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BMMB Graduate Program

Curriculum and Degree Requirements


Coursework provides students with the fundamental concepts necessary to understand research in the life sciences. BMMB requires a set of four courses that our students take as a cohort. Students supplement the core courses with electives in their area of interest.  Students must complete 18 credits of coursework, which averages to 1-2 classes a semester with most students completing coursework by the end of their second year.



Docendo discimus (Latin proverb, “by teaching, we learn”)

Published studies indicate that teaching experiences contribute to the improvement of essential research skills. Additionally, the communication and organizational skills gained by our graduates during their teaching experiences have provided them with competitive advantages in their professional development and success as scientists beyond Penn State. Therefore, teaching is an integral part of our Ph.D. training program. BMMB students are required to act as teaching assistants for two semesters during their graduate career. The teaching experience typically involves assisting a faculty member in teaching an undergraduate laboratory course. The teaching assistant usually leads a group of twenty to thirty undergraduates through the completion of their assigned experiments and assists the course instructor in grading.

Another form of teaching, involves training undergraduate students and incoming graduate students in the student’s dissertation laboratory. Many of our faculty credit their ability to be effective mentors to their experiences teaching undergraduate students in a laboratory setting during their graduate or postdoctoral studies.


Qualifying Examination

During the fall semester of the second year, BMMB students take an oral qualifying examination which assesses whether the student can conduct graduate research based on evidence of critical thinking skills, understanding of the scientific method, and knowledge of relevant subject matter. The oral examination is based on a two-page research proposal prepared by the student. In addition, students must display excellence in coursework, research and teaching to be eligible to qualify for the comprehensive examination the following year.


Comprehensive Examination

The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to determine whether the student has transitioned from a novice to an advanced PhD student. The examination is designed to assess the student’s broad conceptual knowledge of their discipline, the deeper knowledge of their field, critical thinking skills, experimental and computational skills, communication skills as well as their vision and motivation to complete the PhD program. Typically, BMMB students complete the comprehensive exam by the end of their third year.


Student Research Seminars

BMMB students present their dissertation research to the department in the third and fourth years. 3rd year students give a 12-minute talk as part of a departmental symposium before the start of fall semester. 4th year students present a formal research seminar to the department. All students are provided targeted feedback on the presentations. 


Publication of Dissertation Research

Before graduation, BMMB students demonstrate the ability to collect, organize and present the results of their research in writing in a professional manner. This is accomplished by preparing a manuscript or manuscripts based on the dissertation research. 


Dissertation and Doctoral Defense

The culminating experience for BMMB students is the preparation of a formal PhD dissertation, public dissertation seminar, and final oral examination with their PhD committee.