Ph.D. Program Information

The Department offers a Ph.D. program that has a standard completion time of 5.5 to six years. [Note: We do not admit students who wish to take the terminal Master's degree. However, when a student experiences a significant change in career orientation after successful completion of the oral exam, a M.A. degree may be awarded.]


The Department provides as much flexibility as possible to students as they develop their scientific interests. Individual curricula and research are arranged in consultation with the student's academic Adviser and Thesis Mentor, and formal course work is usually taken during the first two to three semesters at Berkeley. Because the emphasis of the program is largely on training in research, requirements are defined on the basis of individual needs, enabling students to select from the wide range of courses offered by the Department. Other courses of interest to students are offered in the departments of: Chemistry, Plant and Microbial Biology, Integrative Biology, Physics, Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, Bioengineering, Public Health and Biomedical and Environmental Health Sciences. While some students elect to concentrate their coursework in specialized research topics, many students ''choose" to construct programs that will provide them with intensive study in more general areas of molecular and cell biology.

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Lab Rotations and Presentations

Before selecting a thesis adviser, students will complete three 9 week laboratory rotations. Each rotation involves an individual research project selected by the chosen faculty member and student. Laboratory assignments are based on student preference and are arranged so that each student gets his/her first choice for at least one rotation. Credit and grades for the research conducted during the rotations are provided through enrollment in MCB 291A-B with each mentor grading individual rotations and the Head Graduate Adviser reviewing all comments and grades for the final course grade.

FERPs (Faculty Evening Research Presentations) and SMS (Student Micro-Symposia) set the groundwork for new students in the department. During the first 5-6 weeks of the Fall semester, faculty discuss the research taking place in their laboratories, providing a great opportunity to hear about research being done throughout the department. In SMS, each student describes the overall objectives of his/her rotation projects, the experimental approaches used, and the results obtained. SMS is moderated by faculty instructors and is designed to both familiarize students with and instruct them in the skills necessary to present research findings in a clear and incisive manner. SMS takes place during the last week of the Fall and Spring semesters.

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First year course work includes: MCB 291A-B (rotations), MCB 293A (FERPs), MCB 293C (Ethical conduct of research), Fundamentals of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB 200A-200B) and two Advanced Topics courses. All courses must be completed with a grade of B or better. Courses required by the department are marked below with a plus (+). Courses marked with one or two asterisks meet the Advanced Topics requirement; two stars indicate that the course is highly recommended by the Division. All course work must be completed prior to taking the qualifying exam (a.k.a. orals) in the spring semester of the second year. With the approval of the student's academic Adviser, a course offered by another department may be substituted for one of the two Advanced Topics courses. Some Divisions may recommend additional courses as appropriate to their disciplinary areas. Following the successful completion of the qualifying examination, all students must enroll in three semesters of special topics seminars (MCB 290) offered by faculty in areas of current research in the field of molecular and cell biology (typically 6 offerings per semester).

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Anticipating future careers which may include teaching, all graduate students participate in undergraduate instruction by serving as Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) for two semesters. Typically a student teaches during the Fall semester of the second year and the Spring semester of the third year in the doctoral program. These assignments usually include both lecture and laboratory courses and are, in most instances, based upon student preferences. Students who have passed their oral exams (i.e. advanced to candidacy) can also organize seminars for junior- and senior-level undergraduates for additional teaching experience (and credit for one of the three required MCB 290 seminars). A student may also be allowed to serve as a GSI for a third semester if they obtain the approval of their thesis mentor and Dissertation Committee (see policy).

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Oral/Qualifying Examination

During the second year, each student takes an oral/qualifying examination, usually held during the Spring semester. In this exam, the student demonstrates his/her ability to recognize research problems of fundamental importance, to propose appropriate experimental approaches to address these problems, and to display comprehensive knowledge of his/her disciplinary area and related subject areas. The oral examination itself is administered by a committee composed of four faculty approved by the Graduate Division with three faculty from MCB and one from another department on campus.

The qualifying examination will include a written proposal on the thesis work that will be discussed during the oral examination.  The second part of the exam will involve questioning the students on a body of scientific material. The body of scientific material will be defined by 16 journal articles chosen by each division from 4 different areas (i.e. 4 papers in each area).  Each student will be responsible for all 4 areas of the inside division and those from 2 areas of the outside division.  

Though the examination is intended to be challenging, it is unusual for a student not to pass. Passage of the examination is required before a student is advanced to candidacy for the doctoral degree.

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Research, Dissertation and Beyond

The Department is full of opportunities for expanding research in the areas of molecular and cell biology as well as in the expanding and emerging fields of structural biology, genomics, evolution and development, and computational biology. Students may join journal clubs and/or participate in laboratory group meetings of faculty whose work interests them, but in whose laboratories they are not currently conducting research. Many laboratories share research meetings and there are many area meetings between Stanford, UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley.

After advancing to candidacy a student meets each Fall semester with their Thesis Committee to discuss the dissertation project, to review results, and to chart research directions and timelines for the following year up to the completion of the dissertation. In the final year, students complete a dissertation based on original laboratory research.

It is also during the final year that most students present at national conferences and begin their search for a post-doctoral position and funding. The MCB 295 careers course offered in the spring is useful for those looking beyond academia as well as those planning to stay within academia. The campus also has a dedicated biological and physical sciences Ph.D. counselor in the Career Center to help students with the job search including resume writing, interviewing skills, conducting the job search, creating a teaching portfolio and more.

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