Training to become a scientist in the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences involves a program of study consisting of five distinct parts.​​

Laboratory rotations

Selecting a thesis adviser is the most important decision the student will make in graduate school. An informed and thoughtful choice requires experience in the labs of several investigators. To help each student make an informed, thoughtful choice, the Division builds in flexibility to explore options. Students usually participate in three lab rotations during their first year. Additional rotations can be arranged, and rotation lengths are flexible. Students usually begin their thesis research just before or early in their second year.


Coursework generally covers two to five semesters, usually consisting of four to seven courses in areas fundamental to the student’s program. The typical student takes two or three courses in the first semester of graduate study and one or two courses in each of the next two or three semesters. Most students complete their coursework by the spring semester of their second year. Students are expected to maintain a “B” average in graduate courses.

Qualifying exams

After the required course work is complete, each student takes a preliminary, or qualifying, examination. The purpose of the exam is to assess the student’s mastery of the field. The format of the exam varies from program to program, but most often it consists of a written component and an oral portion in which the student’s knowledge of the subject is evaluated by a small committee of faculty members. Upon successful completion of the exam, the student achieves PhD candidacy and begins to concentrate on thesis research. Because admission is selective and academic preparation is emphasized during the first year, the success rate for achieving candidacy is high.

Thesis research

Thesis research begins once the student has completed their laboratory rotations and selected a lab in which to work. Working in close collaboration with their mentor/principal investigator (PI), the student devises a thesis project and crafts a proposal. During this time, the student will also work with their PI, program coordinator, and program director to select and confirm their thesis committee. The thesis committee consists of faculty members, chosen by the student in consultation with the mentor and approved by the program director. Committee members monitor the student’s progress throughout their training, providing objective, critical analysis of the research and serve as the defense committee.

Students will present their thesis proposal to a thesis advisory committee for approval in their third year. Most students complete and defend their dissertations between their fifth and sixth year of study.

Scientific scholarship

Keeping abreast of scientific developments is critical for faculty and students alike; they must be aware of current topics and issues if their own work is to have the outstanding merit for which Washington University is so widely recognized. The Division offers many ways to stay current.

Seminars: DBBS graduate students are always welcome at the more than 15 biology seminars held campus-wide each week on diverse subjects. In addition to seminars sponsored by individual departments, student-organized seminars involve students in the selection and hosting of speakers. This provides excellent opportunities for students to meet outstanding scientists from outside the Washington University scientific community. Several symposia each year also bring internationally recognized speakers to campus to address topics of broad and current interest to scientists.

Journal Clubs: Meeting weekly, journal clubs offer a regular opportunity for students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty to present and discuss current papers in the scientific literature. Graduate students are encouraged and expected to contribute to these informal sessions by presenting before the group and by participating in discussions. Each program organizes at least one journal club; most sponsor several.

Publication Opportunities: Publishing in scientific journals, a natural outgrowth of PhD research is an integral component of the scientific enterprise at Washington University. In recent years, Division students have contributed to numerous high-impact scientific journals.

Program Retreats: Held annually, students and faculty in each program convene outside the university setting for a discussion of research and social interactions. Retreats provide an informal opportunity to exchange ideas and share thoughts.

Career Development: The Division provides $1,000 toward Career, Training and Professional Development​​.

Libraries: The School of Medicine’s Medical Library and Biomedical Communications Center comprises 113,000 gross square feet of shelving for more than 269,000 volumes, almost 2,800 journal subscriptions and computer information management systems that provide access to information from an enormous variety of sources. Also available are dedicated libraries operated by the Departments of Biology and Chemistry.

A typical student program

August of enrollment year
  • Registration and orientation
  • Meetings with advisors to plan rotations and course work
Year 1
  • Two to five core classes 
  • Laboratory rotations
    The first rotation may begin in June prior to Fall matriculation.
Year 2
  • One to three advanced electives and special topics courses
  • Journal club(s)
  • Begin thesis research
  • Mentored Teaching Experience
  • Complete qualifying examination
Year 3
  • Form thesis committee
  • Thesis research
  • Journal club(s)
  • Thesis proposal
Year 4 and thereafter
  • Thesis research continues
  • Meet at least yearly with thesis committee
  • Travel to scientific meetings
  • Research completed by end of the fifth year
  • Publish in leading scientific journals
  • Defend thesis