Becoming a Doctoral Candidate

Time To Degree

The average time-to-degree is 5.7 years.  Students enrolled for more than six years need Dean’s approval for additional time in the programs and registration, and may not be guaranteed funding and housing.  Students are allowed nine years of continuous registration to satisfy all requirements for the doctoral degree.  Students who do not complete all requirements for the doctoral degree by the end of the ninth year will no longer be considered GSAS PhD degree candidates and will be notified accordingly in writing by GSAS.  Note that the ninth year ends on May 31.

First Year: Laboratory Rotations

Laboratory rotations provide an opportunity for each student to participate actively in ongoing research projects at Columbia University, allowing the student to become familiar with techniques, literature and current questions in a variety of research areas.  Rotations also provide the opportunity to identify a mentor with whom to pursue thesis work.  Each graduate student will undertake 3 laboratory rotations (~3-4 months in duration) during the first year.  In late August/early September students discuss with the Program Director possible lab rotations for approval.  The first rotation goes until winter break (third week in December), the second rotation goes from January-March and the third rotation from April-June.  Occasionally, it is necessary for a student to do a fourth rotation, although we do not encourage this possibility.

2nd Year

Thesis Lab Research

During the late spring/early summer of the first year, the student must discuss with the Program Director their choice of Thesis Lab, for program approval.

Qualifying Exam

During the Late Spring/Early Summer Semester- 2nd year students take the Qualifying Exam.  The student meets with the Director of program to discuss the program requirements and the selection of the faculty serving on the Qualifying Exam Committee.  This examination is used as a formal evaluation of the student’s potential as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.  It is designed to assess the student’s ability to develop a sophisticated, in-depth understanding of their thesis project and it also serves as a tool for identifying deficiencies in the student’s background that could be remedied by further coursework or additional reading.  The student along with their thesis advisor proposes three possible committee members who will serve as examiners.  The program director reviews the proposed committee members and if they approve the committee, will select one of them as chair who has been registered in this graduate program as a faculty member.  After the student submits their proposal, an oral examination is scheduled.  The exam consists of two parts: a written proposal and an oral defense of that proposal before an Examination Committee. 

  1. Research Proposal:
    Student presents a written research proposal on their thesis topic.  The proposal is written in the format of an NIH F31 pre-doc fellowship and consists of description of the background and significance of the topic, specific aims and research approaches to address the aims.  Preliminary data if available can also be presented, but given that the examination is given shortly after the trainee started project, it is not required.  The research proposal must be distributed to all members of the Examination Committee at least one week prior to the oral exam. 
  2. Oral Defense:
    The student will deliver a 20 minute “chalk talk” presentation of the written proposal to the Examination Committee with an open panel discussion following.  Though questions by the Examination Committee may initially focus on the proposal itself, this is a comprehensive examination where the student is expected to demonstrate an appropriate background in Pharmacology and an understanding of underlying principles.  Slide use may be acceptable upon thesis advisor’s approval for Q&A session to present research background and preliminary results.
  3. Outcome: 
    The Examination Committee may pass the student, fail the student, or request a second examination consisting of an oral defense of the original proposal, an amended proposal, or a new proposal.  Should a student fail the initial or the re-examination, the matter will be referred to the Graduate Studies Committee, which will determine whether or not the student is to continue in the doctoral program.

3rd year: Thesis Commitees

The Director of the program meets with the student to discuss the selection of the Thesis Committee faculty.  The student, the thesis advisor and program director select a Thesis Research Advisory Committee of at least three members, including the advisor.  The function of the Thesis Research Advisory Committee is to follow the student's research progress until its completion.  Students usually schedule their first Thesis Committee Meeting during the late Fall or Early Spring of their 3rd year.  Thesis Committees meets at least every 6-9 months.  In case that committee meeting cannot be held within 9 months, the student and thesis advisor will need to explain the reason(s) for the delay and request an approval from the program director.  This Committee provides scientific expertise related to the student's projects and monitors thesis research.  For the first Committee meeting the student presents a short written report that contains the Specific Aims of their proposal and any progress they have made since the qualifying examination.  The Committee discusses with the student the progress to date and the priorities for the order in which the work will proceed, as well as the chosen design of experiments.  It is possible that the Committee may recommend changes to the experimental design or priorities.  The Committee also decides when to have the next meeting, which can be in 6-9 months, but no longer than one year.  For these subsequent meetings, the student prepares a 1-2 page report outlining their progress on the previous aims and presents their timetable for finishing their thesis work.  The Committee can and should recommend improvements to experimental strategies and alternative plans for difficult or risky experiments.

4th year and beyond: Dissertation & Defense

After the thesis committee gives its approval for the student to finish writing the thesis, the defense is scheduled.  The final thesis committee consists of the mentor, two existing program faculty members, and two additional examiners (one must be outside of the department and program).  If the additional examiner is outside the University, they have to be approved by the Program and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertation Office as a competent examiner.  A hard copy of the thesis should be submitted to the committee members no later than two weeks before the scheduled defense.  A public seminar is given immediately before the closed defense.  At the time of the closed defense, the student may be asked to make additional revisions that will then need to be approved by the mentor and one other member of the committee (assigned at the time of the defense).  On rare occasions, the student may be required to do additional experimental work, extensive thesis revisions or a second dissertation defense.  Students are expected to publish a first-author paper before their thesis is completed (at least, submit a first-author paper before their defense).