Thesis Committee and Research

Thesis Research

Upon advancement to candidacy, the student must do the following:

  • Select a thesis laboratory and begin a research project in that laboratory within one month. Students may select thesis labs at Penn or at the NIH through the NIH-Penn Immunology Graduate Partnership Program.
  • Choose a thesis committee within 3 - 6 months. The student's mentor will help select four faculty members to serve on the thesis committee. Two of the faculty members must be members of IGG. The thesis advisor and members must be approved by the IGG Chair, who will then officially appoint the thesis committee. Subsequent changes in membership can only be made with the permission of the thesis committee and IGG chair.
  • Schedule a meeting with the thesis committee and mentor within 6 months (combined degree students) or 12 months (PhD students). At this time the committee will select a chairperson, who will document the progress of the student on the Thesis Committee Meeting Evaluation Form. The form must be reviewed by the student and mentor and then placed in the student’s file within a week of each formal meeting. At each meeting the committee will decide the interval of time until the next meeting. The thesis committee chair will ensure that the committee meets at least once every 6 months (combined degree students) or once every year (PhD students); under no circumstances shall it be more than 12 months.
  • One week prior to their scheduled committee meeting, students should provide a written summary/progress report to their thesis committee. The report should briefly summarize the research progress since the prior meeting (or current status of the project if this is a first committee meeting), discuss any technical or conceptual challenges that have been encountered or anticipated, how the student plans to overcome these challenges, and summarize proposed future plans. The total length of the report should be 1-2 pages max. No fixed format is required, but an extended Aims Page-like format can be very effective for this purpose.
Student Progress

The thesis committee is responsible for evaluating the student’s progress toward the degree. If the Committee feels the student’s progress is unsatisfactory, they will notify the IGG chair. The chair will call a meeting of the IGG executive committee to discuss and determine the appropriate course of action. In extreme situations, the executive committee can recommend the student’s dismissal from the program.

Quality of Research

The thesis committee must also evaluate the scientific quality and importance of the student’s work and decide when to grant permission to write the thesis. Formal permission to write the thesis implies that all of the data the student will include in the document has been reviewed by the thesis committee and meets with their approval.

Relevance of Research

The thesis committee must also ensure that the body of work accomplished by the student is relevant and important to the scientific community. These criteria can be met if the student has at least two papers published or in press in peer-reviewed scientific journals. If the student has not published two papers, the thesis committee will evaluate the work within the proposed thesis and predict if the student can reasonably expect that s/he will publish two papers on the work. At this point, the chair of the thesis committee should notify the IGG chair in writing that the committee plans to grant permission to write the thesis. Upon receiving official permission to write, the candidate must complete the thesis within six months. Failure to do so will place the student in unsatisfactory standing, and the executive committee will meet to discuss the student’s situation.

Thesis Requirements

The thesis is a document that describes the body of research accomplished while in the thesis laboratory and, moreover, places this work within the framework of the specific field of study and immunology in general. By its very nature the thesis is a scholarly and comprehensive discussion of the laboratory work, the literature leading up to and justifying the importance of the research, and a thorough discussion of the interpretation and importance of the findings. The thesis is not merely the "stapling together" of published and unpublished manuscripts written by the student. The written thesis demonstrates to the scientific community that the PhD candidate is able to define and execute hypothesis-driven research and able to define its contribution to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

The body of the thesis has four sections.

1) Introduction

This section is a comprehensive review and analysis of all the relevant literature on the thesis topic. This review provides an argument for the relevance and logic of the proposed hypotheses, and allows the student to justify the experimental systems used. The literature review also provides background information and references so that the thesis can be evaluated and understood by scientists outside of the immediate field.

2) Experimental Work

This section comprises multiple chapters, each associated with experimental results that test independent hypotheses or separate questions. The entirety of the experimental work that is related to each or all of the questions addressed in the thesis laboratory is presented and interpreted in the context of a unified theme or area of study. All data and results presented must be of high quality and capable of withstanding peer review. The candidate can reasonably conclude that work accepted for publication and/or reviewed and previously accepted by their thesis committee meets this standard.

Besides experimental data and results, this section can also include descriptive tables, figures, and photographs that provide clarification and summaries of the experimental studies and models proposed. In all cases it is expected that these summaries and models will be supported by the data actually presented in the body of the thesis.

Finally, each experimental result chapter should be accompanied by a short discussion. This discussion should summarize the results presented in that section or chapter, and does not substitute for the thorough discussion described in the next section.

3) Discussion

This is among the most important sections of the thesis, although it is often the one receiving the least attention during preparation. The discussion is not just a reiteration of the experimental results. Rather, the discussion is a critical survey of the important findings of the study. In this section, these findings should be interpreted in the context of the underlying theme or hypotheses outlined in the Introduction. Furthermore, the importance of the major findings and their interpretation should be discussed in a comprehensive manner as they relate to the field, both currently and within a historical perspective. In this regard, it is useful to return to the Introduction and explain to the educated scientist, but not necessarily an expert in your field, why your studies are important and how they explain, clarify, or expand upon current controversies or unanswered questions in your field of study.

Finally, and of equal importance, where do these studies fit in the general field of Immunology? This area of the discussion is speculative, but speculation is encouraged as long as it is logical and consistent with the data and the literature. The thesis is an opportunity to exhibit creativity and ability to express this creativity within the constraints of sound scientific judgment.

4) Literature Cited

This section lists all published and in-press studies referred to in all other sections of the thesis. Although review articles may be cited in some cases, it is usually most appropriate to cite the primary work. References from textbooks are rarely appropriate.