PhD Curriculum

There are three required core courses for CAMB PhD students: Cell Biology and Biochemistry (BIOM 6000) and Regulation of the Genome (BIOM 5550), and Data Analysis for Life Sciences (BIOM 6100). These courses train students in advanced, graduate-level concepts in cell biology, biochemistry and molecular biology. The core courses are generally taken during the first year because they serve as a background for further course work and the preliminary examination. In addition to the core courses all first-year students are required to take the First Year Seminar Course (CAMB 6050).

  • First year seminar course: CAMB 6050 (1 c.u.)
  • Three core courses: BIOM 5550, BIOM 6000, BIOM 6100 or the equivalent (2.5 c.u.)
  • Three laboratory rotations: CAMB 6990 (~4 c.u.)
  • Pre-Dissertation Research (CAMB 8990) or any of the above (4-6 c.u.)

Typical Course Timetable | Required Course Descriptions | Lab Rotations

Typical PhD Course Timetable

  Fall Spring Summer
Year 1 BIOM 6000
CAMB 6050 (1st Year Seminar)
Program Requirement (if applicable)
Lab Rotation
BIOM 5550
Program Requirement
Two Lab Rotations
Lab Rotation or
Pre-Dissertation Research
Year 2 BIOM 6100
Program Requirements and Electives
Pre-Dissertation Research
Program Requirements and Electives
Pre-Dissertation Research
Preliminary Examination
Dissertation research
Years 3+ Dissertation research Dissertation research Dissertation research
Exemptions and modifications

In rare circumstances a student may have sufficient background to be exempt from the core courses, for example, a student who has received a Master's Degree in an appropriate area of life sciences. Requests for exemption will be considered by the Program Chair and the Executive Committee and will require documentation from the student: transcripts plus descriptions and syllabi of courses taken. If approved, credits will be transferred. There will be no exemptions from the three laboratory rotations.

Program-specific Requirements and Electives

Each of the six programs makes specific recommendations for appropriate introductory and advanced electives. Requirements and examples of courses for each program are given on the individual Program Academic webpages. See: CB, CPM, DSRB, G&E, GTV, MVP.
These courses are subject to change, and new courses are continually being added. For the specific courses given each term see the current course listings at BGS Courses and Curricula.

Typical Course Timetable | Required Course Descriptions | Lab Rotations

Descriptions of Required Courses

  1. BIOM 5550: Regulation of the Genome
    • Regulation of gene expression including chromatin structure, transcription, DNA modification, RNA processing, translation, control of gene expression via microRNAs and post translational processing. Offered spring semester.
      You can also refer to the BIOM 5550 Course Catalog page.
  2. BIOM 6000: Cell Biology and Biochemistry
    • BIOM 6000 is an intermediate level graduate course designed to introduce students to the molecular components and physiological mechanisms that underlie the structure and function of cells. The course is designed as an in depth survey to cover general concepts central to the field of biochemistry and cell biology and to emphasize these concepts within the context of current scientific research questions and technical approaches. Offered fall semester.
      You can also refer to the BIOM 6000 Course Catalog page.
  3. BIOM 6100: Data Analysis for Life Sciences or the equivalent
    • Technological advances have transformed fields that rely on data by providing a wealth of information ready to be analyzed. From working with single genes to comparing entire genomes, biomedical research groups around the world are producing more data than they can handle and the ability to interpret this information is a key skill for any practitioner. The skills necessary to work with these massive datasets are in high demand, and this course will help you learn those skills. Using the open-source R programming language, you'll gain a nuanced understanding of the tools required to work with complex life sciences and genomics data. You'll learn the mathematical concepts -- and the data analytics techniques -- that you need to drive data- driven research. From a strong foundation in statistics to specialized R programming skills, this course will lead you through the data analytics landscape step-by-step. Taught by Rafael Irizarry from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and offered through the Harvard partnership with, this four part course will enable new discoveries and will help you improve individual and population health. If you're working in the life sciences and want to learn how to analyze data, enroll now to take your research to the next level. Offered fall semester
      You can also refer to the BIOM 6100 Course Catalog page.
  4. CAMB 6050: Cell and Molecular Biology First Year Seminar (2021 Syllabus)
    • Topics are selected by course instructors and student participants. Course instructors vary yearly. The goal of this course is to provide students with an opportunity to analyze, present, and discuss significant research papers in the field of cell and molecular biology in small group settings. The sections are taught by faculty from the different programs within the Graduate Group. This is a required course for CAMB PhD Students. Other BGS students are eligible, space permitting. Offered fall semester.
      You can also refer to the CAMB 6050 Course Catalog page.

Typical Course Timetable | Required Course Descriptions | Lab Rotations

Laboratory Rotations (CAMB 6990)

The purpose of the lab rotations is to get experience in specific laboratories that will eventually lead to the choice of a thesis laboratory. Such experience goes far beyond learning techniques; it is an opportunity for the student to determine whether they are compatible with the lab and the mentor. Rotations also provide the student with the opportunity to explore areas in which they may have interest but no direct research experience. It is recommended that at least one rotation be utilized to explore a field of research that the student may not have previously considered as a future research direction. Students are required to do a minimum of three different lab rotations, and a student can do additional rotations if necessary to find a compatible lab for thesis research.

The minimum period for a rotation is 11 weeks; students often spend a few weeks longer, depending on the term in which the rotation is done. A rotation can be done in the summer before the beginning of the first year or during the summer between the first and second years. Summer rotations before the first year must last for at least 12 weeks.

In the 2022-23 academic year, there will be one 12 week rotation in the fall term, which must start no later than September 19th, and two 11-week rotations in the spring, the first starting no later than January 11th and the second starting March 27th. Please see the 2023-24 First Year Student Schedule for the complete dates.

All rotations are arranged between the student and the faculty mentor and are subject to approval by the Program advisors. Members of the Graduate Group have provided descriptions of their research, which can be found on the CAMB web site under Faculty. New students should begin thinking about their first rotation before arriving at Penn. Once at Penn, these choices should be explored by talking to students and conferring with Program advisors. The students should then make a short list of faculty with whom they wish to work and set up appointments to talk to the faculty about their research, possible rotation projects and the possibility of working in their laboratories. When a rotation is agreed upon the student and faculty member should meet to discuss and clearly define the goals of the project. During the first rotation the student should begin planning subsequent rotations. Upon completion of a rotation, the rotation advisor must submit a grade and a written evaluation of the student's performance. A rotation evaluation form will be provided by the CAMB Office, and it will be included in the student's file. A copy of the evaluation will also be given to the student. Students are encouraged to discuss the contents of the written evaluation form with their rotation advisor.

  • All rotations should be done in CAMB faculty laboratories.
  • A student cannot do two rotations in the same laboratory.
  • Laboratory Rotations are very important. Students are expected to be working on the rotation research project at all times not being spent in class or in preparation for class. This should be at least 30 hours a week during Spring and Fall semesters, and 40 hours per week for Summer rotations.
  • Three rotations are required; there will be no exemptions.
Grading Guidelines Distributed to Faculty for Rotations

Please give an A if: The student worked hard on their project, understood what they were doing, produced interpretable results that you trust, and made an intellectual contribution to the lab. Please do not give a grade of A unless you would be happy to welcome them into your lab as a thesis level student and you would be comfortable recommending them to any of your colleagues.
Please give a B if: The student performed well in your lab and you have a reasonable level of confidence that they will be able to accomplish thesis level research leading to a PhD.
Please give a C if: The student performed poorly in your lab and you are unsure whether they will be able to accomplish thesis level research leading to a PhD without significant improvement in their performance.