Skip to main content

Assessment Plan

MS and PhD


Students in all four graduate degree programs are assessed through three mechanisms: (1) direct and ongoing evaluation by their major adviser; (2) at least annual evaluation by their supervisory committee; and (3) successful completion of a series of academic milestones that chart their progress through the degree program.

Each graduate student is mentored by a major advisor (or occasionally by two co-advisors), who is responsible for directing the student’s graduate program and supervising their research activities. The student also meets regularly with a supervisory committee consisting of the major advisor and two (MS) or four (PhD) additional members. At least one member of the committee must be a faculty member in another department or program, to ensure disciplinary breadth, diverse viewpoints, and independent evaluations.

The student’s supervisory committee is responsible for recommending and approving the Program of Study, which enumerates the courses the student will be expected to take, as well as the timing of their research activities. Each student pursues an individualized Program of Study, tailored to their personal interests and their professional goals. Student performance in each course is assessed through graded assignments specific to that class. One course is required of all graduate students in the Department of Biology, Introduction to Graduate Study in Biology (BIOL 6750), which generally is taken during the student’s first semester or academic year (if they begin in the spring). This course not only introduces students to the resources available to them at USU and the expectations of our program, but it also devotes considerable time to discussions of scientific ethics and the responsible conduct of research. Students pursuing graduate degrees in Ecology must also complete a series of specific courses and must regularly attend seminars delivered by visiting scientists.

The Department strongly recommends that the major advisor meet with a student on a frequent basis, such as weekly to biweekly to provide them with the support and feedback they need to succeed in their graduate program. The Department requires that the supervisory committee meet with the student at least annually to evaluate their progress. The Department utilizes an annual Professional Development Plan (form) that the student fills out prior to the annual meeting with the supervisory committee. The student first conducts an Individual Development Plan as guided by the Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century report created by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine. The IDP leads the student through a series of assessment topics and allows the student to identify skills and progress areas in which they feel they are on-track and those in which they feel they need more guidance from their supervisory committee to support their success. The student then fills out the Professional Development Plan and shares their perspectives and recommendations with the supervisory committee at the annual meeting. The committee discusses the identified topics with the student and develops a plan to support the student in reaching their goals. The supervisory committee and the department’s Graduate Programs Directors, with support from the Graduate Program Coordinator (staff member), monitor the student’s completion of important milestones in the program through an annual or semi-annual progress report that is provided to the student and major advisor

Each student also is evaluated through two major examinations, which are conducted by their advisory committee. Within the first 1.5 years (MS) or 2 years (PhD), which generally follows completion of their required courses, each student is evaluated on the basis of their performance on the comprehensive examination (MS) or a candidacy examination (PhD). Master’s students complete an oral OR written examination, and doctoral students complete a written exam followed by an oral examination. Although students are expected to initiate their research early in their graduate program, they generally can devote full time to their research following completion of the comprehensive or candidacy examination.

Preparation of the thesis (MS) or dissertation (PhD) involves both a review of the relevant literature on the student’s chosen topic, as well as the conduct of an independent research project, under the direction of the major advisor, in consultation with the advisory committee. The pursuit of an independent research project provides an opportunity for the student to apply the foundational knowledge obtained in their previous courses, as well as apply the techniques and analytical tools specific to their area of specialization. Preparation of the thesis or dissertation requires multiple rounds of editorial review by the advisor and the committee, followed by revision by the student. This process ensures training in written communication, and the final defense of the research (see below) affords training in oral communication.

Most students have opportunities to present their research at a university and/or professional conference. These experiences help train the student in presentation skills and can involve development of both oral (oral paper) and/or written (poster) communication skills.

Following the completion of the student’s research and the writing of their thesis (MS) or dissertation (PhD), the advisory committee administers the second major examination, the final defense of the thesis or dissertation. That examination involves a public presentation of the student’s research results, followed by questions from the members of the committee. Successful defense of the thesis or dissertation constitutes the final assessment of the student’s performance in the graduate program, although it is expected that most research results will also be published in one or more peer-reviewed journal publications. When appropriate, students are encouraged to publish their findings throughout their graduate program, not only upon completion.