Graduate Concentration in Cell and Organ Systems: Ph.D. Policy and Curriculum for students matriculated prior to 2014

The Cell and Organ Systems Graduate Concentration encompasses a wide diversity of research areas, including cell biology, organ systems physiology, extracellular matrix biology, cell signaling, developmental biology and others. It is anticipated that, given the enormous increase in gene sequence data available, there will be an increasing need for individuals broadly trained in disciplines such as these. The goal of this concentration is to provide students a rigorous environment and careful guidance in their efforts towards earning a graduate degree. The curriculum provides for a breadth of background knowledge, skill development in oral and written communication and in critical thinking and opportunities for learning a variety of research techniques. The Ph.D. degree program will emphasize the development and critical defense of an independent research project (dissertation).

Students wishing to enter this concentration are expected to have some background (at the undergraduate or graduate level) in general physiology, cell biology, biochemistry and genetics/evolutionary biology.

The requirements for the Ph.D. Degree are as follows:

  1. 16 credit hours of selected graduate level coursework
  2. a series of 2 Laboratory Tutorials or rotations (BISC 864)
  3. at least 2 semesters of teaching experience (as a Teaching Assistant)
  4. successful completion of a Graduate Preliminary Exam
  5. research on a significant scientific problem
  6. Ph.D. Candidacy Exam
  7. a Dissertation Defense

The curriculum outlined below conforms to both Department of Biological Sciences and University of Delaware policy (see Departmental Graduate Program Policy).

Graduate Curriculum

Year One:

Fall Semester
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 605 - Advanced Mammalian Physiology (core) 3
BISC 827 - Graduate Seminar (core)1 1
Teaching Assistantship2 0
BISC 864 - Research Tutorial3 2

Winter Session4

Spring Semester
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 612 - Advanced Cell Biology (core) 3
BISC 827 - Graduate Seminar (core) 1
BISC 864 - Research (Laboratory Tutorial) 2
Teaching Assistantship 0
BISC 868 - Research5 Variable
Summer Session
Course Name and Number Credits
Graduate Preliminary Exam -
BISC 868 - Research6 Variable

Year Two:

Fall Semester
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 6XX - Elective (core) 3
BISC 827 - Graduate Seminar (core) 1
Teaching Assistantship 0
BISC 9646 Variable
Spring Semester
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 806 - Current Topics in Cell and Organ Systems, or

BISC 833 - Special Topics in Biology (core)

BISC 827 - Graduate Seminar (core) 1
Teaching Assistantship 0
BISC 964 - Research Variable

Year Three:

Until successful completion of qualifying exam
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 964 - Pre-candidacy Study 6
BISC 827 - Graduate Research Seminar 1

Total: 7 credits

After completion of qualifying exam
Course Name and Number Credits
BISC 969 - Doctoral Dissertation 9
BISC 827 - Graduate Research Seminar 1

Total: 10 credits


  1. BISC 827 - Graduate Seminar is required every fall and spring semester while enrolled as a student. Students will present oral summaries of their laboratory tutorials or ongoing research.
  2. For Ph.D. students, Teaching Assistantship will be awarded to (usually) new graduate students as part of their requirement to gain teaching experience. All Ph.D. student must serve as teaching assistants at least two semesters but under usual circumstances, no more than 4 semesters (two years) will be supported on TA stipends. Generally, the TA carries with it an expectation of 20 hours/week, including in-class/laboratory time, preparation, grading, etc.
  3. For the Ph.D. program, BISC 864 credit will include, during the first year, two, two-credit Laboratory Tutorials or rotations in 2 different research labs (one of which will ultimately be chosen as the primary research lab).
  4. Ph.D. students are expected to devote full time effort during winter term of the first year in a laboratory tutorial that they will register for during spring.
  5. BISC 868 credits during the following spring semester will be considered research credit, assigned by the student's primary research advisor.
  6. Students are expected to devote summer session after the first year to full time research work towards the dissertation after completion of the preliminary examination.

Graduate Electives

The following list of graduate courses are those that can be used as Electives in the Cell and Organ Systems Concentration. However, other courses, including selected courses from other departments may also be included, with approval of the student's dissertation committee or of the Graduate Programs Committee. If a graduate level course similar in content to any of these has been accepted as graduate level transfer credit by the University, the transferred course may be used to satisfy the Concentration requirements with the approval of the Concentration coordinator.

  • BISC 602 - Molecular Biology of Animal Cells
  • BISC 615 - Vertebrate Developmental Biology
  • BISC 618 - Computer Imaging in Biology
  • BISC 625 - Cancer Biology
  • BISC 630 - Ichthyology
  • BISC 631 - The Practice of Science
  • BISC 639 - Developmental Neurobiology
  • BISC 645 - Bacterial Evolution
  • BISC 646 - Plant Cell Biology
  • BISC 656 - Evolutionary Genetics
  • BISC 660 - Environmental Physiology
  • BISC 665 - Advanced Molecular Biology & Genetics
  • BISC 667 - Biological Statistics
  • BISC 671 - Cell and Molecular Immunology
  • BISC 675 - Cardiovascular Physiology
  • BISC 679 - Virology
  • CHEM 641 - Biochemistry
  • PLSC 635 - Plant Developmental Biology

Dissertation Committees

Based on tutorials and discussions with different faculty members, students should choose a primary research advisor as soon as possible and prior to the end of their first academic year in the program. This advisor must have a primary or secondary appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences. With the help of the advisor, the student should then select 4-6 additional advisory committee members (minimum of 2 for M.S. thesis committees), one of whom must have a primary appointment outside the Department of Biological Sciences. It is expected that students will meet at least twice-yearly with their committees (see Graduate Program Policy).

Graduate Preliminary Exam in the Cell and Organ Systems Concentration

All graduate students in the Cell and Organ Systems Concentration must take an oral "Graduate Preliminary Exam," the purpose of which is to evaluate both breadth of knowledge (see the core competency list for more details) and the ability to assimilate and critically evaluate published scientific work in the field. In order to be eligible to take the preliminary exam, students must have completed first year core courses (BISC 605 and BISC 612) with a grade of B or better. In all cases, the student is expected to correct all deficiencies in their performance in the first year curriculum by the end of the semester after the deficiency occurred but no later than the end of their third semester in the program. If the applicable course is not offered, a suitable substitute will be determined by the Concentration coordinator. Failure to obtain a B or better in a required course in the second attempt will make the student subject to dismissal from the graduate program. Students are expected to take the preliminary exam within six weeks after the first year curriculum has been successfully completed. If the student fails to complete the preliminary exam by this time, the student will be subject to dismissal.

The examining committee (4 faculty members appointed by the Concentration coordinator each year) will assemble a selection of scientific articles and screen these for consistency in terms of depth and breadth of information covered. Each article will have associated with it, 2-3 secondary or "backup" papers that provide additional background on the topic. The committee will eventually select a candidate pool of 3-4 of these collected papers to present to the students taking the exam. Each student will read through the articles and eventually select one (along with its designated backup papers) to be the basis of their prelim exam. This selection must be communicated to the examining committee.

The student will then be responsible for demonstrating a thorough understanding of all aspects of this work, including tangential areas of methodology, interpretation of results, significance in the context of other work in the field, and any related background (die physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, cell biology, etc). Some questions may derive from published articles or textbook materials that are not specifically included in the paper set; it is up to the student to determine what areas they may need to further study by, for example, by carefully reviewing the bibliography of the selected article and the core competency list of topics. The student should have prepared a collection of overheads or slides of all figures and tables from the papers, which may be used during the questioning. Students may consult with members of the examining committee prior to the exam to clarify information or breadth of coverage.

An approximate timetable is as follows:

  • May 1: Examining Committee makes available to students the selected paper sets
  • June 1: Each student informs the Examining Committee of their selection
  • June 15-30: Administration of prelim exam (individually)

There are four possible outcomes: unconditional pass, conditional pass, re-examination, or failure. The student will be informed of the outcome after brief deliberations of the committee and this outcome will also be transmitted to the Graduate Program Director. A conditional pass may be appropriate if the committee felt that the student did not have an adequate background or understanding in one or more specific areas. The conditional pass will be communicated to the student along with specific requirements for strengthening these areas and completing the unconditional pass. These requirements may include one or more specific courses, which must be completed with grades of B or better, specific Teaching Assistantship assignments, special problems or others. The student must inform the Graduate Program Director and the Concentration coordinator when these conditions have been completed. In cases where the committee feels there are more significant problems in background or communication skills the committee may decide on a re-examination. This will be done using the same format and prior to the beginning of the next academic semester. If the student still does not perform satisfactorily on this re-examination, he/she will then be terminated from the Concentration and recommended to the Graduate affairs committee for dismissal from the graduate program. Finally, the examining committee may find that a candidate lacks the skills or motivation to successfully complete a graduate program and may then decide on failure without the possibility of re-examination.

Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

The Ph.D. Candidacy Exam consists of two parts:

  1. a comprehensive, formal written Research Proposal
  2. an oral exam (qualifying exam)

The purpose of this requirement is to determine whether a candidate for the Ph.D. degree has reached the level of critical understanding of their own selected research area to make an independent and significant contribution to that field. Specifically, the exam should determine the student's ability to identify a specific problem or question, design appropriate experiments to address this problem, critically evaluate shortcomings or potential pitfalls and to effectively communicate the importance and significance of their work in the context of ongoing research in that area (i.e., knowledge of the primary research literature). The Candidacy Exam should be taken before the end of the student's sixth academic semester.

The Candidacy Exam is administered by an examining committee consisting of 4-5 members of the Dissertation Committee, but excluding the primary research advisor. The student should choose one member of this group to serve as chairperson, who will then be responsible for coordinating the exam and for writing a detailed report on the outcome. This report may include perceived strengths and weaknesses, as well as specific recommendations for changes or modifications in the student's research plan. The student and chairperson should agree on a specific date for the oral portion of the exam.

Research Proposal

The student will be responsible for independently writing a detailed research proposal, following a format that would be used for an NIH grant proposal. This should include the following sections:

  1. specific aims
  2. background and literature review, including critical assessment of the field and how the proposed research will contribute to it
  3. a statement of how the specific aims might relate to long term goals
  4. a detailed summary of proposed experiments and methods to be used.

This latter section should also include a description of how the results will be analyzed, as well as potential pitfalls and contingency plans for dealing with unforeseen obstacles. All cited work should be fully referenced with complete authors and titles. If appropriate, a Preliminary Results section may also be included; however, the major portion of the oral exam will focus on the proposed work. The proposal should be an actual, realistic outline of the work the student expects to complete during the remaining time here. The proposal should be presented to members of the Dissertation (Examining) Committee at least two weeks before the exam date.

Qualifying Exam

The oral exam will consist of an initial, 30-45 minute presentation by the student, summarizing the research proposal and preliminary results. Generally, this portion should be uninterrupted, except for occasional questions for clarification (i.e., a seminar format). The major part of this presentation should focus on the experiments yet to be done, the methods to be used and the strategies behind the experimental approach. Following this presentation the committee members will ask questions related to all aspects of the proposal, including literature and background, methods and significance. The goals of this exam are to assess both the preparedness and critical thinking ability of the student and the feasibility and validity of the proposed work. The student may meet with members of the committee before the exam to determine topics and areas that that member might feel are appropriate to cover in the exam. As with the Graduate Preliminary Exam, the four possible outcomes of the Candidacy Exam are: unconditional pass, conditional pass, re-examination, or failure. Again, the examining committee may make specific recommendations for changes in the proposal or in the student's preparation, in order to revert a conditional pass into an unconditional pass. Likewise, a re-examination will require significant re-writing of the research proposal and a second Qualifying Exam. If the Examining Committee determines that a student has failed, either on the first or second round, a recommendation may be made for either terminating the student from the graduate program or offering a terminal M.S. degree.

Dissertation Defense

The Ph.D. Dissertation must be defended in a public presentation. The format is a formal seminar summarizing the work done and its significance, followed by general questions from the audience and, finally, a questioning period by the Dissertation Committee.