Writing for the Biological Sciences (GR6300)

Instructor: Meehan Crist

writer in residence in biological sciences

Email: [email protected]


Throughout their careers, scientists are expected to communicate their ideas and report their results in writing to the scientific community. Researchers who can make themselves understood tend to get funded, get published, and have more successful scientific careers. But not all researchers learn how to write well—promising science goes unfunded because researchers cannot articulate their ideas; papers are rejected because exasperated reviewers don’t want to cull through poorly-written manuscripts for meaning. In short, if you learn to write better, you will be more successful in science. Writing in clear, succinct prose is one of the most important skills you can learn. 

Good scientific writing, while it comes in many shapes and sizes, meets objective standards of clarity and quality. In this course, we will explore the choices a writer can make to achieve clarity of thought and clear prose style while communicating complex scientific ideas to other scientists. To that end, we will read examples of scientific writing from the recent literature, consider the strategies used by successful writers, and workshop student writing.

The Qualifying Exam

All the writing you do in this course will be geared toward producing your written Qualifying Exam [[you could link to the Qual guidelines in the student handbook, here]]. You are required to turn in this document and meet with your thesis committee by June 30 of the summer of your second year. By the end of this course, you will have a complete, revised draft of your written Qualifying Exam.

Reading, Writing, and Workshopping

You will be asked to consider the following: that reading and writing are related and mutually reinforcing activities; that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking; that writing requires understanding your audience; that writing is a process and requires choices; and that the writer is conscious of and responsible for their choices.

You will do in-class writing exercises and write multiple drafts of each section that appears in your Qualifying Exam, including: Introduction, Specific Aims, Approach, Conclusion, and Works Cited. Throughout the semester, you will submit these drafts to the class for critique and discussion. Through the process of revision, you will refine your ideas and practice writing techniques that will help you more effectively communicate your work to other scientists. We will meet for individual conferences during the semester to discuss strategies for improving your work.

In the short term, the workshop process and the writing you produce in this course will be useful as you work on your Qualifying Exams. In the long term, the skills you learn in this course will help you in your career in science.


In addition to Writing for the Biological Sciences, Biology PhD students eligible for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program can take the NSF Writing Workshop. This non-credit workshop is offered each fall to support students applying for the NSF GRFP, a fellowship that provides three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $37,000.