University of Nebraska Medical Center

PhD Program FAQs

General PhD Program Questions

What is the goal of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Program?
Our goal is to prepare our students to succeed as future scientists and educators.
What's the difference between degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology vs. general biomedical sciences?
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is a traditionally recognized discipline that suggests to potential employers that you have mastered certain skills and have a particular knowledge base. It can be an advantage in your job search, particularly if you want to work for a drug company or teach biochemistry in an academic setting.
What are potential employers looking for in PhD graduates?
Depending on the type of job, potential employers are looking for evidence of productivity, creativity, trainability, and ability to work independently or in groups.
Does productivity refer to publications and is that the most important part of my professional record?
Yes in both cases.
How much will my grades count in obtaining jobs after I earn my PhD?
Surprisingly, very little. Potential employers will pay little attention to your grades.
But won't it count for something that I have a 4.0 GPA as a grad student?
Yes, but not much. Good grades do impress funding agencies, both internal and external, to help you get assistantships or fellowships both during and after graduate school. Even though postdoctoral fellowship applications usually include your transcript, your grades will not likely be considered as the major criterion for funding. Graduate school serves as a transition during which the criteria by which you were judged during most of your academic career, i.e., grades, marks, test scores, and GPA, are replaced by new standards - research publications and presentations, recommendation letters from those who know your work, and your ability to define a scientific problem and design and execute experiments to address it.

Admissions and Getting Started

How soon after I graduate college in May can I start graduate school?
Your initial enrollment can begin as early as July 1, which is the first day of UNMC's fiscal year. New students may arrange to begin doing research rotations during the summer. This can speed up your decision about who will be your adviser, plus having one or two rotations completed before the first semester begins can make it easier to deal with fall coursework. Whether a particular student is able to start on July 1 depends on availability of assistantship funding, but this is not a problem in most cases.
Is it possible to start graduate studies in January or for the spring semester?
Only under extraordinary circumstances. This is possible only if assistantship funding can be arranged under special circumstances. Ordinarily, departmental funds would not be available at that time of year, but support can sometimes be provided through grants of the individual laboratories to which you are assigned. Unfortunately, because of the sequential nature of the BRTP first-year courses, a student starting in January would only be able to enroll for Bioc 896 (Research Other than Thesis) and Bioc 970 Seminar/Journal Club). First-year courses would then be available starting in the following fall semester.
How many credit hours should I enroll for each semester?
If you are a full-time student, you must have at least nine credits during the fall and spring semesters, four credits for the eight-week summer session, and three credits for the five-week summer session. Except in special cases, you must be enrolled continually throughout your graduate training. This is important to maintain your health benefits and funding.
How many credits should I enroll in if I work full-time and am a graduate student only part-time?
Full-time employees may register for a maximum of six credit hours during the fall and spring semesters. To maintain enrollment, it is important that even part-time students register for at least one credit year-round.
Who will be there to help me when I arrive at UNMC?

The coordinators of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Program are Dr. Paul Sorgen, chairman of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Committee; Ms. Amy Dodson, departmental administrator; and Ms. Karen Hankins, department staff secretary. Dr. Sorgen will assist you with setting up your rotations and explaining the courses of study; Ms. Dodson and Ms. Hankins will assist with filling out forms and will direct you through the enrollment process and registration for classes. They will also help you with questions about student health and insurance, fees and housing. The UNMC Graduate Student Association and Office of Graduate Studies sponsor new graduate student orientation during the week before classes begin.

Contact Information:

Kate Hyde, Ph.D.
612.321 Buffett Cancer Center (BCC), zip 5870

Terry Qualls
7005 DRC 1, zip 5870

Karen Hankins
7005A DRC, zip 5870

How are the special needs of international students taken care of?

Terry Qualls coordinates the activities of newly arrived international students. He will assign another Biochemistry and Molecular Biology student as a guide to assist with pick-up at the airport, lodging and initial orientation to the UNMC campus and Omaha area. The guides will also walk new students around the UNMC campus to file forms, turn in documents, purchase supplies and books, etc. one of the most important and immediate needs is to apply for a Social Security number. Questions pertaining to visa status or USCIS paperwork should be addressed to Dan Teet, International Student Advisor, in the Graduate Studies Office.

Contact Information:

Dan Teet
Graduate Studies Associate, International Student Advisor
2.0.108 Williams Science Hall, zip 5700

Is it required that I buy my textbooks from the UNMC bookstore?
No - you may buy textbooks from any source (other students, independent bookstores, online, etc.). However, you must use a real textbook if required by your courses. It is a violation of U.S. copyright law to use photocopied versions of textbooks for courses. Both you and the University of Nebraska could be sued or fined if the publishers were to discover such a violation.

What to Expect in the First Year

How much time will I need to study to succeed and achieve good grades in my first-year courses?
Obviously, this will depend on your previous background and academic abilities. However, students should take into consideration that the coursework is challenging, and they will be expected to understand the material conceptually. Taking into consideration the necessity of preparing for upcoming classes by reading assigned material, and the need to continually review lecture material in the midst of the course (and not only at exam time), it would be expected that students put in no less than an average of four to five hours a day of effective reading and study. Being a graduate student is a full-time occupation, even in the first year of the program.
What should I do if I am having difficulties in understanding coursework material?
Another key skill to pick up in graduate studies is initiative. A graduate student who finds he/she has difficulties should immediately seek assistance. Do not be shy about finding assistance. This can be done by asking for help from other Biochemistry and Molecular Biology students currently enrolled in the courses, or from students who have already completed their coursework. If this does not solve the problem, seek out the course instructors and/or course coordinator(s) and discuss strategies to better understand the material and prepare for exams. Do not wait until exam time. Experience shows that students who do not seek assistance in a timely manner do poorly on exams.
What does my mentor expect of me during my rotations?

As noted, rotations are a critical time that allow the student to explore his/her research interests without having yet committed to a laboratory. Rotations also allow the student to assess how well he/she will get along with a potential future mentor and colleagues in the laboratory. At the same time, this is also a period of evaluation that allows the mentor to judge how well the student would fit into his/her laboratory. Mentors are individuals and many have slightly different expectations from rotation students.

Although mentors are well aware of the coursework, and expect the students to dedicate sufficient time to obtain good grades in the course work, mentors will also be interested in finding out whether prospective students are committed to their research projects, whether they are responsible and ethical in their approach to science and laboratory work, and whether they show intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. Students who are unsure of their performance in rotations should be encouraged to ask the mentors how they are doing so that they can improve during the course of the rotation and in subsequent rotations.

How do I manage to satisfy the demands of my mentors during rotations with such a heavy load of coursework?
As a graduate student, one of the key skills you will need to learn is to effectively utilize your time. An efficient and well-motivated student should be able to put in a full day in the laboratory, and still spend four to five hours studying in the evening. In addition, weekends are a great time to catch up on studies before the new week begins, or to complete laboratory experiments. Efficient time management can also be done by studying during incubations or down time in the lab.

Research Rotations and Choosing an Advisor

What is the purpose of doing research rotations?
For those students who enter the program uncommitted to a particular laboratory or type of research, research rotations help them explore various approaches to doing biomedical research and to choose an advisor for their PhD dissertation work. This is a very important decision for each graduate student because the advisor is responsible not only for overseeing your research, but also for instilling a philosophy of science and providing guidance and recommendations that are critical for your future scientific career.
How do I decide in which laboratories to do research rotations?
The best way to choose your first (and perhaps your second) research rotation is to visit the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology faculty page. Each faculty member has her/his own page, which carries a description of the research projects ongoing in the lab and provides biographical information on publications, grant funding and other academic activities. The goal is to match your scientific and career interests with those of the faculty members with whom you will rotate. Dr. Steve Caplan, chairman of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Committee, will advise you on your choices of rotation and will coordinate your rotation schedule.
Why should I delay selecting a laboratory for my third rotation?
Once students have had more time to become familiar with UNMC and the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program, they can gather information from many sources to help choose laboratories for research rotations, including discussion with other students and experiences with faculty in seminars and in the classroom.
What if I don't find any of my choices acceptable after completing three rotations?
If needed to produce a good match between student and advisor, a fourth rotation can be arranged. However, it seldom takes more than three rotations to make the choice and four rotations have been needed only in rare cases.
What if I find that I am ready to choose my advisor after only one or two rotations? Must I complete all three rotations in that case when I would really prefer to just stay in my favorite lab?
This is a fairly frequent occurrence that always presents a dilemma. Our policy has always been that, unless circumstances demand otherwise, students should complete a minimum of three rotations. The rationale for this policy is that there is always something to be learned from doing research rotations in different laboratories in terms of exposure to different approaches and cross-fertilization of science philosophy. Delaying the designation of an adviser by a few weeks seldom causes any hardship for the student or advisor.
When should I make my decision and what should I do?
Your decision for final lab should be made by the end of your third rotation. You should talk with all faculty members with whom you rotated. Once you have made your decisions, you should talk with Dr. Sorgen. Final decisions should be approved by the faculty member whose lab you wish to join, Dr. Sorgen and Dr. Batra.

Supervisory Committees

Why do I need to set up my supervisory committee so soon after choosing my advisor?

Your choice of adviser does not become official until the Dean of Graduate Studies has been notified in writing as to the graduate faculty members who have agreed to serve on your supervisory committee. It is the responsibility of each graduate student, in consultation with her/his adviser, to select the faculty members to serve on the committee and to make sure that all potential members have agreed to serve. Once that is done, inform Ms. Hankins and she will complete the necessary forms and submit them to the Graduate Studies Office.

Until you have done that and received approval of your committee appointments from the Dean of Graduate Studies, the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Committee is your official adviser and the chairman of that committee must sign your registration forms and other important documents.

Can I have more than four faculty members on my supervisory committee?
Yes, as long as the majority of members hold appointments in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In some cases, there have been committees having as many as six members. The advantage of having a large committee is the diversity of expertise and perspective available to help the student in planning and executing his/her research. The disadvantages of a large committee include difficulty in scheduling meetings at a time when all can attend and the varied opinions and questions the student may need to deal with in writing and defending the dissertation.
If one of my supervisory committee members leaves UNMC, can she/he continue to serve on my committee?
Yes, if you and the other committee members are amenable, that individual may continue to serve on your committee from a distance via phone hook-ups and correspondence. However, in order to be able to sign your dissertation, that individual would have to be physically present at your defense. It would be necessary that the individual involved retain some sort of faculty appointment at UNMC (adjunct, emeritus, etc.), so it would be advisable to consult the Office of Graduate Studies to obtain information and advice on how this may be done.
Why is it necessary to hold a meeting of my committee only a few weeks after it is formed?
The purpose of the first meeting is to allow your Supervisory Committee to assist you in setting up your Program of Study. This represents a plan for the courses that you will take and other requirements that you must fulfill for the PhD degree. This document also will stipulate the "Research Tools" that you need to complete or master as part of your graduate studies, which normally include the Ethics Course requirement and becoming a Radiation Worker. It is beneficial to complete this paperwork as soon as possible after choosing your supervisor so that the relationship between you and your supervisory committee can be formalized. This meeting need not be a long one, as it is not expected that many students will have accumulated very much data by that early point in their graduate career. However, it is helpful to the committee for the student to give a brief overview of their research area so that the committee will be informed as it recommends coursework.
What happens if one of my committee members must resign from my committee?
In this case, what would need to be done depends on how many members remain on your committee after that member's resignation. If there are still four remaining members and the majority have Biochemistry and Molecular Biology appointments, then it is unnecessary to do anything beyond notifying the Dean of Graduate Studies in writing that one of the members of your committee has resigned. If there are fewer than four members left after that member's resignation, then it would be necessary to add a new member to bring the committee membership back up to a minimum of four. The new member would need to be approved by the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Committee as well as the Dean for Graduate Studies.
Why is it necessary for my committee to meet as often as twice per year?
First, semi-annual supervisory committee meetings are a requirement of the graduate studies program. Second, it is in your best interest to keep your committee updated on your progress or to seek their assistance in solving problems with your project. Students should look upon the "required" semi-annual meetings as opportunities to inform and communicate with their committee members, rather than treating the meetings like visits to the dentist.
How should I prepare for a meeting of my supervisory committee?

The first and foremost suggestion is NOT to assume that, other than your supervisor, your committee members will remember exactly what you told them at the previous committee meeting. As you progress through your graduate career and have more meetings, the committee will become more familiar with your work and get to know you. But it is up to you to make sure the committee members are updated about your work. So here's the best way to prepare for an upcoming meeting:

  • Several weeks in advance of the meeting, email or call the members of your committee to arrange a time and date for the meeting.
  • Work with Ms. Hankins to schedule a room for the meeting.
  • Update your research description (the five-page document you use for graduate assistantship and fellowship applications is ideal for this purpose).
  • Distribute the updated research description and any accessory documents to the committee members as an email attachment (preferably) or hard copy several days before the meeting.
  • The accessory documents that you are hoping the committee will discuss or consider at your meeting may include future research plans, special requests for modification of your Program of Study, outline of your dissertation, etc.
  • Prepare a PowerPoint presentation on your new work, providing sufficient background information and key pieces of older data to provide orientation to the research in progress.
What should be included in the meeting minutes?
It is important to write a cover note addressed to the Chairman of the Graduate Committee describing the date and time of the meeting and who attended as well as to summarize the major suggestions from committee members about the research progress and to state any conclusions reached by the committee (e.g., that you may stop experimentation and prepare for your defense). Any handouts given to the committee members should be attached and the minutes should be submitted to Ms. Hankins for review by the Graduate Committee and deposition in your student file.

Vacation and Attendance Policies

What is the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program's policy on student vacation, working hours, time, and attendance?

The policy includes the following:

  1. Your mentor must give approval prior to your vacation.
  2. Written notice via e-mail and by filling out an Absence Report Form (these are located in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology office) MUST be given to the graduate program office associate (Karen Hankins).
  3. All coursework must be dealt with by student; please inform appropriate course coordinators of your absence in their courses so you may be excused and also find out what you will be missing from classes.
  4. If you are gone from classes because of illness, please notify your mentor and the graduate program office associate of your absence via e-mail or telephone by noon on the day you are ill.
  5. Journal Club and Seminar attendance policies apply to all absences - see below.
What is the Journal Club and Seminar Attendance Policy?

Attendance at both departmental seminars and journal club is required of all Biochemistry and Molecular Biology students. Required seminars also include doctoral dissertation and master's thesis defenses as well as presentations by candidates for faculty positions. Each student will be permitted two excused absences per semester for journal club and seminar combined. For purposes of this course, excused absences are defined as: attendance at an off-campus scientific meeting, recruitment trips and illness.

Please note that "having an important experiment running" is NOT a valid excuse for missing journal club/seminar. It is expected that you will organize your schedule to ensure that you are available to attend journal club and seminar just as you would for any other required course. If you know that you will be unable to attend journal club or seminar for a valid personal or professional reason, then contact the course coordinator and the departmental office prior to the journal club or seminar in question.