1Genetics Graduate Program
The most central goal of the Genetics Graduate Program is the training of outstanding students in
the areas of genetics and genomics.
Activities in Support of Goal:
1. Rotations: Unless students have substantial M.S. research experience, they undertake
three rotations during their nine months at MSU, and then chose a research mentor.
2. Required courses: A core set of courses is required of Genetics graduate students,
and they are expected to earn a 3.0 grade or better.
3. Comprehensive exam: A general-knowledge oral exam is followed by a written
research proposal, which each student prepares on his or her own research project.
The advisor may have no input on the actual writing of the proposal, although input
from other outside readers are encouraged., The student presents a formal seminar
describing the proposal, and then discusses the proposal with the advisory committee.
4. Learning outside the classroom: Students are strongly encouraged to participate in
the biweekly Genetics Research Forum, the annual Genetics mini-symposium, and
journal clubs, seminars, and lab meetings appropriate to their areas of interest.
5. Presentation of research results: Students are encouraged to present their results
orally at the Genetics Research Forum and to participate in poster sessions at the
annual retreat and mini-symposium. Travel awards encourage students to attend
national and international conferences to present their research results. The final
seminar prior to the dissertation defense is announced to all faculty and students
1. Rotations: Each student’s rotation plans are discussed with the director, who serves as
the initial advisor for the first year students. Faculty are considered to be appropriate
potential PhD mentors if they have a good track record, external funding, space in
their lab to accommodate an additional coworker, and are in the student’s declared
area of interest. Each student’s rotation is evaluated by asking the faculty to assign
the student a grade and provide a short written commentary. In the last five years,
18% of our students undertook a fourth rotation, supported by the program, because a
suitable mentor was not identified in the first three rotations.
2. Required courses: The value and relevance of the required courses is reassessed
almost every year by the Genetics Program Executive Committee (composed of the
Director, Associate Director, four elected faculty, and one graduate student), which
reviews course syllabi. A challenge to the Genetics Program is how to constructively
channel feedback to instructors to suggest changes in courses it does not control. The
quality and content of the required courses are topics at the annual meeting of the
director and the genetics graduate students. Students are expected to achieve grades
of 3.0 or better and maintain at least a 3.0 average.
3. Comprehensive exams. Until the mid-90's, the Genetics comprehensive exam
consisted of a written exam followed by an oral exam on four or five topics in
Genetics, defined by the four or five faculty members of the advisory committee.
Both students and faculty complained that this format resulted in great variability in
rigor and breadth of the exams. The exams were restructured, with the Director,
Associate Director, or another faculty member serving on the examination committee
to chair the exams, to provide breadth, and to assure that the proceedings are
conducted fairly. The goals of the two exams were restructured, with the oral exam
serving to assure breadth of knowledge, and the preparation of a research proposal (as
the written exam) serving to assure adequate strength and depth of knowledge in each
student’s chosen area of focus. Students are assigned a “pass”, “fail”, or “conditional
pass” on their oral and written exams, usually by consensus of the advisory
committee. A student can have a second chance if assigned a failing mark.
4. Learning outside the classroom. Attendance at the Research Forum is informally
monitored. Registration is required for the retreat and mini-symposium. Individual
problems with absenteeism of a student from lab activities or lack of progress is
reported to the director.
5. Presentation of research results. Students are required to have annual meetings with
their advisory committees, and a brief progress report must be submitted to the
Genetics Program Office. Both faculty and students attend the Research Forum, the
poster venues, and the dissertation seminars, providing feedback, encouragement, and
criticisms to participants.
1. Rotations: The grades and commentaries provided by faculty who host the rotations
of first-year students are reviewed by the program director. A fourth rotation must be
approved by the director, who must be convinced, based on classroom and rotation
evaluations that the student shows promise in the field of genetics.
2. Required courses: Yearly reviews of course offerings led the Genetics Program
Executive Committee to propose revisions in the graduate course requirements of
students in the program, adding “one course in computational biology” as a
requirement, and a pass/fail course entitled “Theory and Practice of Teaching
3. Comprehensive exams: In recent years, a number of “conditional” passes were
awarded because of deficiencies noted in students’ research proposals, therefore the
Genetics Program Executive Committee decided that the Program should provide
examples of well-written proposals to serve as examples. Regulations were rewritten
to encourage students to ask others to read their proposals, and provide constructive
input, before providing the proposal to the advisory committee. Copies of several
well-written research proposals have been made available in the Genetics Program
Office and one was placed at the web site, along with annotation to point out
important features. Since these measures were undertaken in 2004, it is too soon to
know if they will achieve their desired impact
4. Learning outside the classroom and presentation of research results: Approximately
14 Research Forums a year are devoted to current research on campus. Those faculty
who have not presented their work in a recent Research Forum and “senior” students
in the program are asked to be responsible for one of the hour-long presentations.
1. Rotations. Students receive grades for their rotation efforts, and have exit interviews
with each faculty mentor.
2. Required courses. Failure to obtain a 3.0 results in disciplinary action: a student will
receive letters from the Program and from the Dean’s Office informing them that they
will be asked to leave graduate school if they receive three grades less than 3.0 and
that they must maintain a GPA of 3.0 to be a student in good standing. Suggestions
about the scheduling and contents of the core graduate courses are channeled by the
Director to the faculty responsible for the instruction.
3. Comprehensive exams. Performance of students on the oral comprehensive exam has
appeared to be best after the students have fulfilled their first teaching requirement (in
the introductory ZOL 341 genetics course). This information is shared with
beginning graduate students, who are encouraged to serve as teaching assistants in
their second year, prior to their oral exam. Advanced students in the program have
been helpful for providing practice in a mock exam situation. A peer writing group,
led by the Genetics Program Director, has been organized for spring 2005 to read and
discuss the proposals, offering constructive criticisms to the participants. In addition
to improving the quality of the research proposals, we hope the writing group will
strengthen our student community by building scientific connections amongst the
4. Learning outside the classroom. Poor attendance of the Research Forum will elicit E-
mail or personal encouragement suggesting student participation. Students are also
reminded before each mini-symposium and retreat that their attendance is expected.
Problems with absenteeism of a student from lab activities is reported to the director
and results in written communication with the student outlining expectations, and
joint meetings with the advisor, student and director.
5. Presentation of research results. Some students have requested written feedback to
their oral research presentations. The current format of the Research Forum allows
time for questions and discussion during and after the formal presentation.
6. Programmatic assessment. At least two meetings are held each year with the
Director, Associate Director, and all of the students. About six students who
volunteer their time to the Genetics Graduate Student Organization also meet with the
Director several times during the year to discuss topics and provide feedback. A final
piece of the feedback loop is an exit interview (in person or written) with recent
graduates to obtain constructive comments about the program.
1. On occasion, a student who fails to perform adequately or in a timely fashion is asked to
withdraw from the program.
2. The restructuring of the comprehensive exam has helped make the exams more uniform
and consistently rigorous. The mock comprehensive exam organized by senior graduate
students has helped the younger students become more comfortable in facing the oral
exam. The writing group promises to improve the quality of the research proposals, and
we hope it will strengthen our student community by building scientific connections
amongst the participants. Students who do not pass the comprehensive exam are now
given the option of completing a masters degree in genetics.
1. Meetings of the general faculty and students, and their elected leadership are held to
address perceived problems and consider suggestions for improving courses, exam
formats, and policies of the program.
2. During the internal searches that have been conducted for new leadership in the program,
surveys and individual interviews of faculty have sought to identify both problems and
positive points in the graduate program.