Ph.D. Requirements

The following academic requirements, policies, and procedures are also available for download in PDF format:

PB Requirements 2015

  1. Course Requirements for the Ph.D. Degree
  2. Guidance Committee
  3. Laboratory Rotations for Non-targeted Ph.D. Student
  4. Targeted Ph.D. Students
  5. Teaching Requirement
  6. Preliminary PhD Comprehensive Examination
  7. Dissertation
  8. Evaluation of Research
  9. Period of Study
  10. Statute of Limitations

Appendix C: Evaluation of PhD practicum/rotations

Course Requirements

General Guidelines

Doctoral degree candidates must comply with the Graduate School requirement that the equivalent of at least one continuous academic year of full-time graduate work (9 credits per semester) must be spent in residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

A student must earn 15 credits in formal course work. This requirement must be satisfied by completing the one-year PB core course curriculum (PB I and PB II) plus additional program-related elective courses such as those listed below. A grade of B- or better must be earned in the PB core courses. In the remaining courses that a student is offering to satisfy degree requirements, a minimum standard for satisfactory work is a 3.0 grade point average. A student who in any two semesters, consecutive or otherwise, has semester averages of below 2.8 is subject to dismissal. The typical academic load for first year PhD students in PB is: First semester: PB I (3 credits); PB related elective course (3 credits); Research rotation (2 credits); Seminar (1 credit). Second semester: PB II (2 credits); PB related elective course (3 credits); Rotation (2 credits); Seminar (1 credit); Journal club (1 credit).

Program-related elective courses for the PB Program

BIOLOGY 891PB PB I - Topics in Plant Biology Research (fall)
BIOCHEM 694A PB II - Topics in Plant Biology Research (spr)
BIOCHEM 623 Advanced General Biochemistry
BIOLOGY 510 Plant Physiology
BIOLOGY 514 Population Genetics
BIOLOGY 559 Cellular and Molecular Biology II
BIOLOGY 583 Advanced Genetics
BIOLOGY 621(421) Topics in Plant Ecology
BIOLOGY 697 Plant Cell and Molecular Biology
MOLCLBIO 641 Advanced Cellular Biology
MOLCLBIO 642 Advanced Molecular Biology
STOCKSCH 505 General Plant Pathology
STOCKSCH 510 Mgt & Ecology of Plant Diseases
STOCKSCH 523 Plant Stress Physiology
STOCKSCH 525 Mycology
STOCKSCH 535 Diagnostic Plant Pathology
STOCKSCH 555 Urban Plant Biology
STOCKSCH 575 Environ. Soil Chemistry
STOCKSCH 597A Phyto/Bioremediation
STOCKSCH 661 Intermediate Biometry

Other courses may be substituted as PB related electives with permission of the Graduate Operations Committee (GOC).

Journal Clubs

Participation in one journal club is required each semester, not including summer. The exception is the first semester of the first year. Students may enroll in a journal club offered by another department or graduate program. Note that some journal clubs require consent of the instructor to enroll.


Each semester, the Program will sponsor a seminar series. The seminars are held on Thursdays at 4:00 PM and feature a research talk from an invited speaker. The speakers for the Fall series are generally from the Plant Biology Program. The spring series features invited speakers on current issues in Plant Biology research. For the spring series, graduate students will have lunch with the speaker on the day of the seminar to discuss the topic. All students are required to attend the seminars and participate in the discussion sessions and should, therefore, register for 1 credit of BIOLOGY 891A, Section 4 (Seminar Series).

Guidance Committee

>The Guidance Committee of entering students (both PhD and MS) will be the Graduate Operations Committee (GOC). The Guidance Committee's role will be to help the student with potential course offerings, potential rotation mentors, and anything else relating to academics. The GOC will be constituted to reflect the balance of disciplinary interests of the Plant Biology Program and will serve as an advisory committee for the student until a Dissertation Committee has been assembled. Each student will meet with his/her Guidance Committee at least once each semester to review progress. Following the meeting, the student will summarize the decisions made and will submit the summary to the Plant Biology Program Manager for placement in his/her file.

Laboratory Rotations for Non-Targeted Ph.D. Students

Entering PB (PhD) students (unless targeted) will do two, four-month research rotations. The first rotation will run from Oct – Jan, and the second, Feb – May. The student is expected to join a lab by their first summer. In exceptional circumstances (and with approval from GOC), the student may undertake a third (three-month) research rotation (June- August). At the conclusion of the second laboratory rotation, the student will select a laboratory in which to complete their dissertation research and obtain approval from the PB faculty member to work in their laboratory.

The purpose of the laboratory rotations is to attain focused, in-depth research experience, and to learn first-hand about working with potential advisors and their laboratories. Expectations regarding time commitment (hours per week) and expected activities/accomplishments during the rotation will be decided jointly by the faculty member and student. The faculty member and student will complete a Practicum Agreement Form which will provide the following information: 1) objectives and planned activities; and 2) evaluation criteria. The student will submit the completed Practicum Agreement Form to the Graduate Program Director. The Graduate Program Director may request changes in the Practicum Agreement Form if the objectives and/or expectations are not clear. The two rotations must occur in different laboratories. Students should register for two credits of BIOLOGY 698 (Practicum) for each rotation.

  1. Fall Semester Rotation
    The Fall semester rotation will last for approximately 14 weeks, commencing the first week of October and continuing until the end of Wintersession. During the month of September, the PB program seminar series will feature brief presentations by PB faculty, aimed partially at helping students choose rotation laboratories. Students must select a laboratory for the Fall semester rotation by September 30th. The Practicum Agreement Form must be completed and returned to the Graduate Program Director by the end of the first week of October.
  2. Spring Semester Rotation
    The Spring semester rotation will commence the first week of classes and will continue to the end of the semester (approximately 14 weeks). The Practicum Agreement Form must be completed and returned to the Graduate Program Director by the end of the first week of classes.
  3. Summer Semester Rotation
    Students entering the PB program in January will complete the first laboratory rotation in Spring semester and the second laboratory rotation during Summer session. The Summer session rotation will commence the first week of June and continue for approximately 12 weeks. The Practicum Agreement Form must be completed and returned to the Graduate Program Director by the end of the first week in June.

Targeted Ph.D. Students

If a student has been in correspondence with an individual faculty member prior to submission of an application for admission and if the student has had substantial prior research experience the student can be targeted to the faculty member's laboratory and is not required to participate in rotations. Typically, a targeted student will have a MS degree or the equivalent. A faculty member targeting a student is expected to demonstrate that he/she is able to provide funding for at least two semesters and will be responsible for further funding, during the time that the student remains in his/her laboratory. All targeted students must be admitted by the Admissions Committee using criteria identical to those used for other students.

Teaching Requirement

All Ph.D. students, whether targeted or not, are required to complete two semesters of teaching while supported by a teaching assistantship (TA). The timing of the teaching requirement for targeted students will be determined by the availability of PB Teaching Assistantships.

Preliminary Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination

PB First-year core courses

All first year students (MS and PhD) will enroll in PB I (currently BIOLOGY 891PB) in the fall and PhD students will enroll in PB II (currently BIOCHEM 690A) in the spring. PB I is a three-credit-hour course, in which students have lectures from various faculty members of PB. Each faculty presents material for one week of the course and each sets the students an exam question. The faculty member will lecture in depth on a topic in plant biology. In a semester, students will hear from many but not all PB faculty. In PB II, a two-credit-hour course, students will learn how to write a grant proposal. Based on an abstract from a funded proposal, students will write a proposal implicit in the abstract. This course also includes discussion on ethical conduct in scientific research. For PB I, the course coordinator establishes the lecturing roster and collects the grades. For PB II, the coordinator runs the class itself.

A student passing both PB I and PB II (with a grade of B- or better) will be considered to have passed part one of their comprehensive exam. A student failing PB I will be given a chance to retake the exam during spring semester, presumably in the form of a typical oral comprehensive exam, as arranged by the Graduate Program Director (GPD). A student failing PB II will be given a chance to retake the exam during the summer, presumably in the form of a proposal writing exercise, as arranged by the GPD. Students that fail the second examinations will be dismissed from the Ph.D. program, and the matter will be presented to the Graduate Operations Committee to determine options available to the student.

Defense of original research proposal

General Comments

By Feb of the second semester of the second year, the PhD student will convene their Dissertation Committee. Their mentor will serve in an advisory capacity to the rest of the committee (see below for more information about this committee). The Dissertation Committee will administer part two of the comprehensive exam. This exam will be a defense of an original research proposal relating to the student's planned dissertation project. The student will write up a proposed set of experiments, including methods, potential outcomes, an introduction where the questions at stake are asked, a discussion where potential results are interpreted and potential impact on the field predicted, and a comprehensive bibliography. The student will give copies of the proposal to committee members no less than two weeks before the exam and during the exam will present the proposal orally and handle questions. In both written and oral portions, the student will be expected to demonstrate mastery of the relevant literature and concepts. The exam should take place before the end of spring semester.

The defense is designed to test the competence of the doctoral candidate in skills not evaluated by previous examinations. The skills to be tested include:

  • the ability to become expert in a limited area of the current research literature,
  • to conceive an original research project,
  • to apply newly learned tools to the investigation,
  • to envision the possible results of planned experiments,
  • to set criteria by which the data and results will be assessed,
  • and to establish reasonable priorities among possible approaches to the problem.

Detailed Guidelines

The cover page of the proposal should contain the title, the student's name, the date, and the statement: "A research proposal submitted to the Plant Biology Graduate Program, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Preliminary Comprehensive Examination."

The proposal should include:

  1. a review of the background and rationale of the problem with particular concern for recent developments in the field and
  2. a simple, concise statement of the research problem or question that the student is proposing to investigate.
  3. a lucid statement of one or more hypotheses the student has developed to investigate the problem and
  4. a moderately detailed statement of the rationale and methodology of the experiments to be carried out, an outline of the results anticipated, and a description of how the results will be interpreted.

The bibliography should provide complete citations (all authors, year, title, journal, volume, first and last page) for all cited references.

Each member of the Exam Committee will receive a copy of the proposal from the candidate, at least 14 calendar days prior to the date of the examination. Members of the Committee have up until 5 calendar days before the scheduled examination to move for rejection of the proposal as submitted. To do so, the committee members will contact the student’s mentor who, in consultation with all committee members, will decide what steps are necessary in order to proceed with the examination.

The candidate will defend his/her research proposal before the Exam Committee. In general, the candidate will be expected to open the examination with a formal presentationof approximately 30 minutes duration outlining the salient points of the proposal. During the defense, the student must show that the experimental approach proposed is scientifically valid and that the techniques to be employed will yield useful and interpretable information. The remainder of the examination will be devoted to the discussion of questions posed by individual committee members. At the conclusion of the examination the student will leave the room. The student should remain available to the committee as it deliberates and votes.

An evaluation of the candidate's performance will result in a "Pass", "Conditional Pass", or "Fail". Immediately following the examination,the Chair of the Exam Committee will communicate all comments and concerns to the candidate, and will also transmit, in writing, the results of the Examination and all recommendations of the Committee (“Pass”, “Conditional Pass”, or “Fail”) to the GPD.

A “Conditional Pass” will be accompanied by specific stipulations to the student for further work. Students who are judged to have failed the examination will receive one additional opportunity to take the examination. The second examination must be passed within six months of the first examination. Students who fail the second examination will be dismissed from the PhD program.

Immediately following the examination,the Chair of the Exam Committeewill communicate all comments and concerns to the candidate, and will also transmit, in writing, the results of the Examination and all recommendations of the Committee (“Pass”, “Conditional Pass”, or “Fail”) to the GPD.


Dissertation Committee

Students must assemble a Dissertation Committee prior to their defense of their research proposal in the fourth semester of study. The committee will consist of the Research Advisor, who will serve as the chair for the committee, plus three additional members. Two of the additional members must be faculty in the PB Program, while the third member must be outside of the PB Program. This outside member may be a graduate faculty member in another program or from a different department than the committee chair. The names of the committee members must be submitted to the PB office and subsequently approved by the Graduate Operations Committee and the Graduate School. It is the responsibility of the Dissertation Committee to monitor the student's research and progress toward the Ph.D. degree. The Dissertation Committee shall meet with the student at least once per year to discuss the course of the research and will file a brief report with the GPD as appropriate. It is the responsibility of the student to arrange these annual meetings.

Dissertation Prospectus

A student is required to present a Dissertation Prospectus to his/her Dissertation Committee and receive approval of its contents by the end of the sixth semester of study. The prospectus must be submitted to the Graduate School at least seven months prior to the date of the Final Doctoral Oral Examination. It must be accompanied by a cover sheet signed by each member of the Dissertation Committee. A copy of the prospectus must be placed in the student’s file in the PB office.

Final Doctoral Oral Examination (Dissertation Defense)

The format of the Ph.D. dissertation document is set by the Graduate School (Refer to the Graduate School website: Doctoral Degree Requirements and Dissertation Information). It is the responsibility of the student to learn about and follow the rules governing the dissertation format. The student must deliver his/her completed dissertation to the Dissertation Committee no later than four weeks before the Final Oral Examination. The time and place of the Final Oral Examination must be publicly announced by the Graduate School; information as to the time and place of the examination must, therefore, be submitted to the Graduate School by the Graduate Program Director at least four weeks prior to the examination.

The Final Oral Examination will consist of two parts. The student will first present an open seminar on his/her research results. The seminar will be followed by questioning by the Dissertation Committee. The seminar and the questioning by the committee can take place on the same day or on different days. The student will then submit the Doctoral Degree Eligibility form to the Graduate Program Director for submission to the Graduate School (see Forms for Graduate Students).

Evaluation Of Research

To be successful at research, a student must perform well in a number of areas.

Beginning with the one-semester rotation, a student’s performance will be assessed each semester as described in Appendix C. The evaluation will be placed in the student’s file in the PB office; a copy will be sent to the student.

Students with “Poor” evaluations for two consecutive semesters will lose their stipends (TA or RA) and be terminated from the Program.

Period Of Study

It is expected that students will complete the Ph.D. degree in four to five years. Funding (TA/RA) will be guaranteed for up to five years contingent upon satisfactory progress towards the Ph.D. degree. Funding beyond five years may be provided based on approval by the Dissertation Committee and the PB Director.

Statute Of Limitations

The Graduate School has established a six-year Statute of Limitations for the Ph.D. degree.