The PhD in Biology is a research degree requiring graduate-level coursework, completion of a dissertation, and two semesters of participation in teaching (usually as a teaching fellow in laboratory or discussion sections of lecture courses led by Biology faculty). For most students, obtaining this degree typically involves five or more years of full-time study.
The Biology Department guarantees support for five years for all PhD students, contingent on satisfactory performance in the program.
1. Demonstrate academic mastery in one of three areas of Biology: Ecology, Evolution, Behavior & Marine Biology; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
2. Attain research expertise, including grant writing experience, and complete original research that advances a specific field of study within one of three broad subject areas represented in the department: Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
3. Attain teaching experience and expertise in one of three broad areas of Biology: Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology; Neurobiology; or Cellular & Molecular Biology.
4. Attain the skills and qualifications needed for employment in an academic, government, or private sector position related to the life sciences.
Students must complete 64 credits with a minimum grade point average of 3.0; at least 32 of these credits must be accrued from lecture, laboratory, or seminar courses. Students with prior graduate work may be able to transfer course credits. See the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GRS) Transfer of Credits policy for more details.
- 2 semesters of Progress in Research Seminars (2 credits each):
- 1 semester grant-writing course (2 credits):
Cell & Molecular Biology: BI 581
Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology: BI 671
Neurobiology: BI 581
- 1 semester pedagogy course (1 credit): All Biology PhD students take BI 697
- 1 quantitative course (3–4 credits): from a list of recommended courses.
- Additional courses vary by specific track below:
Cell & Molecular Biology
1. GRS BI 791/GRS BI 792 Graduate Rotation Credits (2 credits each/4 credits total)
2. GRS BI 753 Advanced Molecular Biology (4 credits)
3. GRS MB 721 Graduate Biochemistry (4 credits)
4. GRS BI 735 Advanced Cell Biology (4 credits)
6. Research credits (remaining credits)
Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology
2. Research credits (remaining credits)
Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology PhD candidate coursework is highly variable. Students, in consultation with advisors, develop a plan of coursework and research. Students are required to take a minimum of 32 credits of coursework. The remainder of the credits should be research.
1. GRS BI 791/GRS BI 792 Graduate Rotation Credits (2 credits each/4 credits total)
2. GRS BI 755 Cellular and Systems Neuroscience (4 credits)
3. GRS BI 741 Neural Systems: Functional Circuit Analysis (4 credits)
5. Research credits (remaining credits)
The department requires a minimum of two semesters of teaching as part of the Doctor of Philosophy program. During the first semester of teaching, students are required to enroll in our first-year seminar course, GRS BI 697 A Bridge to Knowledge. The course provides guidance and training on pedagogy and other aspects of graduate school.
The qualifying examination must be completed no later than six semesters after matriculation. In most graduate curricula in the department, this consists of a research proposal—often in the form of a grant application—which the student submits to their committee and subsequently defends in an oral presentation. In the Cell & Molecular Biology and Ecology, Behavior, Evolution & Marine Biology curricula, this is preceded by a comprehensive written examination testing the student’s general background from coursework.
Dissertation & Final Oral Examination
Candidates shall demonstrate their abilities for independent study in a dissertation representing original research or creative scholarship. A prospectus for the dissertation must be completed and approved by the readers, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Biology Department Chair. Candidates must undergo a final oral examination in which they defend their dissertation as a valuable contribution to knowledge in their field and demonstrate a mastery of their field of specialization in relation to their dissertation. All portions of the dissertation and final oral examination must be completed as outlined in the GRS General Requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree. The results of the dissertation must be presented at a department colloquium.
Forms and additional information about PhD graduation can be found on the GRS website.
9 – 12 months before proposed graduation date
- Dissertation Prospectus & approval form due to Graduate Program Specialist for departmental review and submission to GRS
Semester prior to your intended graduation cycle
- Intent to Graduate Form completed online
About 2 months before dissertation defense
- Meet with Graduate Program Specialist, Director of Graduate Studies, and Faculty Advisor to review requirements for defense
- Arrange for Special Service Appointments if committee members are not BU faculty
- Send first draft of dissertation to readers
Once defense date is confirmed with committee
- Reserve room(s) for public seminar and defense
At least three weeks prior to dissertation defense
- Schedule of Final Oral Exam with Abstract Approval due to GRS
- Properly formatted draft of dissertation submitted as PDF to firstname.lastname@example.org
At least two weeks prior to dissertation defense
- Send dissertation to all committee members
At least one week prior to dissertation defense
- Send program information to Graduate Program Specialist
See the Graduate Program Guide for final dates to submit dissertation to ETD
- Submit final dissertation to ETD (online submission)
- Complete electronic signature page and forward confirmation to Graduate Program Specialist along with a copy of your submitted dissertation
MS Degree (En Route to PhD)
Option one: A PhD student who has advanced to candidacy (as demonstrated by passing the PhD qualifying exam), and has completed 32 credits of graduate-level coursework (not including research) may apply to the Graduate School for an MS degree in Biology. This must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies within the Biology Department. The student’s major professor will receive notification of this application process.
Option two: A PhD student who has taken, but has not advanced to candidacy based on the PhD qualifying examination, may still receive an MS degree. This student may receive a Coursework MS degree provided they have completed 32 credits of coursework (not including research credits). Alternatively, this student may receive a Scholarly Paper or Research Thesis MS degree if the written portion of the qualifying examination is adapted to ensure it is of sufficiently high quality for a MS degree, and approved by a majority of the qualifying exam committee and the Director of Graduate Studies.
Interdisciplinary Study Options
Biology PhD students have the option to participate in the Boston University Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN), the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program Understanding the Brain: Neurophotonics (NSF NRT UtB: Neurophotonics), and the Biogeoscience Advanced Graduate Certificate Program. These programs require separate applications in addition to the standard Biology PhD application; those interested in BU URBAN are encouraged pre-apply.
Officially, the PhD must be completed within seven years after the first registration for doctoral study. PhD degrees are conferred in either May, August, or January, as specified on the GRS website. In addition, the PhD candidacy expires after the fifth anniversary of passing the Qualifying Examination. Petitions to extend this deadline are possible at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies, the Department Chair, and the Dean of the Graduate School, and can be obtained from the Office of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
The Biology Department guarantees support for five years for all PhD students, contingent on satisfactory performance in the program. PhD students are encouraged to apply for fellowships and grants at funding agencies. All domestic students should apply for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships in the Fall semester of their first or second year.
Travel Grants may be available to assist students in their travel to professional scientific meetings; students presenting papers or posters on their research will receive first consideration.
Common Types of Funding:
Dean’s Fellowships: These are non-service fellowships allocated to first-year PhD students that do not have immediate teaching requirements.
Teaching Fellowships: These provide a stipend plus full tuition and fees for up to four full courses per semester plus a 2-credit teaching course. Teaching responsibilities usually require approximately 20 hours per week. Full or partial awards may be given.
Doctoral Research Fellowships: These awards are given to students who assist individual faculty with specific areas of research. These Research Fellowships provide a stipend and full tuition. The supervising faculty member determines the specific duties of the Research Fellow.
In addition to the above funding sources, several competitive Department awards and fellowships are available to graduate students in the Department of Biology.