PhD in Biological Sciences


Program Description

Lehigh University Biological Sciences

Research-oriented programs leading to a Ph.D. degree in Biology are offered in four specific concentrations: Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology, Evolution and Behavior, and Neuroscience. 

Program Highlights

  • Our faculty are highly collaborative and students are encouraged to rotate through multiple labs.
  • Our graduate students regularly present at national and international conferences and are authors on peer-reviewed publications.
  • Our faculty are rising and established leaders in the field, with research labs funded by national agencies (NSF, NIH) and private foundations. Ph.D. candidates are provided with undergraduate teaching and mentoring opportunities.
  • A graduate student seminar series is presented weekly during the academic year. Students who present their research receive valuable feedback on presentation skills and research direction.

Recent graduates have secured research positions at prestigious academic institutions including Yale, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of North Carolina. Others are employed at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Johnson and Johnson, and Aventis. 

Program Guidelines

The Department of Biological Sciences offers a Ph.D. in Biology with four concentrations:

  1. Cell and Molecular Biology
  2. Biochemistry 
  3. Neuroscience
  4. Evolution and Behavior

Course Work
The Pre-Candidacy graduate student will take a number of required Core Courses as well as a set of Elective Courses.  In some cases, the Graduate Committee may allow substitutions or waive core course requirements if the student has taken the equivalent course(s) at the undergraduate or graduate level (a proficiency exam may be required).  Formal course work is to be completed by the end of the third semester of graduate study (fourth semester for Neuroscience and Evolution and Behavior students).

Lab Rotations
Graduate students are strongly encouraged to rotate among different labs during the Pre-Candidacy Phase.  Rotations provide 1) first-hand laboratory experience, 2) training in lab-specific techniques and 3) one-on-one interactions with faculty.  After a maximum of three lab rotations, the graduate student will make a final decision, with the approval of the Major Advisor, regarding in which lab s/he will pursue his/her dissertation research.

Teaching or Research Assistantships
Graduate students are supported during the year with either a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship.  The teaching assistantships are provided by the department and usually provide up to 9 credits of tuition per semester as well.  The teaching assistantship requires no more than 20 hours per week assisting the department’s professors in one (or more) or the department’s undergraduate classes.  Research Assistantships may be provided by the department, the college, or the Major Advisor.  Students supported by a research assistantship are expected to spend at least 20 hours per week on the research designated by the support.  Those students in receipt of a research assistantship will also receive up to 9 credits of tuition per semester.

Support Policy
The faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to providing a competitive 12-month stipend for up to five years for all graduate students in good standing. Good standing includes satisfactory performance in required coursework, the passing of qualifier examinations, and distribution and defense of a proposal of the doctoral thesis resulting in timely admission to candidacy. After five years, students may request continued support by submitting a written request to the Graduate Committee.

Graduate Committee
The Departmental Graduate Committee includes faculty selected from all programs within the Department of Biological Sciences.  This committee will advise the student throughout his/her Pre-Candidacy phase – including the monitoring of progress through lab rotations and the selection of appropriate course work. Pre-Candidacy graduate students meet at least on a once per semester basis with the Graduate Committee.

Qualifying Examination
The Qualifying Examination will be taken at the end of the third or fourth semester of graduate study. This examination will consist of a two-day written examination followed separately by an oral examination. The faculty will evaluate both written and oral exams. Passing the written exam is required to progress to the oral exam.  If a student fails his/her first attempt at either portion of the exam, s/he will be provided one opportunity to re-take the exam at the next opportunity.

Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation Committee
In consultation with the Major Advisor, the graduate student will select a Dissertation Committee before the end of the fifth semester of graduate study.  The four-member Dissertation Committee includes three departmental faculty (including the Major Advisor) and one doctoral-level scientist from outside of the department.   Through research efforts, mastery of the literature, and with input from the Major Advisor, the student will prepare a written Dissertation Proposal.  This document will be presented to the Dissertation Committee no less than two weeks prior to an oral defense in front of the Dissertation Committee.   The defense of the Dissertation Proposal will take place no more than one year after the successful completion of the Qualifying Examination.

The Proposal defense includes a General Examination in which the student’s adequate understanding of the science related to his or her field of study will be assessed. Upon successful defense of the Dissertation Proposal and satisfactory performance in the General Examination, the following two forms must be signed by all members of the Dissertation Committee and submitted to the Graduate Programs Office of the College of Arts and Sciences:

  1.  Proposal Title Page
  2. “Report on the General Doctoral Examination”

In summary, the successful completion of coursework, written, and oral qualifying exams, and defense of a Dissertation Proposal/General Examination are requirements for Admission to Candidacy.  By University regulations, Admission to Candidacy requires 72 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree or 48 credits beyond the master’s degree. At least 24 of the credits must be in course work.


General timeline for completion of the Ph.D.

Year 1 – Coursework, find a research lab (ideally by the beginning of the Summer)

Year 2 – Coursework, take the qualifying exam, continue research

Year 3 – Coursework if necessary, complete proposal defense, continue research

Year 4 – Research towards Ph.D.

Year 5 – Research towards Ph.D. and complete thesis defense

The Department of Biological Sciences is committed to five years of support for all graduate students in good standing and with demonstrated timely completion of the requirements of their program. This includes satisfactory performance is required coursework, admission to candidacy, the passing of qualifier examinations, defense of a doctoral thesis proposal, and regular progress meetings. Determination of satisfactory progress is accomplished through the student meetings with the Graduate Committee and includes grades, progress in supervised research, and input from the research adviser.

Funding after five years is not guaranteed, but instead is contingent upon the availability of funds either from the student’s mentor or from the Department of Biological Sciences. Students and their mentors may request support beyond the student’s fifth year in writing to the Graduate Committee. At the beginning of the fifth year, students will receive a letter from the graduate committee with instructions for requesting Departmental support beyond the Spring semester of their fifth year in the program. Students requesting support should expect to provide feedback from the dissertation committee to the graduate committee and a timeline for completion of their degree.

Degree requirements

A student entering with a master's degree must complete a total of 48 credits (a minimum of 24-course credits of which 12 must be at the 400 level, plus research credits). A student entering with a bachelor's degree must complete a total of 72 credits (a minimum of 24-course credits of which 12 must be at the 400 level, plus research credits). A student also must complete a qualifying exam, prepare and defend a research proposal, complete the research described in the proposal, and present the completed research to the department.

The master's degree in molecular biology includes 30 credit hours of graduate work. No fewer than 18 credits must be in the major of which 15 credits must be at the 400-level. A student must register for six credit hours of research and successfully complete a research project.

Financial support

We provide financial support through teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and fellowships.

Last updated Jun 2020

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About the School

As Lehigh’s largest and most diverse college, we are home to the social sciences, arts, humanities, and natural sciences. With 1,894 undergraduate students, 342 graduate students, 270 full-time facult ... Read More

As Lehigh’s largest and most diverse college, we are home to the social sciences, arts, humanities, and natural sciences. With 1,894 undergraduate students, 342 graduate students, 270 full-time faculty and 90 professional staff, we are comparable in size and offer the intimacy of a liberal arts college, yet benefit from the resources of a research university. Our faculty are accomplished scholars, artists, and writers, recognized nationally and internationally as leaders in their fields, who share a commitment to the integration of teaching and scholarship into innovative, dynamic curricula set in an intellectually stimulating environment. Read less