Student Guide

  1. Course Requirements
  2. Outline of the Graduate Program
  3. Lab Rotations
  4. Written Qualifying Exam
  5. Thesis Dissertation Committee
  6. Proposal Defense Exam

Coursework Requirements

Students take a total of four graduate-level courses in Year 1 and a total of two graduate-level courses in Year 2 of the PhD program in Cell & Developmental Biology. These are as follows:

  • Year 1
    Four graduate-level courses (two in the Fall and two in the Spring semester). While we accommodate most courses, we recommend students to take the Advanced Cell Biology I and II (CBIO 893 syllabus; CBIO 894 syllabus) courses. Many of our students also take the SuperCell I and II courses (CBIO 643; CBIO 644) in the Fall and Spring semesters.

  • Year 2
    Two graduate-level courses. In the Fall, students take the Grant Writing (CBIO 891) course. In the Spring, students either take another Grant Writing course (CBIO 892) or some other elective course.

Typically, the MD/PhD students would be expected to take Advanced Cell Biology course in the Fall and Spring semester of Year 1 in the program, and the Fall Grant Writing course in Year 2 in the program.

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Outline of the Graduate Program

The PhD program in Cell & Developmental Biology has a 6-year time limit. The following is the outline of this PhD program:



Courses (credits)

Departmental Activity


Fall: Students expected to take two courses

Advanced Cell Biology I (CBIO 893)

Cell Structure, Function and Growth Control I (CBIO 643)


Spring: Students expected to take two courses

Advanced Cell Biology II (CBIO 894)

Cell Structure, Function and Growth Control II (CBIO 644)


Rotation Talk (15 min) (May)

Qualifying Exam (June/July)


Fall: Students expected to take one course

Grant Writing (CBIO 891)

Spring: Students expected to take one course

Grant Writing (CBIO 892)


“In-House” Talk (30 min)

Form Thesis Committee


Proposal Defense Exam (Before October 1)

“In-House” Talk (30 min)


“In-House” Talk (30 min)

Thesis Committee Meeting


“In-House” Talk (30 min)

Thesis Committee Meeting


“In-House” Talk (30 min)

Thesis Committee Meeting

Defend Thesis – Graduate


Students are expected to have a total of 9 credit hours per semester in Years 1 and 2 (can be a combination of courses and research) and 3 credit hours per semester in subsequent years (usually just research).

MD/PhD Students

Typically, MD/PhD students are expected to take the Advanced Cell Biology course in the Fall and Spring semester of Year 1 in the Program, and the Fall Grant writing course in Year 2 in the Program.

BBSP Students

The students who come into our Department via the new Biomedical and Biological Sciences (BBSP) umbrella program will also follow the same 6-year Program timeline. The Program recognizes that some of the BBSP students coming into our Program at the end of their first year will have taken courses other than the Advanced Cell Biology or the Super Cell first-year courses. The Program maintains a flexible attitude regarding the first year courses taken by our students (for example, several of our current students have taken Neurobiology courses during their first year). Incoming students will be advised by the Graduate Studies Committee on a case-by-case basis if specific courses are to be recommended.

The Program will also be flexible regarding the time when the First Year Qualifying examination would be administered for the incoming students. We anticipate that most of the students will still take this exam during the June/July period at the end of their First Year. If necessary, we will allow students to take this exam at the beginning of their Second Year (Fall, Year 2). However, all students will be expected to take their Proposal Defense Exam by October 1 of Year 3.

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Lab Rotations

Students are required to complete three rotations of during Year 1. These are organized via the BBSP program. The Department of Cell Biology & Physiology faculty are engaged in exciting diverse research. Please see the individual faculty research pages for more information on current faculty research.

Click for rotation projects

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Written Qualifying Exam (End of Year 1)

Students are required to take the 1st Year Doctoral Qualifying Exam (also known as the 1st Year Exam) at the end of the second semester of their first year. This exam, which has both a written and oral component, will assess the abilities of each student to critically evaluate (both positively and negatively) the primary literature. Students will be given a choice of topics (organized around the modules in the CBIO 324/325) in which their exam paper will be assigned from. Students will not be assigned to modules in which their thesis advisor is included, nor will the thesis advisor serve on their committee. When possible rotation mentors will also be excluded from the committee. Three faculty members associated with each module will then be assigned to each student’s exam. One of the faculty members (in consultation with the others) will choose a recent (within the last three years) research paper which the student will be asked to use as the basis of their exam. The paper will be unrelated to the specific research topic intended for the student’s dissertation research. The exam will have two components: 1) a written component containing a description and evaluation of the paper and 2) an oral discussion with the three faculty members regarding issues raised in the written exam or paper.

The student may talk to anyone except committee members. However, the student must make others (especially faculty members) aware that any discussion regarding the paper is for an exam. The written exam must be solely and entirely the work of the student.

Written Exam

Each student will be assigned an important recent paper relevant to one of the course modules. Students will be given 1 week to write the written description/evaluation of the assigned paper. We specifically do NOT want a broad literature review of the field. Instead in the written exam, the student is expected to focus on the key problems/issues addressed in the paper. The written exam must be no longer than 5-6 pages single spaced 1-inch margins with 12-point font. The page limit does not include the references and figures. The student may include headings/subheadings or any other written formatting to improve organization, clarity, and flow if desired.

As a guideline the students may want to address the following while writing their exam:

  1. What is the central problem being examined?
  2. What is the key method(s) used in this paper? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these methods?
  3. What are the immediate conclusions of the paper? Are they justified by the experimental data?
  4. What are the larger implications/conclusion of the paper? Why is/isn’t this paper important to the field of study.
  5. If you were the PI of the lab who published this paper (or a competing lab) what experiments would you be doing next in order to strengthen/extend/challenge the ideas suggested in this work? This should be a brief (1-2 paragraphs) final section of the written exam.

Oral Exam

Approximately 4-7 days after the written exam is turned in the oral component of this exam will take place. The committee will consist of 3 faculty members, and in general, faculty members who serve as mentors during the student's laboratory rotations are excluded from this committee. During the oral part of the exam, students should be prepared to discuss the major concepts presented in their paper, analyze the literature and defend the proposed experimental directions and technical approaches. Typically, students are asked to begin this part of the exam by presenting an informal overview of their paper. This informal, “chalk talk” can go over the concepts of the paper or historical reference but should not be a figure-by-figure accounting. The “blackboard” may be prepared beforehand with no handouts or electronic presentation. Up to 10 minutes may be allowed for this initial presentation.

Grading the Exam

The exam will be graded on the ability of the student to analyze, understand, and critically evaluate the primary literature. Particularly important is be able to critically evaluate the experimental basis the work and determine their importance to broader context within the field. Proper scientific format, including grammar and spelling, and presentation of the document are factors in grading. Students must pass both written and oral parts of the exam.

Should the student's performance be unsatisfactory they may:

  • Fail. This will require to the student to repeat the exam with a new paper in the fall. At least one member of the examining committee must be retained for 2nd exam.
  • If the examining committee finds the student's overall performance was meritorious but a major area of deficiency in the student’s knowledge was evident then additional course work may be assigned as a requirement for successful completion of the exam.

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Thesis Dissertation Committee (End of Year 2)

Students should form their thesis committee in consultation with their thesis mentor and advice from the Graduate Studies Director, towards the end of their 2 nd year in graduate school. The thesis committee should have a minimum of five faculty members (including the mentor). At least three members of this committee should be from the Cell and Developmental Biology Department. The chair of this committee is usually the thesis mentor.

If a member of the dissertation committee is not a member of the graduate faculty, the dissertation advisor sends a letter of request for either limited membership or special appointment (if the member is not on the UNC faculty), together with the curriculum vitae of the proposed committee member and a statement supporting the request, to the Director of Graduate Studies for approval. A majority of the committee must be full members of the Graduate Faculty. Once approved, the Director forwards the request to the Chair of the Department for action.

The responsibilities of the thesis committee are:

  • To evaluate the thesis proposal and determine the outcome of the proposal examination
    To meet with the student once a year for the annual thesis committee meeting

To evaluate the thesis and give final approval for graduation

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Proposal Defense Exam (by October 1 of Year 3)

The Proposal Examination has a written and oral component. In the written component, students are to write a thesis proposal. The format of this is an America Heart Association-type predoctoral proposal with a 12-page limit (single space). This should include the following sections: Specific Aims, Background and Significance, and Research Design and Methods. The References can be outside the 12-page limit.

The written proposal should be provided to the thesis committee members at least one week prior to the oral examination.
In the oral component, the student presents and defends the proposal in front of the thesis committee. Since this examination is scheduled at the beginning of Year 3 for the students, the preliminary data are de-emphasized as an examination criterion (i.e. proof of feasibility should not be a determining standard in the examination).

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