The major requirement for the PhD is the doctoral thesis, the student's original research which significantly contributes to knowledge and is of sufficient quality to merit publication in a recognized journal. Attainment of the Ph.D. degree normally requires about five years. Beyond seven years, re-application to the Graduate School for permission to continue is required each semester. General requirements of the Graduate School are listed in the Catalogue of the University. Additional requirements for the Ph.D. are specified below.
Students entering the program will usually have at least two years of college chemistry (including organic chemistry and physical chemistry) and one year each of calculus and physics, in addition to college courses in biology. These should include courses in cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, and/or biochemistry. We recommend that applicants take a subject Graduate Record Examination in one of the following areas: biochemistry, biology, chemistry, although this is not required.
Students who are admitted without having sufficient background in all of these topics will be encouraged to take the appropriate introductory level courses at Brown before enrolling in advanced courses in the respective area.
Find out how to apply
Graduate students who are candidates for the Ph.D. are generally accepted into the MCB Program with a commitment of financial support while their research and academic studies progress satisfactorily. Most students entering the MCB program receive one full year of support as division fellows; a few exceptional students might be awarded a University or Dean's Fellowship for their first year. Second year students typically receive support during the academic year as teaching assistants. Occasionally in the first year, and more commonly in the second or third years, students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and who show exceptional academic promise may be appointed by the MCB executive committee as USPHS trainees. Faculty who accept graduate students into their laboratories under the auspices of the MCB Program are expected to provide both academic year and summer support for their students who have fulfilled the minimum teaching requirement, and who are not receiving support from other sources. This support will include stipends for both academic year and summer; one tuition credit or registration fee per semester as appropriate; and the health services fee.
All students receive the same amount of yearly stipend regardless of its source. The exceptions to this are individually awarded external fellowships (e.g., National Science Foundation) which may pay a different amount from the MCB stipend. Students who are awarded external fellowships are also eligible for a stipend bonus ($150/month). Any student who has passed the Preliminary Examination may request travel funds to attend scientific meetings. To apply for a Travel Award, a short memo should be submitted to the Program Director at least one month prior to travel. The memo should state the destination and the meeting to be attended on the trip, the proposed activities of the student at the meeting (poster presentation, oral presentation, etc.) and why this particular meeting was chosen. Each MCB Graduate Program student who demonstrates satisfactory progress on their thesis research is eligible for $400 travel support per academic year. Students may request the Program Director to have the MCB budget pay their final dissertation fee.
Two or three faculty members will be appointed by the Program Director to serve together with the Program Director or Assistant Director as an advisory committee for each student. This committee will advise the student on academic matters and review the student's progress each semester until the thesis committee is selected (see below). Following the advisory committee meetings, students will be informed in writing as to the requirements to be completed during the next semester.
At the end of the third semester, the student, in consultation with the thesis advisor, will assemble a thesis advisory committee. The thesis advisory committee will consist of the research advisor and three other members of the program faculty. The thesis committee will serve as the examination committee for the preliminary examination at the end of fourth semester. After completion of the preliminary examination, the student will meet with the thesis advisory committee at least once each year to review progress. A brief written report of progress and proposed work is prepared by the student before each of these meetings. The thesis advisory committee continues to guide the student’s research throughout his/her thesis work and, with the addition of an external examiner, will serve as the student’s thesis examination committee.
For entering graduate students, the general course of study emphasizes the following:
- Establishing competence in disciplines central to molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, systems biology, genetics, genomics, proteomics and biochemistry
- Gaining understanding in the quantitative approaches necessary to address complex problems in modern biology
- Encouraging diversification of training
- Maintaining flexibility within the framework of formal study
Brown University requires a minimum of 24 tuition credits for the Ph.D. degree, of which a maximum of eight can be transferred from other institutions. In each of the first three semesters, students will register for 4 tuition credits through a combination of coursework and graduate research. Beyond the first three semesters, students will fulfill this requirement primarily through their independent dissertation research, but students may also continue to register for courses that are related to their training throughout their time at Brown.
The student, in consultation with the Advisory Committee, will design an individualized curriculum, tailored to his or her unique interests.
MCB students are required to successfully complete a minimum of five courses for the doctoral degree. Typically, MCB students will complete the course work outlined below during their first three semesters.
The course work is anchored by two core classes; a literature-based class on multidisciplinary experimental approaches to biological questions ("Foundations for Advanced Study in Experimental Biology," BIOL2030) in the first semester, and a seminar class on scientific communication skills ("Scientific Communication," BIOL2150) in the third semester.
Upon matriculation, students may choose among three curricular tracks. The MCB track provides advanced training in cell, developmental, and molecular biology, and biochemistry; the FCG track provides advanced training in genetics, genomics and systems biology, and the MBoA track provides training in the mechanisms of aging. Each of the tracks incorporates quantitative methodologies into the analysis of biological systems but emphasizes different approaches.
Training in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry (MCB)
Students interested in pursuing advanced study in the life sciences may choose the MCB curricular track as their course of study once admitted to the MCB graduate program. The MCB curriculum is aimed at students with a primary interest in molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, proteomics and/or biochemistry.
MCB students will gain instruction in quantitative approaches to biological processes including statistics and bioinformatics through "Quantitative Approaches in Biology" (BIOL2010) during the second semester. The goals of this course are to strengthen necessary mathematical skills and to gain understanding of quantitative approaches required to address complex problems in modern biology.
MCB students can tailor their course work to the disciplines specifically related to their interests through a combination of didactic courses and topical seminars offered in each of the disciplines. In addition to BIOL2010, BIOL2030, and BIOL2150, students are expected to complete a minimum of two 2000-level electives, with at least one 2000-level seminar format course, in fulfillment of the requirements for their doctoral degree. The seminar courses are designed to offer students in-depth training in specific topics in molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, proteomics and biochemistry.
Training in Functional and Computational Genetics (FCG)
Students with a strong interest in advanced training in both biology and computational approaches may choose FCG curricular track as their course of study once admitted to the MCB graduate program. The FCG curriculum is aimed at students with a primary background in biology, but also with appropriate mathematical preparation (college-level calculus) and interest in applying advanced quantitative methodologies towards the understanding of gene function and regulation in development and disease.
In the second semester, students will supplement their genetic training from BIOL2030 with additional advanced coursework in genetics. Possibilities include "Molecular Genetics " (BIOL2540) or topical seminar offerings in genetics and/or genomics.
The remainder of the formal FCG curriculum is dedicated to developing advanced skills in quantitative approaches to biological problems. Based on their interests, FCG students may choose to tailor their mathematical training along either of two paths:
- Genomics - Students can select between an Applied Mathematics track or a Computer Science track. For the Applied Mathematics track, in the first semester training in statistical analysis of complex datasets will begin with "Statistical Inference" (APMA 1650) and will continue in the second semester with "Inference in Genomics and Molecular Biology" (APMA 1080). For the Computer Science track, training in computer programming will be achieved through "Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science" (CSCI 0150) in the first semester and "Introduction to Algorithms and Data Structures" (CSCI0160) in the second semester, or through "Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction" (CSCI 0170 fall/CSCI 0180 spring). The training will continue in the third semester with "Computational Molecular Biology" (CSCI 1810).
- Systems Biology - In the first semester, training in the mathematical modeling of biological systems will begin with "Methods of Applied Mathematics I" (APMA 0330 or APMA 0350). The choice between the APMA courses is based on the student’s interests. APMA 0330 emphasizes the application of established methods, while APMA 0350 focuses on the development of methodological foundations. In the second semester, training will continue with "Methods of Applied Mathematics II" (APMA 0340 or APMA 0360). Students interested in systems biology will conclude their formal course work requirement in mathematics with "Quantitative Models of Biological Systems" (APMA 1070) in the third semester.
Training in the Molecular Biology of Aging (MBoA)
Students interested in aging may choose the MBoA track once admitted to the MCB Graduate Program. In the first semester, students will take the MCB core course and the Pathobiology core course. In the second semeser, students will take a seminar course "Biology of Aging" and "Quantitative Approaches in Biology (BIOL2010). In the third semester, students will take a biology elective.
MCB students must earn a minimum grade of B, or the equivalent performance in a course taken S/NC, in all courses utilized to fulfill the requirements for the doctoral degree. If this level of performance is not attained in a course, the student will be placed on academic warning, and the Director of the Graduate Program, in consultation with the course instructor(s) and the student’s advisory committee, will determine the course of action needed to attain proficiency in this area. If B-level performance is not attained in two courses, the Director of the Graduate Program, in consultation with the student’s advisory committee and the MCB Graduate Program Executive Committee, will determine if the student may continue in the program. If B-level performance is not attained in three courses, the student will be removed from the MCB graduate program without further evaluation.
Students entering with advanced course work
In some circumstances, students may enter the MCB graduate program with previous graduate-level training. To minimize redundancy in course work, these students should submit description(s) of the course(s) or equivalent experience to the Director of the MCB graduate program before matriculation. These descriptions should include a syllabus or list of topics, the name(s) of the text(s) or readings, the duration and number of weekly hours in the course, and any other information that might be helpful. The Director of the MCB graduate program will direct this information to faculty from the respective subject area, who will determine the student’s level of proficiency in that area. The recommendations of the faculty will form part of the pre-registration discussion between the student and the advisory committee. In these cases, students will substitute additional course work, selected in consultation with the advisory committee, to attain the equivalent of the required five courses.
Graduate students are expected to attend and participate in the colloquia, research seminars, and journal club activities of the program.
Weekly program seminars are presented by visiting scientists. Students are expected to attend every week as a part of their training outside of the area of their thesis research. During the first and third semesters, the weekly seminar series is incorporated into the formal course work as a pedagogical tool. In BIOL2030, primary research papers from the visiting scientist are discussed in a seminar format discussion section at the beginning of the week in which the seminar will be presented. In BIOL2150, students will discuss and critique the weekly seminar in the form of a web-based blog.
During the third and fourth year, each student will present a public seminar based on his/her own original research at the time of their annual meeting with his/her advisory committee.
Weekly journal clubs involve primarily graduate students and consist of critical analyses of recent papers, discussions of experiments in progress, or presentation of some highly focused topic of interest. Each student will present one journal club each year.
The teaching requirement may be fulfilled by participating as a teaching assistant for one semester. Prior teaching experience, comparable to that which would be obtained at Brown, is applicable toward fulfillment of the teaching requirement.
The teaching requirement may be fulfilled only by assisting in a course in which the teaching assistants conduct discussion or laboratory sections. The faculty member in charge of the course is responsible for providing feedback and suggestions to the graduate assistants on their teaching performance at least twice during each semester.
The advisory or thesis committee should be consulted by any student interested in teaching beyond the minimum requirement. Every effort will be made to minimize the teaching load of students who have successfully completed the preliminary examination, allowing maximum time to be devoted to completion of thesis research. A student who has advanced to candidacy will normally be supported by the extramural research grants of his or her research advisor.
English Language Proficiency for Students Whose First Language is not English
Brown University requires that all international teaching assistants whose first language is not English must be evaluated and certified as proficient in English before they are allowed to teach. Each student must be certified at level 2 or better to meet the Program requirements. It is inherent upon each international student to schedule an evaluation with the ESL office upon arrival at Brown and to accomplish the required proficiency within the first year of graduate studies. If the student's command of spoken English does not meet this proficiency, the student must enroll in the appropriate ESL course(s) recommended by the office of English for International Teaching Assistants. For further information, contact Barbara Gourlay (Barbara_Gourlay@brown.edu), Coordinator, English for International Teaching Assistants, Box E, Center for Language Studies, Brown University; or by phone at 863-2546, or 863-3043.
Early in the first semester, students will make arrangements with faculty to begin rotations in laboratory research. All students are required to pass at least three rotations in the laboratories of Program faculty, with the exception of those students with equivalent post-baccalaureate research experience. These rotations are usually 8-10 weeks in length. The rotations are intended to provide familiarity with several areas of research so that an informed choice of a laboratory for thesis research can be made. The choice of the thesis advisor and area will be made no later than the beginning of the third semester.
Laboratory Rotation Guidelines
(Rotations to be performed in the fall and spring of the first year).
Research rotations are a crucial part of the first academic year of each student. They give the student an opportunity to see academic knowledge put into practice, learn new techniques and approaches, and broaden ones exposure to different areas of research. It also allows the student and mentor an opportunity to see how well they work together. Even if you are almost certain that you will remain in one particular faculty member's lab, you still must successfully complete three rotations.
Choosing a Laboratory
The first rotation begins on November 1, the second on or about February 1 and the third on or about April 1. During September and October of the first year, students will learn about Program faculty research through informal presentations early in the Fall semester and are encouraged to meet individually with faculty members with whom they are interested in working. Students should arrange their rotations one month in advance of the beginning of each session and inform the Director of the Graduate Program of their choices.
Various factors should be taken into account when considering laboratories including the area of scientific reasearch and the overall laboratory environment. For each student, the relative contributions of these factors to the choice will be different, and students are encouraged to explore what is important to them in choosing a training environment through their rotations as well as their interactions with faculty mentors, other students, and members of their advisory committees.
Working in a Laboratory
Students are expected to devote their full effort outside of class work and other Program activities to their individual research projects, whether they be rotation or thesis studies. The rotations are crucial aspects of the Program and are considered equally important as a core course. The student's performance during the rotations is evaluated through on-going interactions with the mentor and a public seminar. Progress in the thesis work is evaluated through the mechanisms described below.
Formation of Thesis Committee
Students will assemble a thesis committee consisting of the thesis advisor and three members of the MCB graduate program faculty by the end of the summer following the first year. The purpose of the committee is to provide the student with alternate perspectives on the thesis work, and the composition of the committee should be developed in consultation with the thesis advisor. When contacting prospective members, the student should be prepared to briefly discuss his or her proposed thesis work along with a rationale for including the faculty member on the committee. Once the committee is assembled, the director of the graduate program should be notified in writing.
By the end of the fall semester of the second year, the student will arrange a meeting with the committee. At this meeting, the student will briefly present an outline of the proposed thesis research and identify additional areas to study at an advanced level for the qualifying examination. These topics should cover areas related to the proposed thesis work with the goal of complementing and strengthening the development of the thesis. One topic should be proposed for each faculty member on the committee. The director of the graduate program should be notified in writing when this meeting has taken place.
Goals of the Examination
The goals of the qualifying exams are:
- To evaluate the student’s comprehension of the scientific literature in the area of the thesis research as well as in related areas identified at the first thesis committee meeting.
- To evaluate the student’s ability to define scientific questions and to develop experimental strategies to answer them.
Structure of the Examination
- Students must complete the qualifying examination by June 1 of the second year.
- The examination committee will be composed of all of the members of the thesis committee excluding the thesis advisor. The members of the committee will assign a chairperson before the examination begins.
- At least one month before the scheduled examination, the student will develop an extensive reading list on each topic in consultation with the members of the thesis committee, including the thesis advisor. The student is expected to read in depth on the thesis topic as well and should consult with the thesis advisor in the development of a reading list in this area.
- At least two weeks before the scheduled examination, the student will submit a written research proposal (not to exceed 10 pages including text and all figures, charts, tables and diagrams) to each member of the committee. The written proposal will be formatted with font size of 11 points or larger and page margins of at least 0.5 inches on all sides. The thesis advisor may read the proposal and make general comments, but may not edit it. The proposal will consist of the following sections:
- Abstract: A one paragraph summary of the proposal, not to exceed 300 words
- Background (2-3 pages): An introduction to the biological question that will be addressed in the proposal. This section should be brief. The proposal introduction should not be an exhaustive discussion of the literature, but rather it should highlight the background necessary to understand the small area of a field that will be addressed with the proposed experiments. The members of the committee will most likely not be in the same field, and it is important to explain why the system, question and approaches proposed are interesting, important, and feasible.
- Preliminary studies (1-2 pages): A brief presentation of the data collected by the student in support of the proposed experiments. Variation in the quantity of preliminary data is expected among students, particularly at this early stage of their graduate careers, but students should detail the work that they have accomplished in the laboratory up until the point of the examination. Only data directly relevant to the proposed research should be included.
- Hypothesis and Specific Aims (1 paragraph): A concise statement of the hypothesis to be tested by the proposed work, including 2-3 numbered sentences that state the specific aims of the work
- Proposed Experiments (4-6 pages): A detailed outline of the proposed experiments including 1) a discussion of the possible results and their interpretations and 2) the potential pitfalls of the proposed experiments and how they will be circumvented
- Conclusions and Perspectives (1-2 paragraphs): A brief statement of the importance of the proposed work for the field
- References (excluded from the 10-page limit).
- At the examination, the student will answer questions on the reading topics (concepts as well as experimental details) and defend the thesis proposal. For the defense of the proposal, students will prepare an oral presentation, not to exceed 10-15 minutes, to serve as a summary of the experimental aspects of the proposal with only a brief introduction (1 slide for background and 1 slide for hypothesis and specific aims). The thesis advisor may be present for the examination if he/she chooses, but is a silent observer and may not speak or in any way try to influence the responses given by the student. At the conclusion of the examination, the student and advisor will leave the room in order for the committee to freely discuss the outcome of the examination.
The student will be evaluated on the content, plan, presentation and defense of the written proposal as well as the ability to answer questions on areas related to the thesis research. Possible outcomes of the examination include:
- Admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree: the student has satisfactorily completed the requirements of the qualifying examination
- Additional evaluation: the student has significant deficiencies in one or more areas of evaluation. Upon the recommendation of the committee, the student will be asked to repeat all or part of the qualifying examination by the end of the summer.
- Declined candidacy for the Ph.D. degree: the student has not satisfactorily completed the requirements of the qualifying examination.
The student will be informed of the committee’s decision immediately after the examination. In addition, the chairperson of the committee will compose a detailed written report evaluating the student’s performance on the examination. The report will be circulated to the other members of the committee for approval and then to the student, thesis advisor, and director of the graduate program within one week of the examination.
Once admitted to candidacy, students will meet annually with their research committee to discuss research progress and future directions. The chairperson of the research committee will prepare a written report summarizing the content of these meetings, circulate this document to the other members of the committee for their input, and submit a final version to the student and Director of the Graduate Program within one week of the meeting. In preparation for submission of the thesis, students should schedule a final committee meeting in which an outline of the thesis is presented for approval by the committee, typically 3-6 months before the defense is scheduled.
The thesis committee will consist of the thesis advisor, three other members of the Brown faculty, and a reader external to Brown with no conflict of interest as determined by the Program Director. The written thesis should represent a comprehensive summation of the student's total research effort. With this goal in mind, the document should contain the following elements:
- Abstract - no more than 350 words summarizing the thesis problem, methods used to solve the problem, the results, and conclusions.
- Introduction - a comprehensive review of the field and reasons for performing the research.
- Methods and Results - a description of the research performed.
- Discussion - a research summary including significance and future directions.
Portions of the student's work which have progressed to manuscript form or have been published can be incorporated into the above format; i.e., a manuscript may form a chapter, or part of a chapter, within the Methods and Results section of the thesis. For all co-authored manuscripts which are included, the candidate should explicitly state his/her contribution to the work. Detailed instructions on preparation and format of the Ph.D. thesis should be obtained from the Graduate School.
The thesis will be submitted to the committee at least two weeks before the defense. The student will defend it at an open presentation, following which will be an examination attended by members of the thesis committee and other faculty members who choose to participate. All program faculty will be notified at least one week before the thesis defense. Faculty members are encouraged to read each thesis submitted and to participate in the defense and examination.
In special cases, students will be admitted to the program as candidates for the M.S. degree; such students are normally not eligible for financial aid. In addition to Divisional requirements, program requirements include establishment of proficiency in the core areas. A written thesis based on original research must be completed and accepted by a committee consisting of the research advisor plus two additional members of Brown faculty. There are no teaching requirements.
Applicants to the Brown University Program in Medicine may also apply to the M.D. - Ph.D. Program. M.D. - Ph.D. students in the MCB Graduate Program must complete all of the requirements specified for the Ph.D. degree.
The Barry Jay Rosen Memorial Award is given periodically by the Graduate Program in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University to a graduate student whose Ph.D. thesis demonstrates exceptional merit. The Award was established by the family and friends of Dr. Rosen (Ph.D., Brown, 1966) to commemorate him and the spirit of inquiry which characterized his work.
An Executive Committee of the Program will meet as needed to discuss and advise the program director on issues of importance to the Program. The Committee will consist of the Director, Assistant Director (both appointed by Dean of Biology and Medicine), Chair of the MCB Department, Chairperson of the Admissions Committee (appointed by MCB Director), Director of the USPHS Training Grant (appointed by the Dean of Biology and Medicine), a junior faculty member (three-year term) and a hospital faculty member (three-year term). The latter two positions will be nominated and elected by Program faculty.