2017 Biomedical Sciences Handbook

Welcome to the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) Graduate Program with Options in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics (BMG), Cellular and Integrative Physiology (CIP), Translational Therapeutics (TT), and Virology and Immunology (VIRIM) at Penn State College of Medicine. The integrated nature of the Program and Options permits students to choose their dissertation adviser and committee members from the approximately 150 faculty members of the Program who represent more than 20 basic science and clinical departments. Research interests of Program faculty members are wide-ranging in both scientific disciplines and specific research interests. Graduate students benefit from the opportunity to tailor both their coursework and research to align closely with their particular interests.

This handbook has been compiled as an aid and resource for graduate students and faculty in the Program. It contains current information and degree requirements for the Program. Additional University requirements can be found in the Penn State University Bulletin of Graduate Degree Programs and the Thesis and Dissertation Guide.

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General Information

Objective of the BMS Graduate Program Expand answer

The objective of the BMS Graduate Program is to train individuals for advanced professional careers in the biomedical sciences and related fields. The Program is directed toward students who plan to pursue the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Successful completion of the Program implies that the student has (1) achieved a satisfactory knowledge in biomedical sciences and related areas; (2) demonstrated accomplishment in research; (3) consistently demonstrated high standards of scholarship, academic integrity, and professionalism; (4) demonstrated the ability to read and critically evaluate scientific literature; and (5) demonstrated effective scientific communication in written and oral presentations. Upon successful completion of the degree program, the individual should have the competence to engage in independent research and education in the biomedical sciences or related fields.

Degree Programs Expand answer

The BMS Graduate Program and its Options confer the PhD degree and, in special situations, the Master of Science (MS) degree. However, students are generally not admitted to the Program to pursue the MS degree. The objective for students enrolled in the PhD degree program is to demonstrate excellence in research, scholarship, and scientific experimentation in biomedical sciences. The MS degree is strongly research oriented and is designed to develop research competence.

Responsibilities of the Student and Additional Undertakings Expand answer

Each student is responsible for ensuring that the Graduate School and BMS Graduate Program requirements for his/her degree program are met at appropriate times.

Fulfilling the requirements for a degree (MS, PhD, or MD/PhD) from the BMS Graduate Program requires extensive time and effort. In most cases, this undertaking is incompatible with additional employment either within or outside the University. Thus, students typically are not permitted to hold any additional employment. Only in very rare circumstances will exceptions be granted. The student must receive written permissions from the dissertation adviser, the Chair of the Program, and other individuals designated by the Graduate School prior to seeking concurrent employment (see details here).

Undertaking additional educational programs (for example, concurrent degree programs) requires extensive commitment of time and effort that can distract from the primary goal of obtaining a degree from the BMS Graduate Program. Thus, a student must be in good academic standing within the Program and must receive written permission from the dissertation adviser, the Chair of the Program, and other individuals designated by the Graduate School prior to pursuing any additional educational programs.

On an annual basis, the BMS support staff will provide the “Graduate Student Progress – Annual Review Form” (available from the Office of Graduate Education) to the student and dissertation adviser to be reviewed, updated, signed, and returned to the BMS Graduate Program Office.

General Information Expand answer

Stipend

Penn State University is a direct-deposit pay only institution. When on stipend, you will receive your stipend at the end of each month.

Taxation of Stipend

This is determined by governmental agencies.

Email

Penn State Access/email accounts are acquired at Graduate Orientation. All Graduate Education/student information is relayed through Penn State email (that is, your @psu.edu account). Make sure you read your email and, as appropriate, reply to it in a timely manner.

Vacation/Sick Leave

Full-time graduate students in the BMS Graduate Program who receive stipends are permitted two weeks of vacation per academic year (July 1 to June 30). Vacation should be arranged at least two weeks in advance with consent of the Program Chair (first-year students) or dissertation/thesis adviser (second-year and above students).

Students will not normally be granted vacation time while enrolled in class work. For extenuating circumstances, special arrangements may be made for additional vacation days. Such arrangements need approval of the Program Chair (first-year students) or the dissertation/thesis adviser (advanced students).

Vacation days do not accrue from year to year. Holidays designated by The Pennsylvania State University are separate and in addition to vacation days.

No sick leave is formally assigned or earned, but may be used as necessary with approval of the Program Chair (first-year students) or the dissertation/thesis adviser (advanced students). Under normal circumstances, up to five days of sick leave per calendar year will be granted, when necessary. Sick leave in excess of five days will be recorded as vacation time. It is the student’s responsibility to contact the Program Chair or dissertation/thesis adviser when he/she is absent from the classroom or laboratory due to illness.

Advisory Committee Expand answer

Laboratory Rotations and Selection of Dissertation Adviser

Selecting Laboratory Rotations Expand answer

A key decision during the first year is selecting a dissertation adviser and the laboratory in which to conduct dissertation research. The BMS Graduate Program Advisory Committee provides advice and oversight during this process. A number of opportunities during the first year provide information to assist in making this choice.

  • Research interest presentations occur during the Fall semester. As a follow-up to these presentations, appointments should be scheduled to talk in more detail with faculty about research areas of particular interest.
  • Laboratory rotations during the first year provide an opportunity to spend time with faculty members of particular interest to a student so they can learn more about specific research programs and the laboratory environment of specific faculty members. These rotations also provide opportunities to design and conduct experiments, collect and analyze data, and present results in written and oral reports. These are all critical skills required for success in a scientific career. Students do at least three rotations in different laboratories that are approximately eight weeks in length to sample the breadth of research opportunities. The times for doing the rotations are arranged by the student in consultation with the Program Chair and the faculty with whom they rotate. Rotations can be done in the Fall, Spring, and/or Summer semesters.
Rotation Reports and Presentation Expand answer

A written report is required for two of the rotations. The report on the research conducted during the rotation is written solely by the student and submitted to the rotation adviser and the designated administrative staff of the BMS Graduate Program. The reports are evaluated by the rotation adviser and another member of the BMS Graduate Faculty.

Each student also gives an oral presentation on one of his/her rotations during the Spring semester. Presentations are 15 minutes in length and provide the background, approach(es), outcome(s), and discussion of the results for the chosen research rotation. The oral presentation is evaluated by members of the BMS Graduate Program Advisory Committee.

Further details about the rotation reports and presentation are provided in the description of the BMS 596 course.

The written and oral reports provide an opportunity to evaluate (1) the progress of each student in understanding experimental design, conducting experiments, and critically analyzing results and (2) the written and oral presentation skills of each student for effectively communicating details of research conducted. In part, these reports also assess whether the English Competence requirement of the Graduate School has been fulfilled. Other mechanisms for evaluating English Competence are provided by the various oral presentations and written answers to essay questions that students provide during their graduate study. Proficiency in English must be demonstrated prior to administration of the comprehensive examination.

Choosing a Dissertation Adviser Expand answer

Selection of a dissertation adviser is based on a) student interest in the research program, b) consent of the faculty member, and c) available funding to support the student in the lab of interest, which includes written approval from the intended adviser’s departmental Chair. Typically, this decision is finalized after completion of the candidacy examination.

A student who at any time becomes concerned that his/her choice of dissertation adviser may not have been appropriate, needs to discuss the situation with the Director of their Program or Option, the Chair of the BMS Graduate Program, and their dissertation adviser as soon as possible. If the student ultimately decides to try to identify a new dissertation adviser, the student will provide at least four-weeks written notice to the Director and current dissertation adviser. During this time, the student must identify a new adviser willing to accept that student into the laboratory and assume financial responsibility for the student (see above) at the end of the student’s time in the current laboratory. The current dissertation adviser retains all laboratory notebooks, reagents (antibodies, cell lines, etc.), experimental protocols, and other research materials.

Student Responsibilities in Choosing Advisers Expand answer

Identification of advisers for rotations and the final choice of a dissertation adviser and committee members are the responsibility of the student. Failure to choose a dissertation adviser by the end of the Fall semester of the student’s second year is considered lack of academic progress. Failure to develop an extended professional relationship with a dissertation adviser that permits development of the scholarship and rigor necessary to obtain a PhD in the biomedical sciences is considered unsatisfactory scholarship. Lack of academic progress or unsatisfactory scholarship can result in termination from the graduate degree program.

Requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree

Overview Expand answer

To earn the PhD degree in BMS, a student must: (A) complete the appropriate curricular track maintaining at least a 3.00 grade-point average (GPA) as defined in the Curricular Requirements sections of this handbook for the PhD degree in the BMS Graduate Program; (B) pass the candidacy examination, typically at the end of Year 1; (C) constitute his/her doctoral committee; (D) demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language in reading, writing, and speaking prior to scheduling the comprehensive examination; (E) pass the comprehensive examination, typically prior to the beginning of Year 3; (F) conduct dissertation research; (G) have at least one first-author publication accepted or published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal based on their dissertation research prior to the final oral examination; and (H) prepare a dissertation and successfully defend it in the final oral examination.

At the end of this section, a checklist is provided for following progress toward the degree.

Choice of Curricular Track Expand answer

By the end of the first year, each student chooses among the five curricular tracks that focus coursework on different disciplines. Generally, the choices of the curricular track and the dissertation adviser are finalized at the same time. The five curricular tracks are the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) track, the Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics (BMG) track, the Cellular and Integrative Physiology (CIP) track, the Translational Therapeutics (TT) track, and the Virology and Immunology (VIRIM) track. These tracks align with the BMS Graduate Program and the four Options in the Program, respectively.

Registration Expand answer

Each student is responsible for proper registration each semester via LionPATH. Prior to completion of the comprehensive examination, a student must be registered for at least nine credits each semester (excluding the summer semester) to maintain full-time student status. In situations where the total number of credits derived from formal coursework does not equal nine, additional required credits are secured by registering for an appropriate number of credits of Individual Studies (BMS 596) prior to passing the candidacy examination or Thesis Research (BMS 600) after passing the candidacy examination but prior to passing the comprehensive examination.

After completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for Thesis Preparation (BMS 601).

All formal coursework is generally completed prior to the scheduling of the comprehensive examination. A student remains eligible to take courses following successful completion of this examination, although this eligibility may have limitations. Each student should consult with the dissertation adviser and/or the appropriate Director for details and limitations.

It is important to note that students with a half-time assistantship may register for no more than 12 credits. Therefore, there may be circumstances where a student may be engaged in laboratory rotations or dissertation research but may not, due to the 12-credit maximum, register for Individual Studies or Thesis Research.

Coursework and Scholarship and Research Integrity Expand answer

The required courses for the five curricular tracks during the first two years of the program, with the typical time for taking each course, are visible here. Elective courses in the first year are chosen in consultation with the Program Chair or appropriate Director. Electives in the second year are chosen in consultation with the dissertation adviser and/or doctoral committee members.

In 2009, The Graduate School instituted a requirement for training in Scholarship and Research Integrity (SARI), which for BMS students includes two components:

  • Successful completion of the CITI module “Responsible Conduct of Research – Basic Course” (completed independently online prior to June 30 of year one; accessible here
  • Passing the course BMS 591 Ethics in the Life Sciences

See details here.

Curricular Requirements Expand answer

The PhD degree in Biomedical Sciences with any appropriate Option is conferred on a student in recognition of excellent attainment of knowledge and productive scholarship in biomedical sciences. In addition to the course requirements provided elsewhere in this handbook, the student must:

  • Maintain a minimum GPA of 3.00 to advance to candidacy, qualify for the comprehensive examination, and graduate. Grades for Foundations of Biomedical Research (BMS 500), Colloquium (590), other journal clubs (for example, IBIOS 580, and MICRO 572), Individual Studies (596), and Thesis Research (600) are not counted in calculating this GPA for the PhD degree from the BMS Graduate Program.
  • Successfully complete a minimum of 29 graduate credits at the 500-600 level, of which 19 must be taken at Penn State. These graduate credits include, at most, two credits of BMS 596 and do not include credits for BMS 600, 601, 610, and 611. Up to 10 credits of graduate work may be transferred from another institution. For limitations on transfer of credits, see “Transfer Credit” in the University Graduate Bulletin. The BMS Advisory Committee must approve the credit transfer request prior to submission of the request to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services for final approval.

    A student who fails to make acceptable progress in a degree program will be dropped from the program. One or more failing grades or a cumulative GPA below 3.00, calculated based on the BMS Graduate Program policy on GPA for the PhD degree described above, for any semester or session or combination of semesters and/or sessions may be considered evidence of failure to maintain satisfactory scholarship. A GPA below 3.00 automatically places a student on academic probation and the student must meet with the Program Chair to determine the course of action required to address this situation and avoid dismissal from the Program. A student receiving grades of C or below in both BMS 502 Cell and Systems Biology and BMS 503 Flow of Cellular Information during the first semester may be dismissed from the Program. Except in extreme circumstances, a student will only be permitted to drop one course during the first year because of academic difficulties in the course. The Program Advisory Committee may initiate action as described in Appendix III of the Graduate School Bulletin to terminate a student for unsatisfactory scholarship.

Seminar and Journal Club Presentations and Attendance Expand answer

Students in the Program are required to attend seminars given in the BMS Student and Outside Speaker Seminar Series. Beginning in the second year, each student will also present a seminar in the Student Seminar series on an annual basis. Students may also be required to give seminars in other series such as the seminar series in the department of their adviser.

In the Spring semester of each year, students sign up for one credit of BMS 590. Prior to successful completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for a grade in this course. After successful completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for this course as an audit.

Satisfactory performance in this course requires a) presenting a seminar in the Student Seminar series each year after the first year in the Program, b) attending at least 80 percent of the Student Seminars, c) attending at least 80 percent of the Outside Speaker Seminars; and d) providing written feedback about each seminar attended.

Attendance at other relevant seminars is highly recommended and may be required by the dissertation adviser or the department of the adviser. These seminars are excellent opportunities to enhance knowledge of associated fields.

Students are also expected to participate annually in a journal club. Specific departments may require participation in a journal club.

Candidacy Examination Expand answer

Purpose of the Candidacy Examination

The candidacy examination serves to assess the student’s mastery of the basic body of knowledge and development of the breadth and depth of scholarship that is expected of PhD candidates. The formal purpose for the examination is to determine whether the student has earned admission to candidacy, and can hence begin a period of research aimed toward a PhD dissertation. This examination provides the Candidacy Examination Committee and the student with a gauge of the capabilities of the student. It can also point out deficiencies that can be corrected by coursework or independent study. Finally, the candidacy serves as another mechanism for evaluating the student’s communication skills.

When Does a Student Take the Candidacy Examination?

The University regulation is that a student may take the candidacy examination after completion of 18 credits of coursework earned in graduate courses beyond the baccalaureate. The University also requires that the examination be taken within three semesters after admission to the Program (excluding summers). Hence, a student admitted in the Fall of one calendar year must take the examination by the end of the Fall semester of the next calendar year. Typically, the candidacy examination for the BMS Graduate Program is administered after the first year of coursework is completed. All students are required to have a minimum GPA of 3.00 as defined by the Program and to have satisfactorily completed all courses in the Fall core curriculum at the time the candidacy is taken.

Who Administers the Candidacy Examination?

The BMS Advisory Committee will choose members of the BMS Graduate Faculty to write questions and administer the oral component of the examination.

Format of the Candidacy Examination

The student should be prepared to answer questions related to aspects of the biomedical sciences encountered in their first-year curriculum as well as material students should have acquired from other resources (e.g., undergraduate education, seminars, laboratory rotations). The candidacy examination has a written and an oral component.
The written component will have three groups of questions and students will have at least four days to answer one question selected by the student from each group. The answers will be evaluated in terms of the student’s breadth and depth of knowledge as well as competence in English. The graded responses to the written portion will be returned to the student prior to the oral component.

The oral portion of the examination will follow within approximately two weeks of the written section. To be eligible to take the oral examination, the student must pass the written examination. The oral portion of the examination provides an opportunity to determine whether or not incorrect responses on the written component indicate serious deficiencies as well as to probe the breadth and depth of scholarship of the student in other areas.

Specific details about the candidacy examination will be provided approximately four weeks prior to administration of the examination.

Grading of the Candidacy Examination

Graded responses to each written question are averaged to determine the overall performance on the written portion.

Following the oral portion of the examination, each member of the oral examination committee assigns an overall Pass or Fail to the student’s performance. At least three committee members must assign an overall Pass for the student to pass the oral portion.

Approval of the Candidacy Examination Results

After the student passes the candidacy examination, the Chair of the BMS Graduate Program completes the proper forms and sends them to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services. The Chair will also attest to the student’s English competence or provide recommendations for additional studies.

What Happens if a Student Fails the Candidacy Examination?

A student who fails either the written or oral portion of the candidacy examination may be given the opportunity to retake that portion at a future date or may be required to withdraw from the PhD program depending on their level of performance on the examination and in other aspects of the PhD program. The decision of whether to permit a second examination and to determine the appropriate time for its administration is at the discretion of the BMS Advisory Committee. If permitted to retake the examination, the student may proceed with laboratory rotations and/or selection of a dissertation adviser and establishment of a doctoral committee. However, the doctoral committee cannot be officially formed until the candidacy examination is successfully completed. A student who fails a second candidacy examination will be required to withdraw from the PhD program.

Doctoral Committee Expand answer

The student should confer with his/her dissertation adviser when considering members to suggest for their doctoral committee and the committee must conform to the guidelines of the Graduate School. This committee consists of four or more active members of the Penn State Graduate Faculty. The Advisory Committee recommends that five members be appointed to the doctoral committee, particularly in those situations where two members of the committee are from the same research group. The dissertation adviser must be a member of the doctoral committee and usually serves as chair. At least one member of the committee must be an “Outside Field Member” who must represent a field outside the candidate’s major field of study to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspectives and expertise. This member may be from a different department than the dissertation adviser or from a Program or Option different than that of the student. In addition, there must be at least one regular member of the committee whose primary appointment is in an administrative unit outside the unit in which the dissertation adviser’s (and co-adviser’s, on committees with a co-adviser) primary appointment is held.

Additionally, this “Outside Unit Member” should have no budgetary connection to the dissertation adviser (and co-adviser). Examples of conflicts of interest that would disqualify someone as the Outside Unit Member include serving as co-principal investigator on grants or other funding sources with the dissertation adviser (or co-adviser). The same individual may serve as both the Outside Field Member and Outside Unit Member if they fulfill the appropriate criteria.

The student submits the suggested names of members for the doctoral committee (the appropriate form is obtained from the Program Coordinator) to the BMS Advisory Committee along with a) a brief description of the role of each person on the committee, b) the rationale for including each proposed member, c) the departmental and graduate program affiliations of each member, and d) other pertinent information that will assist members of the BMS Advisory Committee in evaluating the composition of the committee. All doctoral committees must be approved by the BMS Advisory Committee and reviewed periodically to ensure its members continue to qualify for service in their designated roles.

The doctoral committee must meet at least once a year. Required paperwork from this meeting, including the Student Summary signed by each committee member, must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office.

Responsibilities of the Doctoral Committee

The doctoral committee is responsible for approving the broad outline of the student’s program and should review the program as soon as possible after the student is admitted to candidacy. Continuing communication among the student, the dissertation adviser, and members of the committee is strongly recommended to preclude misunderstandings and to develop a collegial relationship between the candidate and the committee members.

English Competency Expand answer

All PhD candidates are required to demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language, including reading, writing, and speaking. The Graduate School requires the Program to formally attest to a student’s English competency before the comprehensive examination can be scheduled.

All students are evaluated for their English competency as part of their written and oral rotation reports, candidacy examination, colloquium, and other components of the degree program. If the student does not demonstrate acceptable competence based on the above evaluations, the student’s adviser will be responsible for providing mechanisms for improving these skills. Examples include: 1) verbal and/or written critiques of assigned professional papers, 2) presentations in laboratory meetings, 3) additional presentations in colloquium, and/or 4) successful completion of specific courses designated by the Advisory Committee and targeted toward written and/or spoken English as appropriate.

If remediation is required, the doctoral committee will re-evaluate the student following completion of the required studies and the student’s adviser will notify the Program Chair in writing when the student has met the English competency requirement.

Comprehensive Examination Expand answer

Purpose of the Comprehensive Examination

Successful completion of the comprehensive examination indicates that the student has a broad and in-depth background in biomedical sciences. It marks the watershed from taking courses to being a full-time researcher. The examination serves to allow the committee to thoroughly examine the student’s preparation for dissertation research.

When Does a Student Take the Comprehensive Examination?

To schedule and take the comprehensive examination, a student must be registered full- or part-time, and must have a GPA of 3.00 as defined by the Program. Generally, the comprehensive examination is taken when a student has finished essentially all coursework and is ready to focus on research work for the dissertation. Typically, students take the examination sometime after the second year; however, it is strongly encouraged not to delay beyond the third year. At the request of the Program Chair, the Associate Dean of the Graduate School officially schedules the examination. The date, time, and place must be agreed upon by the student and all members of the doctoral committee. Once the date, time, and place are determined, and at least three weeks prior to the date, the student must notify the BMS Graduate Program Office to schedule the examination through the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services.

Who Administers the Comprehensive Examination?

The student’s doctoral committee administers the comprehensive examination.

Format of the Comprehensive Examination

The examination includes both writing and orally defending a research grant proposal. Students must consult the Director of their curricular track for any specific guidelines related to the required format.

Who Grades the Comprehensive Examination?

The comprehensive examination is not given a letter grade. Two-thirds of the doctoral committee must agree that the student has passed the examination. If a failure occurs, it is at the discretion of the committee whether to permit a second examination and, if permitted, to determine the approximate time for administration of the second examination. The comprehensive examination will only be given twice. A second failure will result in the withdrawal from PhD candidacy. This information is relayed to the BMS Graduate Program Office, which notifies the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services for official entry into the student’s record.

What are the Requirements of the Student After Completion of the Comprehensive Examination?

The student must meet with and keep the doctoral committee informed of his/her progress on at least an annual basis. The dissertation adviser should be consulted in planning regular meetings of the committee. At the discretion of the committee, the student may be required to submit an annual written progress report. Meeting dates of the committee are recorded on the “Graduate Student Progress – Annual Review Form” and the Student Summary signed by each committee member must be submitted to the BMS Graduate Program Office.

Dissertation Research Expand answer

Critical components of PhD training are gaining the abilities to select a worthy research problem, to organize an approach for problem solving, to design and execute meaningful experiments, to interpret results cogently in light of the work of others, and to produce a scholarly exposition in written form. The candidate will assemble an independent body of work during their dissertation research that demonstrates they have gained these abilities.

Students are required to have at least one first-author publication accepted or published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal based on their dissertation research prior to the final oral examination.

Dissertation Preparation and Final Oral Examination Expand answer

Both the dissertation adviser and the student are responsible for ensuring the completion of the written dissertation and for adequate consultation with members of the doctoral committee. A formal meeting of the doctoral committee with the student to discuss the written dissertation is required prior to scheduling the final oral examination.

The written dissertation should be in its final form, with appropriate notes, bibliography, tables, etc., exhibiting polished content and style, and be reviewed and approved by the adviser for distribution to committee members at least two weeks prior to the scheduled meeting. Major revisions to the written dissertation suggested by committee members must be completed before scheduling the oral examination and the revised document is distributed to committee members at least two weeks prior to the final oral examination.

Normally, no less than three months must elapse between the comprehensive examination and final oral examination. Additionally, the graduate program must be completed within six years of passing the comprehensive examination or a second comprehensive examination is required.

After the doctoral candidate has satisfied all other requirements for the degree and upon recommendation of the dissertation adviser and the committee that the written dissertation is acceptable, the Program Chair will submit a request to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services to schedule the final oral examination.

The final oral examination should be a public seminar followed by an oral dissertation defense.

The following points may be used as guidelines for evaluation:

  • Is the research original?
  • Are proper experimental designs, appropriate techniques, and interpretation of results described in the dissertation?
  • Is the candidate able to defend the methods, findings, and conclusions of the research?
  • Is the candidate sufficiently knowledgeable of the literature to place his or her contribution in proper context?
  • Is the dissertation research worthy of publication?

The decision of the committee will be reported to the Program Chair and to the Graduate School on the forms provided by the Graduate School.

Time Limitation Expand answer

A doctoral student is required to complete the program, including acceptance of the doctoral dissertation, within eight years from the date of successful completion of the candidacy examination. Extensions may be granted by the Director of Graduate Enrollment Services in appropriate circumstances.

PhD Degree Checklist Expand answer
  • Admitted to Graduate School
  • Candidacy examination (within three semesters after enrollment in the PhD program)
  • Selection of dissertation adviser and Option/curricular “track” (after end of Spring semester of first year)
  • Recommend members for doctoral committee to the BMS Graduate Program Advisory Committee: (in consultation with dissertation adviser; typically by the end of the Fall semester of the second year)
    • Official appointment of PhD doctoral committee by the Dean of the Graduate School following recommendation by BMS Advisory Committee
  • Committee meetings must be scheduled at least once a year and the committee-meeting-report form must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office within two weeks after the committee meeting.
  • Coursework (variable depending on curricular track and student interests; only core required courses are listed; students should consult the typical coursework schedule, their first-year adviser, their dissertation adviser, and the Director of the appropriate curricular track for required and potential elective courses for the curricular track(s) of interest for a specific checklist of courses)
  • Complete communication requirements (prior to comprehensive examination).
  • Comprehensive examination (typically prior to the beginning of the third year; at least 3 months prior to final oral examination) arranged through Program Chair and Dean of the Graduate School.
  • In consultation with dissertation adviser and doctoral committee, determine when dissertation research is nearing completion and begin to concentrate on writing the dissertation.
  • Obtain a copy of the Thesis and Dissertation Guide from the Graduate School.
  • Activate intent to graduate on LionPATH during the semester of intended graduation; see Thesis, Dissertation and Performance Calendar; deadline is typically within the first two weeks of the semester.
  • By the appropriate deadline date, submit a draft of the dissertation to the Office of Theses and Dissertations for format review.
  • Draft of dissertation submitted to dissertation adviser (at least four weeks before anticipated submission to all members of doctoral committee).
  • Copies of the draft dissertation including the abstract consistent with the ProQuest/UMI Agreement (limit 350 words) and vitae (one page maximum) in approved Graduate School form to all members of doctoral committee.
  • Reviewed draft dissertation returned to graduate student for major revisions (within two weeks after received).
  • Receive approval from doctoral committee to schedule final oral examination after major corrections are made.
  • Schedule final oral examination through BMS Graduate Program Office (at least three weeks in advance). The final oral examination must be scheduled on a date no later than the published Graduate School deadline for graduation in that semester.
  • Public seminar and final oral examination.
  • Final revisions to dissertation in response to comments from doctoral committee.
  • Obtain signatures of dissertation adviser and doctoral committee members on Approval Page.
  • Review and approval of dissertation by Program Chair (allow one week for review).
  • Submit final dissertation to the eTD Website by the deadline date.
  • Submit signed doctoral approval page, ProQuest/UMI Agreement, Survey of Earned Doctorates, and fee (payable here) to the Office of Theses and Dissertations.
  • Acceptance of dissertation by The Graduate School.

Note: The student is responsible for meeting all time schedule requirements for their degree.

Requirements for the Master of Science (MS) Degree

Overview Expand answer

To earn an MS degree in BMS, a student must: (A) complete the appropriate curricular track maintaining at least a 3.00 GPA as defined for the MS degree in this handbook; (B) constitute his/her master’s committee; (C) demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language in reading, writing, and speaking; (D) conduct thesis research; and (E) prepare a thesis or submit a manuscript as a first author to a peer-reviewed journal. This manuscript must be approved by the thesis adviser and be based on the student’s thesis research conducted in the BMS Graduate Program.

To transfer from the PhD-degree program to the MS-degree program, a student must file the 1) Penn State “Resume Study/Change of Degree or Major” form; 2) the BMS Graduate Program Change of Degree Notification Form; and 3) the BMS Graduate Program’s Graduate Student Master’s Committee Procedures and Committee Appointment Form (the doctoral committee is dissolved when a student changes the degree program and a master’s committee must be formed).

At the end of this section, a checklist is provided for following progress toward the MS degree.

Choice of Curricular Track Expand answer

By the end of the first year, each student chooses among the five curricular tracks that focus coursework on different disciplines. Generally, the choices of the curricular track and the dissertation adviser are finalized at the same time. The five curricular tracks are the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) track, the Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics (BMG) track, the Cellular and Integrative Physiology (CIP) track, the Translational Therapeutics (TT) track, and the Virology and Immunology (VIRIM) track. These tracks align with the BMS Graduate Program and the four Options in the Program, respectively.

Registration Expand answer

Each student is responsible for proper registration each semester via LionPATH. A student must be registered for at least nine credits each semester (excluding the summer semester) to maintain full-time student status. In situations where the total number of credits derived from formal coursework does not equal nine and a student needs to be registered full time, additional required credits are secured by registering for an appropriate number of credits of BMS 596 Individual Studies (Year 1), or BMS 600 Thesis Research (Year 2 until graduation).

It is important to note that students with a half-time assistantship may register for no more than 12 credits. Therefore, there may be circumstances where a student may be engaged in laboratory rotations or thesis research but may not register for Individual Studies or Thesis Research due to the 12-credit maximum.

Coursework and Scholarship and Research Integrity Expand answer

The required courses for the five curricular tracks during the first two years of the MS program, with the typical time for taking each course, are visible here. Elective courses in the first year are chosen in consultation with the Program Chair or appropriate Director. Electives in the second year are chosen in consultation with the thesis adviser and/or master’s committee.

In 2009, The Graduate School instituted a requirement for training in Scholarship and Research Integrity (SARI), which for BMS students includes two components:

  • Successful completion of the CITI module “Responsible Conduct of Research – Basic Course” (completed independently online prior to June 30 of year one; accessible here
  • Passing the course BMS 591 Ethics in the Life Sciences

See details here.

Curricular Requirements Expand answer

The MS degree in Biomedical Sciences with any appropriate Option is conferred on a student in recognition of high attainment and productive scholarship in biomedical sciences. In addition to the course requirements provided elsewhere in this handbook, the student must:

  • Maintain a minimum GPA of 3.00 to advance to candidacy, qualify for the comprehensive examination, and graduate. Grades for Foundations of Biomedical Research (BMS 500), Colloquium (590), other journal clubs (for example, IBIOS 580, and MICRO 572), Individual Studies (596), and Thesis Research (600) are not counted in calculating this GPA for the PhD degree from the BMS Graduate Program.
  • Successfully complete a minimum of 29 graduate credits at the 500-600 level, of which 19 must be taken at Penn State. These graduate credits include, at most, two credits of BMS 596 and do not include credits for BMS 600, 601, 610, and 611. Up to 10 credits of graduate work may be transferred from another institution. For limitations on transfer of credits, see “Transfer Credit” in the University Graduate Bulletin. The BMS Advisory Committee must approve the credit transfer request prior to submission of the request to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services for final approval.

    A student who fails to make acceptable progress in a degree program will be dropped from the program. One or more failing grades or a cumulative GPA below 3.00, calculated based on the BMS Graduate Program policy on GPA for the PhD degree described above, for any semester or session or combination of semesters and/or sessions may be considered evidence of failure to maintain satisfactory scholarship. A GPA below 3.00 automatically places a student on academic probation and the student must meet with the Program Chair to determine the course of action required to address this situation and avoid dismissal from the Program. A student receiving grades of C or below in both BMS 502 Cell and Systems Biology and BMS 503 Flow of Cellular Information during the first semester may be dismissed from the Program. Except in extreme circumstances, a student will only be permitted to drop one course during the first year because of academic difficulties in the course. The Program Advisory Committee may initiate action as described in Appendix III of the Graduate School Bulletin to terminate a student for unsatisfactory scholarship.

Thesis Adviser Requirement Expand answer

The master’s candidate must identify a thesis adviser willing to accept the student into the laboratory. Since the BMS Graduate Program does not provide financial support (neither stipend nor tuition) for master’s candidates, the student is responsible for tuition and having sufficient resources for living expenses.

Seminar and Journal Club Presentations and Attendance Expand answer

Students seeking the MS degree are required to attend seminars given in the BMS Student and Outside Speaker Seminar Series. Beginning in the second year, each student will also present a seminar in the Student Seminar series on an annual basis. Students may also be required to give seminars in other series such as the seminar series in the department of their adviser.

In the Spring semester of each year, students register for one credit of BMS 590 for a grade. Satisfactory performance in this course requires a) presenting a seminar in the Student Seminar series each year after the first year in the Program, b) attending at least 80% percent of the Student Seminars, c) attending at least 80 percent of the Outside Speaker Seminars; and d) providing written feedback about each seminar attended.

Attendance at other relevant seminars is highly recommended and may be required by the thesis adviser or the department of the adviser. These seminars are excellent opportunities to enhance knowledge of associated fields.

Students are also expected to participate annually in a journal club. Specific departments may require participation in a journal club.

Master's Committee Expand answer

The student should confer with the thesis adviser when considering members to suggest for their master’s committee. This committee consists of three or more active members of the Penn State Graduate Faculty. The thesis adviser is a member of the master’s committee, unless the adviser declines this responsibility, and usually serves as chair.

The student submits the suggested names of members for the master’s committee (the appropriate form is obtained from the Program Coordinator) to the BMS Advisory Committee along with a) a brief description of the role of each person on the committee, b) the rationale for including each proposed member, c) the departmental and graduate program affiliations of each member, and d) other pertinent information that will assist members of the BMS Advisory Committee in evaluating the composition of the committee.

All master’s committees must be approved by the BMS Advisory Committee and reviewed periodically to ensure its members continue to qualify for service in their designated roles. See the BMS Graduate Program’s Graduate Student Master’s Committee Procedures and Committee Appointment Form for additional information.

The master’s committee must meet at least twice a year. Required paperwork from this meeting (the Graduate Student Progress – Annual Review Form, available from the Office of Graduate Education) including the Student Summary signed by each committee member, must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office.

Responsibilities of the Master’s Committee

The master’s committee is responsible for approving the broad outline of the student’s program and should review the program as soon as possible after the student’s admission to the Master’s Program. Continuing communication among the student, the thesis adviser, and members of the committee is strongly recommended to preclude misunderstandings and to develop a collegial relation between the candidate and the committee members.

English Competency Expand answer

All MS candidates are required to demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language, including reading, writing, and speaking.

All students are evaluated for their English competency as part of their written and oral rotation reports, Colloquium, and other components of the degree program. If the student does not demonstrate acceptable competence based on the above evaluations, the student’s adviser will be responsible for providing mechanisms for improving these skills. Examples include: 1) written and/or verbal critiques of assigned professional papers, 2) presentations in laboratory meetings, 3) additional presentations in Colloquium, and/or 4) successful completion of specific courses designated by the Advisory Committee and targeted toward written and/or spoken English as appropriate.

If remediation is required, the master’s committee will re-evaluate the student following completion of the required studies and the student’s adviser will notify the Program Chair in writing when the student has met the English competency requirement.

Thesis Research Expand answer

Critical components of MS training are gaining the abilities to select a worthy research problem, to organize an approach for problem solving, to design and execute meaningful experiments, to interpret results cogently in light of the work of others, and to produce a scholarly exposition in written form. The candidate will assemble an independent body of work during their thesis research that demonstrates they have gained these abilities.

Thesis Preparation and Approval Expand answer

Both the thesis adviser and the student are responsible for ensuring the completion of the written thesis and for adequate consultation with members of the master’s committee. The written thesis should be in its final form, with appropriate notes, bibliography, tables, etc., exhibiting polished content and style, and be reviewed and approved by the adviser prior to distribution to committee members.

The following points may be used as guidelines for evaluation of the MS thesis by the thesis committee:

  • Is the research original?
  • Are proper experimental designs, appropriate techniques, and interpretation of results described in the thesis?
  • Does the thesis demonstrate that the candidate is sufficiently knowledgeable of the literature to place his or her contribution in proper context?
  • Is the thesis research worthy of publication?

The decision of the committee will be reported to the Program Chair and to the Graduate School on the forms provided by the Graduate School.

Time Limitation Expand answer

All requirements for the MS degree (including acceptance of the thesis) must be met within eight years of admission to degree status. Extensions may be granted by the Director of Graduate Enrollment Services in appropriate circumstances.

MS Degree Checklist Expand answer
  • Admitted to Graduate School
  • Selection of thesis adviser (immediately following admission to the MS program)
  • Recommend members for thesis committee to the BMS Graduate Program Advisory Committee: (in consultation with dissertation adviser; completed within one semester of entering the MS program)
  • Committee meetings must be scheduled at least once a year and the committee-meeting-report form must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office.
  • Coursework (variable depending on curricular track and student interests; only core required courses are listed; students should consult the typical coursework schedule, their first-year adviser, their thesis adviser, and the Director of the appropriate curricular track for required and potential elective courses for the curricular track(s) of interest for a specific checklist of courses)
  • Complete communication requirements.
  • In consultation with thesis adviser and master’s committee, determine when thesis research is nearing completion and begin to concentrate on writing the thesis.
  • Obtain a copy of the Thesis Guide from the Graduate School.
  • Activate intent to graduate on LionPATH during the semester of intended graduation; see Thesis, Dissertation and Performance Calendar; deadline is typically within the first two weeks of the semester.
  • By the semester deadline date, submit a draft of the thesis to the Office of Theses and Dissertations for format review.
  • Draft of thesis submitted to thesis adviser for approval to distribute to other members of the master’s committee.
  • Copies of the draft thesis to all members of master’s committee.
  • Final revisions to thesis in response to comments from members of master’s committee.
  • Obtain signatures of thesis adviser and master’s committee members on Approval Page.
  • Review and approval of thesis by Program Chair (allow one week for review).
  • Submit final thesis to the eTD Website by the deadline date.
  • Submit signed master’s approval page and fee (payable here) to the Office of Theses and Dissertations.
  • Acceptance of thesis by The Graduate School.

Note: The student is responsible for meeting all time schedule requirements for their degree.

PhD Requirements for the MD/PhD Joint Degree

Overview Expand answer

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has long recognized the need for dually trained physician-scientists to translate the discoveries of basic science laboratories into effective clinical treatments. Scientists with doctoral level training in both the practice of clinical medicine and research are important practitioners of this critical step in the discovery of new medical treatments. The College of Medicine has had a formal MD/PhD joint-degree program in support of this goal since 1995.

After successful completion of the first two years of medical school (M1 and M2) and Step 1 of the USMLE, the candidate enters the BMS Graduate Program to pursue the work required for the PhD degree. To earn the PhD portion of this joint degree, a student must: (A) complete the appropriate curricular track maintaining at least a 3.00 grade-point average (GPA) as defined below (4. Curricular Requirements) for the MD/PhD degree in the BMS Graduate Program; (B) pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1, which serves as the candidacy examination for candidates for the MD/PhD degree; (C) constitute his/her doctoral committee; (D) demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language in reading, writing, and speaking prior to scheduling the comprehensive examination; (E) pass the comprehensive examination typically prior to the beginning of the second year of graduate school (G2); (F) conduct dissertation research; (G) have at least one first-author publication accepted or published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal based on their dissertation research prior to the final oral examination; and (H)) prepare a dissertation and defend it in the final oral examination.

At the end of this section, a checklist is provided for following progress toward the joint degree.

Laboratory Rotations and Selection of Dissertation Adviser Expand answer

At least three laboratory rotations are completed by the end of Year M2 as detailed by the MD/PhD Program. Students are strongly encouraged to do at least one of the three rotations during the summer prior to matriculation into the MD/PhD program. Typically, the dissertation adviser is selected during Year M2 and the student enters this research laboratory after passing the USMLE Step 1.

Curricular Track Expand answer

Due to curricular overlap with the medical and graduate programs, all MD/PhD students are in the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) track, permitting the most flexibility in designing their curriculum.

Registration Expand answer

Each student is responsible for proper registration each semester via LionPATH. Prior to completion of the comprehensive examination, a student must be registered for at least nine credits each semester (excluding the summer semester) to maintain full-time student status. In situations where the total number of credits derived from formal coursework does not equal nine, additional required credits are secured by registering for an appropriate number of credits of Individual Studies (BMS 596) prior to passing the candidacy examination (USMLE Step 1 examination for MD/PhD students) or Thesis Research (BMS 600) after passing the candidacy examination but prior to passing the comprehensive examination.

All formal coursework is generally completed prior to the scheduling of the comprehensive examination. After completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for Thesis Preparation (601). A student remains eligible to take courses following successful completion of this examination, although this eligibility may have limitations. Each student should consult with the dissertation adviser and/or the appropriate Director for details and limitations.

It is important to note that students with a half-time assistantship may register for no more than 12 credits. Therefore, there may be circumstances where a student may be engaged in laboratory rotations or dissertation research but may not, due to the 12-credit maximum, register for Individual Studies or Thesis Research.

Coursework and Scholarship and Research Integrity Expand answer

The required courses for the M1, M2, G1 and G2 years of the MD/PhD joint-degree program, with the typical time for taking each course, are visible here.

Elective courses in the M1 and G1 years are chosen in consultation with the MD/PhD Steering Committee, the BMS Graduate Program Chair, the BMS track director and/or the dissertation adviser. Electives in the G2 year are chosen in consultation with the dissertation adviser and/or doctoral committee.

In 2009, The Graduate School instituted a requirement for training in Scholarship and Research Integrity (SARI), which for BMS students includes two components:

  • Successful completion of the CITI module “Responsible Conduct of Research – Basic Course” (completed independently online prior to June 30 of year one; accessible here
  • Passing the course BMS 591 Ethics in the Life Sciences

See details here.

Curricular Requirements Expand answer

The PhD degree in the MD/PhD joint-degree program in Biomedical Sciences is conferred on a student in recognition of excellent attainment and productive scholarship in biomedical sciences. In addition to the course requirements provided above, the student must pass all medical school courses during Years M1 and M2, and:

  • Maintain a minimum GPA of 3.00 to advance to candidacy, qualify for the comprehensive examination, and graduate. Grades for Foundations of Biomedical Research (BMS 500), Colloquium (590), other journal clubs (for example, IBIOS 580, and MICRO 572), Individual Studies (596), and Thesis Research (600) are not counted in calculating this GPA for the PhD degree from the BMS Graduate Program.
  • Successfully complete a minimum of 29 graduate credits at the 500-600 level, of which 19 must be taken at Penn State. These graduate credits include, at most, two credits of BMS 596 and do not include credits for BMS 600, 601, 610, and 611. Up to 10 credits of graduate work may be transferred from another institution. For limitations on transfer of credits, see “Transfer Credit” in the University Graduate Bulletin. The BMS Advisory Committee must approve the credit transfer request prior to submission of the request to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services for final approval.

    A student who fails to make acceptable progress in a degree program will be dropped from the program. One or more failing grades or a cumulative GPA below 3.00, calculated based on the BMS Graduate Program policy on GPA for the PhD degree described above, for any semester or session or combination of semesters and/or sessions may be considered evidence of failure to maintain satisfactory scholarship. A GPA below 3.00 automatically places a student on academic probation and the student must meet with the Program Chair to determine the course of action required to address this situation and avoid dismissal from the Program. A student receiving grades of C or below in both BMS 502 Cell and Systems Biology and BMS 503 Flow of Cellular Information during the first semester may be dismissed from the Program. Except in extreme circumstances, a student will only be permitted to drop one course during the first year because of academic difficulties in the course. The Program Advisory Committee may initiate action as described in Appendix III of the Graduate School Bulletin to terminate a student for unsatisfactory scholarship.

Seminar and Journal Club Presentations and Attendance Expand answer

Students in the Program are required to attend seminars given in the BMS Student and Outside Speaker Seminar Series. Beginning in the second year, each student will also present a seminar in the Student Seminar series on an annual basis. Students may also be required to give seminars in other series such as the seminar series in the department of their adviser or for the MD/PhD Program.

In the Spring semester for each of the G years, students sign up for one credit of BMS 590. Prior to successful completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for a grade in this course. After successful completion of the comprehensive examination, students register for this course as an audit.

Satisfactory performance in this course requires a) presenting a seminar in the Student Seminar series each year after the G1 year in the Program, b) attending at least 80 percent of the Student Seminars, c) attending at least 80 percent of the Outside Speaker Seminars; and d) providing written feedback about each seminar attended.

Attendance at other relevant seminars is highly recommended and may be required by the dissertation adviser, the MD/PhD Program, and/or the department of the adviser. These seminars are excellent opportunities to enhance knowledge of associated fields.

Students are also expected to participate annually in a journal club. Specific departments may require participation in a journal club.

Candidacy Examination Expand answer

USMLE Step 1 Replaces the Candidacy Examination for MD/PhD Students

Passage of the USMLE Step 1 replaces the requirement for passing the candidacy examination.

Approval of the Candidacy Examination Results

After the student passes the USMLE Step 1, the MD/PhD Program Administrator completes the proper forms and sends them to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services. The Chair will also provide a written statement attesting to the student’s English competence or recommendations for additional studies.

What Happens if a Student Fails the USMLE Step 1?

A student who fails the USMLE Step 1 may be given the opportunity to retake it at a future date or may be required to withdraw from the MD/PhD Program depending on their level of performance on the examination and in other aspects of the joint-degree program. The decision of whether to permit a second examination and to determine the appropriate time for its administration is at the discretion of the MD/PhD Co-Directors. If permitted to retake the examination, the student may proceed with selection of a dissertation adviser and establishment of a doctoral committee. However, the doctoral committee cannot be officially formed until the USMLE Step 1 is successfully completed. If a student fails Step 1 three times, they are dismissed from the medical school and from the MD/PhD Program. It is at the discretion of the BMS Advisory Committee and the thesis adviser as to whether the student is permitted to enter the PhD program. If allowed, the student must take and pass the BMS candidacy examination.

Doctoral Committee Expand answer

The student should confer with his/her dissertation adviser when considering members to suggest for their doctoral committee and the committee must conform to the guidelines of the Graduate School. This committee consists of four or more active members of the Penn State Graduate Faculty.

At least one committee member must be a member of the MD/PhD Steering Committee. The Advisory Committee recommends that five members be appointed to the doctoral committee, particularly in those situations where two members of the committee are from the same research group. The dissertation adviser must be a member of the doctoral committee and usually serves as chair. At least one member of the committee must be an “Outside Field Member” who must represent a field outside the candidate’s major field of study to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspectives and expertise. This member may be from a different department than the dissertation adviser or from a Program or Option different than that of the student. In addition, there must be at least one regular member of the committee whose primary appointment is in an administrative unit outside the unit in which the dissertation adviser’s (and co-adviser’s, on committees with a co-adviser) primary appointment is held.

Additionally, this “Outside Unit Member” should have no budgetary connection to the dissertation adviser (and co-adviser). Examples of conflicts of interest that would disqualify someone as the Outside Unit Member include serving as co-principal investigator on grants or other funding sources with the adviser (or co-adviser). The same individual may serve as both the Outside Field and Outside Unit Member if they fulfill the appropriate criteria.

The student submits the suggested names of members for the doctoral committee (the appropriate form is obtained from the Program Coordinator) to the BMS Advisory Committee along with a) a brief description of the role of each person on the committee, b) the rationale for including each proposed member, c) the departmental and graduate program affiliations of each member, and d) other pertinent information that will assist members of the BMS Advisory Committee in evaluating the composition of the committee. All doctoral committees must be approved by the BMS Advisory Committee and one of the Directors of the MD/PhD Program. Committee composition will be reviewed periodically to ensure its members continue to qualify for service in their designated roles.
The doctoral committee meets at least twice a year.

The committee-report form with signatures from this meeting (available from the MD/PhD Program Administrator) must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office and the MD/PhD Program Office.

Responsibilities of the Doctoral Committee

The doctoral committee is responsible for approving the broad outline of the student’s program and should review the program as soon as possible after the student’s admission to candidacy. Continuing communication among the student, the dissertation adviser, and members of the committee is strongly recommended to preclude misunderstandings and to develop a collegial relation between the candidate and the committee members.

English Competency Expand answer

All MD/PhD candidates are required to demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language, including reading, writing, and speaking. The Graduate School requires the Program to formally attest to a student’s English competency before the comprehensive examination can be scheduled.

All students are evaluated for their English competency as part of required presentations and writings in BMS 506A and 506B, seminar presentations, Colloquium, and other components of the degree program. If the student does not demonstrate acceptable competence based on the above evaluations, the student’s adviser will be responsible for providing mechanisms for improving these skills.

Examples include: 1) written and/or verbal critiques of assigned professional papers, 2) presentations in laboratory meetings, 3) additional presentations in Colloquium, and/or 4) successful completion of specific courses designated by the Advisory Committee and targeted toward written and/or spoken English as appropriate.

If remediation is required, the doctoral committee will re-evaluate the student following completion of the required studies and the student’s adviser will notify the Program Chair in writing when the student has met the English competency requirement.

Comprehensive Examination Expand answer

Purpose of the Comprehensive Examination

Successful completion of the comprehensive examination indicates that the student has a broad and in-depth background in biomedical sciences. It marks the watershed from taking courses to being a full-time researcher. The examination serves to allow the committee to thoroughly examine the student’s preparation for dissertation research.

When Does a Student Take the Comprehensive Examination?

To schedule and take the comprehensive examination, a student must be registered full or part-time, and must have a GPA of 3.00 as defined for the MD/PhD degree by the Program (see elsewhere in this handbook).

Generally, the comprehensive examination is taken when a student has finished essentially all coursework and is ready to focus on research work for the dissertation. Typically, students take the examination at the end of Year G1 or the beginning of Year G2. It is strongly encouraged not to delay beyond the end of Year G2. At the request of the Program Chair, the Associate Dean of the Graduate School officially schedules the examination. The date, time and place must be agreed upon by the student and all members of the doctoral committee. Once the date, time, and place are determined, and at least three weeks prior to the date, the student must notify the BMS Graduate Program Office to schedule the examination through the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services.

Who Administers the Comprehensive Examination?

The student’s doctoral committee administers the comprehensive examination.

Format of the Comprehensive Examination

The examination includes both writing and orally defending a research grant proposal. Students must consult the Director of their curricular track for any specific guidelines related to the required format. The examination content may be the same as or closely related to the thesis research project.

Who Grades the Comprehensive Examination?

The comprehensive examination is not given a letter grade. Two-thirds of the doctoral committee must agree that the student has passed the examination. If a failure occurs, it is the discretion of the committee to permit a second examination and to determine the approximate time for administration of the second examination. The comprehensive examination will only be given twice. A second failure will result in the withdrawal from PhD candidacy. This information is relayed to the BMS Graduate Program Office, which then notifies the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services for official entry into the student’s record.

What are the Requirements of the Student after Completion of the Comprehensive Examination?

The student must keep the doctoral committee informed of progress by at least two committee meetings per year. The dissertation adviser should be consulted for planning regular meetings of the committee. Meeting dates of the committee are recorded on the “Graduate Student Progress – Annual Review Form” and the Student Summary signed by each committee member must be submitted to the BMS Graduate Program Office.

Dissertation Research Expand answer

Critical components of PhD training are gaining the abilities to select a worthy research problem, to organize an approach for problem solving, to design and execute meaningful experiments, to interpret results cogently in light of the work of others, and to produce a scholarly exposition in written form. The candidate will assemble an independent body of work during their dissertation research that demonstrates they have gained these abilities.

Dissertation Preparation and Final Oral Examination Expand answer

Both the dissertation adviser and the student are responsible for ensuring the completion of the written dissertation and for adequate consultation with members of the doctoral committee. A formal meeting of the doctoral committee with the student to discuss the written dissertation is required prior to scheduling the final oral examination.

The written dissertation should be in its final form, with appropriate notes, bibliography, tables, etc., exhibiting polished content and style, and be reviewed and approved by the adviser for distribution to committee members at least two weeks prior to the scheduled meeting. Major revisions to the written dissertation suggested by committee members must be completed before scheduling the oral examination and the revised document is distributed to committee members at least two weeks prior to the final oral examination.

Normally, no less than three months must elapse between the comprehensive examination and final oral examination. Additionally, the graduate program must be completed within six years of passing the comprehensive examination or a second comprehensive examination is required.

After the doctoral candidate has satisfied all other requirements for the degree and upon recommendation of the dissertation adviser and the committee that the written dissertation is acceptable, the Program Chair will submit a request to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services to schedule the final oral examination.

The final oral examination should be a public seminar followed by an oral dissertation defense.

The following points may be used as guidelines for evaluation:

  • Is the research original?
  • Are proper experimental designs, appropriate techniques, and interpretation of results described in the dissertation?
  • Is the candidate able to defend the methods, findings, and conclusions of the research?
  • Is the candidate sufficiently knowledgeable of the literature to place his or her contribution in proper context?
  • Is the dissertation research worthy of publication?

The decision of the committee will be reported to the Program Chair and to the Graduate School on the forms provided by the Graduate School.

Time Limitation Expand answer

A doctoral student is required to complete the program, including acceptance of the doctoral thesis, within eight years from the date of successful completion of the candidacy examination. Extensions may be granted by the Director of Graduate Enrollment Services in appropriate circumstances.

MD/PhD students must have a submitted first-author manuscript based on their thesis research before defending their dissertation. The paper does not need to be accepted or published to defend the doctoral dissertation nor to submit the final dissertation nor (assuming all other PhD requirements have been met) to receive their PhD The final dissertation must be approved by the Office of Theses and Dissertations prior to beginning Year M3.

However, the MD/PhD Program requires that students have one first-author, peer-reviewed paper accepted or published based on their dissertation research prior to completing medical school, and preferably accepted for publication prior to returning to the third year of medical school.

MD/PhD Degree Checklist Expand answer
  • Admitted to Graduate School
  • USMLE Step 1; counts as candidacy examination (typically prior to entering the dissertation research lab)
  • Selection of dissertation adviser and graduate program (typically during Year M2)
  • Recommend members for doctoral committee to the BMS Graduate Program Advisory Committee: (in consultation with dissertation adviser; completed during the first semester of Year G1
    • At least one member of the MD/PhD Steering Committee must be on the doctoral committee
    • Official appointment of PhD doctoral committee by the Dean of the Graduate School following recommendation by BMS Advisory Committee
  • Committee meetings must be scheduled at least once a year and the committee-meeting-report form (available from the MD/PhD Program Administrator) must be filed with the BMS Graduate Program Office and the MD/PhD Program Office.
  • Coursework (variable depending on curricular track and student interests; only core required courses are listed; students should consult the typical coursework schedule, their dissertation adviser, and the Director of the appropriate curricular track for required and potential elective courses for the curricular track(s) of interest for a specific checklist of courses)
  • Complete communication requirements (prior to comprehensive examination).
  • Comprehensive examination (typically prior to the beginning Year G2; at least 3 months prior to final oral examination) arranged through Program Chair and Dean of the Graduate School.
  • In consultation with dissertation adviser and doctoral committee, determine when dissertation research is nearing completion and begin to concentrate on writing the dissertation. The defense should be scheduled for no later than March of year you plan to return to Year M3. Exceptions to this timeline must be approved by the MD/PhD Program Directors.
  • Obtain a copy of the Thesis and Dissertation Guide from the Graduate School.
  • Activate intent to graduate on LionPATH during the semester of intended graduation; see Thesis, Dissertation and Performance Calendar; deadline is typically within the first two weeks of the semester.
  • By the semester deadline date, submit a draft of the dissertation to the Office of Theses and Dissertations for format review.
  • Draft of dissertation submitted to dissertation adviser (at least four weeks before anticipated submission to all members of doctoral committee).
  • Copies of the draft dissertation including the abstract consistent with the ProQuest/UMI Agreement (limit 350 words) and vitae (one page maximum) in approved Graduate School form to all members of doctoral committee.
  • Reviewed draft dissertation returned to graduate student for major revisions (within two weeks after received).
  • Receive approval from doctoral committee to schedule final oral examination after major corrections are made.
  • Schedule final oral examination through BMS Graduate Program Office (at least three weeks in advance). The final oral examination must be scheduled on a date no later than the published Graduate School deadline for graduation in that semester.
    • MD/PhD students are required to have at least one first-author manuscript submitted based on their dissertation research prior to the final oral examination.
  • Public seminar and final oral examination no later than March of the year you plan to return to Year M3. Exceptions to this timeline must be approved by the MD/PhD Program Directors.
  • Final revisions to dissertation in response to comments from doctoral committee.
  • Obtain signatures of dissertation adviser and doctoral committee members on Approval Page.
  • Review and approval of dissertation by Program Chair (allow one week for review).
  • Submit final dissertation to the eTD Website by the deadline date.
  • Submit signed doctoral approval page, ProQuest/UMI Agreement, Survey of Earned Doctorates, and fee (payable here) to the Office of Theses and Dissertations.
  • Acceptance of dissertation by The Graduate School.
  • 25. Return to Year M3 of the MD degree program. The earliest date to return is May 1 and the latest date is July 1. Exceptions to this timeline must be approved by the MD/PhD Program Directors. Note: The final dissertation must have received final approval from the Office of Theses and Dissertations prior to beginning Year M3.

Note: The student is responsible for meeting all time schedule requirements for their degree.

Concurrent or Dual-Title Degree Programs

Overview Expand answer

The Graduate School of Penn State University permits undertaking concurrent or dual-title degree programs. For example, students can receive PhD/MBA concurrent degrees or a dual-title PhD degree in Biomedical Sciences and Clinical and Translational Sciences (see details).

Students may file a concurrent degree proposal following successful completion of the comprehensive examination or apply to the dual-title program at the time applications are solicited.

Undertaking a concurrent or dual-title degree program requires approval of the dissertation adviser, doctoral committee, the Chair of the BMS Graduate Program, and the Head of the proposed concurrent or dual-title degree program, as well as approval from the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services.

Registration for a concurrent or dual-title degree program may require payment of applicable tuition charges by the student.