Graduate Program Requirements


First Year

In the first year, students participate in laboratory rotations, take their core courses, aligned with the integrated program in cellular, molecular, and biomedical studies (CMBS)), and identify a thesis research laboratory. Laboratory rotations provide an opportunity for students to participate in ongoing research in laboratories associated with the graduate program, allowing them to become familiar with techniques, literature and current questions in a variety of research areas. Rotations also provide the opportunity for students to identify a mentor with whom they will pursue their thesis work.  During their first year, each graduate student will undertake between two and four laboratory rotations, with flexibility to account for the specific nature of the work conducted in each laboratory. These rotations are chosen from approved program faculty with the consultation of the program director.

Second Year

During the second year, students begin their thesis research in earnest, and take additional courses which can be tailored to their research interests. In the spring of their second year, students take their qualifying exam, which provides a formal evaluation of the student’s potential as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree. The qualifying exam is designed to assess the student’s ability to develop a sophisticated, in-depth understanding of their thesis project and broader scientific knowledge.  The qualifying exam committee is chosen based on the student's research interests, in discussion with their thesis advisor and the program director. The committee will consist of three members of the graduate program, with one serving as the chair. The qualifying exam consists of two parts: a written proposal and an oral defense.

Qualifying Exam Research Proposal:

The written research proposal is based on their thesis research. The proposal is written in the format of an NIH F31 pre-doctoral fellowship, consisting of the background and significance, specific aims and research approaches sections. Preliminary data, if available, can also be presented but are not required since the examination occurs within one year of starting the thesis project. The research proposal must be distributed to all members of the examination committee at least one week prior to the qualifying oral exam.

Qualifying Oral Exam:

The student will deliver a 20 minute “chalk talk” presentation of the written proposal to the examination committee, which is followed by discussion. Although questions by the committee may focus on the proposal itself, the oral exam is intended to be a comprehensive examination of the student’s overall knowledge and understanding of underlying principles related to their research.

Third year

By the third year, most students will have completed their coursework and their qualifying exam, and be fully focused on their thesis research. Early in the third year, students will choose their thesis committee in discussion with their advisor and the program director. The thesis committee should consist of at least three members of the graduate program, including the advisor. The function of the committee is to follow the student's research progress until completion. Students usually schedule their first thesis committee meeting during the late fall or early spring of their third year. The committee is required to meet once every six to nine months, and it is the responsibility of the student to ensure that these meetings are held. The primary role of the thesis committee is to provide scientific expertise related to the student's thesis work, and to monitor the student’s research progress. Generally, the student will provide a short written report ahead of each meeting, describing the research aims and progress made since the qualifying examination or last thesis committee meeting. 

Fourth year and beyond: Dissertation & Defense

The ultimate role of the thesis committee is to provide the green light for writing and defending the thesis. The dissertation committee consists of the mentor, two existing program faculty members, and two additional examiners (one must be outside of the department and program).  Any examiner outside of the University must be approved by the program director and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dissertation office. A hard copy of the thesis should be submitted to the committee members no later than two weeks before the scheduled defense. The student will present the research in a public seminar, which will be immediately followed by 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. On rare occasions, the student may be required to do additional experimental work, extensive thesis revisions or a second dissertation defense.  In addition to completion of the thesis, students are expected to publish a first-author paper before the thesis is completed (at least, submit a first-author paper before the defense).


All students must take a least 1 elective during the course of matriculation.  Electives are chosen depending on the student’s research area and/or general interest.  Since Columbia also offers many non-science courses to all the students, any student wishing to take such a course must receive permission from their advisors as well as the program directors.  These courses do not count towards their electives.  Course can be found on the Columbia University Directory of Classes website: CU Directory of Classes.


Students must maintain at least a B average (3.00) in all courses with no grades below a B-.  A student who fails to maintain a B average must meet with the Program Director to discuss remedial options and possible withdrawal from the program.