Courses and Curricula
Information about course requirements and sample plans of study for each graduate group is available through the University Graduate Catalog and on the group’s website. Additional information about course offerings across campus is available through the Catalog Course Search.
Core BGS Courses
BGS centrally organizes several courses that are required or recommended for students in most graduate groups. These courses are:
- BIOM 600 Cell Biology and Biochemistry (Fall)
- BIOM 555 Regulation of the Genome (Spring)
- BIOM 611 Statistical Methods for the Design and Analysis of Experiments
Colleen Dunn is the contact for these courses.
BGS course offerings are listed by semester:
Notes on Course Scheduling
- Academic Calendar. While BGS generally schedules courses according to the University schedule, it is important to note that not all BGS courses observe the University fall and spring breaks, reading days or exam days, or the semester start and end dates.
- Class Meeting Times. BGS courses are expected to observe a University policy requiring classes to end in time for students to travel to their next class.
- Holidays. BGS courses observe a University policy addressing secular and religious holidays in scheduling course activities.
All students must take formal statistics training, either through BIOM 611 or a more advanced alternative. Find more information here.
Attendance at all scheduled class meetings is expected and Instructors may base final grades on attendance. Absences from class for medical reasons or family emergencies are acceptable excuses. If requested by the Instructor, written documentation must be submitted for an absence to be excused. BGS reserves the right to withdraw students from courses for failure to attend the first class meeting.
Enrollment Practices and Grading
General BGS Student Enrollment Activity
In years one and two, BGS students take a combination of didactic courses, seminars, laboratory rotations, independent studies, and examinations. In general, they take the equivalent of 4 course units in the Fall and Spring semesters, and they are registered for these courses in the University’s Student Records System. In the summers, they conduct laboratory rotations, which are recorded in BGS’ local system. Students in year three and beyond work full-time in the laboratory of their dissertation advisor. Students select courses with permission of their academic advisors and are registered by their graduate group coordinators in order to ensure that registrations meet graduate group and BGS policies. (Note that MD-PhDs and VMD-PhDs follow a different registration pattern.)
Enrollment in Extra Courses and Non-BGS Courses
Students must enroll in courses that are 400 level or above in order to receive PhD credit for them. Students may take courses after candidacy but should obtain approval from the dissertation advisor (if applicable) and the graduate group chair to ensure that the additional coursework does not negatively affect progress toward the degree. There should be an academic or career-goal basis for the additional coursework. Due to the additional tuition charged for summer registration, students are strongly discouraged from taking summer courses.
Coordinators are responsible for the appropriate registration of their students in accordance with University deadlines. Students who wish to drop a course after the close of the drop period must petition their graduate group, and the graduate group must notify BGS.
Per University policy, doctoral students may be enrolled in courses for a letter grade only (not pass/fail). BGS students are not permitted to formally register for courses as auditors. However, they may arrange to “sit in” on courses with the permission of the course director (and their advisor if they are at dissertation stage).
Appeal of a Grade
Evaluation of a student’s performance is the responsibility of the Instructor. Should a final grade in a course be disputed, the student must submit a written appeal to the Instructor within the first two weeks of the academic semester immediately following the semester in which the grade was received. The Instructor must respond in writing to the student within two weeks of receiving the written appeal from the student. If, after receiving the written response to the appeal from the Instructor, the student still believes that the grade has been unfairly assigned, the student must submit a written appeal to the student’s Graduate Group Chair. If the Chair believes the appeal demonstrates evidence of negligence or discriminatory behavior, an advisory committee will be formed to review the student’s appeal and make a recommendation to the Chair. The decision of the Chair is final.
Student Academic Standards
According to University policy, a graduate student must maintain a B average or better to be considered in good academic standing. The Biomedical Curriculum and Academic Standards Committee reviews the record of any student who receives an unsatisfactory grade (less than a “B”) in a course or who does not meet the University policy of a B average to decide whether the student should be placed on academic probation. Students who are placed on academic probation must meet the requirements in the probation letter to return to good academic standing.
Student Teaching/Other Supplemental Activity
In general, BGS students are not required to teach and are not supported by teaching assistantships. The exceptions are NGG and GGEB students, who are required to teach for a semester. Students in any graduate group who wish to obtain teaching experience may apply for TA positions offered by departments sponsoring undergraduate courses and for a few BGS-related TA positions. Teaching opportunities are announced by email. However, students may not accept TAships without prior approval of their thesis advisor (if applicable) and Graduate Group Chair. If the TAship will consist of 100 or more hours of service, permission is also required from the Director of BGS. In addition, students may serve as TAs or conduct other approved tasks which involve 100 or more hours for a maximum of two semesters only; exceptions may be made for students in a pre-approved Center for Teaching and Learning Certificate Program or the Penn Center for Innovation fellowship program. In no case will a student be permitted to conduct a TAship or other activity that requires more than 10 hours of effort per week. (Note that BGS students are not permitted to serve as Resident Assistants, given the substantial demands associated with these positions.)
Students should complete and submit the forms below (PhD and VMD-PhD students, use BGS students link; MD-PhD students, use the MD-PhD students link) to request permission. The BGS office must receive the completed form prior to the start of the semester in which the work will be performed in order for payment to be approved. Instructions are at the bottom of the forms.
Student Problems/Grievance Policy
Students who have any sorts of concerns about the program should first consult with individuals within their graduate group: chair or coordinator, academic review committee members, dissertation advisor, or dissertation committee members. If the student’s concerns persist, he or she may consult with the BGS office staff or director.
A BGS student who wishes to register a grievance regarding the evaluation of his/her academic work or a matter related to the program or a course should discuss the matter with the instructor or the appropriate Graduate Group Chair. If the grievance is not addressed, the student may bring the issue to the Director of BGS. Students may also take concerns to the University Ombuds, whose mission is to "ameliorate those conditions that may impede community members finding satisfaction with their lives at Penn.”
Information about Learning Resources for students with academic or time management problems can be found here. Information about resources for students with other types of problems can be found on the Wellness page. Students in distress should contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), 3624 Market Street, 215-898-7021.
Individual Development Plans (IDPs)
Every BGS PhD and combined degree student is required to complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP) on an annual basis. An IDP is intended to help in the design of, and measurement of progress in, training. It is also intended to help in identifying short- and long-term objectives and relevant development activities. Each student should use the IDP that aligns with his or her progress in the PhD program and status as a PhD or combined degree student. The IDP is due August 1 of each year; however, any graduate group may employ a due date earlier than this, for example to maintain consistency with its advising schedule.
IDPs for all students except those in GGEB:
- BGS PhD First Year Student IDP
- BGS PhD Second Year Student IDP
- BGS Combined Degree Third Year Student IDP
- BGS PhD Thesis Student IDP
- BGS Combined Degree Thesis Student IDP
IDPs for GGEB students only:
- GGEB PhD First Year Student IDP
- GGEB PhD Second Year Student IDP
- GGEB Combined Degree Third Year Student IDP
- GGEB PhD Thesis Student IDP
- GGEB Combined Degree Thesis Student IDP
Each graduate group develops its own policies for students at the dissertation level. These policies include the composition of the thesis committee and frequency of committee meetings, publication requirements, and the format of the final thesis defense. In addition to group-specific policies, several BGS-wide policies that relate to the dissertation.
Lab Notebooks at Dissertation Committee Meetings
All dissertation level students must bring their lab notebooks to their dissertation committee meetings. If a student has previously met with the dissertation committee, then he or she should bring the notebooks used since the last committee meeting. The dissertation committee should make a point of reviewing notebook data at each meeting. There is no expectation that lab notebooks be reviewed in their entirety. However, the dissertation committee should feel confident that the student's lab data are complete and well managed. Graduate groups may wish to impose additional requirements, such as assigning a particular committee member responsibility for reviewing lab notebooks or arranging for the notebooks to be reviewed in greater detail by a committee member outside of the meetings. In any event, each graduate group’s dissertation committee meeting report forms will be amended so as to document the committee’s review of lab notebooks. Additional information about lab notebooks can be found here.
Permission to Write and Defend the Dissertation
The thesis committee must formally grant permission to write the thesis. Students are expected to write their thesis full-time and upon request demonstrate reasonable progress to their mentor and committee. In addition, students must submit the thesis to the graduate group within six months of receiving permission to write.
If the student will not meet the six-month deadline for submitting the thesis, s/he must meet with the committee again before the end of the six months. The committee will review the student’s progress and set a new deadline for the submission of the thesis. Under normal circumstances, no more than one additional month will be granted. If the student does not submit the thesis or meet with the committee during the six-month period, the graduate group will put the student on academic probation. The graduate group’s academic review committee will determine whether the student should be given permission to defend the thesis, and under what circumstances, or whether the student should be withdrawn from the graduate group or offered a terminal master’s degree.
After the student submits the thesis, the committee has up to one month to review it. If the committee determines that the student must revise the thesis prior to defending it, the student will have one month to make the revisions.
Once the committee approves the thesis, the student will have one month in which to finalize the defense arrangements. (It is expected that the student will make tentative arrangements for the defense before this point.)
Students Leaving the Lab Prior to Defending the Dissertation
BGS’ Conditions of Fellowship Awards states: “BGS fellowships provide tuition, fees, health insurance, and a stipend for all full time students in residence and in good academic standing.” It is recognized that on occasion students will finish the dissertation outside of the lab. In the case that a student leaves the laboratory prior to completing the dissertation, it is assumed that s/he is no longer entitled to receive compensation unless the student and faculty mentor arrive at a written agreement that addresses the following issues: how long the stipend will be provided, the scope of remaining work, the anticipated defense date, the anticipated graduation date, and any other issues of concern to the student or mentor. This agreement must be approved by the mentor, thesis committee chair, and graduate group chair, and BGS must be notified. Under no circumstances may a student continue to receive a stipend if s/he has begun another paid position. Students who leave the lab must adhere to the six-month deadline for submitting the thesis.
Dissertation Level Students Changing Mentors
A dissertation student wishing to change mentors must submit a written request to the graduate group chair. The student need not provide the reasons for the request in writing. The graduate group chair must then convene a meeting of the graduate group’s academic review committee, with the student present, to discuss the request. The academic review committee should consult separately with the current mentor and members of the student’s thesis committee. The academic review committee will then document its decision – detailing funding arrangements, timing, new thesis committee composition, and any other issues associated with a change of mentors – and provide copies to the student, the current mentor, and the proposed mentor. If the student is hesitant to take up this issue with the graduate group chair (e.g., the chair is the student’s current mentor or a close collaborator of the current mentor), the student may speak to his or her thesis committee chair or the director of BGS, who will then ensure that the above procedure is followed.
Dissertation Students Leaving Campus with a Mentor
On rare occasions, a student may leave campus with a mentor who has moved to a new institution. Students in the first three years of training whose mentor leaves Penn are expected to a) switch to a different mentor at Penn or b) transfer formally to the mentor’s new institution. Students beyond year three may have the option of moving with the mentor to the new institution while remaining enrolled at Penn. Students and mentors considering such an arrangement should discuss it with the graduate group chair and complete a form to obtain official permission.
The University awards degrees three times per year: in May, August, and December. Students must sign up for degree well in advance. Anne-Cara Apple in BGS emails all students and coordinators about the specific deadlines and the process as soon as the exact deadlines are known. Students may now sign up online. For more information, visit the complete Degree Calendars and the Doctoral Dissertation Manual.
BGS conducts a Commencement Ceremony immediately after the University ceremony each May. Students who graduate in August and December are invited to return for the May ceremony.
Since May 2011, BGS has featured a hooding ceremony as part of Graduation and Academic Regalia is required for all participating graduates and faculty. Students may order regalia from the Penn Bookstore. The Bookstore hosts an annual graduation fair; regalia can be ordered during that time or online; students are notified about the fair by email. Regalia questions can be answered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
BGS provides a variety of support options for students who may need assistance with coursework or other training activities, including:
- Optional 12-week summer lab rotation for incoming students (June through August)
- Weekly scientific presentation skills sessions for early summer matriculants
- August BIOM 600 preparation workshop (8 sessions) for new students run by senior students
- Teaching assistants available to all students in larger courses
- Tutors (senior BGS students) available for students in core courses who need help beyond what TAs can provide
- Lynda.com tutorials, free to all students
Students who feel they need assistance should contact their graduate group advisor(s) for guidance.
Many additional Learning Resources for Graduate Students are provided by the University through the Weingarten Learning Resources Center.