Ph.D. Requirements

The following requirements must be met for Ph.D. students in the Ecology program to obtain a degree:

Course Requirements

The Ecology program requires a handful of carefully-selected courses for its Ph.D. students.

Supervised Teaching Experience

The purpose of the teaching requirement is to provide the Ph.D. student a meaningful teaching experience and to develop teaching techniques. Students should enroll in ECLGY 602 during the semester of the supervised teaching experience. This teaching experience should involve several types of activities crucial to teaching. Examples include designing, setting up, and/or running laboratory sessions, writing and presenting a couple of lectures, designing quizzes or questions for exams and grading them, leading discussion sessions, and helping develop modifications of the course. An assignment involving only the grading of tests, taking attendance, and cleaning labs is contrary to the purpose of this experience. The supervisor (instructor) should provide clear guidance, as well as constructive feedback and suggestions on how to improve performance. Additional details, including instructional resources can be found in the Ecology handbook.

Qualifying Exam

A qualifying examination is required of all Ph.D. students. The examining committee is appointed by the Program Chair. The qualifying exam consists of both a written and an oral component. The exam should be taken in the second or third semester of the Ph.D. program. It is the responsibility of the graduate student to contact the chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee to schedule this exam. When requested by the chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee, the student shall provide the following information: name, advisor’s name, campus address, telephone number, e-mail address, date of entry into the program, and a copy of the semester course schedule. If a dual-title student is taking the exam, a representative of the dual-title program must be present on the Qualifying Committee for that exam.


The qualifying examination is given to evaluate the student’s general level of knowledge, to evaluate the intellectual capability for the study of ecology at the doctoral level, and to identify weaknesses in the student’s preparation. The examination also will evaluate the student’s abilities in problem solving, such as experimental design and interpretation of experimental results. Subject areas to be covered include, but are not restricted to, the contents of basic textbooks in biology, ecology, and statistics.

Examination Committee

The Program Chair will appoint a four-member Examination Committee to administer the examination. If a dual-title student is taking the exam, a representative of the dual-title program must be present on the Examination Committee for that exam. The Examination Committee will develop written questions covering the general content specified above. An examinee’s advisor shall not participate in the administration of the oral examination or the marking of written examinations. However, before a final decision is made regarding qualifying, the advisor will have an opportunity to give input to the committee.


The examination will occur in two parts: written and oral. The written examination will consist of questions in general biology (e.g. anatomy, physiology, evolution, botany, zoology, microbiology), general ecology, basic statistics, and questions that require some synthesis (e.g. experimental design, explanation of experimental results). This examination will require 3-4 hours of writing time on 6-8 questions. A laptop computer is recommended. The written portion of the examination will be read and graded by the Examination Committee. Each student will then be given the oral portion of the examination. The student’s responses on the written portion of the examination may serve as the basis for initial oral questioning.


Qualifying examinations will be scheduled twice each year. In the fall semester, the written portion of the exam will be scheduled for the last week of October and the oral portion for the second week of November. In the spring semester, the written portion of the exam will be scheduled for the third week of March and the oral portion for the first week of April. For students entering with a master’s degree or a strong background in ecology from their undergraduate institution, the qualifying examination is recommended to be taken during the second semester of study. For students entering with a baccalaureate degree, with only one or two courses in ecology as an undergraduate, the examination will normally be taken during the third semester of study.


The Committee will assign grades based on majority opinion (3 of 4 members) using both the written and oral examination results. Grades will be pass, unsatisfactory (fail with opportunity to retake), or fail. A student who receives a grade of unsatisfactory may be offered an opportunity to retake the qualifying examination at the next scheduled examination time. For the second examination, only grades of pass or fail will be given. Failure results in the student not being permitted to continue in the Ph.D. program. Typically, the student will be offered the opportunity to complete a M.S. degree. Students receiving a passing grade will be advanced to qualify. The examining committee may recommend to the student’s advisory committee specific courses or readings based on evidence of weaknesses in the student’s preparation. The student’s advisory committee will have responsibility for determining the program of study and the content of the comprehensive examination.


A doctoral committee consists of at least four members of the Graduate School Faculty. At least half of the members must be from the Ecology program.

  • A chair (typically the advisor)
  • One or more additional members of the Ecology faculty
  • An outside field member. This person may or may not be a member of the Ecology faculty, but must represent a field outside the student’s major field of study. Please contact the Program Office for advice on selecting an outside field member.
  • An outside unit member. This person must have a primary appointment in a different administrative unit than the advisor (and co-advisor, if applicable). Please contact the Program Office for advice on selecting an outside unit member.

Further guidelines regarding doctoral committees can be found in Graduate School Policy GCAC-602.

Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive examination for the Ph.D. will be a rigorous examination administered by the student’s committee as early as possible in the student’s tenure but after the qualifying exam. The exam includes a written proposal and an oral exam. The written proposal, which must be shared with the committee at least two weeks prior to the oral exam, is a proposal for the dissertation research. This proposal should be of sufficient detail to provide committee members with a clear vision of the dissertation, individual projects with experiments/protocols, results (or expected results), and their potential significance, but should be short enough to be digestible by committee members. The student should use discussions with the advisor and/or dissertation committee to develop the key themes, framing, objectives, methods, and expected results for the proposal. However, the writing of the proposal text should be done by the student alone. During the exam, the student is expected to demonstrate mastery of ecology, relevant coursework, the literature associated with their research area, the details of their system, methodological details, statistical analyses and interpretation. The committee will assess the potential for the student to succeed in completing the Ph.D. based on research progress to date and proposed research as synthesized in the written proposal, the presentation and subsequent discussions during the oral exam. See full details in the student handbook.

Mini Symposium

The Ecology mini-symposium is an evening seminar which is held twice a year. Before your final defense, you will have to present the results of your research at one of these symposia.

The symposium is usually held after a dinner and is attended by Ecology program students and faculty as well as some faculty from other departments and the general public. At most, you will have 15 minutes to present your information (time varies depending on how many students are presenting), so you will have to limit yourself to the most outstanding results of your dissertation work. Treat this as you would a presentation at a professional meeting. Whereas the Ecology Colloquium is your chance to get feedback and advice, this is your chance to show off what you've done.

Dissertation Defense

Each student must pass a final oral dissertation defense before degree certification. The final oral examination for the Ph.D. student must be scheduled by the Program Office with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance of the exam date; therefore, the student should contact the Program Office at least three weeks before the requested defense date in order to have the proper forms completed. The Ph.D. student’s advisor must inform the Graduate School and the Program Office about the outcome of the final oral dissertation defense using the form provided by the Graduate School via the Program Office.


A Ph.D. candidate is required to register continuously (spring/fall) for each semester from the time the comprehensive examination is passed and the two-semester residence requirement is met until the dissertation is accepted by the doctoral committee, including the semester of the comprehensive exam and the semester of the final oral exam, regardless of whether work is being done on the dissertation during this interval. A doctoral student must register for at least one credit if they plan to take the final exam during the summer semester.