Town Hall for Incoming BGS Students - Monday, 6-29-20

Town Hall Recording

If you missed the Town Hall, you may watch it here.

Town Hall Questions and Answers


Will students have to be tested for COVID before going onto campus/into lab?

Currently, Penn does not require testing for students who do not have symptoms. However, Penn is making plans for testing of students in the Fall, and more information will be provided when it becomes available. Students with questions about symptoms or testing should contact Student Health.  Per Penn’s Student Campus Compact, you will “agree to adhere to strict physical distancing and use of facial coverings for the 14 days prior to your return to Philadelphia and/or the University of Pennsylvania campus community.” In addition, you will need to agree to follow the health and safety guidelines stated in the Compact, including: “To collaborate with Penn on daily wellness checks with the new PennOpen Pass mobile app (details to be distributed), monitoring for symptoms, being tested as recommended by health professionals, and tracking my contacts should I test positive, as part of my public service to protecting my fellow students and Penn community members.”

Will students have to sign a waiver of liability to opt-in to research/rotations/in-person classes?

No. Current students who are opting-in to campus-based research have not had to sign waivers. However, everyone must follow the Student Campus Compact.

Will the fall semester for BGS students follow the undergraduate schedule that was outlined where in-person classes end before Thanksgiving? 

At this point, most BGS courses are expected to run through the semester, although some may end early.  While BGS courses generally start at the same time as undergraduate courses, they do not usually observe the undergraduate schedule throughout the semester.

Will rotations/classes be flexible in terms of attendance, etc., if we happen to get sick?

Absolutely! Safety, and health are paramount. This has always been the case here.

Do you foresee any general BGS activities (seminars, happy hours, etc.) occurring in person during the fall semester (especially in phase III)?

At this point, it is hard to anticipate which activities may occur in-person during the fall semester. Although Philadelphia is expected to be “green” starting in July, any spikes in cases may change that. Moreover, we want to be sure to be able to include non-local students in as many activities as possible.  Seminars and other large group activities are expected to remain virtual throughout the semester. Small group training activities beyond courses and rotations, such as journal clubs, chalk talks, and workshops, are expected to have a virtual option. It is possible that some informal or social activities for small groups may take place in person.

Will we be behind in our PhD because of all the covid changes?

Our current students have found many productive pursuits during the research hiatus, and we will help you do the same. Since you are in the first year and will have courses and other structured activities, the hiatus will probably not affect you very much, compared to students engaged in full-time research.

How is moving to phase 2/3 decided, and what criteria does Penn examine when making this decision?

Decisions are being made based on data on the efficacy of safety measures as has been done for decisions around transition from Phase I to Phase II (See below). As data evolves to indicate that our protective measures are working, decisions will be made to progress from one phase to the next. The transition from Phase I to Phase II is guided by:

  • Effectiveness and compliance of social distancing and other safety measures, determined by: survey results, reports to EHRS, reports to VPR, local observations by EHRS and the schools
  • Researchers' sense of safety, determined by: survey results 
  • Evidence of transmission, determined by: symptom screening results to EHRS and outcomes of contact tracing

Does Penn endorse a specific contact tracing app?

Penn does not currently endorse a specific contact tracing app. More information will be shared as plans develop.

Will BGS/graduate groups be organizing virtual social activities in order for students to meet others in their cohort?

Yes! We are working with current students on this, and they will take the lead in organizing many of the activities. You will hear more over the summer.

Courses, including Advising and Registration

When would we start registering for classes and will there be opportunities for virtual advising? 

Your graduate program will set up virtual advising sessions, and you will hear more about this over the summer. Once you make your fall course selections and have approval from your advisors, your graduate group coordinator will register you for classes. 

Are we able to register for additional classes that aren't outlined by our program?

Your course selections must be approved by your graduate group advisors. If there is room in your schedule after you are registered for required courses and rotations, your advisors may approve additional classes. This will vary by graduate program, as some curricula have more room for electives than others. Generally, there are more opportunities for electives in the second year, and some students take electives during their dissertation years.  In many cases electives are chosen to cover areas in which your research is leading and you wish to benefit from increased depth in that area. In other instances, you might choose a class or other enrichment activity in order to explore career desires, as you focus in on that over your graduate training period.

How will we know which classes will be in person and which will be virtual for the fall?

All courses with more than 25 students will be offered only in a remote format. In addition, it is anticipated that GGEB and GCB courses will be offered only virtually.  A few courses across the other 5 graduate groups may have an in-person option at some point in the semester.  Students who are local might choose to opt-in for the in-person component.  However, all courses will be offered in a remote format throughout the semester, even if there is an in-person component.  Course plans will be shared on the website as soon as the syllabus, instructors, etc., are confirmed.  

If we enter phase III in the middle of the fall semester, will online classes move to in-person?

The transition to in-person instruction will be determined by the directors for each course, and whatever the course’s plan, students will be able to participate in fall classes remotely through the end of the semester.

Will there be opportunities for to receive supplementary instruction (tutoring, TAs, etc)? I found my undergrad spring semester was rather difficult because moving classes online made these resources very limited.

Yes, we will provide all the academic supports that are typically available to students, including virtual tutoring, TA office hours and faculty office hours. In addition, Weingarten Learning Resources Center is available to support graduate students. We worked closely with Penn’s offices of Online Learning Initiatives and Center for Teaching and Learning when we had to shift all of our spring courses to a virtual format in March.  As a consequence, we’ve learned a lot about effective remote teaching. Our students’ evaluations of their Spring courses were very positive, and many students commented on the effectiveness of the TAs for their courses.

Will there be accommodations for students who may have issues adapting to online courses and virtual rotations?

We strive to accommodate the specific needs of all students. We encourage you to reach out to Weingarten Learning Resources Center for support.  In addition, you should contact your program chair to discuss your concerns and needs. Your individual programs are committed to your success here.

Will there be scholarship / financial aid opportunities for international students? Will there be a reduction in tuition if we choose to do online classes?

PhD students receive a full fellowship that covers stipend, tuition, fees, and health insurance. MS students in Biostatistics should consult with GGEB regarding funding opportunities. There is no reduction in tuition for online classes.


When does the first rotation start?  

This will vary by graduate group and individual rotation, but typically by mid-September.

Will fall rotations occur virtually or in-person?

This will vary.  The default will be virtual rotations, but some may be in-person depending on the nature of the research and the individual lab. Some labs will be able to accept some rotation students in-person during phase II (which we are poised to enter July 13th), while other labs will need to wait until phase III to allow in-person rotations.

When is it recommended to reach out to PIs for rotations given the circumstances?

This is flexible. You may reach out to faculty of interest now, later in the summer, or after your meet with your graduate group advisor(s).

What type of work would a virtual rotation consist of?

This would be any type of project building activity, including literature review, experimental design, analysis of existing data sets, critical review of methodology, etc. BGS has prepared a document for guidance, called iLab. More information will be provided by your graduate group.

Do we expect to begin with virtual rotations in the fall even if the university will be in phase 3 by then?

Phase III will represent normal density in labs, and students will be expected to be on the campus, as their personal circumstances allow.  At Phase III, normal, in-lab rotations would be the norm.  There might be some laboratories that still need time to ramp up for certain classes of experiments; those labs may not be available for in-person rotations at the start of Phase III.

Regardless of phase, if you can find a suitable lab willing to accept you as a rotation student you can being an in-lab rotation. If you cannot find an in-lab rotation for the start of the semester (typically mid-September) or you have not relocated by then, you will start a rotation virtually, as discussed above (iLab).

How will we be graded on our rotation if through virtual rotations?

Similar to in person rotations, you will be graded not on the amount of data that you produce but rather on your ability to understand your project. The iLab document provides a concrete idea of the types of knowledge you will be able to demonstrate some mastery over concerning your prospective research in that lab.

Will we get an adequate feel of the lab via virtual rotations?

While students in wet labs will not able to do hands-on experimentation remotely, there are a number of ways to engage with the lab’s research, as described in iLab, and these experiences may help you decide your level of interest in the research.  They will also prepare you to hit the ground running when you do enter the lab in-person.  Besides the research and academic side of a lab, figuring out its 'culture' and its 'match' for what you are looking for is crucial.  Some common sense things you would take part in include:

a. Take part in all lab meetings and journal clubs, and do so actively.

b. Arrange time to meet and talk with individual lab members, and discuss their projects.

c. Join in the more social (though still ‘remote’) lab events.

Is it possible to have an additional in-person rotation in Summer 2021 to supplement a virtual rotation in Fall 2020?

Yes, additional rotations are always an option for students in every graduate group. The timing and structure of rotations can vary across graduate groups, so please check with your graduate group for details.

Will a list of labs permitting in-person rotations be released? If so, when will this occur?

The availability of labs for fall rotations will be a very fluid situation, so we may not be able to provide such a list centrally.  You should reach out to your program chair for advice of what to expect from your labs of interest, and how and when to approach those labs.

If a first rotation is virtual could the second rotation take place in the same lab if it is in person?

You will have the option of spending time in a lab in-person after having rotated there virtually. Depending on the timing, the in-person stage could be considered a continuation of the original rotation. Each graduate group has its own rotation system, but we anticipate that the structure, timing, and number of rotations will be more flexible than in the past.

Would you recommend doing a computational rotation first, rather than a wet lab rotation, if you plan on doing both?

This may be the best plan for some, but not for others. Your program will give you individual advising on such decisions.

Would you recommend choosing a lab most similar to present experience for this first rotation? Would it be ill-advised to try something completely new at this time?

Not necessarily. This is really your decision to make in consultation with your graduate program advisors. In every instance, your advisors will collaborate with you to devise an individualized plan tailored to your needs.

Relocation, Travel, and Transportation

What is the minimum lead time students will be given before Phase III goes into effect and they're required to move to Philadelphia?

We do not know precisely how much lead time we will be given, but you will know as soon as we do. In any event, we will give you ample time to relocate once Phase III is announced, and you have the choice to conduct the entire fall semester remotely.

Is Philadelphia requiring a mandatory quarantine after moving there by flight?

Penn has developed a Student Campus Compact, which will continue to be revised over the summer. The current language from the Student Campus Compact is "...strict physical distancing and use of facial coverings for the 14 days prior to your return to Philadelphia and/or the Penn campus community..."

As you plan your move, you will need to check the Student Campus Compact, along with local guidelines that are in place for that time in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia

Will there be any changes to available parking to support use of reduced public transport? 

As a result of the current shutdown, there are free parking options for Penncard holders in Penn garages.  However, we do not yet know if free or reduced parking will be available in the fall semester.

Do you know if incoming students will benefit from an exemption at the Canada-US border in order to cross and move to Philly?

The current border restrictions are in place until July 21. It is our hope that students may travel from Canada to the US after that.  You should check in with your ISSS advisor in making your travel plans.

Health, Dental, and Vision Insurance

When can I enroll in Penn’s student health insurance?

Enrollment for the Penn Student Insurance Plan (PSIP) will begin on Wednesday, July 1, and will be open until August 31. PSIP coverage will begin on August 1, 2020, and run through July 31, 2021. BGS will pay the cost of your health insurance.

What if I am covered by my parents’ or spouse’s insurance?

If you have alternate insurance coverage, you can submit an insurance waiver from July 1-August 31. However, you may also choose to enroll in PSIP while staying on your current plan as well, as there is no penalty for being covered under two different policies.

If some students are virtual for the fall semester because they are unable to move to campus, will the in-network coverage be sufficient from the student health insurance plan? 

For non-emergency care, it may not meet the needs of students who live far from campus. If you have a local health insurance option (e.g., through a parent or spouse’s insurance), you may want to keep it AND sign up for PSIP so that you have local coverage at home and as well as coverage in Philadelphia.

Is it recommended to get student health insurance if I am already on my parent’s plan? What are the benefits of leaving theirs and beginning my own?

That will be your personal choice, and will require assessing the pros and cons of the different insurance options available to you. It will depend on part on where you plan to live and if you have any particular coverage concerns.  Details of the PSIP (Aetna) plan are available here. You may sign up for PSIP even if you have alternative coverage from another plan.

Do we have to pay additionally for the insurance (just for myself)? If so, how much is taken out of our stipend for it?

No, you do not have to pay for your own coverage.  The BGS Finance Office will pay it on your behalf.

Will we be able to elect Penn health coverage midyear when we move later during Phase 3?

Probably not, unless the circumstances are extenuating. We recommend that anyone who anticipates needing Penn health coverage at any point up until August 1, 2021 sign up for coverage this year.

Will BGS pay for the cost of spousal/dependent insurance?

No; you will have to pay for spousal/dependent insurance out of pocket. However, usually the University offers the opportunity to apply for grants to subsidize the cost of childcare and family expenses, and health insurance for dependents. Information on last year’s grants is available here.

Will BGS pay for vision and/or dental insurance?

No; vision and dental insurance are supplemental and you will have to pay for them out of pocket (note that PSIP covers one vision exam per year). Usually the University provides a 50% reimbursement for dental insurance if you enroll by a certain time; information on last year’s dental insurance reimbursement is available here.

Do I need to submit proof of immunizations?
Yes; Penn requires all students to comply with its immunization requirement (you should submit the forms for non-healthcare professional students). Documentation should be submitted at your earliest convenience, and must be submitted before classes begin on September 1.

International Students

From the Plans for the Fall Semester I know that remote rotation and online classes will be allowed and fellowship can still be guaranteed. But I'm still wondering if above policies will cover international students or only for students already in the USA. Could we have access to online courses and remote rotation even if we haven't succeeded in applying for the visa? 

You can have access to courses and the remote rotation while waiting for your visa. BGS has been told that international students may be paid a stipend while participating remotely, but we are awaiting details and will share them when known.

Does BGS require international students to enter the US in order to start the fall semester, and can students enter the US half way through the semester?

No, international students do not need to enter the US to start the fall semester. As far as BGS is concerned, international students may enter the US mid-semester, but you should consult with International Student and Scholar Services on the details. 

What is required from international students in order for them to get paid even if they are not in the US?

You must have permission to work in the US in order to receive a stipend. We are awaiting more details from the University regarding the process.

Will there be scholarship / financial aid opportunities for international students? Will there be a reduction in tuition if we choose to do online classes?

PhD students receive a full fellowship that covers stipend, tuition, fees, and health insurance. MS students in Biostatistics should consult with GGEB regarding funding opportunities. There is no reduction in tuition for online classes.

Stipend, Relocation Award, Taxes

In the presentation, we heard pay starts Aug 3rd, but the BGS student letter said it starts Aug 31st. Is the new Aug 3rd date definite for all BGS programs?

New PhD students (who complete the payroll documentation by the July 15 deadline) will receive their first stipend check on August 31st. It will include a prorated stipend for the month of August starting August 3rd. It will also include the relocation award.

Note that, as indicated above, the process for paying international students who are not on campus may be different than for students in the US. We will share more information when it is available.

BSTA MS students’ fellowships are handled through the DBEI department; check with GGEB for details.

Is there any way to receive the moving stipend prior to August 31 to help with moving costs?

Unfortunately, no. However, you can request an advance on your first paycheck. The max advance amount is for $1000 (in check form, in 5 business days); you need to pay a $25 fee via your bursar account; the advance is deducted from monthly stipend each month over 4 months. Please contact BGS Payroll Manager, Tiffany Brooks, for more information.

If we are currently working, should our last day for our current job be before August 3rd?

Yes. As a student in BGS, your educational activities are considered full-time, which does not allow other forms of employment. With limits, you may be allowed to serve as a TA, or in other academic support roles that have relevance to your educational program; however, these opportunities are generally not available to first year students.

It is ok to be working right now until August, right?


Will information on taxes with stipends be given out?

BGS is not authorized to give tax advice. That said, some basic tax information is provide on the BGS website and the BGSA website, and additional information will be provided at orientation.

Additional Information

When do our final transcripts need to be submitted by?

Before the start of the fall semester (by the end of August).

When will we receive a Penncard?

You will be able to get your Penncard when you come to campus. You will not need it for remote work. Your Pennkey will provide you with remote access to Penn systems.

Are we going to receive an Incoming Student Checklist like the incoming students of 2019 got? That would be very helpful to know what we need to do before we start. 

Yes. It will be posted as soon as it’s ready.

Will it be possible/feasible to apply for NSF GRFP fellowship under these conditions as a first year student?

Absolutely. You do not need to have selected a thesis topic to write a successful NSF GRFP application. The graduate groups provide support for students who apply for these fellowships, and this support will continue.

How and where can we successfully locate resources for masters students? I feel like a lot of resources/information presented today are mainly for PhD students.

Please contact Dr. Nandita Mitra, Chair of GGEB, via email or phone.

Will campus libraries be open in the fall?

Yes.  Per the Penn Libraries website:  “Penn Libraries will follow the University’s guidelines for population density within each library. The library staff will be available to assist all faculty and students remotely, and the libraries will prioritize Faculty Express (with home delivery instead of office delivery); restart Books by Mail for all other members of the Penn community; and offer a new service, Pickup@Penn, for members of the Penn community to request books and pick them up outside Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center.”