PhD Student Handbook

Graduate Student Handbook

Graduate students at Columbia University are expected to engage full-time in advanced study and research. The program demands initiative and self-discipline from the students: all students are expected to undertake intensive study of those areas of science that are of special interest and that will further their research goals. The stipends provided are for a full-time effort; students are discouraged from additional activities that will prolong time to a degree or overlap with work already supported by the fellowship.  

The Biological Sciences Graduate PhD Program requirements "at a glance"

More information can be found under the Policies below.

Policies and resources that apply to all students in GSAS may be found here.  All students must be familiar with these policies, and should particularly note the policies on Good Standing and Academic Integrity and Responsible Conduct of Research.

Quick Start Guide

  1. Courses and seminars - Students are required to take 25 credits of coursework in accordance with the Tier system detailed below. Students will formulate individualized training plans with a Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and other faculty as desired.  All new students must take the Pre-Research seminar (G9301). Students are also encouraged to attend departmental seminars, generally held on Mondays at noon.
  2. Laboratory rotations - Students must complete three rotations in the first year, to be completed by June 30, according to the schedule below.  Such experience, an essential component of graduate education at Columbia, facilitates the development of practical skills that open the way to independent research and provides an opportunity for becoming better acquainted with some of the faculty and other students.  Considerations in choosing rotations will be discussed during Orientation and in advising meetings with a DGS.  Please see Lab choice policy for first year students for rules regarding the number of rotations, eligible faculty mentors and DGS consultation policies regarding exceptions.

  3. Teaching - Teaching is begun in the second year or second semester of the first year.  Students generally fulfill this requirement by serving as TAs twice, as detailed below.

Identifying a Research Sponsor

The relationship between a student and a research mentor is a personal one, established after thoughtful consideration by the student and by the prospective sponsor.  Faculty members are not required to act as a research sponsor for any student and no student is assigned to a laboratory.   From the student’s point-of-view, the Pre-Research Seminars and rotations are important for identifying a rotation that may lead to a successful “match,” i.e. a position in a lab for thesis work.

Students wanting to initiate thesis work should approach faculty members in the training program about the possibility of doing rotations, with the goal of identifying a thesis lab.   Students may contact faculty members prior to arriving on campus, but substantial guidance will be provided on selecting rotations during Orientation:  there will be a rotation panel, during which current students give advice and share their experiences, and an individual advising session with a co-DGS to discuss rotations as well as academics. The Pre-Research seminars are another important way to get information about potential thesis laboratories.

Students must do their first two rotations with members of the Biological Sciences PhD program, and are strongly encouraged to stay within the program for their third rotation, too.  The Lab Choice Policy details the constraints on out-of-program rotations.

Rotation schedule

First-year students will do three rotations according to the following schedule, which is aligned with the rotation schedule at CUIMC.  

            Fall rotation: mid-September – mid-December

            Winter rotation: no later than Jan. 8– March 31.   

            Spring rotation:  April 1–June 30.   

Most students will be successful in finding a mentor in the training program during these three rotations, and should be able to identify their thesis labs by June 15.   To ensure that students and faculty have equal opportunity to explore all possibilities, no commitment is to be made before May 15.  The Lab Choice Policy details policies for exceptional circumstances.

Students are expected to begin their thesis work in their laboratory on July 1, directly following their Spring rotation.

English Placement Test

The University requires that all foreign students from non-English speaking countries take an English Placement Test. This test is offered in the Language Labs in Lewisohn Hall. Once this test is evaluated, the student may be placed in a course offered by the American Language Program. This course, designed specifically to assist foreign students with both language and cultural difficulties and emphasizes teaching skills, is required for all students whose score on the placement test demonstrates a need. The American Language courses are given at many different times, accommodating laboratory and course schedules.

The Tier curriculum was designed by the faculty to give students flexibility in designing a program that fits their interests in specific fields while providing breadth in biological sciences. 

Four distinct “tiers” (T1-T4) define the requirements of the curriculum,   

  • Tier 1 contains all of the requirements that are not regular science courses and that must be taken at specified times in years 1 and 2. 
  • Tier 2 contains core departmental courses in foundational areas of biology that transcend particular fields or disciplines and are usually taught by faculty in our department.  
  • Tier 3 contains foundational courses for specific fields or disciplines and are usually taught by faculty in our department.
  • Tier 4 courses are electives and encompass approved graduate courses in biology or related fields such as chemistry, mathematics, or computer science, offered by our department and other departments on the Morningside, Manhattanville, and Medical campuses.

A total of 25 points, for all four tiers combined, are required. Two courses are required for Tiers 2, 3, and 4.  Note that each lower Tier also embraces higher Tiers, e.g. after the two required courses in Tier 2 have been taken, additional courses in Tier 2 can be used to satisfy requirements in Tiers 3 and 4.   

It is recommended to take all courses in the first two years, however up to two courses may be taken in later years to allow customization to suit a thesis project.

T1 – Courses required for all students (7 points out of 25 total required)

BIOL GR9301 Pre-research Seminar (3 pts; fall semester of 1st year)

BIET K5451 Research Ethics (2 pts; fall of 2nd year)

BIOL GR6300 Writing for the Biological Sciences (2 pts; spring of 2nd year)

T2 – Biology core courses (two required)

BIOL GU4001 Advanced Genetic Analysis (3 pts, spring)

BIOL GU4551 A Structural View of Biology (3 pts, spring)

BIOL GU4002 Macromolecular Structure & Interactions

            (BIOC GU4323 Biophysical Chemistry I can be substituted for GU4002)

BIOL GR6007 The Central Dogma: Mechanisms and Regulation (3 pts, fall)

BIOL GU4510 Genomics of Gene Regulation (4 pts, spring; full-semester course)

T3 – Other foundational courses in biology (two required)

Any Tier 2 course

BIOL GR6201 Advanced Genetics and Development (3pts; fall, odd years)                              

BIOL GU4799 Molecular Biology of Cancer (3pts; fall)                                      

BIOL GU4035 Seminar in Epigenetics (3pts; spring)                                           

BIOL GR6005 Neuroscience II: Development & Systems                 

BINF GR4017 Deep Sequencing (3pts, fall)                                                            

BIOL GR4080 Ancient and Modern RNA Worlds (3pts, spring)                      

BIOL GU4036 Transformative Concepts in Systems Biology (3pts; fall, NEW Fall 2021)       

BIOL GU4290 Biological Microscopy (3pts; spring)                                             

BIOL GU4600 Cell Signaling (3 pts, fall)                                                   

BIOL GU6560 Human Evolutionary Genetics (4pts, spring, even years, offered Fall 2020)

BIOL GR4570 Readings in Human Genetics (3pts, spring, odd years)                          

BIOL GR6580 Readings in Evolutionary Genetics (3 pts, spring even years, NEW Spring 2020)

BIOL GU4013 Adv Seminar in Neurobiology (3 pts, spring)                               

NBHV G4340 Survey of Neuroscience (6pts; fall)                                    

--the Tier assignments here were revised for students entering in 2022; for students entering before then, the former Tier assignments will be honored.
—for courses offered outside of Biological Sciences that exceed 4 points, there will be a cap of 4 points/course in calculating program credit requirements for students entering in 2022 and after.

Use this listserv to ask the DGSs if other courses would qualify: [email protected].

T4 – Electives (two required)

Students are required to take 25 points for all four tiers combined. Students entering the program with a Masters degree must take all Tier 1 courses but are exempted from three points of courses in another tier (so must take a total of 22 points).

Any of the courses listed under Tier 2 or Tier 3 can also serve as an elective, i.e. if a third course from Tier 2 or Tier 3 is taken, it will be considered an elective. All pre-approved courses are listed at this link.  

Check with a DGS for approval of courses not on the pre-approved list at [email protected].

Departmental Seminars: Attendance at the weekly Departmental colloquium (outside speakers) is strongly recommended. Seminars are usually held Mondays at noon in Room 601 Fairchild.  Students are encouraged to attend any seminars of interest at the Morningside and CUIMC campuses.

Grade Requirements: Satisfactory academic performance in a student's first year entails passing all courses with a grade of B or better.   A grade of B or better is required for a course to satisfy a Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 requirement.   A Tier 2 or Tier 3 course in which a B- was received may count as a Tier 4 course towards the 25 points if an average of B or higher in coursework overall is maintained.  A B- or below in a Tier 1 course will necessitate retaking it or an equivalent course to be decided by a DGS.  A C+ or below is not considered a satisfactory grade in any Tier, and will not be counted towards any requirements.

A grade of B- or below in two classes will result in academic probation with specific conditions of the probation period to be provided by a DGS.  Failure to meet the conditions of probation and/or an additional failure (grade of B- or below) is grounds for dismissal from the Ph.D. program.

Additional pre-approved courses beyond the minimum requirement may be taken for a grade or for R credit, a non-evaluative grade, as described here:

For students who entered before Fall 2018:

The Core Courses taken in the first year along with two approved graduate electives will fulfill academic requirements.  No more than one of the two elective courses may have a grade of "B-" and the average must be "B" or higher (i.e., if a grade in one of the two elective courses is a B-, the other must be a B+ or better). A grade of C+ or below is considered to be failing, no matter whether the average for electives is a B.  A list of pre-approved elective courses, including those offered at the medical school, can be found here.

Students must take an Ethics refresher course BIET K5452 four years after completing BIET K5451 if still enrolled in the program.

In fulfillment of the requirements for the Ph.D. degree, all students must perform two terms of service as a Teaching Assistant (T.A.) for a course in the Dept. of Biological Sciences; one of the terms may be as a grader.  Serving as a T.A. for a project lab involves a more significant time commitment and thus fulfills the two-term requirement in one semester.  Students are expected to start teaching in their second year and generally complete their teaching by the end of their third year.  Flexibility in this timetable may be granted by a DGS but there is no exception to the requirement, and it must be fulfilled by the end of the 4th year.

A “T.A. panel” will be held in the middle of the first semester to give peer insight into choosing a T.A. job and getting the most out of the experience.


T.A. duties vary, depending on the course. They generally include grading (exam papers, homework or lab reports), running discussion sections, holding office hours (in person or by email), preparing course materials and (for laboratory leaders) supervising laboratory sections.


A seminar is held every semester at the beginning of the term for all students who are doing their first teaching assignment in order to provide training, support, and encouragement to student T.A.s.  Resources that may be helpful include:

  • Resources compiled by Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz:

The deadline for the Q.E. is June 30th of the second year.

Students will prepare a written proposal based on their intended research project, as perceived at that time. The proposal will be in the form of a short fellowship application (see guidelines below) and is honed during the Tier 1 BIOL GR6300 spring writing course. Students will submit this proposal to a qualifying exam committee consisting of two faculty members from the Biological Sciences graduate program, not including the student’s faculty sponsor, then present and defend the proposal before this committee.

The deadline for proposal defense is June 30th of the student’s second year. The written proposal should be submitted to the committee at least two weeks before the oral defense of the proposal.  For the oral defense, the student should prepare a Powerpoint presentation, approximately 30 minutes long, and be prepared for questions to be asked throughout the talk.

The committee will probe the student’s general knowledge in the area represented by the project, the area represented by the sponsor’s laboratory, and the areas covered in courses the student has taken. Students should be prepared to describe any procedure proposed in the research plan. Although the structure of the oral examination will be that of a defense of the proposal, the emphasis will be as much on general knowledge in these areas as on the merits of the specific research proposed. The examining committee will be made up of two faculty members from the program’s training faculty. 

The official policy is that the student’s research sponsor is excluded from the exam; however, if the other members of the committee agree, the advisor may attend the exam as an observer.

Students whose performance is judged unsatisfactory on this exam will be given one additional opportunity to take the exam. The timing of the re-test will be determined by the committee, in consultation with the mentor; it could be scheduled as soon as one month later, and must be held no later than the end of the Spring semester of the third year. Prior to the retest, the student will be on academic probation. The committee for the second exam shall be composed of the original members plus the sponsor. The student also has the prerogative to request a new committee for the second exam comprised of two new faculty members plus the sponsor, subject to co-DGS approval.

IMPORTANT: Be sure to print the Qualifying Exam form and take it with you to your Qualifying Exam for your committee to sign. Then return the form to 600 Office.

Guidelines for the Written Research Proposal

These guidelines are discussed in depth in course BIOL GR6300 Writing for the Biological Sciences.  The format is similar to an NIH predoctoral research fellowship, except that the space limitations have been changed for double-spaced formatting and up to 7 figures may be included outside of the page limits. References are not included in the page limits.

  1. Specific Aims
    • Specific Aims are limited to two double-spaced pages. State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved. List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology.
  2. Research Strategy
    • This item is limited to twelve double-spaced pages. Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order using the instructions provided below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading —Significance, Innovation, Approach. Cite published experimental details in the Research Strategy section and provide the full reference in the Bibliography and References Cited section.
      •  Significance
        • Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.
        • Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.
        • Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.
      • Innovation - Optional.
      • Approach
        • Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.
        • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.
        • If the project is in the early stages of development, describe any strategy to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high risk aspects of the proposed work.

If an applicant has multiple Specific Aims, then the applicant may address Significance, Innovation and Approach for each Specific Aim individually, or may address Significance, Innovation and Approach for all of the Specific Aims collectively.  

For new applications, include information on preliminary studies, if any. Discuss the applicant’s preliminary studies, data and/or experience pertinent to this application. When applicable, provide a succinct account of published and unpublished results, indicating progress toward their achievement. [This should be done within the Research Strategies section, usually in Significance.]

Provide a bibliography of any references cited in the Project Narrative. Each reference must include the names of all authors (in the same sequence in which they appear in the publication), the article and journal title, book title, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication. Include only bibliographic citations. Applicants should be especially careful to follow scholarly practices in providing citations for source materials relied upon when preparing any section of the application.

The proposal should be formatted according to the following guidelines:

  • Double-space all text, except captions for figures, which may be single-spaced.
  • Use an 11 or 12 pt. font such as Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia.
  • Use 1-inch margins on top, bottom, left and right.

The thesis advisory committee usually includes the two program members of the Qualifying Exam committee, but may be expanded to bring in other program members; it is also possible to bring in an expert not in the training program with prior DGS approval.  The thesis advisory committee provides scientific advice, but can also be a source of advice and support in other areas of professional and personal development. 

Please note that for the thesis defense committee, two members of the Biological Sciences training program will be required, as per GSAS thesis defense committee requirements given here.

The first thesis advisory committee meeting must be held 6 months after the QE.  Thereafter, more frequent committee meetings and progress reports than in the past should help shorten the time to a degree. 


Year 3:  

The first committee meeting is held 6 months after the QE.  At that time, students will be asked to present a plan for the next six months.  A short written plan (approximately two pages) should be given to the committee a week prior to the meeting.

First progress report, six months later:  students will send an email update with progress on the original six-month plan indicated, or any change in the project noted.  If desired by the student or the advisor, a meeting may be held instead.

Year 4:  Second committee meeting, with a short written plan followed by a second progress report six months later as in year 3.

Year 5:  switch to every-six-month meetings, with a short written plan associated with each meeting. By year 6, this plan should include a proposed thesis outline.


Year 2: Qualifying Exam June 30.

Year 3: first Thesis Committee meeting by Dec. 30. First progress report by June 30.

Year 4: second Thesis Committee meeting by Dec. 30. Second progress report by June 30.

Year 5 and beyond: Thesis Committee meeting by Dec. 30 and again by June 30.

At any point, a student’s Thesis Committee or Program Directors may require more frequent Thesis Committee Meetings, e.g. when students are struggling in their research, are otherwise deficient in progress toward their graduation, and/or appear likely to benefit from additional guidance.

How should students prepare for the Thesis Committee Meeting?    

  • Students should find a 2-hour period that works for all committee members and reserve a conference room or other venue for the time period.
  • The student should prepare a short talk (~20 minutes in length, including appropriate background information) describing the progress the student has made since the last Thesis Committee Meeting.
  • Before the meeting, the student should distribute a short written progress report on the Specific Aims of the project to the committee.  If the project has changed substantially, that should be clearly indicated.
  • Students should also print a “Thesis Committee Meeting Report Form” [students in their 6th year and up should select and complete the Committee Meeting Form for 5+ Years] and bring it to their meeting.  The form should be returned promptly to Sarah Kim Fein and/or 600 Fairchild.  

What should happen at the Thesis Committee Meeting? 

  • When all are convened for the meeting, the Chair will state what year and laboratory the student is in and make sure that all committee members have met one another.
  • The student will give a talk, which is usually liberally interrupted by the Thesis Committee with questions, suggestions, or information relevant to the talk.
  • After the discussion is completed, the student will leave the room for a few minutes to allow the committee to come to a consensus as to recommendations of how to proceed.
  • When the student returns, the Thesis Committee will communicate their conclusions to the student and discuss their response.

The advisor will then leave the room and the student will have the opportunity to bring up any problems in the lab (scientific or otherwise) that the committee might be able to help with.

All fourth year students are expected to give a presentation in a biweekly science-and-social series organized by the Social Hour Committee.

A thesis should include a scholarly Introduction and General Discussion.  Published data may be presented in chapters as they appeared in publications, but if the papers had multiple authors, a cover sheet clearly indicating the student’s contribution should be included. Unpublished data that may appear in a future paper or papers may be written as anticipated for a journal or otherwise organized into one or more Materials & Methods, Results, and Discussion sections.  Although a “second reader” other than the advisor is not a requirement, having a thesis committee member other than the advisor examine the thesis prior to distribution may help make the process smoother at the defense.

The GSAS Writing Studio provides resources and assistance to students writing their dissertation or qualifying exam, including one-on-one consultations, writing groups, and workshops, that can be accessed at any point in the writing process.

Order of items in the thesis:

Title page

Copyright Page


Table of Contents

List of Figures & Tables

General Acknowledgements (optional)

Dedication (optional)

General Introduction

Chapters: a submitted or published paper may be included without modification, with a cover page indicating the contribution of the student to a multi-author paper.  Unpublished work may be written in the format of a standard research publication or another format. The contents and format should be discussed with the thesis committee at the penultimate meeting.

General Discussion/Future Directions

Thesis Defense

The thesis defense consists of a public presentation of the work in a forty-five minute seminar. This seminar is followed by an examination related to the thesis work of the candidate by the thesis committee. The outcome of this examination is either an acceptance of the thesis as submitted, acceptance with minor revisions, acceptance with major revisions or failure.

A student must be registered for a Residence Unit or for Extended Residence for the term in which the dissertation is defended. Exception is made for a student registered for a Residence Unit or for Extended Residence in the term immediately preceding the term in which he or she defends and for a student returning from a leave of absence for defense who was registered for a Residence Unit or for Extended Residence in the term immediately before beginning the leave. In both exceptional instances, the student may defend while registered for Matriculation and Facilities.

Outside committee members (without Columbia appointments) are eligible to receive a $200 honorarium (taxable) from the department for serving on the dissertation defense committee OR up to $300 travel reimbursement (non-taxable), or a combination of honorarium and travel reimbursement, up to a total of $300.  The thesis advisor is responsible for additional costs above the $300 maximum.

For more information about planning to defend your dissertation, please see GSAS’s page Defending Your Dissertation.

Deposit of the Dissertation

When the faculty committee has certified that the student has passed the final examination, the candidate must, in order to receive the degree, arrange with the Dissertation Secretary, 108 Low Memorial Library, for the deposit of the dissertation in the University library.   A fee is payable at the time of deposit; the student may ask the thesis advisor to cover the fee.  Please check with the Dissertation Office for the exact amount.

Award of the Degree

When all requirements have been satisfied and all outstanding fees paid, the degree is awarded on the next conferral date (October, January, or May) following the final deposit of the dissertation (see Academic Calendar). The deadlines for applying for degrees through the Office of Student Information Services do not apply to the doctoral degree. Once all requirements for the Ph.D. degree have been completed, the Office of Student Information Services is notified that the degree should be awarded on the next degree date. For employment or other purposes, candidates may obtain official certification of the completion of all degree requirements from the Office of Student Information Services. Information about the annual Ph.D. Convocation held the day before Commencement is mailed from the Office of the Dean in March. Information about the annual Commencement ceremony in May is mailed from the Office of the President in March.

External Funding Opportunities

This link has a list of competitive external fellowships from NIH, NSF, and private foundations.

Graduate Student Travel Fund


All Ph.D. students in the Department of Biological Sciences program who have completed their qualifying exams (usually in the spring of their second year) but have not completed more than six years in the department (i.e. until August 31 of their sixth year).  Travel may be to scientific conferences or courses and must occur during this period.


$2000 is available per student for their entire tenure in the department.  This may be used to attend meetings or to attend a course that would be of assistance in their thesis work.  It is expected that faculty will supplement this funding so that the students can get the most out of travel to external venues.

In order to use this money, you should apply for this money in the form of a travel reimbursement using these directions. The 600 office staff keeps track of how much of the $2000 total fund each student has used.

This travel fund is partially supported by a generous gift from Prof. Alex Tzagoloff in honor of Prof. Cyrus Levinthal, a visionary scientist and dedicated educator who helped to modernize biology on the Morningside campus.  

GSAS Conference Matching Fund

Check to see if you are eligible to receive a matching fund of up to $300 from GSAS. GSAS will match the funds provided by the department, up to a maximum of $300. 'Department funds' can mean your Graduate Student Travel Fund or your PI's grant or other project number.

ASGS Student Travel Grant

Intended to support GSAS graduate students who are presenting in remote or in-person conferences. Students may only receive the grant once. This award does not support conference attendance only. The maximum amount of grant per applicant is $500. Instructions to apply.

University Resources

Students are encouraged to get any help they need at any point during their graduate career.  University resources of note include:

Counseling and psychological services:

Workplace environment questions and concerns:

Sexual Respect

Policies and Procedures on Discrimination And Harassment

Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action

Ombuds Office


Other resources: 

GSAS Student Guide

Office of Work/Life  

Students in the doctoral program receive three degrees in the course of fulfilling the Ph.D. requirements in the Department of Biological Sciences: the Master of Arts, the Master of Philosophy, and the Doctorate of Philosophy degree.

For the M.A. Degree

Residence Units: Four.

Languages: Non-native speakers must demonstrate proficiency in English or complete Delete this section.International Teaching Fellows Training by the American Language Program.

Course Requirements: The completion of 12 points of Tier 2, 3, or 4 courses with a grade average of B or above.  The completion of all Tier 1 courses, each with a grade of B or above.

Mathematics: Two semesters of college-level math, generally including single-variable calculus and/or statistics. Required if students have not had previous math courses as determined by the Director of Graduate Studies.

Rotations and choice of lab:  Completion of three research rotations, and acceptance into a lab for thesis research.   

Research: Satisfactory research in a thesis lab during the second year.

For the M.Phil Degree 

Residence Units: Six (Two beyond the four required for the M.A.).

Graduate courses: Completion of all required courses as described above.

Qualifying Exam: Passing of the qualifying exam as described above.

Teaching requirement: Two semesters as a teaching assistant are usually required as described above. One semester as a teaching assistant of an intensive project lab can count as two semesters and fulfill the requirement alone.

Research: Satisfactory work in a thesis lab.

For the Ph.D. Degree (in addition to the M.Phil. requirements)

Dissertation and Defense: All students are required to present and defend a dissertation.  Each student meets with his or her Ph.D. advisory committee at least once each year, as detailed above, to discuss the progress of the student's research and continues to do so until the thesis defense.  The thesis defense consists of a public presentation of the work in a forty-five minute seminar. This seminar is followed by an examination related to the thesis work of the candidate by the thesis committee, which consists of the three members of the Ph.D. advisory committee and two outside faculty members, generally including one from another institution.  It is expected that the thesis defense will occur before the end of the sixth year of graduate study at Columbia.

A student must be registered for a Resident Unit or for Extended Resident Unit for the term in which the dissertation is distributed to the defense committee. See the Dissertation Office rules for Registration and Application for Ph.D. Defense.

See the Dissertation Office website for Dates and Deadlines for deposit deadlines and degree dates.

Requirements for M.D.-Ph.D. students

In recognition of their medical school course work, M.D.-Ph.D. students are required to take fewer courses.

  1. M.D.-Ph.D. students are required to take two graduate Tier 2 to 4 courses (six points or more).
  2. M.D.-Ph.D. students are required to take a bioethics/responsible conduct of research course. The course offered at the medical school or by the M.D.-Ph.D. program is acceptable.
  3. M.D.-Ph.D. students are required to take the qualifying exam within 1.5 years of joining a lab. Often students do it earlier.
  4. M.D.-Ph.D. students are not required to be teaching assistants or to take the Pre-research or Scientific Writing courses.

M.D.-Ph.D. students are required to fulfill all other requirements for students in the program, such as thesis committee meetings and the final thesis defense.

Lab choice policy for first-year students

A) Number of rotations:  

Students are expected to do no more than three rotations before committing to a thesis lab, and to begin thesis work on July 1 of the first year, directly following their Spring rotation. In cases where a mutually acceptable match has not been made, a DGS may permit a fourth rotation if no serious performance or academic issues have been identified.

B) Eligible faculty mentors:

For all rotations, students are expected to choose among faculty within the training program, listed here. Training program faculty include all faculty in the Dept. of Biological Sciences and a subset of faculty at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and in other departments on the Morningside campus.
Students are not ordinarily allowed to work with faculty outside the training program, except as part of an equal collaboration with a member of the program. This restriction is to ensure demonstrated, and program-approved mentorship.

In the rare instances in which students are concerned after two rotations that they may not be able to identify a suitable thesis lab within the training program, they should consult with a DGS. The DGS will discuss possibilities and consider any student request to work in a lab outside the training program on a case-by-case basis. The following constraints apply:  

i) Students must do at least two rotations with training program faculty before opting for approval for a rotation in an out-of-program lab.

ii) Students must consult with a DGS prior to approaching out-of-program faculty.  Only tenured faculty with a record of a graduated student will be accepted as a prospective mentor.  The topic of the faculty's work should be in line with the general interests of the biological sciences program.

iii) Before granting approval for an out-of-program rotation, the DGS will contact the prospective mentor to explain the training requirements of our program and ascertain whether there are financial resources available to support the student for thesis work.

iv) If all above conditions are met, students who want to proceed with an out-of-program rotation must obtain approval from the Graduate Committee. The process requires submitting a petition, in which the student explains why the two in-program rotations have not lead to an appropriate match, why there is no other program member who is likely to be an appropriate match, and why the out-of-program rotation is likely to be one. 

C) Collaboration or co-mentorship. Students must discuss any prospective co-mentorship or collaborative arrangements with a co-DGS before proceeding.  Each situation may have additional or superseding particulars that may be more fully considered in an advising meeting. 

(i) Collaboration. Collaboration is possible without formal co-mentorship, and is the preferred mechanism for students to obtain guidance for interdisciplinary projects. Having a sole mentor helps ensure that expectations and responsibilities are always clear to the student, mentor, and program, while still allowing for input in a complementary area.
          Scientific collaborations with other Columbia faculty (including out-of-program) may be initiated at the discretion of the mentor, and do not require co-DGS approval.  The collaborator can serve as an additional member of the thesis committee, along with the two in-program members, starting with the first meeting after the Qualifying Exam. If the in-program mentor and collaborator want to share proportional financial support of the student, with the collaborator providing up to 50%, the mentor should contact a DGS for terms and conditions to ensure there are no misunderstandings about financial responsibilities, and the program mentor will be fully responsible for student support if the collaboration does not continue.  See the "Policy on External Research" below for external collaborations that involve extended periods of time away from Columbia.

(ii) Co-mentorship.  A co-mentorship means that each mentor has responsibility for guiding PhD studies for the duration of thesis work, and students are required to meet the expectations of both mentors to be in good standing within the PhD program.  Co-mentor arrangements are expected to be rare and are less desirable because the arrangement comes with potential complications for the student as well as the program. A co-mentor arrangement for thesis work generally requires prior rotations in each lab. 

          (a) Process for two in-program co-mentors. Co-mentorships involving two PhD program faculty do not need DGS approval, but must be declared and confirmed by a written co-mentor agreement, prepared by a DGS, about advising and financial responsibilities.  A co-mentor is expected to join thesis committee meetings but will not replace non-mentor members of the committee.                     

           (b) Process for co-mentor arrangements involving one in-program and one out-of-program mentor.  After a student has a successful rotation with the in-program mentor, a student may petition a DGS for permission to do a third rotation in the out-of-program lab to evaluate the possibility of co-mentorship. The student should consult with a DGS by March 15 so that the request can be evaluated in time for the April 1 rotation start.
          The proposed in-program co-mentor must be willing to serve as a co-mentor in the prospective arrangement or as sole mentor if the proposed rotation experience does not lead to co-mentorship. The DGS may consult the Graduate Committee regarding any out-of-program rotation request.  If the request is granted but the co-mentorship plan is not approved by all parties after the out-of-program rotation, the student should be prepared to join a program lab or leave the program. 
          The out-of-program co-mentor is still expected to meet the program criteria for out-of-program mentorship (as in B above, tenured faculty with a record of a graduated student), but the student must additionally petition for the co-mentor arrangement to be approved.  A strong merit-based case must be made, initially to a DGS, who will then present the case to the Graduate Committee.  The prospective in-program and out-of-program co-mentors must also agree to the arrangement. If the arrangement is provisionally approved, a DGS will prepare documents to ensure that both mentors understand their advising and financial responsibilities, including a pledge of 50% support for the duration of the thesis, before final approval.  The proposed thesis project must be a true joint project, and not two unrelated projects or a project performed primarily in the out-of-program lab, and will be judged as such to pass the qualifying exam. The Chair of the qualifying exam and thesis committees will be asked by a DGS to make this judgment and to report specifically on progress of the co-mentorship arrangement at subsequent thesis committee meetings.

          (c) Co-mentorships involving two out-of-program faculty will not be permitted.

D) Policy on requests to waive a third rotation.  

The co-DGSs will consider requests to waive a third rotation from students with a Masters degree and at least 1 year of additional, full-time verified post-bac research experience outside of a training program, or the equivalent, only if there are sufficient openings to accommodate all of the students in our program who are planning to rotate in that lab for the year.

If students have previously worked for program faculty members for post-bac experience and aspire to rejoin the same lab for thesis work, then three rotations in other labs are expected.  However, the co-DGSs will consider requests to waive a third rotation only if there are sufficient openings to accommodate all of the students in our program who are planning to rotate in that lab for the year.

The co-DGS's will consider the student’s background and experience, performance in course work and other rotations at Columbia, and consult with the proposed mentor and/or the Graduate Committee in making the evaluation and decision.

Policy on enrollment in courses that are not on the pre-approved course list

Any course included in the pre-approved course list used for electives may be taken without prior approval.

Enrollment in courses that do not advance training in Biological Sciences or the area of thesis research is discouraged.   However, students who have passed their qualifying exam may be permitted to enroll in other classes if they receive prior approval of both their advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).  Decisions will be made based on the strength of the academic performance in program courses and the assessment of research performance progress towards degree.  Students will not be permitted to take more than two extraneous courses beyond fulfilling the program requirements unless the material will facilitate thesis research progress.  Failure to obtain permission from a DGS and thesis advisor for coursework that has not been pre-approved for the program may lead to a loss of good academic standing in the program and potential placement on probation or other disciplinary action. 

Please note the following GSAS policy, from  

"With the sole exception of approved dual-degree programs, students may not pursue a degree in more than one Columbia program concurrently, and may not be registered in more than one degree program at any institution in the same semester. Enrollment in another degree program at Columbia or elsewhere while enrolled in a GSAS master's or doctoral program is strictly prohibited by the Graduate School. Violation of this policy will lead to the rescission of an offer of admission, or termination for a current student.”

Policy on employment and professional activities outside of the program

Students who have passed their qualifying exam may be permitted to have limited employment or other professional activities outside of the program, but in all cases will require prior approval of both the thesis advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).  Note that approval will need to be obtained every semester or every year, depending on whether the program is by academic semester or year.   Approval is also required for summer programs.  Students must also be up-to-date in their committee meetings to receive approval.

To get approval, a student should first ascertain that the advisor approves and then send an email to [email protected], cc’d to the advisor, asking the advisor to affirm approval and for co-DGS approval.

This policy is intended to ensure that the extra work or activity does not significantly deter from the focus on thesis work so as not to prolong time to degree, and that the extra work or activity is sufficiently distinct from work already supported by the fellowship.  This policy is modeled on the stipulations of the NIH policies for trainees, and applies to all students in our program regardless of whether the individual's stipend is provided by an NIH source and is designed to ensure equal treatment for all students regardless of their funding source.  The DGS may consult the student's thesis committee and/or the graduate committee in making the evaluation and decision.

We note that such permission is also required for compensated Columbia “fellowship” programs such as those offered via Columbia Technology Ventures (CTV), the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). 

Students who have not passed their qualifying exam may not have any outside employment/compensation.

Purely voluntary opportunities, such as community service and outreach, are permitted and do not require permission.

Failure to obtain permission from a DGS and thesis advisor for financially compensated employment or professional activities outside of the program may lead to a loss of good academic standing in the program and potential placement on probation or other disciplinary action. 

If in doubt about whether an activity may be in conflict with department policy, please consult a DGS.

Policy on lab switching

If a lab switch is contemplated, a co-DGS should be consulted to discuss possible options by May 31 of year 3.

Policy on external research

All students in our program must conduct their thesis work in labs of Columbia faculty members approved by GSAS to mentor PhD research.   Work done in active collaboration that requires extended time in a lab at another institution would be permitted at the discretion of the thesis advisor and approved by a co-DGS to ensure that a student is in good standing.

GSAS Time-Off Policy for Doctoral Students on Appointment in the Sciences and Related Research Fields

Link for the full policy

The GSAS Policy Handbook here has a complete list of policies with which all students should be familiar. The policies that students most frequently ask questions about are listed below.

Residence Requirements

Residence at the University is required for each advanced degree and is completed through the accumulation of Residence Units during the autumn and spring terms. The Residence Unit, rather than registration for individual courses, provides the basis for tuition charges. Two Residence Units are required for the Master of Arts degree and six Residence Units, including the two for the M.A. degree, are required for the Master of Philosophy degree. The residence requirement for the Doctor of Philosophy degree is satisfied by the six Residence Units earned for the Master of Philosophy degree. An M.A. will be awarded in the Fall of the third year of study to those students who have completed 2 full satisfactory calendar years of study. This requirement includes completion of the Qualifying Exam Part II and satisfactory research performance.

Students must complete all academic requirements, as well as residence requirements, within four consecutive terms for the M.A. degree (except in designated part-time M.A. programs described under Master of Arts Degree, below) within four calendar years for the M.Phil. Degree, and within seven calendar years for the Ph.D. degree. A student transferring with the M.A. degree, or the equivalent, from another university must, if granted standing, complete all the requirements for the M.Phil. degree within no more than three years and all the requirements for the Ph.D. degree within no more than six years.

The student must have satisfied the academic requirements in force at the time a degree is awarded. Accordingly, if the student takes more than the normal time to complete requirements for any degree, he or she may be required to satisfy increased or altered requirements.

Continuous Registration

Continuous registration until completion of all requirements is obligatory for each degree except for requirements completed extra muros (see Doctor of Philosophy Degree, below).

After completing the appropriate number of Residence Units, students are required to register for Extended Residence for any term in which they (a) hold a fellowship of University appointment or (b) are completing a degree requirement such as course work, language or qualifying examinations, deposit of an essay, or the defense of dissertation. Students who neither hold a fellowship or a University appointment nor are completing a degree requirement can satisfy the continuous registration requirement and maintain their status as graduate students by registering for Matriculation and Facilities, which allows them to make use of various University facilities. (Exception: a student may defend a dissertation or deposit an essay while registered for Matriculation and Facilities if registered for a Residence Unit or Extended Residence in the immediately preceding term. However, any student holding a fellowship or University appointment must register for Extended Residence for that term.) Students are exempted from the requirement to register continuously only when granted a leave of absence.

Leaves of Absence, Withdrawals, and Reinstatement

Please see

A student who must interrupt studies for a compelling reason – for example, sustained ill health – may be granted a leave of absence for a stated period, usually not to exceed one year. During the period of leave, a student may not use University facilities. Forms requesting leaves of absence may be obtained in the Office of Student Affairs, 107 Low Memorial Library.

If a leave is granted, the fact is entered on the student’s permanent academic record. The period of a leave of absence is not counted as part of the time allowed for the completion of degree requirements.

Students on leaves of absence may be eligible to defer payment of University loans and National Direct Student Loans. Consult the Office of Student Affairs, 107 Low Memorial Library, for further information.


A student who leaves the University without obtaining a leave of absence, or who fails to pay the Matriculation and Facilities fee, is not usually readmitted. The special approval of the Dean, contingent upon the merits of the student’s request and the recommendation of the department, is required for readmission.

A student wishing to apply for readmission must submit the application to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Office of Student Affairs at least four weeks before the first day of registration for the term in which studies would be resumed. If readmitted, the student becomes subject to all current requirements, as interpreted by the Dean to fit the student’s case. Because an unauthorized absence does not relieve a student of the obligation to register continuously until the completion of all degree requirements, readmitted students are also required to pay the Matriculation and Facilities fee for each term of absence for a maximum of eight terms. (Students who are absent for more than eight terms and who continued to work toward the degree during the entire period are liable for additional payment.)

Probation and Termination

A satisfactory rate of progress toward a higher degree is required at all times. A department or doctoral program subcommittee has an absolute right to place a student on probation and/or terminate a student’s candidacy at any time for academic reasons, or to deny the student readmission.  A student must be in good standing as per GSAS criteria,  If a student is placed on probation, the terms and conditions that must be met to continue in the program will be conveyed in writing; these terms and conditions will be individualized to address the deficiencies that led to the probation situation.

Academic Office

Kim Fein, Sarah

Program Manager

(212) 854 2313, [email protected]

Siddens, Ellie

Department Administrative Assistant / Undergraduate Coordinator

(212) 854-4581, [email protected]

Rosario, Liliana

Administrative Assistant / Chair's Assistant / Introbio coordinator

(212) 854-5388, [email protected]

Boluk, Inna

Administrative Assistant

(212) 854-7289, [email protected]

Email to reach all co-DGSs at once:  [email protected]

Business Office

Khan, Muin

Director of Financial & Administrative Services

(212) 854-6690, [email protected]

Lannon, Will

Director of Laboratories

(212) 854-0502, [email protected]

Jessica Jimenez
Director of Administration
(212) 854-5016, [email protected]

Santosh, Jaya
(212) 854-5678, [email protected]

Gulliver-Niles, Adelia

Purchasing Assistant

[email protected]

Cruz, Yasmin

Financial Assistant

(212) 854-5678, [email protected]

Computer Facilities

Gomez, Anthony
Director of IT Resources
(212) 854-7062, [email protected]

Ramirez, Alex
Staff Associate

(212) 854-8741, [email protected]

Equipment Maintenance

Dubchenko, Mikhail


(212) 854-6162, [email protected]


Artavia, Jorge
Stockroom Manager 
(212) 854-4046, [email protected]

Rivera, Jerry
Stockroom Coordinator 
(212) 854-4046, [email protected]


Bielskas, Amanda
Geology/Geosciences & Psychology Librarian
(212) 854-6767, [email protected]

Geology Library - 601 Schermerhorn