Curriculum for PhD candidates

The curriculum for Ph.D. candidates is designed to provide a broad-based foundation in pharmacology, as well as flexible opportunities to individually tailor a program that meets the individual student’s background and research interests. Students are expected to consult with their advisors to plan a sequence of coursework that best suits their needs. While doctoral students complete 64 credits of classwork and research, as well as a dissertation, specific departmental requirements are limited to regular attendance at departmental seminars and a minimum of 26 credits of formal coursework. Of the 26 credits, 10 credits must be advanced (800-level) courses in Pharmacology; Current Topics can be taken twice to satisfy this requirement. Under special circumstances with the permission of the student’s advisor and the Graduate Education Committee, courses given in other departments of Boston University, or in other institutions, may be substituted for the 800-level Pharmacology courses.

Most students will choose basic courses in biochemistry, neurosciences, biostatistics, physiology, and pharmacology (first courses). These courses provide both the background study in the underlying basic sciences and a first overview course in the discipline of pharmacology. This subject matter is generally a prerequisite to more in-depth study in 800-level courses and will be the basis for one component of the written qualifying examination.

Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination for Ph.D. candidates consists of a written and oral examination.  Ph.D. candidates are expected to take the qualifying exam no later than the end of the second curricular year. M.D./Ph.D. candidates normally take the exam at the end of their first year of graduate studies. A Qualifying Examination Committee (QEC) of three faculty from Boston University, including the student’s major advisor, administers the examination.  Two out of three members of the committee, including the chair, must have a primary appointment in the Department of Pharmacology. (In the exceptional case that a student’s research advisor is not a full-time faculty member at Boston University, the advisor is expected to participate as a fourth member of the committee.)

In preparation for the qualifying examination PhD candidates participate in six workshops on the structure, design, and writing of research grant proposals. Members of the pharmacology faculty lead these workshops in the spring semester. Students are advised to refer to the NIH Guide on writing research proposals (Grant Application Writers’ Workbook). Students are expected to develop two proposal synopses, in areas of behavioral pharmacology, receptor pharmacology, or molecular biology/genomics, and revise these proposals based on faculty feedback.

The written portion of the qualifying exam is in the form of a research proposal on a topic selected by the student in consultation with the QEC. The subject matter of the proposal may be related to the topic of the student’s thesis research or may be on a separate topic. The topic of the proposal must be substantially original; it must not duplicate projects previously proposed or assigned by the student’s mentor. The student initially submits a statement of the topic area of the proposal to the QEC chair.  The document describing the topic area should include a title, a (non-binding) hypothesis, a brief description of the type of system (e.g., describing the transgenic mouse, cell line or primary tissue culture)  and the measured outcomes. This abstract should ordinarily be one to two paragraphs. The chair circulates the proposal abstract to the other committee members and provides feedback within one week.  If the proposal topic is not approved, the student should revise and resubmit within one week.

The proposal should include the following: rationale, hypothesis, aims, background/significance, research design, and methods. The research design section should include discussion of expected results and potential pitfalls. The proposal should be at least six pages, and not exceed ten pages, of single-spaced text (excluding references). The student may consult with faculty or other students regarding ideas and concepts, but the proposal must be written independently, and must not be edited by the student’s mentor or other students or faculty prior to submission to the QEC.

  1. Significance: Will the subject matter have impact on the field?
  2. Innovation: Is this original?
  3. Rationale/Hypothesis:  Are they clear, cogent and logical?
  4. Aims: 1. Are they well defined? 2. Do they address the hypothesis?
  5. Background:  Does it display a comprehensive knowledge of the field and relevant literature?
  6. Approach: 1. Are the experimental parameters defined (controls, dependent variables, independent variables, statistical considerations)? 2. Will the experiments achieve the aims? 3. How well are the expected results interpreted? 4. How well are potential pitfalls considered?
  7. Methods:  Is there a brief synopsis of methodologies with appropriate citations.


The final pass or fail evaluation is made by majority vote of the three members of the QEC. The QEC may also ask the student to revise the proposal to address deficiencies identified by the QEC before awarding a final pass on the written examination. If the QEC rules that the student has failed the written examination, the student is allowed one additional attempt to pass the written examination; the proposal can be a revision of the prior proposal or a new proposal on a substantially different subject. The student must pass the written portion of the qualifying examination in order to proceed to the oral portion.  The deadline for submitting the second attempt at the written examination will be set by the QEC, but is expected to be within three months.

The oral examination is usually taken about two weeks after passing the written portion. The oral portion of the qualifying examination is conducted by the QEC. The student should submit a CV to the QEC chair and be prepared to describe academic and research experiences at the beginning of the exam. The student is then examined by each member of the QEC, based on questions submitted by each member to the QEC chair at least three days prior to the exam.

Questioning will assess (a) grasp of experimental design; (b) understanding of statistics; (c) knowledge of fundamentals of pharmacology; (d) knowledge of the subject matter of the student’s qualifying examination proposal. (Copies of the written proposal are redistributed by the chair at the beginning of the exam). Sample questions are provided in the online student handbook. More specifically, students should be prepared for evaluation of:

  1. 1. grasp of experimental design.  Assessment may include ability to:
    1. design experiments that follow up on concepts raised by the written proposal
    2. clarify design issues in the written proposal
    3. discuss the structure of aims and/or hypothesis (with a strong focus on hypotheses that can be proved or disproved and aims that provide specific information without being vague).
  2. 2. understanding of statistics.  Questions may address statistical concepts such as:
    1. power analysis
    2. analysis of expected data
    3. ANOVA, T-test, post-hoc analyses, regression analysis
    4. Standard deviation, standard error
  3. 3. knowledge of fundamentals of pharmacology addressed in the core curriculum (Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology I&II, Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics I & II, and Current Topics).  Assessment may include knowledge of:
    1. principles of pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics
    2. mechanisms of receptor action
    3. therapeutic drug classes and their mechanisms of action


After completion of the oral examination, each examiner separately evaluates, in writing, the responses to his questions.  This evaluation does not constitute a vote.  The QEC will then discuss the candidate’s overall performance.  Each faculty member is then charged with the evaluation of the entire examination; the final outcome is decided by written ballots. The candidate shall be considered to have failed the examination if, in the opinion of two or more of the examiners, the overall performance was unsatisfactory. Students who fail the oral portion of the qualifying examination will be given only one additional opportunity to pass the oral portion of the examination. The QEC may also vote to award a conditional pass, which becomes a pass only after deficiencies have been corrected to the satisfaction of the QEC. Upon completion of the oral examination, the appropriate forms are signed and transmitted to the Division Office. Satisfactory completion of the oral examination constitutes satisfactory completion of the entire qualifying examination.


    Timeline for Ph.D. Qualifying Examination

    Deadline* Assignment
    Fall Contact faculty to arrange three for participation on qualifying exam committee (QEC).
    Early January Registration Deadline:  Submit names of three faculty for qualifying exam committee on tracking form for approval.
    Early and Mid February

    Early and Mid March

    Design of Research Proposals Workshops: Participate in four workshops on grant preparation; develop proposal synopses in behavior, receptor pharmacology, molecular biology/genomics.
    End of March Submit topic area of proposal to chair of QEC, who will communicate with other members for approval.
    End of March Arrange for office to schedule tentative date for oral exam in the last two weeks of May, but can be afterwards if there are scheduling conflicts.
    End of April
    (Early June for MD/PhD)Mid May
    (Mid June for MD/PhD)
    Submit 10-page proposal to members of qualifying examination committee.

    Receive feedback and review written feedback on proposal with each committee member.

    Mid May or later
    (End of June for MD/PhD)
    Take oral examination.

    * Consult Academic Coordinator for Specific Dates

    Each Ph.D. candidate chooses a Boston University faculty member as advisor for the dissertation research project, preferably before the second curricular year. This project is expected to result in original independent research of significance to the pharmacological sciences and to meet publication standards of peer-reviewed journals in the candidate’s area of specialization.

    In addition to their advisors, students are guided in their research training by a committee of faculty, the Dissertation Advisory Committee. The student and advisor designate the members of this Committee with the approval of the department chairman. The Dissertation Advisory Committee must include at least five members and not more than six. At least three members must have primary appointments at Boston University. The advisor is always a member of the Committee. The Committee must include a minimum of two faculty with primary appointments in the Department of Pharmacology, at least one of whom is not a collaborator on the project. A third member must be either a member of the Department or a member of the student’s interdepartmental training program. The committee must also include one member who does not have an appointment in the department, is not a participating faculty member in a departmental training program, and preferably is from outside Boston University and its affiliated hospitals. This outside member should not be a collaborator on the dissertation project. (The form entitled “Request for a Special Service Appointment in the Division” with accompanying CV must be submitted to the Division Office for committee members who are not faculty in the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences.). The First Reader of the dissertation is usually the advisor; the Second Reader and Dissertation Advisory Committee Chairman, who are chosen from among the committee members, should be designated when the committee is formed. The Chair of the Committee must be a primary member of the Department and may not be the first or second reader.

    The first meeting of the Committee takes place as soon as possible after the qualifying examination is passed, but no later than the end of the subsequent semester. The Committee meets each semester thereafter. The student must prepare a 1-2 page outline of progress for each meeting and should be prepared to give a PowerPoint presentation on their progress. In some cases the Chair will request that a student briefly leave the meeting so that the DAC members can address issues that arise. At the completion of the meeting a summary will be completed by the Chair, using the DAC Meeting Report form.  The report will be reviewed with the student prior to submission to the Graduate Education Committee.

    Dissertation Seminar and Progress Report

    Each Ph.D. candidate presents a progress report on the dissertation project at a departmental seminar, which is followed by a meeting of the dissertation advisory committee. The timing of this seminar is decided by the student and advisor. However, the progress report seminar must occur no later than the end of the spring semester of the fourth year (8th semester) of graduate study for Ph.D. candidates and third year (6th semester) for M.D./Ph.D. candidates. The seminar also must occur at least one year before the dissertation pre-defense. The student prepares a progress report, not to exceed ten pages (double-spaced), and distributes it to committee members one week before the seminar. The written progress report should include:

    1. Statement of the problem and its significance. The hypothesis being tested should be stated.
    2. Literature review and background. Critical review of previous work and relevant methods.
    3. Studies completed by the student.
    4. Proposal for future work and discussion of expected outcome of experiments, potential problems and alternative plans.

    Requirements of the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences

    Students are urged to become aware of Division requirements and deadlines regarding the dissertation, submission of the dissertation proposal/outline, abstract, final oral examination schedule and diploma application. The following items should be obtained from the Division Office:

    1. Research Guide for the Writers of Theses and Dissertations
    2. Dissertation Outline Approval Page
    3. Graduation Calendar
    4. Ph.D. Dissertation Abstract Approval (due 1 month prior to defense)
    5. Final Oral Examination Schedule for the Ph.D. (due 2 weeks prior to defense)
    6. Diploma Application for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Due Date: November 1 for January graduation, February 1 for May graduation)
    7. Request for a Special Service Appointment in the Division (due at time of Abstract Approval)


    A draft of the dissertation, approved by the advisor, should be submitted to the second reader. After revision, the dissertation should be submitted to all committee members. A committee meeting with the student will be held no sooner than two weeks after distribution of the dissertation. If a committee member is unable to attend, oral or written communication to the advisor can be substituted. A minimum of three committee members must be in attendance. At this meeting the student will defend the dissertation project and receive input regarding revisions to the dissertation. Additional meetings may be scheduled, if necessary.

    With the approval of the committee, the Ph.D. candidate will arrange the date for the formal dissertation defense. The availability of each committee member should be verified and then the Division notified by submission of appropriate forms to the Division Office two weeks prior to the defense. The administrative assistant of the Pharmacology Department should be notified so that a notice of the oral defense can be prepared and distributed and the conference room reserved.

    Immediately following the formal defense, the dissertation committee will have a brief closed meeting. The dissertation defense will begin with a 40-minute presentation by the candidate. After the presentation, each member of the dissertation committee will be accorded an opportunity by the chair to ask questions and raise issues. Students and faculty in attendance also will be given an opportunity to ask questions. The committee will continue the examination in closed session. At this time the committee must specifically approve the content and wording of the title and abstract. Once all committee members have completed their inquiries, the candidate will be excused from the room, and the committee will decide whether the student has passed the examination. (The total time of the examination, including the student presentation but not the deliberations of the Committee, should not exceed three hours). The committee then will determine a mechanism to ensure that required changes in the dissertation are completed; a decision will be made regarding the signing of the approval pages which may occur at this time. The student will then be informed of the outcome of the committee discussion. The student will be responsible for making required revisions in the dissertation. In addition to the copies of the dissertation required by the Division, final copies should be delivered to committee members and to the Department of Pharmacology.

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