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Graduate Students Curriculum

Skip to:  Program Course Work Outline   The Qualifying Examination and the Ph.D. Committee   Individual Development Plan (IDP)   Dissertation Research and Annual Evaluation   The Dissertation and Final Defense   Graduate Student Financial Support   Vacation and Parental Leave Policy for Graduate Students   Reporting and Addressing Student Grievances   Biological Sciences Graduate Courses   Contact Director of Graduate Studies

Matriculation into the Program and Formal Coursework

Students can apply directly to the department and enter in their first year (direct entry), or they can enter after spending their first year in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) or the Quantitative and Chemical Biology (QCB) program. Most direct entry students will complete rotations with three BSCI department faculty members during the first year. At least two rotations are required for all students. The rotation schedule will match that of the IGP; two rotations in the fall semester and two in the spring. The first two rotations must be in different laboratories. After the second rotation and with approval of the supervising faculty member, a student can choose to join a lab or continue to rotate. For students wishing to do two rotations within the same laboratory, documentation of approval from the DGS and the faculty member of that laboratory is required prior to beginning the second rotation.

The expectation is that first year graduate students will join a laboratory by June 1. In order to make satisfactory progress toward the graduate degree, first year graduate students who enter the biological sciences graduate program in the fall semester must select a faculty member to direct their dissertation and join their laboratory by August 15 of the year following matriculation. First year graduate students who enter the biological sciences graduate program in the spring semester must join a laboratory for their Ph.D. work by January 15 of the following year. The selection must be by mutual agreement of the student and the faculty mentor and must be approved in writing by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). Students who fail to meet this requirement will, barring extenuating circumstances, be terminated from the biological sciences graduate program.

IGP and QCB students will complete all first year coursework required by those programs. Direct entry students pursuing studies in cellular, molecular, developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology and structural biology, typically follow option 1; whereas students pursuing studies in other areas (for example, ecology, evolution or organismal biology) may choose to follow option 2. Both options are planned in greater detail with the aid of the faculty advisor and the DGS. An outline of course requirements for the first year is given below (for QCB, please consult the program website). Numbers indicate credit hours.

Program Coursework Outline

Fall Semester Year 1      
Courses IGP Option 1 Option 2
Bioregulation (IGP8300a) 6 6
BSCI6320 (seminar) 1 1
BSCI7390 (rotation) 2 2
BSCI8999 (research) 4 1 (3-6)
Electives (3-6)
Total 12 12 12


Spring Semester Year 1      
Courses IGP Option 1 Option 2
Bioregulation (IGP8300a) 6 6
BSCI6320 (seminar) 1 1
BSCI7390 (rotation) 2 2
BSCI8999 (research) 4 1 (3-6)
Electives (3-6)
Total 12 12 12


All biological sciences graduate students (IGP/QCB and direct entry) will take 3 credits of BSCI7390 and 7 credits of BSCI8999 during the summer semester following the first year. In year two, all students will enroll in BSCI6320 (1 credit) for both semesters.

  • IGP/QCB Entry: 4 total elective credits are required. QCB students should consult with the DGS to confirm that total credit numbers earned are sufficient.
  • Direct Entry Option 1: 8 total elective credits are required.  Those elective credits earned during the Spring semester of the first year count toward this total (including any modules completed).
  • Direct Entry Option 2: 15 total elective credits are required.  These credits can be distributed over the 4 semesters of years 1 and 2.  Course choices will be made in consultation with the mentor and the DGS.

All students will register for 8 credits of BSCI8999 during the second summer. A minimum of 24 didactic credits must be earned and all additional requirements detailed above must be fulfilled prior to the qualifying exam. A minimum GPA of 3.0 is required. BSCI8999 and BSCI9999 are research courses graded on an S/U basis. These courses provide non-didactic credit. All other courses listed above are didactic courses.

Prior to passing the qualifying exam, students should register for BSCI8999. After passing the qualifying exam, students should register for BSCI9999. In the fall and spring semesters, students should register for sufficient BSCI8999/9999 hours to bring the total to 12 hours, but care should be taken not to exceed 72 cumulative credit hours. When 72 credit hours have been earned, students should continue to register every semester for BSCI 9999 for 0 credit hours.

Additional Description of Coursework

This course is designed to give students experience with the presentation and critical evaluation of the literature. Students present a recent research manuscript in a journal club format under the guidance of a faculty facilitator.

Students write a research paper and give a presentation about work done during the rotation or summer research. Effort and progress maintained in the laboratory during the semester also contributes to the overall evaluation.

This course focuses on biological processes within a cell, from macromolecular structure and function to cell biology and the regulation of cell growth. It covers the foundational principles and processes of biology.

One of the key objectives is for students to become proficient in reading and critically analyzing the primary scientific literature. As a method for instruction in developing these skills, a small number of students pair with a faculty, postdoc and graduate students to facilitate discussion of seminal papers in the field of biomedical sciences. Discussions are centered on identifying the central hypothesis being tested, various experimental methods and technologies used, key experimental controls, analyzing the authors’ interpretations of the data, and using this discussion as a springboard to identify future directions.

Bioregulation modules are short, 1 credit courses offered through the IGP program. Each module meets three times per week for five weeks. View a description of current modules.

Note: courses available for graduate elective credit in the Department of Biological Sciences are listed at the bottom of this page.


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The Qualifying Examination and the Ph.D. Committee

The qualifying exam can be taken after a student fulfills the departmental course requirements and reaches a minimum of 24 didactic credits in good standing (cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above). All requirements must be completed before October 15 of the third year. The overall goals of the qualifying exam are to:

  • Assess the student’s ability to formulate hypotheses and design specific aims to test these hypotheses
  • Test the student’s knowledge in scientific literature relevant to the Ph.D. dissertation
  • Assess the student’s general knowledge base
  • Provide training and feedback in the grant writing process
  • Form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student’s continued development

Following are the requirements of the qualifying exam process in biological sciences. Throughout this document, DGS refers to the Director of Graduate Studies and GP admin refers to the Graduate Program Administrator.

The department will hold an informational workshop in December. The DGS will ask two faculty members to participate each year on a rotating basis. The workshop will include specifics on how to prepare a grant proposal and administrative details of the qualifying examination. There will be an in depth discussion of good grant writing practices and common concerns and mistakes. Attendance at the workshop is mandatory for students in their second year of graduate study. Any exceptions must be arranged with the DGS.

The topic for the qualifying exam is the anticipated research topic for the Ph.D. dissertation and should be chosen by the student with guidance from his/her mentor. It is important to note that the research grant proposal is not a contract for either the student or mentor. Research objectives may be altered after the qualifying examination in consultation with the student’s mentor and with approval of the dissertation committee.

The examining committee will consist of four members of the university graduate faculty. One member must represent a field of research outside of the focus of the proposal and the committee must additionally include one member from outside the Department of Biological Sciences. The chair of the examining committee must be a tenured faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences. The student's mentor does not serve on the examining committee but must attend both the pre-meeting (see below) and the qualifying exam. The committee members and the mentor vote for a pass/fail on the exam. The examining committee should be appointed as early as possible in the second year but no later than the end of the spring semester of the second year. The student and mentor will submit a list of potential committee members to the DGS and indicate a potential chair for the committee. Students should consult with potential members prior to submission of their names. After approval by the DGS, the GP admin will submit the names to the graduate school.

The student will write the specific aims page of his or her qualifying exam research proposal at no more than one page. This document should describe the hypotheses to be tested and list the specific aims designed to test these hypotheses. The general experimental approaches and methodologies to be utilized should be briefly described. The student is encouraged to discuss the research topic and experimental details with the mentor; the mentor (or other scientists) may read and critique the specific aims page. However, the final product must be written by and represent the intellectual input of the student. The specific aims page must be submitted to each member of the examination committee by email at least one week prior to the scheduled pre-examination meeting (see point 5 below). Failure to meet this deadline will require rescheduling of the meeting.

A pre-examination meeting will be held not later than September 1. The goal of this meeting is to confirm that the student has met the academic requirements for taking the qualifying exam and to determine whether the student's anticipated research proposal (based on the specifics aims page; see above) will be "defendable" in a qualifying exam. The meeting will last no more than one hour and will consist of the following sections:

  • In the student’s absence, the committee will review the student’s academic progress. The chair will obtain the student’s file and transcript from the GP admin prior to the meeting. The mentor will be invited to comment on the student’s progress, including particular strengths and weaknesses.
  • The student will give a ten minute chalk talk (no pre-prepared visuals) that includes a brief summary of the background and an outline of the proposed thesis work. Questions and discussion from the committee will be focused on the proposed aims of the project, including feasibility and scope.
  • At the end of the presentation/discussion, the student will be asked to leave and the chair will poll each committee member as to the suitability of the proposed research plan. Possible outcomes are as follows: approval, approval with revisions, or significant revision of the specific aims page necessitating a second pre-examination meeting. A timeline for completion of any requirements will be established. A brief description of the outcome of the meeting and any suggestions for changes to the specific aims page will be written by the chair and distributed by email to the student and the GPM within three days of the pre-examination meeting.

The qualifying examination must occur before October 15. The student will inform the GP admin of the date and location of the exam at least four weeks prior to the meeting and the GP admin will forward this information to the graduate school. The qualifying exam comprises two parts: written and oral.

  • Written component: The written component of the qualifying exam must be submitted to the members of the examination committee no later than two weeks prior to the scheduled examination (the student should contact committee members about whether electronic and/or hard copies are preferred). Failure to meet this deadline will require rescheduling of the exam. The written component is in the form of a grant proposal and will comprise a total of ten single-spaced pages, including the specific aims page, background and significance, preliminary data (if available) and research plan. The ten page limit, excluding references but including any figures, is strictly enforced. The student should assume a timeline of three to four years for the proposed experiments, which should be realistically accomplished with the available resources. The student is responsible for all scientific aspects of the proposal (including background information, approach, experimental design, and methodology for all experiments) but may consult anyone in the development of these ideas. A student may ask his or her mentor, other students, or postdoctoral fellows to critique the content, format, and style of the proposal. However, the examination committee members may not be asked for specific feedback on the written document during the time between the pre-qualifying meeting and the qualifying exam.

  • Oral exam: The qualifying exam meeting should last approximately two hours including the oral exam and closed discussions. At the beginning of the meeting, the student will be asked to step out while the committee discusses whether the written proposal is satisfactory. The mentor will be asked to give an evaluation of the extent of his or her contribution to the design and editing of the document. The committee will then assess whether the report is hypothesis-based, scientifically sound, and logical; includes sufficient background/review of field; has sufficiently independent aims; includes explanation of expected outcomes; considers alternative approaches; is well-organized and clearly written; and utilizes proper grammar/spelling. The chair will then poll the mentor and each member oft he committee to reach a consensus as to whether the written proposal is acceptable or requires revision. The student will then return and begin their oral defense of the proposal.

    The student will prepare a PowerPoint presentation that contains no more than ten slides covering the background and significance of the project (four slides) and the specific aims (six slides). Questions from the committee will ideally probe the student's ability to pose a scientific question, state a hypothesis, develop reasonable strategies and alternatives to test the hypothesis, anticipate possible outcomes, and interpret these possible outcomes. The first 30-60 minutes of the exam will be used to probe the student's knowledge of the appropriate background area as well as knowledge in his or her field of specialization. The remainder of the exam will focus on the specific aims of the proposal. Committee members will ideally prepare in advance for the meeting by reading the entire proposal and identifying several lines of questioning on both the proposal itself and general background to pursue during the oral exam. All committee members should actively participate in questioning the student. The student's mentor is expected to remain silent during the oral exam unless specifically addressed by the committee or granted permission by the committee chair to speak briefly.

    Although a wide variety of questions may be deemed appropriate during the oral exam, the committee's focus should be to ascertain whether the student has established a critical knowledge base essential for understanding their research project and achieving success as they progress through graduate school. It is the chair's responsibility to keep everyone "on track" (in terms of time, lines of questioning, and overall direction) during the oral exam. Upon conclusion of the oral exam, the committee will confer in the student's absence to evaluate the student's performance. The mentor will be given an opportunity to offer their opinion of the student’s performance. The pass/fail decision will be based upon a majority vote among the examining committee members and the thesis mentor. To achieve a “pass,” both the student's written proposal and performance during the oral exam must be deemed satisfactory with no remediation required.

    Disapproval of the proposal and/or inadequate performance by the student in the oral exam (either in defense of the proposal or in general knowledge) is grounds for failure and will necessitate rewriting the proposal. A second oral exam and/or additional remediation must be completed within 90 days or by October 15, whichever comes first. In such cases, it is the chair's responsibility to delineate (with input from the committee) what remedial steps are most appropriate for a particular student and how the committee will evaluate the student a second time. Both the graduate school and the Department of Biological Sciences allow a student to retake the qualifying exam one time. The outcome of the qualifying exam must be recorded on the form provided by the graduate school and signed by all committee members (the GP admin will provide this form to the chair prior to the exam).

After the qualifying exam, the chair will prepare a brief letter summarizing the student's performance and outcome of the exam. The chair will ask for input on this written document from all committee members and email the letter to the GP admin within one week of the exam. The report will be forwarded to the mentor, the student, and the DGS. If the student passed, the report should indicate the time frame for scheduling the student's first regular committee meeting based on the committee's recommendation (typically 12 months, but can be sooner). It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the first regular committee meeting within the time frame recommended by the committee. If the student failed the qualifying exam, the letter will indicate a specific plan for remediation and a timeframe for scheduling a retake. 

Note: The Department of Biological Sciences has abolished the option of students bringing food and beverage to share at committee meetings, qualifying exams, or any other formal meeting with a member or members of the thesis committee.  This move is being made to further eliminate unnecessary sources of potential stress and financial burden. When preparing for a meeting, students should focus exclusively on their science and career progression.

Individual Development Plan (IDP)

IDP is a planning tool designed to help Ph.D. students identify annual progress, professional development needs, and career objectives. The IDP also serves as a communication tool between Ph.D. students, their research advisor, and the thesis committee. The IDP will be completed annually by the student, signed by the individuals described below, and placed on file with the graduate program administrator.

  • The first IDP will be completed, signed, and submitted no later than May 31 of the first year. After joining a lab in April, the student should complete the IDP form and discuss responses with the mentor. Both the student and research mentor will sign the IDP and submit it to the graduate program administrator. Signature of the committee chairperson is not required.
  • Following the first year, it is the intent of the Department of Biological Sciences to incorporate the IDP into discussions of student progress, development, and goals at the annual committee meeting. In preparation, the student is expected to complete the IDP and discuss it with the research mentor before sending the completed IDP to the committee members one week prior to the scheduled meeting. For second year students, the IDP will be discussed at the pre-meeting for the qualifying exam. In subsequent years, this discussion will occur at the annual committee meeting. The IDP must be signed by the student, mentor, and the committee chair and submitted to the graduate program administrator.

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Dissertation Research and Annual Evaluation

A bound notebook is the preferred method for daily entry of experiments and results. Notebooks should contain enough information to enable others to readily reconstruct experiments. It is important to note that research notebooks are the property of Vanderbilt University and should remain in the laboratory in which you conducted your dissertation research. Several variables affect the time for degree completion, including the relative difficulty of the project, the motivation of the student, and the expectations of the mentor and dissertation committee. Graduate school regulations limit Ph.D. candidacy to four years from the date of successful completion of the qualifying examination. Thus, the combination of departmental and graduate school regulations limits the total time to no more than six years. Extension of this time limit requires a petition to the graduate school. In order to ensure satisfactory and timely progress, dissertation committee meetings must be held annually (or more often) if needed. It is the responsibility of the student to schedule the annual meetings and the responsibility of the dissertation committee chairperson to document them. Students should prepare a short report (3-5 pages) and a 15-20 minute talk to update the committee on progress and/or problems in the following format:

  • Introduction and significance
  • Current and original specific aims
  • Progress and/or problems (including raw data)
  • Short and long term goals

The Chair of the Dissertation Committee will submit to the GP admin a summary of all committee meetings using this form: BioSci Committee form. These reports should include a brief summary of the work presented by the student and a statement as to whether satisfactory progress is being made in the various aspects of scientific training, including knowledge in the field of research, an ability to present data both in an oral and written form, attention to the literature, critical and independent thinking skills, evaluation of results, and design and implementation of experiments. Attention should be given to delineating any perceived problems or deficiencies, and clearly outlining recommendations and goals in relation to the above outlined areas and others. A copy of these reports will also be given to the student.

The GP admin will meet (at least) annually to review the progress letters and discuss the standing of each student in the department. If the GP admin concludes that academic or research progress is insufficient, or there has been no annual committee meeting, or there is no documentation of an annual meeting for a particular student, the GPC will issue a letter to the student, mentor and dissertation committee chair specifying corrective action. At the end of the fourth year, the dissertation committee will submit to the GP admin an evaluation of whether the student has demonstrated the ability to become an independent researcher and is in a position to complete their Ph.D. degree within a reasonable time. This does not mean that a student has amassed a certain amount of data. The assessment should be made on a demonstrated ability to think critically and independently, to evaluate results, to design and implement experiments, and to understand the significance and impact of their work.

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The Dissertation and Final Defense

Prior to formally beginning the writing of a dissertation, a penultimate dissertation committee meeting must be held. The student should present a brief outline (1-2 pages) of the proposed dissertation and be prepared to review and discuss all pertinent data upon the request of committee members. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that sufficient data are in hand to support a complete dissertation. At this meeting, mentors and other members of the committee should provide the student with a general description of expectations for the dissertation’s content. In cases of disagreement, permission to proceed with the writing of the dissertation and scheduling of the defense will be determined by a majority vote of the committee. It is the intent of the faculty that Ph.D. dissertations in biological sciences be closely tied to peer-reviewed research articles. To this end, doctoral candidates are required to have at least one first author manuscript accepted for publication that is derived from research performed in the biological sciences graduate program as a prerequisite for completing the degree. Note that this is a minimal requirement and that additional evidence of successful completion of the Ph.D. may be required by the committee and subject to a majority vote.

A committee meeting must be held to request permission to schedule the dissertation defense. Submission of a first author manuscript for publication is a minimal prerequisite for this meeting. The student should present a brief outline (1-2 pages) of the proposed dissertation and be prepared to review and discuss all pertinent data upon the request of committee members. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that sufficient data are in hand to support a complete dissertation. At this meeting, mentors and other members of the committee should provide the student with a general description of expectations for the dissertation’s content. In cases of disagreement, permission to schedule the defense will be determined by a majority vote of the committee. The student must inform the GP admin of the date, time, and location of the dissertation defense at least two weeks prior to the scheduled date.

  • Introduction: the introductory chapter should contain a sufficiently rigorous review of the literature and set the context of the dissertation research (background and significance), introduce the major questions addressed, and explain the relationship of the chapters to one another.
  • Chapters: chapters presenting the main body of the dissertation research can be directly derived from submitted and/or published manuscripts. Material that is not intended for publication can be written in the same format. Additional details concerning the materials and methods and supplementary data may be included in the chapters or included as appendices. Formatting of these chapters must conform to the graduate school requirements.
  • Summary: in addition to summarizing the conclusions of the dissertation, this chapter should discuss matters not addressed in the preceding chapters. These could include studies that failed to produce interpretable data or are incomplete, and/or aspects of the research that did not survive editing and review of the manuscripts representing the preceding chapters.

Students should check with the graduate school concerning specific format requirements for the dissertation (the suggested dissertation outline presented above must conform to any graduate school stipulations). Mentors should read and approve the dissertation before submission to the dissertation committee. A complete dissertation must be submitted to the dissertation committee at least two weeks before the scheduled final defense. After the student presents the results and conclusions of the dissertation project at an open seminar, the dissertation committee will conduct an oral examination and discuss the dissertation with the student. The committee will then decide whether to pass the student on the oral presentation and defense and decide whether the dissertation requires modifications and/or corrections. The dissertation will not be signed by the Ph.D. committee until the oral exam is passed, a final draft of the thesis has been approved, and at least one first author manuscript has been accepted for publication, as verified by communication from the journal. 

Note: Because at least some revisions are usually required, students should not plan to leave Nashville or be otherwise employed until at least two weeks after the defense.

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Graduate Student Financial Support

Students are required to serve as teaching assistants for at least one semester. Typically this entails a TA assignment in the fall or pring semesters in years 1, 2 and 3 for direct entry students or years 2 and 3 for students that enter through the IGP. It is expected that students will TA one semester for each year they are supported by the College of Arts & Science, although students supported by any means must TA for at least one semester. TA assignments average 10-15 hours per week. All students receiving fellowships and stipends that pay less than the normal stipend rate for biomedical graduate students will be supplemented to bring the total amount up to, but not exceeding, the normal stipend rate. For students receiving fellowships that pay above the normal stipend rate, awardees will be allowed to receive the additional funds as long as the fellowship persists. If the fellowship ends prior to receiving the Ph.D., the stipend rate will revert to the normal rate.

When a BSCI student is appointed to a training grant, the faculty mentor (and student) should be made aware of the following:

  • All BSCI students must TA at least one semester. Thus, the department will pay the supplement for the year that the student serves as a TA. For the other year, the faculty mentor is responsible for paying the supplement. If the mentor cannot or chooses not to pay, the department will pay and the student will also TA that year.
  • If the student is a direct admit, then they will already have met the one semester TA requirement. In such a case, the faculty mentor can cover the supplement during both years of training grant support, and the student will not TA those years. Or, the faculty mentor can choose to let the department pay in one or both years, and the student will TA in any year that is the case.

Additional Requirements:

  • All students are expected to participate in the annual departmental retreat, but first year students will not be expected to present their research.
  • All students are expected to complete the program Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). Ordinarily, this requirement is fulfilled in the first year by participation in the lecture/discussion series.

Exceptions From These Policies: Any request for alteration to these policies (e.g., an extension of the qualifying exam or other deadline) should be submitted, along with a written justification of no more than one page, to the DGS no later than one month before the relevant deadline. Such requests must be accompanied by a written endorsement from the mentor. The DGS, together with the chair and the GP admin, will evaluate each request prior to rendering a final decision.

Vacation and Parental Leave Policy for Graduate Students

The chairs of the basic science departments support that graduate students continue the current approach of being allocated twelve days of sick leave and three weeks (fifteen calendar days) of vacation leave annually. It was also agreed that this leave allotment should continue to be on an honor system where the graduate student should determine with their respective mentors the accumulation, accounting and use of these leaves. View information regarding the parental leave policy for graduate students.

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Reporting and Addressing Student Grievances

  • The student should first address the grievance directly with the mentor in an attempt to find a viable solution.
  • Should this approach fail, the student should submit the grievance in writing to the DGS in biological sciences. The DGS will convene a joint meeting with the student, the DGS, and his or her dissertation committee chair (or the Chair of the GAC if a dissertation committee chair has not been appointed).
  • If this approach fails, the department chair will be consulted. The chair will then work with the DGS to resolve the problem.
  • Only if this approach also fails, the student should refer to the graduate student handbook for avenues of further action.

Note: accusations of sexual harassment should be addressed as outlined in chapter seven of the student handbook.

Courses Available to Graduate Students

  • *2201 Introduction to Cell Biology
  • *2205 Evolution
  • *2210 Principles of Genetics
  • *2520 Biochemistry I
  • 5226 Immunology
  • 5236 Parasitology
  • 5238 Ecology
  • 5243 Principles of Human Disease
  • 5254 Neurobiology of Behavior
  • 5230 Biological Clocks
  • 5234 Microbiology
  • 5247 Molecular Evolution
  • 5252 Cellular Neurobiology
  • 5265 DNA Transactions
  • 5266 Advanced Molecular Genetics
  • 5270 Statistical Methods in Biology
  • 5272 Principles and Practice of Genome
  • 6320 Graduate Seminar in Biological Sciences
  • 6332 Seminar Biological Rhythms
  • 6336 Seminar in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
  • 8312 Developmental Biology
  • 8999 Non-candidate Dissertation Research
  • 6385 Advanced Reading in Biological Sciences
  • 7390 Special Topics and Advanced Techniques in Biological Sciences
  • 9999 Ph.D. Dissertation Research

*Normally not available for graduate credit in biological sciences

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Contact Director of Graduate Studies

Dr. Julian Hillyer
Department of Biological Sciences
Vanderbilt University
Box 351634, Station B
Nashville, Tennessee 37235-1634

Note: Further details of the graduate program in the Department of Biological Sciences can be obtained from the Director of Graduate Studies or from the graduate program coordinator.