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Guidelines & Procedures

Graduate Program



Course Requirements

Qualifying Exam

Guidelines and Procedures

Student Travel Guidelines



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 (IGP, QCB, or MSTP) 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 from the Open Lab List, a list of faculty who have funding, approval, and interest in accepting graduate students; the Open Lab List is available from the BRET office.  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 course requirements including credits transferred into CDB from interdepartmental programs is provided in the course requirement link.

In brief, all CDB students must take Effective Scientific Communication (CBIO 8310) offered in the fall.  Beginning in 2020, CDB students are required to take Teaching Cell Biology (CBio 8315) offered in the spring. Participation in two departmental seminar series, Monday Seminar and Research Exchange (REx, 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, and must be graded with a letter grade. 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.

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 scientific writing, and 5) to form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student’s continued development.

In brief, the Qualifying Exam is usually taken between the student’s second and third year of graduate school.  The exam is based on the student’s expected thesis project, and it comprises a 6-page written proposal and a two hour oral examination.  Details about the Qualifying Exam can be found following this link.

E. Thesis Research and Ongoing Evaluation

  1. Thesis Committee. The Thesis (Dissertation) Committee is composed of the Qualifying Examining Committee and the mentor. The Chair of the Qualifying Examining Committee will serve as Chair of the Thesis Committee; the mentor will not serve as the Chair to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Although 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 a committee member to continue on the committee, the DGS can replace them with a suitable substitute, informing the Graduate School of the change in committee composition.  If a member is temporarily unable to attend, a meeting can proceed with a minimum of four committee members present, as proscribed by the Graduate School. 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.  Such meetings are usually scheduled for two hours, although they can end earlier. Although the Graduate Program Manager will remind students when a required meeting approaches, the student is responsible for scheduling the annual meetings and informing the Graduate Program Manager of dates and times. If a student is not organizing their meetings in a timely manner, 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 by email.  At this same time, the students will provide their committees with a completed self-evaluation form; the mentor will also complete a student evaluation and distribute it to the committee.

At the start of a thesis committee meeting, the student may be asked to leave the room as the committee discusses the mentor’s observations.  When invited back into the room, the student will give a presentation to the Committee on progress towards completion of the dissertation research. After the meeting, the Committee Chair will write a brief report, including 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, 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 Thesis Committee members 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 Thesis 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.

  1. 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.

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. Minimum Requirements

All CDB students must maintain the following minimum requirements:

·       Students must maintain a GPA of at least 3.0;

·       Each class grade must be higher than a C;

·       The student must demonstrate professional conduct in his/her interactions with peers, faculty, and the department; and

·       Research units must have grade of Satisfactory.

If one or more of these requirements have not been met, the student will be placed on academic probation. The student and mentor must ensure that the DGS is made aware of the deficiency, and they will work with the DGS to develop a remediation plan.  The student will remain on academic probation until the plan is successfully completed.  If there are new circumstances that arise during the period covered by the remediation plan, the student and mentor should make the DGS aware of these circumstances as soon as possible, and the plan can be amended if necessary.  If the plan is not successfully completed, the DGS in consultation with the mentor will recommend the student’s dismissal from the program to the Chair. If the DGS, mentor, and Chair decide that the student should be dismissed, the student will be notified as soon as possible and the reasons for the decision will be indicated.  The student is allowed to petition this decision to the Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training and/or the Graduate School.  If the student accepts the decision, the student and mentor may petition for the opportunity to pursue a MS degree.

According to Graduate School policy, the accumulation of three (3) grades over the course of study will lead to dismissal from the program and the Graduate School.

As described above, unsatisfactory performance at two consecutive meetings is grounds for dismissal from the CDB Graduate Program.

G. The Dissertation and Final Defense

  1. The Dissertation. To earn a PhD, students must make an original research-based contribution to knowledge, typically publishing several manuscripts from their graduate studies.  A first author peer-reviewed research article is a minimum requirement for earning the Ph.D. in CDB.  Although a first author publication is necessary, it may not be a sufficient scientific contribution to award a Ph.D; the Thesis Committee will determine when the student’s research is sufficient to write a dissertation and earn a PhD.

After receiving approval from the Thesis (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.  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:

  1. The mentor’s primary department is responsible for payment of fees required by the Graduate School for storage of the thesis (microfilm or electronic).  The mentor’s primary department will also be responsible for payment of fees for optional copyrighting of the thesis.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.  Approval of 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 Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Andrea Page-McCaw, or the Graduate Program Manager, Lorie Franklin.