Qualifying exam information for PhD students

All of our Biological Science Ph.D. students take a qualifying exam, typically by the 4th or 5th semester in the program. The purpose of this exam is to assess whether our students have a sufficient knowledge base and skill set in place to complete a dissertation.

Because we are a molecules-to-ecosystems department that encourages scholarship at — and across — all levels of biological organization, the knowledge and skills required to complete a dissertation vary. Despite these differences, however, we share a single set of goals for our Ph.D. students by their 5th semester. We expect our students to have: 1) appropriate depth of knowledge in their chosen field, 2) appropriate breadth of knowledge in related fields, 3) critical thinking skills, and 4) an appropriately detailed roadmap for their dissertation.

The format of the qualifying exam is a decision made by the advisor, student, and committee based on the needs of the student and the challenges posed by the field of study. Here are the most common “components” that our faculty and students choose; exams typically include 2-3 of these.

  1. A written dissertation proposal formatted like a formal research proposal, including background, specific aims, and detailed experimental design sections.
  2. A written dissertation outline that includes e.g. background, research questions, and hypotheses, but does not yet include a detailed experimental design section.
  3. An oral presentation of the dissertation proposal and/or outline followed by questions from the committee about the dissertation project itself as well as the broader field. 1 or 2 are frequently paired with 3.
  4. A set of written take-home questions (typically one day of questions per committee member over the course of a week) that ask the student to synthesize and critically evaluate material related to the dissertation topic. This can be either open- or closed-book.
  5. An oral exam including questions that ask the student to synthesize and critically evaluate material related to the dissertation topic. 4 and 5 are frequently pairedThis is a common format for GDPE students, who are required to have both a written and oral portion to their exam and to demonstrate depth, breath, integration, and synthesis. Here, the committee works with the student to formulate and refine the dissertation proposal during the first 5 semesters, but not in the framework of the qualifying examThe dissertation proposal can be completed either before or after the qualifying exam.
  6. A written formal research proposal, including background, specific aims, and detailed experimental design sections, on a project that is NOT the student’s dissertation. This proposal is written with no input from the advisor.
  7. An oral presentation of the “non-dissertation” project proposal followed by questions from the committee about the non-dissertation project itself as well as the broader field. 6 and 7 are typically paired. This is the format required for CMB students. It emphasizes a student’s ability to formulate a whole project independent of her/his advisor’s guidance. Here, too, the committee works with the student to formulate and refine the dissertation proposal during the first 5 semesters, but not in the framework of the qualifying exam.

PhD committee membership requirements

Here are the Grad School’s rules and our Department of Biology rules and what they mean:

Requirements from the Grad School:

  1. The advisor who serves as chairperson of the committee and who must hold academic faculty rank as a professor, associate professor, or assistant professor of any appointment type within the department or program granting the degree;
  2. One or more additional members from the department;
  3. Any non-departmental faculty member who may be appropriate; and
  4. One member from an outside department who, appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School, represents the Graduate School. The outside committee member appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School must hold a regular, special, transitional, joint, or emeritus/emerita faculty appointment at CSU. The outside member should serve as an impartial external evaluator on the committee, ensuring quality of scholarship and fairness in process.

Requirements from the Department of Biology:

“The student and major professor will select faculty members for the student’s advisory committee from the Faculty of the Biology Department (at least 2 members — including the major advisor — for MS, 3 for Phd) and at least one member from outside the Department. At least two members (for MS) and three (for PhD) of the Graduate Advisory Committee must be tenure-track faculty at CSU.”

So what you need on a Department of Biology PhD committee (i.e. for Biological Science and grandfathered-in Botany and Zoology PhDs):

  1. An advisor who is a tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Biology
  2. A second committee member who is a tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Biology
  3. A third committee member who is either a tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Biology or an affiliate of the department or a Special Assistant Professor
  4. An outside member (i.e. from a different department) who holds a regular, special, transitional, joint, or emeritus/emerita faculty appointment at CSU. If you already have a special assistant professor on your committee (as part of #3), then your outside faculty member must be a tenure-track faculty member (so you have 3 total tenure-track CSU faculty members on your committee).

1-4 are required! If you have these four people, and you want more, you are free to add them, provided they are affiliated with the department. The Chair has to approve this and the Office Manager has to create the official affiliation.

Defense seminar information for PhD + MS students

Because we are proud of our graduate students and want to celebrate their accomplishments, we require all of our PhD students (in Ecology, CMB, Zoology, Botany, and Biological Science) to give an exit seminar, scheduled during our normal seminar slots (Tuesday or Wednesday at 4:00 pm), typically the semester they graduate.

PhD students, don’t worry! We totally get the unpredictable nature of the graduate school endgame. We’d rather get you scheduled and have to cancel than not schedule you and have to squeeze you in at some weird time when no one can come. We want to hear about your work and learn from you!

You and your committee can be as creative as you like in how you incorporate your exit seminar into your defense. Some students give the seminar from 4-5 and then have the rest of their defense right after, at 5. Some students have the rest of the defense the next day. Some students give the seminar twice – once for us, and another time to their committee in the context of their defense (and this can happen in either order). Our goal is to be maximally flexible while being sure that, one way or another, you speak at that 4-5 T/W time when the majority of our department is free to come and see you (because you are awesome!).

Master’s students (in Ecology, CMB, Zoology, Botany, and Biological Science) – we don’t require you to speak at that 4-5 time slot, but you are totally welcome to! It is a good way to maximize your audience. Regardless, please don’t wait to the last minute to schedule your defense. We don’t want you to end up in a small cruddy room – the sooner you schedule, the better shot we have at getting you in a good space and getting you on people’s calendars. Better to get a room locked in EARLY – you can always reschedule if you have to!

  • PhD & Masters Thesis Defense Form: Fill out this form to submit your information for defense advertisement on social media, bulletin boards and monitors in the building, and email blasts.

Teaching resources for GTAs

Here is a brief summary of the teaching-related offerings within and outside of our department:

1. BZ570 – Teaching Scientific Reasoning and Argumentation, taught by Meena Balgopal (3 credits, Fall semesters). This course covers both scientific reasoning and pedagogy (= curriculum, instruction, and assessment). It includes basic exposure to scientific philosophy and practical teaching ideas and helps participants develop a teaching philosophy, an argumentation analysis, instructional plans, and assessment tools. It focuses on a broad set of approaches to engage students while integrating teaching methods and assessments to help students achieve learning goals.

2. BZ584 (Master’s) and BZ784 (PhD) – Supervised College Teaching (1-3 credits, any semester). Biology also offers Supervised College Teaching, a for-credit course that offers teaching feedback. Donna Weedman coordinates all students enrolled in this course. This experience differs depending on the course for which the student is serving as a GTA; for courses overseen by Donna, the evaluation process remains the same as for all GTAs, but the evaluation is translated into a course letter grade. For courses taught by other instructors or faculty, the feedback comes from that instructor/faculty member. Interested students should discuss this option with Donna and/or the professor or instructor overseeing their GTA position.

3. Within LIFE 102 and 103, DeeDee Wright, Ren Hellmuth, and Alpana Damle work with GTAs to teach them: professionalism, classroom management, strategies to motivate students, presentation skills with a focus on interactive teaching, one-on-one interaction with students, how to pose application-level (Bloom’s) questions in the classroom, and how to create assessments (quizzes) that include application- and analysis-level (Bloom’s) questions.

4. TILT (The Institute for Learning and Teaching) now works directly with our GTAs every week to model different active learning strategies, giving them a chance to try them out. They are modeling these strategies based on the upcoming week’s LIFE 102 lesson, but the techniques are applicable to all Biology content and can be used just as easily outside of LIFE 102 (and we hope they will be!). All GTAs who have already taught Life 102 and are teaching it again are required to attend. All GTAs who have taught anything at least once – even if it’s not Life 102, and they’re not teaching Life 102 now – are welcome and strongly encouraged to attend. For Fall 2018, these meetings are held on Fridays from 1:30 – 2:00 in Yates 205. They count towards TILT’s Teaching Certificate Program (see below).

5. Paul Laybourn (TILT Master Teacher Initiative Coordinator) sends out the MTI Teaching Tip via an email listserv twice a month. These typically consist of a short summary of an academic study focused somewhere within a broad range of teaching-related topics.

6. PhD student Emily Stuchiner is coordinating a PLC (Professional Learning Community) for graduate students interested in focused group-study on teaching.

7. TILT has extensive resources and training opportunities, many of which are created specifically for GTAs: (CSU | TILT | GTA Training & Resources). They offer a Teaching Certificate Program — aimed at post-secondary-level teaching — that requires participation in pedagogical workshops and the creation of a teaching portfolio. The program is flexible; it allows students to choose from a variety of seminars and courses (including our own BZ670 and BZ784). Students who don’t want to commit to the full certificate program are welcome to attend any workshops and seminars. TILT maintains a website with numerous teaching resources. It is worth spending some time here … (CSU | TILT) … but here are a few highlights:

Pedagogy colloquia, workshops, and seminars: CSU | TILT | Course Catalog

Teaching resources: CSU | TILT | Teaching Resources

TILT also puts on a one-day training seminar for new GTAs, and our department requires our incoming GTAs to participate. CSU | TILT | GTA Training Registration

8. For students interested in teaching writing, a campus initiative exists to coordinate efforts to add writing throughout the curriculum. One great resource is a course taught by the English Department (English 608) that covers (1) designing assignments that build upon one another to develop skills and (2) developing effective assessments and rubrics for writing assignments.
Campus initiative: CSU | gtPathways Writing Integration Initiative
Course/Module: English 608 – Integrating Writing in the Academic Core

9. We have set up a Slack workspace (biograds.slack.com) where our students can share comments with one another on the utility of these teaching-related courses, short courses, workshops, etc. It is currently set up with a channel for each of these courses. More generally, we hope that our students will create channels for all relevant CSU graduate courses; we hope that this might help them find useful/relevant classes within and outside of our department that might not otherwise be on their radar screens.

10. We have set up a Sharepoint repository that will house course materials from one semester to the next so our GTAs can draw on previous assignments, handouts, rubrics, etc. This is accessible by GTAs and faculty, all of whom will receive an e-mail invitation to join. After this invitation arrives, you can access the repository at the following URL: (https://colostate.sharepoint.com/sites/BiologyGTA). Sign in using your CSU Microsoft credentials (NetID@colostate.edu). From there, click on the Documents link on the left, which will allow you to add folders/files and download existing files. Please contact Dan Sloan (dbsloan@rams.colostate.edu) if you need help using this site.

GTA evaluation form

To download this file as a .docx file that you can edit and use, please click here.

Introduction and Goals

Teaching is important and exhilarating – and hard in many different ways. In Biology, we all share the goal of becoming ever-better teachers, and we recognize the importance of supporting our GTAs as they begin their teaching careers.

There are a lot of parts to being a fantastic teacher, and we have tried to tease them apart here.

Not all of these will be relevant for all GTA assignments. Our goal is to lay out the overall landscape of successful teaching in order to help instructors and GTAs view each evaluation/feedback opportunity (including self-evaluation and peer evaluation) within a broader holistic context.

We hope that GTAs and instructors/lab coordinators will sit down together at the beginning of each semester, using this document as a guide, and have a conversation about the kinds of evaluation and feedback that would best support the GTA, given the constraints and opportunities of the course. We hope that this document – modified as each of us sees fit – will create synergy among our individual evaluation efforts, as well as spark some new ideas for ways to support GTA growth. We look forward to hearing from all of you what works (and what still needs work)!


Pedagogy (i.e. the method and practice of teaching)  Instruction

Delivery (includes voice tempo and loudness, body language, speaking to the class rather than the screen/wall, use of visuals including terminology)

Talking with students and talking among students (i.e. Discourse) (includes asking students questions at the appropriate Bloom’s taxonomy level, encouraging and answering students’ questions, circulating around the room to check in on students during lab exercises, creating opportunities for students to talk with one another)

Time usage and class pacing (includes balancing time allocation for introduction of materials, responding to student questions, and execution of lab)

Classroom management (includes keeping students focused on task, keeping everyone involved)

Encouraging a student growth mindset and an inclusive and welcoming classroom (includes patience, respect, positive reinforcement that effort leads to learning, appreciation for diverse experiences by students prior to entering college)

Facilitation of active and inquiry-based learning (includes activities that place the student at the center of the learning experience, asking them to participate and work within the framework of a driving question)


Pedagogy  Assessment

Creation of formative and summative assessments that align with the learning goals (formative = low-stakes to monitor student learning and identify where students are struggling. summative = high-stakes to evaluate student learning – i.e. to give them a grade, typically).

Grading of assessments in a constructive, transparent, fair way (includes providing rubrics to students along with assignments so they can monitor their own learning and performance, engaging in regular analysis of grading to ensure that instructors/GTAs are not exhibiting any unintended implicit biases of students)


Pedagogy  Curriculum

Identifying learning goals

Creating a learning plan to meet the goals

Aligning assessment tools to measure if learning goals were met


Content knowledge

Understanding of the material being taught



Timeliness (includes arriving for class, weekly meetings, and exam proctoring, as well as grading and entering grades)

Classroom care and maintenance (includes leaving classroom ready for the next class and using/restocking/communicating about lab materials)

Collegiality (includes sharing ideas with other GTAs during weekly meetings, being prepared for meetings in order maximize productivity, helping out in a pinch)

Student support (includes knowing how to identify and offer CSU’s support network – Student Case Management – to students who are struggling, as well as knowing the expectations for student conduct and drawing on CSU’s Student Resolution Center to maintain respectful student behavior in the classroom as needed)

Graduate Student Task Force on graduate advising excellence

Safety + Ethics Training


Graduate students funded by NIH, NSF or USDA-NIFA are required to take both online Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training and an approved face-to-face research ethics course.

The face-to-face course must be taken once every 4 years or upon a change of status (i.e. changing from undergraduate to graduate student, or graduate student to post-doctoral fellow).  For the complete CSU policy please see the following link: CSU | Research Integrity & Compliance Review Office | RCR

The online training can be completed at: CSU | Research Integrity & Compliance Review Office | RCR Training

The list of approved RCR courses can be found at: CSU | Research Integrity & Compliance Review Office | Courses and Education



All graduate students must fill out a risk assessment form on an annual basis to determine their level of risk to animal allergies, infections agents, chemical agents, noises, and physical hazards.

The assessment can be completed online at:  CSU Occupational Health: Online Risk Assessment Instructions

Training requirements are determined based on the risk assessment.  Required training can be done online or scheduled at:  CSU’s Safety Training Classes

All students engaged in laboratory work should be familiar with the CSU general laboratory safety rules: CSU’s General Lab Safety

Students should be aware of building evacuation routes in the event of an emergency, as well as the locations of fire alarms and extinguishers, safety showers, eye wash stations, and first aid kits.

Additional safety training is lab specific.  Students should consult with their advisor or lab manager.

Additional details on the Environmental Health Services emergency response plan can be found at: CSU | EHS | Emergency Response

Be proactive in your safety if you have questions or need more information, and ask your supervisor! Environmental Health Services (EHS) can also route you to the appropriate point of contact (970-491-6745), and the EHS website is a source of safety information for you: CSU | EHS.

Please report all incidents involving potential injuries, illnesses, exposures, or safety concerns to your supervisor and file online at: CSU | Risk Management & Insurance | Incident Reporting.

In the event of an emergency, contact the CSU police by calling 911.

How to create your Graduate Student Profile

To create your profile, go to CSU | CNS | Web Directory.

You must be either on campus or connected through the VPN.

Log in using your NetID (what is this?).

Some browsers will erroneously warn you about a security concern. The site is secure – don’t worry. If you get this screen, just navigate past it.
This will take you to the WordPress back-end dashboard underlying content for our website.

From here, you will be able to update your information.

We will “encourage” you to update your web presence once a year and we’ll remind you to be sure it’s taken down when you graduate – this way, we stay up-to-date for our fans.