulations of the Graduate School. Students and faculty are encouraged to be familiar with the contents of the Graduate School Bulletin and Regulations. Students are expected to conduct themselves according to the honor code of Vanderbilt University.

A. Choice of a thesis laboratory

Each student in an interdepartmental training program is expected to complete a series of laboratory rotations typically in the first year of study; the number and length of rotations are established by each interdepartmental program. The students choose the laboratory rotations subject to approval by the laboratory head.  In general, students are expected to spend about 15 hours per week working in a laboratory rotation, but this expectation and others concerning rotation reports and rotation presentations should be clarified with each laboratory director.  Rotations provide detailed exposure to procedures, techniques, and intellectual atmospheres in different laboratories that will serve as the basis for selecting the thesis laboratory. At the end of the laboratory rotations, a student chooses one of their rotation laboratories for thesis research. The choice of laboratory must be approved by the faculty mentor and the DGS of the department.

B. Course Requirements

The total number of graduate credits must conform to the specification of the Graduate School (i.e. 24 didactic hours and 72 total hours). Details about credits transferred into CDB from interdepartmental programs and course requirements is provided in the course requirement link.

In brief, all CDB students must take Effective Scientific Communication (CBIO 8310).  Participation in two departmental seminar series, Monday Seminar and Research Seminar (CBIO 8339), is also required. Additional advanced course work is chosen based on the student’s special interests, field of specialization, and/or training grant specifications. Such courses should be selected with the assistance of the student’s mentor, the Graduate Program Manager, and/or the DGS. Coursework is generally completed within the first two years of study.  A minimum GPA of a 3.0, or a B average, must be maintained in all formal course work. In addition, a grade of C in one of the major courses required by the Department may lead to dismissal based on the consideration of this and other criteria by the Steering Committee for Graduate Education.

Every student must take a course in research ethics (0 credit hours). Generally, this course is taken during the first year of training. Continued training in the Responsible Conduct of Research is organized by the BRET office.  Non-compliance issues are referred to the DGS or the Graduate School for resolution.

C. Teaching

There is no formal teaching requirement for the CDB Ph.D. degree. Upon agreement with the mentor, students interested in gaining formal teaching experience can sometimes find teaching assistantships in other departments. Opportunities are also available in several graduate school courses including the IGP. Information can be obtained through the BRET office and from the DGS. Teacher training opportunities can be found at the Center for Teaching.

D. Admission to Ph.D. Candidacy

Passing the Qualifying Exam admits students to Ph.D. candidacy. The Qualifying Exam comprises a written grant proposal and an oral examination by an Examining Committee. The goals of the Qualifying Exam are: 1) to assess the student’s ability to formulate a series of hypotheses and specific aims to test these hypotheses that will likely constitute the basis for a Ph.D. dissertation, 2) to immerse the student in the scientific literature relevant to the Ph.D. dissertation, 3) to assess the student’s general knowledge base and aptitude for a research career, 4) to provide training in the grant writing process, and 5) to form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student’s continued development.

Students begin formal preparation for their qualifying exam in the spring semester of their first year in the CDB Graduate Program, generally in early March. The following sections explain the procedures for the qualifying exam. Please follow the link for how qualifying exams are administered.

     1. Qualifying Exam Workshop. Students will attend a workshop designed to help them successfully complete the Qualifying Exam. The workshop will include specifics on how to prepare a grant proposal and administrative details of the qualifying examination. There will be in-depth discussions on good grant writing practices and common concerns and mistakes.

     2. Topic Selection. The topic for the Qualifying Exam is the anticipated research topic for the Ph.D. dissertation, and should be chosen by the student with guidance from their mentor.  It is important to note that the research grant proposal is not a contract for either the student or mentor. In recognition of the fact that scientific research can be a creative and fluid process, research objectives may be altered after the qualifying examination in consultation with the student’s Ph.D. dissertation committee.

     3. Preparation of Qualifying Exam Specific Aims Page. The student will first write a Specific Aims Page of his/her Qualifying Exam research proposal (1 page limit). This document should describe the hypotheses to be tested and list the specific aims designed to test the hypotheses. The general experimental approaches and methodologies utilized to test the hypotheses should be briefly described. The specific aims should be written by the student. The student is encouraged to discuss the research topic and experimental details with the mentor. The mentor may read and critique the Qualifying Exam Specific Aims Page. The student is free to consult faculty, students, or other individuals to obtain feedback concerning the specific aims.
Five copies of the Specific Aims Page should be submitted to the Graduate Program Manager for distribution to the Steering Committee for Graduate Education. The precise deadline for submission of Qualifying Exam Specific Aims Page varies each year but is generally in mid-April. Failure to meet this deadline may result in dismissal from the Graduate Program. In rare extenuating circumstances, the DGS can approve a later deadline.

     4. Qualifying Examination Committee. Each Examining Committee will consist of four members of the University Graduate Faculty, one of whom is not a member of the CDB Primary Faculty.  A tenured CDB faculty member will serve as Chair. After consulting with his/her mentor, the student suggests potential committee members by completing the Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form, which is submitted to the Graduate Program Manager at the time of submission of the specific aims. The student’s mentor may not serve on the Examining Committee but must attend the qualifying exam meeting.  Students can meet with the DGS to discuss the selection of the Qualifying Exam Committee prior to submitting the Specific Aims and the Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form. The Steering Committee for Graduate Education will meet to make final assignments for the Examining Committees.  It will consider issues of exam consistency, educational oversight, research topic, and the written requests of the student and mentor on the Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form.

     5. Pre-examination meeting. The Graduate Program Manager will inform the student, mentor, and departmental faculty of their committee assignments.  The student will confirm the willingness of outside faculty to serve on the committee. The student will then schedule the pre-examination meeting and provide the Specific Aims Page to each committee member both in hard and electronic copy. The student will inform the Graduate Program Manager of the date and time immediately and the Graduate Program Manager will schedule a room for the pre-examination meeting and send out reminders. The goal of the pre-examination meeting is to determine whether the student’s anticipated research proposal (based on the Specifics Aims Page) will be “defendable” in a qualifying exam. Please follow the link for detailed information about the pre-examination and qualifying exam meetings.

     6. The qualifying examination. Upon approval of the specific aims by the Examining Committee, the student, mentor, and Committee members will set a date for completion of the written proposal and the oral Qualifying Examination.  The examination should take place about five weeks after acceptance of the Specific Aims Page by the Committee.  The Graduate Program Manager will be informed as soon as possible by the student and will reserve a room for a three-hour block of time for the Qualifying Examination.
The written component of the qualifying exam is a grant proposal.  A total of 7 pages is allowed, including the Specific Aims Page, Background and Significance, Preliminary Data (if available) and Research Plan. The 7-page limit, excluding references, is strictly enforced.  The student must also adhere to NIH guidelines for the humane and ethical treatment of animals for any studies proposed.  Studies involving human subjects must adhere to institutional guidelines.  The student should assume a timeline of three to four years for the proposed experiments, which should be realistically accomplished with the available resources. The student is responsible for all scientific aspects of the proposal including background information, approach, experimental design, and methodology for all experiments.  The student may consult anyone concerning methodologies, format, references, etc.
The student is encouraged to refer to successful grant proposals as a guide.  Previous successful graduate student proposals will be provided.  Students are free to have their mentors and other students or postdocs critique the proposal for overall readability.  Readers may make suggestions to improve the format of the grant, the amount of detail in the methods, or the rationale for specific experiments.
The student should provide a hard copy and an electronic copy of the finished research proposal and a completed self-evaluation form to the qualifying exam committee no later than one week prior to the oral qualifying exam.
The mentor should provide the Committee with a completed student evaluation form at least one day prior to the Oral Examination.  Please follow the link for further instruction on preparing for the qualifying examination meeting.

E.  Dissertation Research and Ongoing Evaluation

     1. Dissertation Committee. The Dissertation Committee is comprised of the Qualifying Examining Committee and the mentor. The mentor will not serve as the Chair to avoid potential conflicts of interest.  The Chair of the Qualifying Examining Committee will serve as Chair of the Dissertation Committee. If for some reason, the Chair is unable to fulfill this obligation, the DGS will appoint a tenured member of the CDB faculty as Chair.  While the Dissertation Committee is initially composed of five members of the University Graduate Faculty including the mentor, a sixth member may be added. This is particularly important if the dissertation broadens in scope and would benefit from the participation of a faculty member who can contribute relevant new expertise. If it becomes impossible for one of the five members to continue on the committee, meetings can proceed with a minimum of four committee members present, as proscribed by the Graduate School. However, proposed changes in the composition of the Dissertation Committee must be approved by the DGS.

     2. Annual Meetings. The student is required to meet with their Dissertation Committee at least once a year but the Dissertation Committee may recommend more frequent meetings.  The Graduate Program Manager will be responsible for reminding students of their upcoming obligation but the student is responsible for scheduling the annual meetings and informing the Graduate Program Manager of dates and times.  The Graduate Program Manager will inform the DGS if a student is not organizing their meetings in a timely manner and the DGS has the prerogative to schedule meetings that are significantly overdue.  Prior to the meeting, the student should prepare a brief report (3-5 pages) and distribute it to the Committee members at least one week prior to the meeting date in both hard and electronic copy.  At this same time, the students will provide their committees with a completed self-evaluation form.  At the annual meeting, the student will present a 15-20 minute talk to update the Committee on progress towards completion of the dissertation research.
After the meeting, the Dissertation Committee Chair will submit a meeting form and report to the Graduate Program Manager.  These brief reports should include a summary of the work presented and a statement as to whether satisfactory progress is being made in the various aspects of scientific training, including knowledge in the field of research, and an ability to present data both in oral and written forms, attention to the literature, critical and independent thinking skills, evaluation of results, and design and implementation of experiments.  Attention should be given to delineating any perceived problems or deficiencies.  Clear recommendations and goals relating to the above outlined areas should be communicated in the report.  The report should be circulated and approved by the Dissertation Committee and then given to the Graduate Program Manager who will forward it to the student and mentor. At all stages of the student’s graduate training, continuation in the program is dependent on satisfactory progress in research-oriented activities and successful completion of Dissertation Committee meetings.  Cases in which performance at two consecutive meetings of the Dissertation Committee are judged by a majority of committee members to be unsatisfactory are reviewed by the Steering Committee for Graduate Education of the department.  Unsatisfactory performance at two consecutive meetings is grounds for dismissal from the CDB Graduate Program.

     3. Additional requirements. During their Ph.D. training in the CDB Graduate Program, each student must present their research in the form of a seminar to the department as part of the Research Exchange (REx) seminar series. Ideally this would occur more than 9 months before the thesis defense and preferably in the third or fourth year of graduate training.  The REx organizers will monitor and facilitate each student’s participation.  In special circumstances, the thesis committee can waive this requirement.  CDB students are also expected to participate in each annual CDB departmental retreat and to attend seminars regularly.

   4. Masters Degree. The CDB department does not offer a Masters degree program.  A Masters degree in CDB is awarded only under special circumstances with the approval of the DGS.  The student must have spent at least one year in residence at the university, and have satisfactorily completed at least 24 didactic semester hours of course work.  A satisfactory pass of the qualifying exam is also a prerequisite.

F.  The Dissertation and Final Defense

     1. The Dissertation. After receiving approval from the Dissertation Committee, the student will begin writing a Dissertation in close consultation with the mentor.  A reasonable amount of time should be allotted for this process but it typically takes one month. The Dissertation should describe the results and analysis of independent research that constitutes a significant advance in knowledge.  Publication of a first author peer-reviewed research article is also a minimum requirement for earning the Ph.D. in CDB.  Thesis committee members will not sign the “Results of dissertation defense” form and dissertation signature pages without evidence of a first author publication (letter of acceptance from the Journal Editor is sufficient).  Although a first author publication is necessary, it does not guarantee that a sufficient scientific contribution has been made for the awarding of the Ph.D.. The dissertation must conform to the Guidelines set by the Graduate School and must be submitted in both hard and electronic copy to the Dissertation Committee at least one week before the final defense and only after approval from the mentor.  The student should consult the “Regulations” bulletin issued by the Graduate School for detailed information on formatting requirements for the dissertation.
The policy regarding distribution of fees and costs associated with preparing the dissertation is as follows:

    a.  The mentor’s primary department is responsible for payment of fees required by the Graduate School for microfilming the dissertation for the Graduate School.  Microfilming of the dissertation is mandatory.  The mentor’s primary department will also be responsible for payment of fees for optional copyrighting of the thesis.

    b.  The mentor will pay for photocopying the dissertation drafts for him/herself and committee members.  The mentor also will pay the binding fee for two un-bound copies submitted to the Graduate School IF the student does not submit his/her thesis to the Graduate School electronically. (Note: the Graduate School will not accept bound copies.)  Three required copies are for the mentor, the student, and the Cell and Development Biology library.  An additional two bound copies for the Graduate School also will be paid for by the mentor IF the student does not submit his/her thesis to the Graduate School electronically.  Copies for the Graduate School, the mentor, the student, and the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology library should have original figures and be on bond paper.  Final copies for committee members are optional and their wish to have one should be determined by the student.  These copies can be soft-bound on copy paper. Any costs for additional copies of thesis, bound or otherwise, will be the responsibility of the student.  Students are responsible for timely delivery of final bound copies to the mentor, the Graduate School (if not submitting electronically), and the Graduate Program Manager for the Cell and Developmental Biology library.

     2. The Defense and Final Examination. In accord with Graduate School policy, the defense of the Ph.D. should take place within four years of passing the Qualifying Examination. A one-year extension to the Ph.D. training period can be requested from the Graduate School by the DGS. A further extension of the Ph.D. training period will be granted by the Graduate School only in special circumstances and must be requested by the DGS after consultation with the mentor and Chair of the Dissertation Committee.
The final defense is administered by the Dissertation Committee.  The student will schedule the defense with the Committee members and inform the Graduate Program Manager.  The Graduate Program Manager will reserve a room and inform the Graduate School and the BRET office of the date, time, and place of the defense and the title of the dissertation. Graduate School regulations require that this be done at least four weeks prior to the defense.  Committee members will receive a notice from the Graduate School of the final defense.  The date and time of this examination will be published in the Vanderbilt Calendar as a public announcement.
The defense begins with a public seminar that will be advertised campus wide by the Graduate Program Manager at least one week prior to the defense.  Following the seminar the committee meets with the student for the Final Examination.  The Final Examination is concerned with the student’s dissertation, the literature relevant to the research topic, methods employed in the investigation, conclusions, and the significance of the study.  Passing the written dissertation is signified by signing the required page in the dissertation, and can occur at a later date if additions or corrections are required. The final approved thesis, including two signed versions of the title page, must be submitted to the Graduate School by the student at least 30 days before the end of the term in which the degree is to be conferred.

Further details of the Ph.D. Graduate Program in Cell and Developmental Biology can be obtained from the Acting Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Andrea Page-McCaw, or the Graduate Program Manager, Kristi Hargrove.