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Graduate Program Learning Objectives

Biology is a highly diverse discipline, spanning broad levels of organization from the molecular to the ecosystem. Furthermore, some of the most exciting discoveries in recent years have come from the areas where previous distinct sub-disciplines of biology now intersect. In addition, there is no single professional organization that speaks for all of biology, nor is there any organization that accredits graduate or undergraduate programs in biology or imposes specific standards. Accordingly, the Department of Biology at Utah State University follows generally accepted practices in its graduate programs, while adjusting its policies to meet the needs of our specific student population.


The diversity of biological sciences demands flexibility, so graduate training can be tailored to meet the unique needs and interests of the individual student. In addition, our Department prepares students for success in a variety of professional settings, including federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and commercial organizations such as biotechnology companies, as well as academic institutions. The Department encourages creative approaches to addressing research questions by a combination of scholarly review of the existing biological literature and close mentorship in the pursuit of new knowledge.


The Department of Biology awards four graduate degrees, the MS and PhD in Biology and the MS and PhD in Ecology. The latter two are awarded in conjunction with the Ecology Center of USU, a multi-departmental umbrella organization that establishes specific graduate requirements on top of those of its member departments. Nonetheless, the Biology and Ecology degrees in our Department are broadly similar, and the requirements and milestones of the two pairs of degrees are generally comparable.


The Department of Biology requires an independent research project for each of its graduate degree programs (Plan A degree). Therefore, a thesis is required for both of our MS degrees; we have no non-thesis option for the Master’s. The two doctoral degrees, of course, require completion of a dissertation. In all cases the written document and its underlying body of research must be defended by the student in a public forum. In general, the master’s and doctoral programs differ from one another in two primary respects. First, the master’s programs generally involve more coursework than the doctoral programs, relative to the amount of independent research the student performs. Second, the scope of the student’s own research program is much more expansive for those in the doctoral programs. Both the MS and PhD degree programs require the student pass a comprehensive exam. The scope and intensity of the exams differ between the MS and PhD degree, but are similar in their objective to aid the student in learning the essential biological sciences knowledge to support their career goals. The student’s supervisory committee conducts the comprehensive exam.


The specific learning objectives of the graduate programs in Biology and Ecology are (1) to comprehend a broad body of biological knowledge generally related to the student’s area of interest; (2) to master the student’s specific area of interest to the degree necessary to conduct independent research in that field; (3) to acquire the essential skills for conducting such research, including the use of appropriate instrumentation and analytical methods; and (4) to achieve proficiency in written and oral communication, as applied to the student’s area of specialization.