Ph.D. Degree

Ph.D. Degree Roadmap

The philosophy of the MCDB doctoral program is to provide students with a solid foundation of current knowledge in molecular and cellular biology, but also to allow flexibility so that students may choose their own path of inquiry, focusing on individual research. The MCDB PhD program has an average completion time of 5 1/2 to 6 years. During year 1, graduate students complete a core set of courses and also conduct three 10-week rotations in MCDB laboratories. After choosing a lab and thesis advisor, graduate students begin their dissertation research, and during year 2, complete their coursework and take preliminary examinations. Because the emphasis of the program is largely on training in research, further coursework requirements are defined on the basis of individual needs, enabling students to select from the wide range of courses offered by MCDB and other departments. In addition, students participate in journal clubs and seminars during their entire PhD tenure. At the beginning of their 3rd year, student proficiency in designing a research project and critical thinking is tested by passing a qualifying examination that results in Advancement to Candidacy. Years 4 and 5 are focused on completion of PhD research, including writing and defending a dissertation. For specific guidelines, go to PhD Requirements.



The MCDB program offers a series of rigorous academic core courses during the first year to establish a strong foundation of knowledge in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. Core courses include molecular biology, biochemistry, macromolecular structure, cell biology, signal transduction, developmental biology and proposal writing. Additional graduate electives, literature courses/journal clubs, training in teaching techniques and seminars complement the course offerings, and are chosen by the student.

Lab Rotations

During the first year, PhD students conduct three 10-week research rotations in MCDB laboratories. In this way students may experience several laboratories, mentors, and research areas before selecting a thesis advisor at the conclusion of the first year. Rotations are particularly beneficial for students who have not yet decided upon their area of emphasis.


As teaching is important for most future careers, all graduate students participate in undergraduate instruction by serving as Teaching Assistants (TAs) for two quarters. Typically, a student completes these TA requirements during the first and second year. TA assignments usually include both lecture and laboratory courses and are, in most instances, based upon student preferences.

Qualifying Exam and Advancement to Candidacy

Preliminary Examination

At the beginning of the 2nd year, students must demonstrate proficiency by passing a preliminary exam in which they develop a research proposition on a topic different from their dissertation research. The purpose of this exam is to verify that the student has developed skills needed for successful PhD studies: critical thinking, the ability to develop scientific hypotheses and design experiments, and has established a foundation of knowledge in their discipline.

Advancement to Candidacy

During the 3rd year of graduate study, students advance to candidacy following successful presentation of their dissertation research proposal at a conference with their Dissertation Committee. The committee consists of 4 faculty members, with the student’s advisor serving as Chair. This committee guides and advises the student and monitors research progress throughout the remainder of graduate training.

Research and Dissertation

The capstone of graduate education is completion and defense of an independent research project, the dissertation. All PhD candidates present a formally announced research seminar to defend their dissertation. Once the Dissertation Committee signs off that the student passed the final defense, the student submits the dissertation to the Graduate Division.

Career Development

It is also during the final year that most students present their research at national conferences and begin their search for a post-doctoral position. The campus has a dedicated biological and physical sciences PhD counselor in the Career Center to help students with the job search including resume writing, interviewing skills, conducting the job search, creating a teaching portfolio and more, for both academic and non-academic careers. The Office of Research and the Center for Partnershiops in Sciecne and Engineering also offer a series of Professional Development Workshops.  MCDB graduate students also have access to the UCSB Technology Management Program (TMP), which offers students the opportunity to gain significant insight into technology entrepreneurship, new product development, and business practices. The Certificate in College and University Teaching (CCUT) Program is also available. See the Resources category for more information on these and other programs.