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Assessment Plan

Students in all four graduate degree programs are assessed through three mechanisms: (1) direct and ongoing evaluation by their major adviser; (2) periodic evaluation by their advisory 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 an advisory 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 advisory 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. 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 major advisor and the advisory committee periodically meet with the student to evaluate their progress, and the committee and the department’s Graduate Programs Directors monitor the student’s completion of important milestones in the program.


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 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.


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 journals. When appropriate, students are encouraged to publish their findings throughout their graduate program, not only upon completion.