Graduate Directorate

A Guide for New Graduate Students
    index: Responsiblities of Graduate Program
    Preliminary Examination Guidelines
    Admission to Candidacy (ATC)
    Request for Program Transfer

    Welcome to the Biology Department! We are very glad you chose Dalhousie for your graduate studies.
    Although our graduate program is designed to be as flexible as possible, it is necessary to have some rules to maintain high standards and consistency. This handout is intended to help you become familiar with the most important procedures. If you need a more detailed account of the rules and regulations, you will find them set out formally in the "Graduate Program Procedures" booklet. A copy of this can be obtained from the main Biology Department office.

    To reduce some of the uncertainties you may feel in starting out in a new program, we have listed below in chronological order, the main events and milestones. It may help to keep this as a checklist as you progress through your studies towards graduation.

    1. Arrival on campus - usually in September but sometimes as early as the preceding May 1. Early arrival allows you a head start on your thesis research but the academic year and formal classes do not begin until early September.

    2. Registration - (payment of fees, etc.) This involves visits to the Faculty of Graduate Studies office, Student Services office, Registrar's office, Business office, and finally obtaining an identity card.

    3. Mailbox - Visit the main Biology Department office and arrange for mail pick up. Make sure you have a mailbox and supply an address for forwarding mail, if necessary.

    4. Teaching obligations - See the Teaching Assistant Coordinator (Nancy McAllister-Irwin, Rm. 2115) about a teaching assignment for the coming academic year. Do this as soon as possible after arrival.

    5. Class selection - Before classes begin, see your Faculty Advisor (usually your prospective supervisor, but for students supervised outside the Biology Department, it will be your "internal" supervisor). Discuss the classes you need and those you want to take over the entire program, not just in the first year. To help you in this, the Graduate Curriculum Committee prepares each year an updated listing of classes available, with descriptions. Copies can be obtained from the Biology Department office.

    6. Class selection - Register for classes you are taking this year on the web after seeing the Graduate Coordinator.

    7. Classes - Find out from the timetable or notice boards when your classes begin and attend the first lecture.

    8. Interview - In early September, you will be asked by mail to arrange a time for an interview with the Graduate Coordinator. At this interview, your class selection and overall program will be finalized.

    9. Supervisory Committee - In October you should be considering whom you wish to form your Supervisory Committee (at least two people in addition to your supervisor and at least half the committee must be Dalhousie faculty).

    10. Admission to Candidacy (ATC) You will be sent forms for the ATC examination that normally takes place between January and May of your first year. These forms will give instructions about the research proposal which must be submitted for the ATC exam.

    11. Progress Report In April, at the end of all years (except your first), you will be notified of the need to prepare an annual Progress Report. This report, signed by your supervisor must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator by 15th May.

    12. Preliminary Examination - All Ph.D. students must take a Preliminary Examination by the 30th month after commencing the graduate programme (i.e. ATC, for transfers), which must be completed 1 year before the thesis is defended. (See Graduate Programme Procedures - Article 11).

    Attached is additional information about how the graduate administration functions in the Department. It is more current than the information in the "Graduate Program Procedures Booklet".

    Responsibilities for the graduate program in the Biology Department

    Graduate Coordinator (Hal Whitehead)
    Special Topics Courses
    Establish Curriculum (with Graduate Directorate)
    Progress Reports
    Conduct Evaluations
    Interview New Students in September
    General Assistance to Graduate Students (e.g. concerns about examinations, deadlines, supervisors, theses)

    [I will attempt to be in the Graduate Coordinator's Office, Room 2123, Monday and Wednesday 09:00-10:00. For non-urgent stuff, please try and contact me, either in person or by phone (3723), during these times as I will have all the information in front of me. If you cannot make these times or have an urgent problem, my office is Room 3076 and phone 3723 (same line as Graduate Coordinator's Office). I am much more likely to be reached in the morning.]

    Graduate Secretary (Carolyn Young)
    Organize Interviews, ATC's, Preliminary Examinations
    Inform FGS and Registrar of Student Class Changes
    Records to FGS as necessary
    Compile Student Records from September Interviews
    Prepare Lists of Graduating Students
    Initiate Progress Report Preparation

    Admissions and Scholarships Committee (Vett Lloyd)
    Deals with Applications
    Allocates Scholarships Funds
    Ranks Students for Scholarships
    Prepares Information Brochure
    Executive Assistant (Chris Corkett)
    Take Minutes to Graduate Directorate Meeting
    Prepare Biology Graduate Class Offerings every September
    Prepare Graduate Class Calendar entry
    Keep Registrar/FGS informed of changes to curriculum
    Update Procedures Manual

    Stream Chairs (A: Mark Johnston and Marty Leonard; C: Jonathan Wright.; D: Nancy McAllister-Irwin; A/C: Paul Bentzen)
    Interview Continuing Graduate Students in September
    Chair ATC Exams
    Set Examiners for ATC and Preliminary Exams

    Chair and Chair's Secretary (Bill Freedman and Carolyn Young)
    Appointments (with consultation of Graduate Coordinator), Module Coordinator (Robert Scheibling) and Instructors for Communications Class (Hal Whitehead & Sara Iverson)
    Sets up MSc Examinations
    Liaise with FGS to set up PhD Examinations

    To be provided to Ph.D. students and their supervisors after successful completion of the ATC examination.



    January, 2004

    A. Introduction
    The Preliminary Examination has two components - a writing assignment and an oral defense. The writing assignment consists of an essay reviewing the literature in the area of biology of the thesis and a research report.

    The oral examination is a defense by the student of both the essay and the research in progress.

    B. General Purpose of the Essay Requirement
    Students in a Ph.D. program are expected to develop some breadth of knowledge in addition to the depth and focus they acquire through research into a specific biological problem, and the writing of a thesis. In the essay, they should address the area of their research from a broad perspective and in a critical manner.

    The essay should provide the student with an opportunity to select the appropriate body of literature and to evaluate it in writing. It should help to develop the skills needed later in writing the thesis, and where the task proves difficult, to indicate the need for assistance or practice in written presentation of information.

    C. Length of the essay
    It can be misleading to prescribe a fixed number of pages since quality, not quantity is what will be judged. However, a total text length of 20 pages, typed double-spaced on letter-size paper plus references would be a reasonable maximum. Tables and figures may be added. More than 40 pages total is excessive and may be considered justification for rejection by examiners. In terms of effort, the essay should take six weeks to three months to complete.

    D. Format
    The review should be critical (i.e., including evaluation of conflicting evidence) and organized and written in the style appropriate to the thesis.

    E. Content
    A mere survey or summary of the literature is not enough. The essay must not only provide significant information about the topic but must assess it as well. The writer's views and conclusions are an important part of an essay. These should lead to a new synthesis of previously scattered ideas and disconnected facts as an appropriate beginning to the development of the thesis.

    F. Plagiarism
    Never transcribe information in its original written form. Put it into your own words and acknowledge its source.

    G. Help

    Supervisors are expected to help students improve their writing ability by carefully criticizing drafts of the essay. Other members of the Supervisory Committee may also be willing to help, but on a voluntary basis.

    H. Scheduling - Essay, Research Report and Examination
    Preliminary examinations are to be held between the 20th and 30th month after commencing the graduate programme. The examinations will be scheduled by the graduate coordinator with secretarial help, following receipt of the essay.

    Students who, with their supervisory committee's approval, plan to extend their programmes at least one year beyond residency requirements, may apply to the graduate coordinator for a 6 months' extension of the deadline for the examination. No more than two such extensions will be permitted.

    Students who fail to complete the essay and oral defense requirements by the scheduled (or rescheduled) date, will be deemed to have failed the examination. The graduate coordinator will notify the student and supervisor in writing.

    The Preliminary examining committee will consist of the student's supervisory committee augmented by at least one additional person suggested by the ATC examiners and/or the GPC. The graduate coordinator is responsible for determining the composition of the preliminary examining committee, obtaining the agreement of all examiners to serve and notifying the student of final arrangements, including the projected date of the examination.

    At least two weels before the scheduled date of the examination, the student must submit to each examiner a copy of the essay. Prior to submission, the student should consult his/her supervisor for suggestions for improvement. After formal submission, the student must be prepared to defend the essay.

    At least one week before the scheduled oral defense, the student will submit to each examiner, an up-to-date report of research progress and a plan for completing the thesis project. This report should be concise, but sufficient for the examiners to make critical judgement of progress. Papers published, or in preparation for submission to journals, are useful appendices.

    I. Format of Oral Examination

    The oral defense will be chaired by the supervisor.

    The oral examination will include a twenty minute oral presentation of the essay as an introduction, but focusing on the research results, followed by questions from the examiners. The student will be examined for mastery of all aspects of the thesis research including its background. The examiners should be satisfied that the student has a thorough understanding of concepts and methods needed to complete the project, as well as the intellectual ability and independence expected of a Ph.D. candidate.

    The examination can have only two outcomes - pass or fail. The chair will accept the view of the majority of examiners but may cast a deciding vote if necessary. Students who fail the defense may apply within 2 weeks to the graduate coordinator for reexamination. Students will be fully informed as to the reasons for failure. Scheduling of a second defense and the composition of the examining committee will be at the discretion of the graduate coordinator after consultation with the original examining committee and the supervisor.

    If the student fails upon reexamination, or if no request for reexamination is received, the graduate coordinator will so inform the Department Chair and the Dean of Graduate Studies and recommend that the student be dismissed from graduate studies.


    Purpose of the examination

    1. To determine whether the student is competent to pursue graduate studies in biology; the examination takes place at the earliest time such an assessment is possible.
    2. To identify any specific weaknesses in the student's background relevant to the proposed research area.
    3. To evaluate the student's overall ability and to assess requests for program transfers.
    4. To assess whether the proposed research is suitable for a graduate thesis.

    Nature of the examination

    The student is asked to prepare a 5-7 page (single spaced, including reference list, excluding figures, tables and appendices) research proposal. This should provide a suitably documented account of the project that the student wishes to undertake for an M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree. It will be presented to the examiners in sufficient time for them to read it before the examination and to assess its quality. The proposal should be understandable to biologists without direct expertise in the field. Detailed descriptions of research methods and protocols may be given in appendices.

    During preparation for the ATC the student should initially consult extensively with the supervisor on the rationale behind the proposed project, important background literature, resources available, practical limitations, and the nature of the ATC examination. The student will independently produce a proposal, and the supervisor is expected to review 1-2 drafts. Before the ATC, consultation by the student with the rest of the supervisory committee will generally be limited to specific factual questions, and the committee members will generally not be expected to review drafts of the proposal. In cases where a committee member possesses expertise in a field which is outside that of the supervisor's, but relevant to the project, more extensive consultation may be appropriate.

    The examination committee consists of a chairperson, the supervisory committee, and an "external" examiner, selected by the chairperson of the student's stream. To promote consistency and uniform standards, the stream chair may chair the examination. The student's supervisor does not examine the student, but may participate in the final assessment and is expected to channel helpful information back to the student.

    The examination begins with a 15-minute verbal presentation of the proposal by the student, highlighting the goals of the work, the research strategy and the expected contribution to new knowledge. It is unnecessary and indeed undesirable, to give detailed descriptions of research methods and protocols in the verbal presentation. The chairperson and the three examiners then question the student on the proposal and on relevant concepts bearing on the proposal.


    The examiners will be aware that the ATC proposal is not a detailed outline of research procedures but may, nevertheless, question the student's general knowledge of methodology required for the project and theory relating to it. At the same time the examiners will keep in mind that the ATC defense is not a comprehensive examination. Questions will arise from the scientific content of the work presented and will not range disconnectly over the entire field. The student is being examined for competence by evaluating his/her ability to put together a viable research project and to defend both the rationale and the methodology. In the process, the student must demonstrate mastery of the science on which the work is based.

    The chairperson is expected to intervene on behalf of the student if examiners' questions are not consistent with the purpose of the ATC defense.


    Each examiner will independently complete an evaluation form (ATC Part 2, see later). After the defense, these are collected by the chairperson who enters the results on a consensus form (ATC Part 3, see later). The examiners discuss the evaluation amongst themselves and with the supervisor; the chairperson enters the decision, all useful comments, and an overall evaluation on the consensus form which is then signed by all present, to indicate their concurrence.

    Where the candidate is required to repeat the ATC examination, the date for resubmission must be indicated.

    Where the candidate is passed conditionally, the conditions must be entered on the consensus form.

    If the candidate fails the examination, he/she may appeal the decision within 3 working days of being notified in writing. The graduate coordinator must then arrange a reexamination by a different committee within three weeks.

    Requests for Program Transfer

    All such requests must be considered by the examining committee and a recommendation arrived at. If it is positive, the recommendation will be forwarded to the GPC chairman.

    Where transfers to a Ph.D. program are recommended, the examiners must specify the additional classes to be taken and recommend a Preliminary Examination external examiner (external to supervisory committee).


    It is the responsibility of the graduate coordinator to ensure that all decisions of the ATC examiners are adhered to.

      Peripheral Benefits

      1. Students can expect to encounter many of the elements of an ATC exam at frequent intervals during their career (job interviews, grant applications, etc.). It is therefore, a useful educational experience.

      2. Members of the department learn about the research activities of graduate students and of their colleagues.
      3. Biology faculty have an opportunity to meet external supervisors.

      4. At the end of the ATC exam the supervisory committee may hold or arrange a meeting with the supervisor and student.

      5. The process helps to assure the maintenance of a high standard of supervision


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