Ph.D. Degree

1. Course Requirements

At least 72 hours of graduate coursework are required, including

  • 24 credit hours of BSC 699 (Dissertation Research)
  • At least 39 graded semester hours (i.e., not Pass/Fail), which may include
    • Up to 6 graded hours of BSC 507 (Research Techniques in Biology)
    • Up to 6 graded hours of BSC 607 (Advanced Research Techniques in Biology)
    • Letter graded courses including BSC 695 (Special Topics)

Up to 9 hours of Pass/Fail credit can be applied toward fulfillment of degree requirements.  Pass/Fail hours can include BSC 698 (Non-Dissertation Research) and up to a total of 4 semester hours of BSC 601 (continuous enrollment in BSC 601 is required).

NOTE: Of the 48 semester hours other than BSC 699, 24 must carry the BSC designation.

All students must pass the Preliminary Examination and gain degree candidacy before enrolling in BSC 699.  Once a student has enrolled in BSC 699, they must continue to enroll in at least 3 semester hours of BSC 699 every semester until they graduate.

As per Section 4.11 of the Graduate School Catalog, all doctoral students must have a completed Outline of Ph.D. Plan of Study approved by the Graduate School no later than the semester during which the student will complete 30 semester hours of UA and/or transfer credit toward the doctoral degree. Otherwise, a “hold” may be placed on future course registrations. This document is available on the Department of Biological Sciences website.

All graduate credits taken in the doctoral program must be in courses numbered 500 or above.

BSC 599 may not be applied toward this degree.

A Ph.D. coursework fill-in sheet to assist in tracking progress toward meeting course requirements is available on the Department of Biological Sciences website and at the end of this document.

*All graduate forms must be submitted through the Graduate Program Office in SEC 1325.

Transfer credits

With the approval of the student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee and the Dean of the Graduate School, up to 24 of the required course hours may be transferred from another institution.  Submit the Request for the Transfer of Graduate Credit to the Graduate Office who will submit it to the Graduate School during the first semester enrolled at the University of Alabama.  If the student earned an M.S. at the University of Alabama, all applicable hours (i.e., course hours for which graduate credit has been received in the same department or in a closely affiliated department, but not including BSC 598 or BSC 599) may transfer to the Ph.D. program.  The number of hours that qualify for transfer is at the discretion of the Department of Biological Sciences, as recommended by the student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee and as approved by the Dean of the Graduate School.  Subject to the approval of the student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee, graduate courses in allied departments may be taken to meet the remainder of the requirements. Transfer credits are considered Pass/Fail for calculation of grade point average, but are included in the 48 required graded course hours, provided they are from graded courses.

2. Residency

The student must spend an academic year (two semesters) in continuous residence on the campus of The University of Alabama as a full-time student in the Graduate School.  However, the student can meet the requirement with any one of the following four enrollment options:

  1. a full-time fall semester plus full-time enrollment the next spring;
  2. a full-time summer (consisting of 2 full-time summer terms) plus the following full-time fall semester;
  3. a full-time spring semester plus the next full-time summer semester (consisting of 2 full-time summer terms); or
  4. a full-time spring semester plus the following full-time fall semester.

To meet this requirement, only non-dissertation coursework can be applied.  Dissertation or thesis research (BSC 599 or BSC 699) cannot be used.  Distance-learning courses delivered online or by any other distance-learning format may not be used to satisfy the doctoral residency requirement.

The minimum period in which the doctoral degree can be earned is three full academic years of graduate study after completion of a baccalaureate degree, although in most disciplines the period is longer.  Graduate teaching assistants (GTA) or graduate research assistants (GRA) whose work assignments are 3 semester hours (i.e. 10-12 work hours or 0.25 FTE) per week or more should expect to spend more than the minimum period of three academic years to earn a doctoral degree.

3. Advisory committees

Ph.D. Advisory Committee

A student must form a Ph.D. Advisory Committee prior to their first semester review meeting. The first committee meeting is to be held after completion of the first semester of studies (by January 31st for students entering in the fall semester and by June 30th for students entering in the spring semester) to evaluate progress toward a degree. In subsequent years of study, the committee will meet prior to December 15th to review progress during the previous academic year (see Section A.5 below). It will also meet as needed to administer all qualifying and final examinations, and to examine and approve the dissertation.

The Ph.D. Advisory Committee must consist of at least five members.  All members of a Ph.D. Advisory Committee must be members of the Graduate Faculty. The Ph.D. Advisory Committee may include one member from outside the student’s major department and may be from another research institution. The Department Chair is a non-voting, ex officio member of all graduate student committees.

Ph.D. Dissertation Committee

Once a Ph.D. student has passed his/her preliminary examinations (step 8, section 4 below) and been admitted to candidacy the advisory committee must be modified to include at least one member from outside the student’s major department. This external member may be from another institution. This external Ph.D. Dissertation Committee member may replace an existing Ph.D. advisory committee member. However, the Ph.D. Dissertation Committee must consist of at least five members including the external member: All of who are voting members regarding the candidate’s progress toward degree.

The student’s major professor will nominate Ph.D. Advisory Committee members to the Department Chair using the Ph.D. Appointment or Change of Committee Form. The Graduate Program Office will forward this nomination to the Dean of the Graduate School who will make formal appointments. Nominations of outside members from other institutions require the nominee’s CV, a letter of support explaining the need for temporary graduate faculty status submitted by the student’s major professor and a formal request for the temporary graduate faculty appointment from the Department Chair. Nominations should be submitted to the Graduate Program Office who will direct the form to the Department Chair, who will then relay the formal request to the Graduate School.

The Department Chair will remain a non-voting, ex officio member of all graduate student committees.

In accordance with Graduate School policy, this external committee member must be nominated and in place within one year of the projected dissertation date.

4. Degree Time Line

Students must meet the following milestones by the times indicated in order to maintain the highest priority for financial assistance and achieve an acceptable evaluation score at annual performance reviews.

Rotation (if necessary)Complete prior to first annual review
Choose a research mentorComplete prior to first annual review
Choose Ph.D. advisory committeeComplete prior to first annual review
Plan of StudyPresent to committee at 1st annual evaluation (no later than the semester during which the student will complete 30 semester hours of UA and/or transfer credit; submit form)
First semester reviewAfter completing the first semester of studies (by Jan. 31 for students entering in the fall semester and June 30 for students entering in the spring)
Dissertation research proposalPresent to committee for approval prior to or during 2nd annual review
Annual reviewsPrior to Dec. 15 of 2nd academic year, as well as any subsequent years of study
Preliminary ExamsComplete by the end of the fifth semester
Establish Ph.D. dissertation committeePrior to one year before expected dissertation date, establish one external committee member and submit Appointment or Change of Doctoral Dissertation Committee Form.
Take dissertation credits (BSC 699)Beginning of the sixth semester (but not before completion of preliminary exams)
Apply for graduationNo later than the first week of classes of the intended semester of graduation
Submit dissertation to committee and departmentAt least two weeks prior to oral defense
Formal departmental defense and oral defenseComplete by the end of the fourth or fifth year (depending on highest degree upon entering program)
Submit dissertation (final form) to Graduate SchoolSubmit electronically to the Graduate School along with the Committee Acceptance Form for Electronic Thesis or Dissertation and the Publication form for Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. See Graduate School deadlines for the last day to submit.

Once the preliminary exam is completed, the Continuous Dissertation Registration for Doctoral Students requirement applies. Once a student has met the requirements for admission to candidacy, received approval for the dissertation research proposal, or initiated enrollment in 699 (dissertation research for a doctoral degree), the student must pursue completion of the dissertation without interruption by enrolling each fall and spring semester of the academic year for at least 3 hours of dissertation research. See Section 4.6 of the Graduate School Catalog for details.

In accordance with to Graduate School policy, all requirements for the doctoral degree must be completed within a period of seven years following admission to the doctoral program. Credits earned towards an M.S. degree may be applied to the doctoral degree if they were earned during the 6-year period prior to admission to the doctoral program. If a student fails to register for three consecutive years, the student must reapply for admission. The Department expectation is that Ph.D. students complete their degree in accordance with the Ph.D. timeline as outlined in this section. A Ph.D. timeline checklist is available on the Department of Biological Sciences website and at the end of this handbook. Each student’s checklist will be updated at each annual progress review and appended to the report submitted by the advisor to the Department Chair.

*All graduate forms must be submitted through the Graduate Program Office in SEC 1325.

5. Annual Progress Review

Each graduate student will meet annually prior to December 15 with her/his Ph.D. Advisory Committee for the purpose of reviewing the student’s progress toward a degree during the previous academic year. First-year students must meet with their committee after completing the first semester of studies (by January 31st for students entering in the fall semester and by June 30th for students entering in the spring semester). These evaluations are a part of the data used to establish priorities for assistantships. The student is expected to make a formal presentation to the committee during the annual meeting.  This presentation shall include a description of progress made with respect to research and completion of other degree requirements.  When the presentation has been completed, the student will be asked to leave the room and the committee shall then evaluate the student’s progress. This evaluation will be in the form of a ranking from 1 to 5. Guidelines for these rankings are given below:

  1. A score of 1 indicates the student’s progress is unacceptable for reasons such as a GPA of less than 3.0 for the year in all (both graduate and undergraduate) courses attempted, insufficient research progress, or not completing the degree within time limits without an acceptable/approved reason.
  2. A score of 2 must be given to students who have fallen behind schedule with respect to such requirements as formation of a committee, literature search and submission of a research proposal, writing of the thesis or dissertation, etc. (see timeline under Section C.4). Little or no research progress during the year may also result in a score of 2. It may apply to a student receiving less than a B in a course during the previous year even though the (overall) GPA is 3.0 or higher. Committees awarding a score higher than 2 for students who have fallen behind schedule must provide a written rationale to the Graduate Committee and the Department Chair.
  3. A score of 3 indicates that the student has made satisfactory research progress commensurate with his/her time in the program, has maintained at least a 3.0 GPA, and has met other requirements of the program (e.g., formed a committee, presented a research proposal, etc.) in a timely manner.
  4. A score of 4 is assigned only when there is clear evidence of above average or unusual accomplishments. Accomplishments deserving of a score of 4 would include one of the following:
    • Presentation of research at a national or international meeting.
    • Submission of a research proposal for funding external to the University.
    • Fellowship award external to the department.
    • Any honor or award reflecting outstanding achievement.
    • Having a junior authorship on a paper published or accepted/in press for publication.
  5. A score of 5 is reserved for truly exceptional achievements made during the previous year. Accomplishments would include two or more of those listed under criterion 4 (above) or one of the following:
    • Having a research proposal funded.
    • Having a first-authored paper published or accepted/in press for publication.
    • Receiving an invitation to speak at a symposium or conference.


The major professor shall inform the student in writing of the committee’s evaluation within 2 weeks of the meeting.  A copy of this report shall be sent to the Department Chair, Graduate Directors and the student’s committee members via the Biological Sciences Graduate Student Evaluation portal. Since the committee evaluations are taken into consideration when assigning teaching assistantships and awarding research/travel funds, it is imperative that they be completed and submitted by January 10th of each year (March 1 or August 1 for first-year students beginning in the fall or spring semesters respectively)

Since the committee evaluations are taken into consideration when assigning teaching assistantships, it is imperative that they be completed and submitted to the Department Chair by January 10th of each year. It is the responsibility of the student and committee to see that this is done.  Failure to complete evaluations by this date will result in the student not being considered for graduate teaching assistantships.

6. Dissertation Research Proposal

A formal research proposal is required. The proposal should be defended no later than the second annual progress review held in the fall semester of the student’s third year in the Graduate Program. A new proposal will be required if the dissertation research changes significantly. This proposal should include:

  1. A full but concise statement of the specific goals of the research.
  2. A review of the relevant literature to place the proposed work in a solid theoretical context.
  3. A discussion of the significance of the proposed research and how it addresses a novel question.
  4. A description of the experimental design, including experimental methods, procedures, and methods used in analysis and interpretation of results.
  5. Literature citations.
  6. Budget.

7. Preliminary Exams

Ph.D. students must pass both a Written Preliminary Exam and an Oral Preliminary Exam before candidacy is granted. Both Preliminary Exams should be completed prior to finishing the student’s sixth semester in the Graduate Program.

A. Written Preliminary Exam

The department uses two forms of the written exam. The advisor must approve which exam the student will take.

Option 1: Traditional

The examination shall be arranged and administered by the major professor. Each member of the Ph.D. Advisory Committee shall contribute five questions. The outside member of the committee is encouraged but is not required to participate in the exam.  However, if they do not, then the student’s committee for the purpose of this exam must consist of at least 5 members from inside the department. The examination shall be administered over no more than 14 consecutive days with one day allowed for each set of questions. Each answer will be graded “Pass” or “Fail.” Questions may involve intellectual synthesis as well as basic concepts. Each examiner will award grades without prior knowledge of the student’s performance on other parts of the examination and report the results to the student’s major professor within five days of the examination. The student must pass at least 19 of 25 questions, or 76% of the questions asked in cases of committees with more than five members.

Option 2: Proposal-Based

The examination shall be arranged and administered by the major professor. Each member of the Ph.D. Advisory Committee shall contribute to the review of the proposal.  The outside member of the committee is encouraged but is not required to review the proposal. However, if they do not, then the student’s committee for the purpose of this exam must consist of at least 5 members from inside the department. Students will be expected to demonstrate the following:

  • The ability to identify a substantive proposal topic
  • The ability to formulate valid and testable hypotheses
  • The ability to identify the importance of and justification for the proposed research, by preparing a comprehensive review of related research literature and presenting the proposed project in that context
  • The ability to prepare a sound research plan that includes both appropriate techniques and approaches suitable for the testing of the hypotheses and alternative strategies and hypotheses. 

The procedures for the proposal-based Written Preliminary Exam are

  1. Students should submit to their committees one or more topics, as required by their committees, with a one-paragraph justification of the topic. The committee will approve proposal topics prior to initiation of proposal preparation. If a submitted topic is not acceptable, the student will be asked to revise and resubmit topics.
  2. The topics may be completely distinct from ongoing research in the student’s lab, may build upon current or previous work in the lab, or may be related to the topic of the student’s doctoral research, as long as the proposed research demonstrates scientific independence and does not simply reproduce an experimental plan already proposed in the doctoral advisor’s research grants or in the students dissertation research proposal.
  3. The term of the proposed research should be consistent with federal funding opportunities, contingent on committee approval.
  4. The proposal should be written following the format of research proposals described in Appendix 7. Failure to comply with any formatting requirement will result in the return of the proposal to the student. Corrected copies must be resubmitted one day later.
  5. Students will have a maximum of two months to prepare the proposal after the committee’s notification of topic selection.

Evaluation of the proposal will be based on the following considerations:

  1. Scope of the proposal (10%): Is the research topic novel and important? Is the proposed project appropriate for the approved term (e.g. 3 years, 5 years)?
  2. Background (30%): Is the literature survey comprehensive and appropriate? Does the literature survey identify a problem or series of problems that justify the direction of the proposal?
  3. Experimental plan (40%): Are there clearly stated hypotheses for each section, or at least clearly stated expectations of experimental outcomes? Are the proposed experiments appropriate tests of the hypotheses? Does the author have realistic expectations of the experimental methods?  Are alternate hypotheses and experimental approaches proposed to cover the possibilities that: (i) the primary approaches prove to be inappropriate, (ii) the primary approaches disprove the hypotheses?
  4. Presentation (20%): Is the proposal well organized and clearly written?

Each of the above evaluation criteria will be assigned a score of 1-5 as follows:

  1. Outstanding
  2. Excellent
  3. Good/Average
  4. Fair
  5. Poor

An average weighted cumulative score of no greater than 3.0 must be earned in order to pass the proposal-based written exam.

For the written examination (either option), the student must demonstrate proficiency in technical writing. Note that if an answer is not formulated in a technically acceptable writing format it may be marked as a fail.

The Advisory Committee is expected to notify the student of their preliminary written exam score within 30 days after submission of the exam to the committee.  The submitted exam must be graded by the Ph.D. Advisory Committee. It is against program policy to permit a student to revise the submitted exam in any fashion prior to grading it.  The final graded version of the written exam and a Biological Sciences Ph.D. Candidacy Exam Evaluation Form should be placed in the student’s official departmental file.

A student who fails the traditional written exam will be allowed to retake the entire examination (i.e., five questions from each committee member) once.  Any second attempt must be made within three months of notification of failure of the first attempt. A student who fails the proposal-based written exam will be allowed to revise the proposal once.  The revision must be submitted to the Ph.D. advisory committee within two months of notification of failure of the first attempt.

B. Oral Preliminary Exam

To qualify to take the Oral Preliminary Exam the student must have passed the Written Preliminary Exam. The Oral Preliminary Exam will follow the written portion by not more than two weeks from the date of notification of passing the Written Preliminary Examination. It is a comprehensive examination intended to determine the student’s knowledge of basic principles of biological sciences, as well as specific knowledge of the student’s research area.  When a student has prepared a research proposal as their Written Preliminary Exam (Option 2), the student may be questioned on that proposal as well as on basic and specific information pertaining to their field of study.  The student’s entire Ph.D. Advisory Committee should attend the Oral Preliminary Exam and constitutes the voting committee regarding the passage or failure of the examination (virtual attendance is acceptable for outside members).

A student who fails the oral exam will be allowed to retake the examination once (within three months of the original exam) if they have not failed their written exam on the first attempt.

Any combination of 2 failed attempts at the written and/or oral examinations will lead to dismissal from the program. In other words, failing the written portion of the examination and subsequently failing the rewrite will lead to dismissal. Similarly, failing the oral component and the subsequent re-examination would lead to dismissal. Likewise, failing both initial attempts at written and oral examinations will lead to dismissal.

The graduate student, the Department Chair, and the Dean of the Graduate School shall be notified by the major professor, in writing, of the results of the preliminary exam within a week after the exam is completed via the Doctoral Qualifying Exam form, which is to be submitted first to the Graduate Program Office.

Upon successful completion of written and oral preliminary exams, file form Admission to Candidacy for the Doctoral Degree Form with the department office for routing to the Graduate School. The student is now eligible to enroll in BSC 699 Research Related to Dissertation.

8. Research Expectations

All Ph.D. students are expected to make a meaningful contribution to their chosen research area. Prior to their dissertation defense, all students in the Ph.D. program must submit for publication to a peer-reviewed journal at least one first-author manuscript containing data produced by the student during enrollment in the Ph.D. program. Proof of submission (e.g. confirmation e-mail from journal editor) must be submitted to the Graduate Program Office.

Requests for exceptions to this policy must be endorsed by a student’s Dissertation Committee and approved by the BSC Graduate Committee Chairs and Department Chair prior to the dissertation defense.

9. Formal Departmental Dissertation Defense and Oral Examination

A publicly announced formal departmental dissertation defense (or seminar) of the student’s research is required. The seminar is scheduled immediately preceding the final oral examination. All students are required to notify departmental office personnel of the date, time and room location of their formal dissertation a minimum of 14 days prior to the dissertation. A title and an abstract must be submitted to the departmental office at the time of dissertation notification so that a public announcement can be made.  In addition, a copy of the final draft of your dissertation must be made available in the departmental office for those wishing to review it. The dissertation copy will be kept at the front desk during the 2-week period. When you deliver your draft to the office, you will be required to enter it into a logbook, which will be kept in the office.  Failure to meet any of these requirements will result in a delay of the dissertation defense.

All students must pass a final oral examination related to their dissertation.  Final oral examination questions may also include other subjects beyond the student’s research that the Ph.D. Advisory Committee or other faculty deem relevant.  Final oral examinations for the Ph.D. must be taken not less than six weeks prior to the proposed graduation date.  The outside member of the student’s committee must attend and participate in the final defense; this may be a virtual presence if the member can see and hear the presentation and actively participate in the questioning of the candidate. All departmental faculty have the right to attend the oral defense and have the right to ask questions of the student that are relevant to the goals of the examination. Only faculty on the student’s committee may vote on whether the student has passed or failed the examination.

Upon successful defense of the dissertation, file form Ph.D. Final Defense Form with the department office for routing to the Graduate School.

Each candidate for a doctoral degree must apply for graduation through the Office of the Graduate School no later than the registration period for the semester or the first session of the summer term in which requirements for the degree are to be completed. The Application for Degree can be accessed via your myBama portal and instructions are available on the Graduate School website.