Field work in the Neotropics

Curriculum and Progression for PhD students


Progression through the program includes coursework and lab rotations in the first two years (36 course credits). Laboratory rotations will help you to identify a Thesis Advisor and are typically completed by the beginning of the second year. Subsequently, you will commence dissertation research while still completing course work. In the fourth semester, you will prepare a preliminary research proposal as part of the Qualifying Exam, the oral part of which will be held in the summer. Within a year of passing the Qualifying Exam, you will assemble a Dissertation Committee and defend the actual research proposal, the Dissertation Prospectus. When the dissertation research is completed, you will submit a written thesis and conduct a public Dissertation Defense. A minimum of 24 research credits have to be completed. However, the Dissertation Committee decides when sufficient research progress has been made to earn the degree.

Credit requirements and progression through the program are described in abbreviated form below, and in more detail in the Program Guidelines.

Credit requirements are also listed in the University Graduate Catalogs at Rutgers-Newark and NJIT.

Academic Advising - Pre-Qualifying Students

Pre-qualifying students receive advice on course work, rotations, identifying a dissertation advisor, and all other academic matters from the Standards Committee, in coordination with faculty mentors and prospective dissertation advisors. The current Standards Committee members are:

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Simon Garnier, PhD Nan Gao, PhD Kristen Severi, PhD
Associate Professor Associate Professor Assistant Professor
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Academic Advising - Post-Qualifying Students

Post-qualifying students receive advice from their Dissertation Committee and Advisor, as well as the Program Directors.

Course Requirements

During the first two years in the program, each student must complete a total of 36 course credits (usually 12 courses, 3 credits each). Courses i0nclude 3 Program Core Courses (9 credits), 2 Laboratory Rotations (6 credits), either 2 or 3 Track Core Courses, depending on the track (6 or 9 credits), and 4 or 5 Electives, depending on the track (12 or 15 credits). To maintain full-time student status, 9 credits are required per semester in the first two years.

Transfer credits and the possibilities for reduced course loads should be discussed with the Program Directors.

Program Core Courses

  • Effective College Teaching (26:120:560)
  • Critical Thinking for Life Sciences (48:120:630; BIOL 630)
  • Approaches in Quantitative Analysis for the Life Sciences (48:120:615; MATH 615)

Track Core Courses

Program Track “Cell and Molecular Biology”:

  • Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology (26:120:524)*
  • Molecular Biology of Eukaryotes (26:120:515)
  • Biochemistry (26:160:581)

*Depending on background, Students may first have to complete Cell Biology Methods (26:120:512) as a prerequisite.

Program Track “Neurobiology”:

  • Cellular Neurophysiology (BIOL 640)
  • Systems Neuroscience (BIOL 641)
  • Analytical and Computational Neuroscience (MATH 635)*

*Appropriate course may be substituted for students with stronger interests in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience or Neuroethology and Behavior.

Program Track “Ecology and Evolution”:

  • Ecology (26:120:523)
  • Evolution (48:120:622; BIOL 622)

Laboratory Rotations

Each student has to complete two Laboratory Rotations (3 credits each), which consist of laboratory research and independent study with Graduate Faculty members.

Rotations with RU-N faculty:

  • Advanced Problems in Biology 120:509/510

Rotations with NJIT faculty:

  • Independent Study BIOL 725/726

Typically, the first rotation is completed in the Spring of the first year, and the second one in the Summer (counting for the following Fall semester). The main objective of the lab rotations is to identify a lab in which to complete dissertation work. Additional anticipated outcomes of the rotations include the development of laboratory and/or computational research skills, development of analytical and critical thinking skills, and appreciation of a specific research field. It is expected that the Rotation Advisor is potentially willing to become the Dissertation Advisor and can provide space and funding, unless this decision has been made prior to the rotation. It is strongly recommended that the first rotation will be done in the laboratory the student favors for dissertation work. For students who have identified a “home” after the first rotation, the second one can be used to broaden their conceptual perspective and/or technical skills.

Elective Courses

All students have the opportunity to add to their knowledge base by properly selecting Elective Courses. Elective Courses may be taken from offerings within the program (including Core Courses of other tracks), and in other graduate programs at NJIT and Rutgers (including Rutgers Biomedical and Health Science and Rutgers New Brunswick), for example in Environmental Sciences, Behavioral and Neural Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, Mathematical Sciences, and Computer Sciences. 

Grade Requirements

Students must maintain a GPA of 3.0 or better for all courses taken as part of the graduate course of study. Courses cannot be repeated in order to improve on poor performance. Students can receive grades of C or C+ in a maximum of two courses, only one of which may be in the Program and Track Core courses. Receipt of a grade of F in any course – Core or Elective – will under normal circumstances result in dismissal from the program at the end of the academic year.

Biology Colloquium

The Biology Colloquium is held weekly during the semester and consists of research presentations by invited speakers, students, and faculty, as well as professional development/career advice events and organizational meetings. All students, including post-qualifying students, are required to attend while being matriculated in the program. 

Mentoring Semester

Every incoming student will be assigned to a “Mentor Lab” for their first semester in the program. During this time, each student is required to actively participate in lab meetings, journal clubs, and other general lab activities. Additionally, the student must participate in some minimal form of research work as determined by agreement with the Faculty Mentor. The mentorship semester is not for credit, but intended to give incoming students a "home" with desk space, and the opportunity to get used to academic life.

Selection of Dissertation Lab

Following completion of the laboratory rotations, students must select a Graduate Faculty member who will serve as their Dissertation Advisor during the research phase of the doctoral program. Once completed, the student will commence developing a project and accumulating preliminary data for the dissertation. The program accommodates joint or interdisciplinary projects supervised by two or more faculty members. The program encourages a cooperative approach to graduate training. To this end, faculty and students have developed the Graduate Student and Mentor Compact, which lists practices intended to establish a productive relationship between student and advisor(s), as well as expectations that each partner may have for the conduct of that relationship. 

Qualifying Exam

Following the successful completion of all course requirements, rotations, and identification of the Dissertation Advisor, each student must pass a Qualifying Exam to remain in the program. After successful completion of the Qualifying Exam, the student becomes a Ph.D. candidate. The exam is typically held in June of the second year, unless the coursework was completed earlier. The exam will be administered by a Qualifying Exam Committee of three Graduate Faculty members. The overall purpose of the Qualifying Exam is to assess the student’s preparation and ability to plan an original, scholarly scientific investigation. The Qualifying Exam consists of a written research proposal and an oral exam. 

Dissertation Committee 

Within 9 months of the completion of the Qualifying Exam, the student assembles a Dissertation Committee, under the guidance of the Dissertation Advisor. The Dissertation Committee will be composed of the student’s Dissertation Advisor, one external member from outside the NJIT-Rutgers scholarly community, and two (Rutgers) or three (NJIT) members of the Biology Graduate Faculty. It is the primary advisory group responsible for supervision and guidance of the Student during the research phase of the dissertation. The Dissertation Committee also serves as the examination committee for the Dissertation Defense. The Dissertation Committee regularly meets with the student in 6-12 months intervals to discuss research progress, experimental challenges, and potential changes to the original plan. The ultimate charge of the Dissertation Committee before the Dissertation Defense is to ensure that the student is making appropriate progress towards a timely and successful defense.

Thesis Prospectus

Within a year of the Qualifying Exam, the student presents and defends the Thesis Prospectus (the dissertation research proposal) to the Dissertation Committee. The written Thesis Proposal should follow the format of NIH or NSF postdoctoral fellowship applications. The Thesis Proposal meeting is an oral exam that will determine the student’s ability to conceive, design, and conduct the proposed research project. It is a required milestone in the program, and approval by the Dissertation Committee should be viewed as a statement that the scope and originality of the proposal is sufficient to earn a Ph.D. degree upon successful completion. 

Dissertation Defense

Completing the program and earning a doctoral degree requires a written Thesis, a public Dissertation Defense, and an oral examination by the Dissertation Committee. Approximately six months prior to the planned Dissertation Defense, the Dissertation Committee will evaluate if sufficient progress has been made to warrant final preparation of a thesis and to establish an approximate timetable for the thesis public presentation and private defense. The completed Thesis document must be submitted to all members of the Dissertation Committee at least one month prior to the scheduled Dissertation Defense. The Dissertation Defense must be advertised in advance, with a minimum of 10 days’ notice, and open to anyone wishing to attend.

The Rutgers Graduate School has a seven-year limit for full-time Students for attaining a doctoral degree. The NJIT Office of Graduate Studies allows no more than six years of registration for doctoral dissertation.


Pre-qualifying Students (a first and second year timeline is available here)

Year 1, Fall Semester: Mentoring Semester, 3 courses

Year 1, Spring Semester: 2 classroom courses, first lab rotation.

Year 1, Summer: Second lab rotation

Year 2, Fall Semester: Advisor declaration, begin dissertation research, 2 classroom courses, credit for summer rotation.

Year 2, Spring Semester: 3 courses. Preparation of Qualifying Exam Proposal.

Year 2, Summer: Qualifying Exam

Post-qualifying Students

Year 3: Dissertation Research, Assemble Dissertation Committee, Thesis Prospectus

Year 4, 5, …: Dissertation Research, Biannual Dissertation Committee meetings, Dissertation Defense