Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
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Curriculum and Degree Requirements

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BMMB student timeline.


A basic component of graduate education is coursework, which provides students with the fundamental concepts necessary to understand research in the life sciences. The BMMB graduate curriculum includes a set of four required courses. After choosing a laboratory for their graduate research, students, in consultation with their research advisers, choose advanced courses in their area of interest. Most students complete all coursework by the end of their second year. Students must complete 19 credits of coursework, which averages to 1-2 classes a semester.



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

Published studies indicate that teaching experiences contribute to the improvement of essential research skills (Science 19 Aug 2011: Vol 333, Issue 6045, pp. 1037-1039). 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.


BMMB Formal Examinations

Qualifying Exam

The BMMB Graduate Program administers an oral qualifying examination to assess whether the student is capable of conducting graduate research based on evidence of critical thinking skills, understanding of the scientific method, and knowledge of relevant subject matter. This two-hour oral examination will be based on a recent paper from the research literature and a two-page summary of the student’s own research project. All examinations will take place during the fall semester of the second year. In addition to passing the oral qualifying examination, students must display excellence in coursework, research and teaching to be eligible to take the comprehensive examination.

Comprehensive Exam

For the comprehensive exam, the student will write and defend a research proposal that outlines their dissertation research. In this proposal, the student outlines the background and explains why the research is important, states the overall aims of the research, and discusses the experimental plan to fulfill these aims while incorporating preliminary research already accomplished. This document is the blueprint that will guide the student’s dissertation research. The comprehensive exam will be evaluated by a panel of faculty members who will eventually serve on the student’s dissertation committee. Thus, the exam provides an opportunity for the student to build a relationship with their dissertation committee. All students are expected to take the comprehensive exam by the end of fall semester of their third year.

Dissertation and Doctoral Defense

At the end of their dissertation research, all students are required to prepare a formal manuscript covering their research according to the formal guidelines established by the university. The student will give a public seminar on their dissertation research and defend their research during an oral defense with their dissertation committee.


Research Seminar

During the third and fourth years, students are required to present their own research seminar to the department. Students will be expected to present a seminar of approximately 45 minutes followed by questions and discussion. The seminar should include background, rationale, relevance, data, and future research plans.