Graduate Program Requirements
The following section describes both Department and Graduate School PhD requirements for degrees in Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry awards PhDs in Chemistry and Biochemistry. The objectives of the PhD programs are to prepare every student to have a command of the fundamentals in their chosen fields and to prepare students to conduct high quality and impactful research to become leaders in their chosen fields.
The Graduate School requires a minimum of 60 credits to obtain a PhD in either Chemistry or Biochemistry: 32 credits are from designated coursework and 28 credits are from dissertation research.
Graduate students must take six, 3-credit classes. These classes will be at the 500-level, although two classes at the 400-level can be used to satisfy part of the coursework requirement. Typically, a student will take two classes each semester in their first year and then two classes in their second year. The student may take more than the 6 required courses with approval from their research advisor.
The balance of the coursework credits consists of CHMY/BCH 594 (seminar-6 total credits) and CHMY/BCH 689 (graduate research instruction-8 total credits).
Summary of coursework credit = 32 credits
- 6 foundation/elective courses (3 cr. each) = 18 credits
- Grad Instruction (CHMY/BCH 689 under advisor’s name) = 8 credits (2 credits/semester for 4 semesters)
- Seminar (BCH/CHMY 594) = 6 credits (1 cr/semester for 6 semesters)
Research = 28 (minimum) total credits in BCH or CHMY 690. After required coursework is completed, students register for BCH/CHMY 690 dissertation research credit (under advisor’s name) until they write and defend their dissertation.
Course descriptions offered in our department can be found in the MSU course catalog under biochemistry (BCH) or chemistry (CHMY) at http://catalog.montana.edu/coursedescriptions
Because of the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature of our PhD programs, students can fulfill the coursework requirement with courses that are relevant to their research discipline but may be offered in different departments. There are several acceptable course electives for students that are offered out of the department. Students should consult with their research advisor for these electives.
Semester Course load and Time Line to Graduation
Graduate students in the program take no more than 6 credits/semester until they meet the required coursework and research credits. After 60 credits, they will be asked to take 3 credits/semester until they graduate.
Students who take less than 6 credits/semester are subject to different state and federal tax withholdings. Students are expected to graduate between their 5 and 6th year in the program. Students who go beyond their 5th year in the program are required to meet annually with their committee until the defense is scheduled (see section on annual committee meetings).
Anticipated Timeline to Graduation
Program of Study
Completion of Coursework
Pre- Comp. Committee Meeting
Annual Committee Meetings
Year 1 Requirements
All first year students are required to participate in the Department’s orientation activities. Orientation takes place ~2 weeks in August prior to the start of classes. Orientation activities include but are not limited to the following;
- Introduction to department research talks led by individual faculty
- Set up first rotation
- Course advising/registering for classes
- TA and Safety trainings
- Graduate School orientation sessions and additional required graduate trainings
Qualifying Exams (QE)
Students enrolled in the Chemistry and Biochemistry program must demonstrate their preparedness for advanced degree study by passing a qualifying examination.
- The exam will be offered twice per year – once in January (before the start of the Spring semester) and once in May after Final Exams
- The QE will have a disciplinary focus – one for organic, one for physical, one for biochemistry and one for inorganic. The exams offered each year will depend upon the interests of the first-year student cohort. Not every discipline will need to be offered every year.
- In the month before the QE, faculty in a given discipline will select a paper from the literature that is representative of leading research in their field. The faculty members involved in paper selection will then draft questions for the QE based on the paper and related fundamental principles.
- The papers will be distributed to students intending to sit for the QE 10 days prior to the exam.
- Once the paper is distributed to students, they must sit for that exam.
- Students will have 10 days to study everything related to the paper including but
not limited to:
- Motivation, hypotheses, methods, findings, analyses, underlying principles, etc.
- During the 10 days prior to the QE, students are encouraged to:
- Discuss with peer groups/other graduate students
- Meet with Faculty
- Use Library resources-
The exam structure will emphasize real-world skills (reading and understanding of the primary literature, understanding experimental design, ability to analyze results, and communication through writing.
- The QE is a 3-hour exam in which students would answer the questions.
- At the exam, students are handed a clean copy of the article and paper to write on. They are permitted to use a calculator.
- Student exams are assessed on high pass – pass – fail scale. A student who receives either a pass or high pass grade successfully meets the qualifying exam requirement.
- Students have 2 chances to pass the QE. Students failing to pass the QE after two attempts would be moved to the M.S. track.
- Students can move to coursework MS track or MS thesis track (with support of advisor) and exit.
If a student does not pass the QE reqiurement after the second attempt and moves to the MS track, one contingency to re-enter the PhD program is available.
- If a student wants to (re-enter PhD program) must defend a thesis-based MS and will need approval to re-enter the PHD track from research advisor and committee after the MS defense is passed.
Students entering the graduate program having already received an advanced degree from another institution can petition to have the qualifying exam requirement waived. Typically, waivers will be granted to those students who have satisfied a similar requirement at their former institution and have appropriate documentation.
Students who enter our graduate program through the Molecular Biosciences Program (MBS) are not required to take qualifying exams. However, MBS students are expected to complete a majority of their coursework and formally present their first-year research/rotation findings in a public seminar at the end of their 2nd semester in the program.
During the first semester of the first year and if needed, the beginning of the second semester, students will participate in (at least) two rotations in research labs. Rotations are intended to provide students with the opportunity for an in-depth introduction to the research being pursued by different groups in the department. The goal of these rotations is to enable students to make more informed decisions about the work they would like to pursue for their dissertation research. The structure of rotations depends on the expectations of individual faculty members. Rotations will typically be ~4-6 weeks and may involve a formal lab-work component or simply attending group meetings for a month.
Students must fulfill 2 rotations before joining a group. Students must choose (and be accepted into) a group before spring break of their first year to remain in good standing with the department. A lab experience in the summer prior to the first semester of graduate school will be counted as a rotation.
Students will typically serve as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) for 2-3 sections of a large, undergraduate chemistry or biochemistry class. Responsibilities include but are not limited to teaching general chemistry, biochemistry or organic chemistry labs, grading, proctoring, assisting in the student help center and holding office hours.
GTA appointments are contingent upon students remaining in good standing beginning with the maintenance of 3.00 GPA after the first semester in the program. Any student who falls below the minimum 3.00 GPA may not receive financial support (i.e an appointment as a GTA) or a tuition waiver.
As a GTA, you will be a member of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) bargaining unit, represented by MEA MFT. You are bound by the terms and conditions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, applicable policies of the University and Board of Regents, and applicable state and federal laws.
Choosing a Research Advisor
Students can choose a research advisor starting in December of their first semester. The department policy requires students to choose their research advisor before the start of Spring Break of their first year. For students starting their studies in the Spring semester, they will need to have chosen their research advisor before the end of their 1st semester.
Year 2 Requirements
Program of Study (POS)
By the end of their third semester in the PhD program, students are required to submit a program of study (POS) form to the Graduate School. The POS is an official document that sets in place the student’s committee members and the student’s course of study.
Choosing a Graduate Committee
The doctoral committee is composed of a minimum of four members to satisfy the Graduate School’s requirement on committee composition. The department strongly recommends a minimum of five members. At least three committee members must be from Chemistry & Biochemistry and at least four must be tenure-track (TT) faculty. Of the TT faculty, there should be at least two tenured Chemistry & Biochemistry faculty on the committee. There should be no more than one research professor or other non-tenure-track individual on a committee.
Committee of Four:
If a student chooses to have 4 committee members, three members must be TT faculty from the degree granting department. The 4th member can be a tenure or tenure-track faculty member outside of the department but has to be from a department at MSU. The 4th committee member may not be a research professor either in or outside the degree granting department and may not be an outside collaborator as defined below.
- 4 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty, (no more than 2 assistant professors)
- 3 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty and 1 TT from another department (no more than 1 assistant professor)
Committee of Five:
If a student has 5 committee members, at least 3 (preferably 4) must be TT faculty from the degree granting department. The 4th and 5th members may be MSU TT faculty outside the department. A MSU research professor in or outside of the department, or a professional collaborator (defined below) can only sit as the 5th member on a student’s committee.
- 5 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty (at least 2 tenured, and no more than 3 assistant professors)
- 4 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty (at least 2 tenured, and no more than 2 assistant professors), 1 MSU research professor or 1 other non-TT or non-MSU member
- 3 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty (no more than 1 assistant professor), 2 TT faculty from other MSU departments
- 3 Chemistry & Biochemistry TT faculty (no more than 1 assistant professor) 1 TT faculty from another MSU department, 1 MSU research professor or other non-TT or non-MSU member
The Department recognizes that some research projects rely heavily on participation from outside collaborators. In these instances, an outside collaborator can become a member of a student’s graduate committee. Should such a situation arise, the student and advisor should provide the Graduate School with appropriate information about the proposed external appointee (e.g. CV, representative papers showing expertise in the field, etc.), in addition to a required letter of support from the Dept. Head. The student and advisor must ascertain the current Graduate School requirements at the time of the requested appointment.
Policy on non-tenure track committee members/professional collaborator. According to the Graduate School, “Non-tenure track committee members not holding tenured or tenure-track faculty status at MSU-must submit documentation of their qualifications, including a vita and a letter of recommendation from the student’s department head to The Graduate School. In some cases, these committee members may act as co-chair of a student’s committee.”
The graduate committee chair and the department head recommend the committee composition to The Graduate School. Final approval of committee composition rests with the Graduate School.
The Comprehensive Exam is one of the last programmatic requirements for the PhD degree prior to the completion of a doctoral dissertation and defense. The goals of the Comprehensive Exam are two-fold: 1) the candidate must show the examining committee they have a well-defined research project with clearly defined goals, and 2) the candidate must demonstrate that they have the ability to execute successfully the proposed research plan. In preparation for the exam, the candidate should be sure to have a firm understanding of the fundamental principles relevant to the proposed field of study and show the ability to apply those principles to new scientific challenges. The Comprehensive Exam requirement should be fulfilled before the start of a student’s 5th semester in the program.
The Comprehensive Exam consists of two parts: 1) a written requirement and 2) an oral defense of proposed research. Successful completion of the exam requires that the candidate’s committee approves both the written requirement and the oral defense.
Comprehensive Exam – Written Requirement. The written requirement consists of a proposal that is intended to be a scholarly document describing the research a student plans to pursue for a PhD. dissertation. Most students will have already begun their dissertation research, but the proposal should focus on what the student intends to accomplish for their doctoral thesis. Progress made by the time of the comprehensive exam can be described as preliminary results.
The general format of the candidacy proposal should follow the structure required by the National Science Foundation and is described in the NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide (Section II.d.(i)): https://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=pappg
Specifically, the proposal should…
“…outline the general plan of work, including the broad design of activities to be undertaken, and, where appropriate, provide a clear description of experimental methods and procedures.”
Each candidate (in consultation with their advisor) is free to decide how the proposal is organized (i.e. Introduction, Techniques, Methods Development, Prior Results, Plan of Work, etc.) but the proposal is subject to several restrictions:
- The written proposal must not exceed 20 pages, double-spaced with 1” margins, including figures but not including references and appendices. Text font size should be either Times/Times New Roman 12 point or Arial/Courier/Palatino/Helvetica 11 point.
- References should include all necessary citation information (journal, volume, year, starting and ending page number) and Citing a reference indicates that the candidate understands why the cited work is relevant to the material being presented in the proposal.
- Material suitable for appendices can include a) characterization of molecules synthesized prior to the candidacy exam (e.g. NMR, IR, Mass spec data); b) software or other code written for computational analysis; c) technical drawings such as those used for machining instrumentation or designing electrical circuits; d) experimental conditions for previously performed studies (including experiments that led to data being presented in the body of the proposal).
Questions about format, organization, and/or content should be discussed with the student’s research advisor and/or committee.
The written proposal must be distributed to the examining committee at least two weeks prior to the oral defense. Members of the committee will then review the proposal and, when appropriate, provide feedback and/or request that additional content be included in the proposal. Approval of the written proposal is not required prior to the oral examination, but questions that arise during the oral examination may lead to the student being asked to revise the written proposal to address issues deemed relevant to the planned research.
Students are strongly encouraged to schedule their Comprehensive Exam before the end of their fourth semester but must be scheduled before the start of a student’s fifth semester.
Comprehensive Exam – Oral Defense. The oral defense of a student’s proposed PhD. research is the second part of the Comprehensive Exam. For the oral defense, a student should prepare a ~30 min presentation intended to inform the committee about the proposed research. The presentation can include preliminary data and a review of relevant literature. Committee members may ask questions during or after the presentation with the intent of determining whether or not the student has the skills necessary to execute the proposed research plan.
The oral defense and subsequent period for questions is closed to everyone except the student and their committee.
Comprehensive Exam Outcomes. Each element of the Comprehensive Exam is assessed as either a pass or fail. A ‘pass’ signifies that a student’s proposed research has been evaluated as advancing the field in innovative ways and is likely to lead to an acceptable PhD. dissertation. Furthermore, a ‘pass’ also confirms that the student has the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out the proposed research.
A student will receive a failing mark on the Comprehensive Exam if the proposal fails to meet the criteria described above or if the student fails to show sufficient mastery of the discipline during the oral defense. In the event that the student receives a failing mark, the Department follows Graduate School policy that states:
“The student is allowed two (2) total attempts to pass the Comprehensive Examination. At least six (6) months must elapse before the second (2nd) attempt at the examination. Failure to pass the second (2nd) attempt results in termination of graduate study and dismissal from the academic program. Students who are dismissed from the program due to a second (2nd) failed attempt are ineligible to reapply to the same degree program.”
In special cases, a student’s graduate committee can award a ‘conditional pass’ if a student appears generally well prepared to execute the research described in the proposal but has one or more limitations in either skill or foundational knowledge that might hinder the student’s ability to carry out the proposed research plan. These limitations might be in the written proposal (e.g. failure to articulate testable hypotheses or identify knowledge gaps) or in the oral defense if a student should prove unable to answer questions pertaining to fundamental principles relevant for the proposed dissertation research. In the event that a student receives a conditional pass, committee members will identify clearly the source of their concerns and the requirements that must be satisfied in order for the conditional pass to be converted into a full pass. The student has a maximum of 6 weeks (from the date of the comprehensive exam) to complete the requirements of the conditional pass. A conditional pass is not recognized by the Graduate School. If a student meets the requirements of the conditional pass within the 6 weeks, the official form submitted to the Graduate School will state the student passed the exam. If a student does not meet the requirements of the condition within the 6 weeks time frame, official documentation to the Graduate School will state the student failed.
The Department is responsible for submitting a “Report on the Comprehensive Exam” form to the Graduate School. The Graduate Program Director will submit the form to the Graduate School after the Chair of the student’s committee obtains all the required signatures.
Comprehensive Exam – Statute of Limitations. After successfully passing their Comprehensive Exam (CE), a student has up to 5 years to complete their Ph.D. degree. After 5 years, the Graduate School considers a student’s CE as having expired and a student must stand for another exam. In certain cases – such as documented medical or family leave, an advisor being unavailable because of documented leave, catastrophic loss of instrumentation and/or samples, etc. – a student and their advisor can petition to have the requirement for a new CE waived. This petition must be supported formally by the Department Head.
Students in the Chemistry and Biochemistry PhD programs affected by an expiring CE are expected to schedule a new exam with their committee. The requirements for a second CE – a written document and an oral defense – are the same as the original CE, but with some notable differences in content and focus.
A student standing for a second CE is likely to be far along in their graduate studies. Consequently, the written document for a second CE should focus on the work they have done to date, its impact and a very clear roadmap outlining the remaining studies the student intends to carry out, anticipated outcomes and a plan for finishing their dissertation. The written document can be much more focused than the original and does not have to describe a new line of research with a broad literature background. The written document must be distributed to the student’s committee at least two weeks prior to the scheduled exam date.
During their second CE oral defense, students are expected to present strong, testable hypotheses and articulate how their work is advancing their field of study. Students will be assessed on their knowledge and their ability to describe and defend their work at a level commensurate with their standing as an advanced graduate student.
Each element of the exam (oral and written) will be evaluated by the committee as a pass or fail. The Department is responsible for submitting the official report to the Graduate School.
Annual committee meetings
Annual committee meetings are a requirement of the Department and the Graduate School.
To remain in good standing, the following meetings for a PhD student in the program are required:
- 3rd semester - pre-comprehensive exam meeting. A first meeting where the student becomes acquainted with their committee members and introduces their research topic. This meeting is informal with no grade requirement. This meeting may serve as an opportunity for committee members to share their expectations for a successful PhD. graduate career and the committee as a whole may assist the student with understanding Graduate School and Department degree requirements.
- 4th semester – Comprehensive Exam, Pass/Fail grades are distributed for both oral and written components. Documentation of the grades are submitted to the Graduate School.
- 6th-8th semesters in the program. After the department seminar meeting – This meeting takes place directly after the student’s department seminar. At this meeting, the student and the committee may discuss research directions and any anticipated challenges. Also, the student and committee should discuss a plan of action for scheduling a defense by the 10th
- 10th semester and beyond. If no dissertation defense is scheduled before the start of the 11th semester, students must meet annually with their committee until the defense is scheduled. Listed below are the requirements for the meeting.
Committee Meeting Requirements for Advanced Students (5th year and beyond)
Please prepare a brief written document of no more than three pages that reports on your progress to degree. This should be in narrative form (written paragraphs). The report should describe when you passed candidacy, list all publications you have co-authored, and any publications that are currently in preparation along with realistic targets for submission. List dates of previous committee meetings and any relevant information gleaned from those meetings. Indicate also what you plan to do to complete your degree. If you are beginning your 6th year (or beyond) in the program, the report needs to make a compelling case that a 6th year (or beyond) of study is warranted and that you can complete a PhD. with the time remaining. Include in your document, a detailed time line of the remaining research you have left to complete, any manuscripts that need to be written and submitted, and when you plan to defend your PhD.
12 point font (Times New Roman) 1” margins – single space
At the meeting- present a 15-20 minute powerpoint summary of your research and indicate any research issues that have been challenges.
All members of a student’s committee must be present. The 2-3 page written document must be submitted to the committee and the graduate program director no later than a week before your committee meeting.
Years 3 and 4 Requirements
During their third or fourth year, students must present a departmental seminar based primarily on their intended dissertation research and relevant background. Students should arrange to have at least half of their (departmental) committee present for the seminar. All students must complete this requirement by the end of their 8th semester in the program. A short meeting with the student’s committee following the seminar satisfies the requirement for that year’s annual committee meeting. During this meeting, students are expected to present a plan of tasks required for dissertation completion and a proposed timeline for graduation (see annual committee meeting section).
Year 5 Requirements
Dissertation and Defense and Manuscript Preparation and Publication
Writing and defending the dissertation is the last major requirement for receiving a PhD. The student is required to submit the dissertation to their committee members two weeks prior to the date of the defense. The first part of the PhD. defense is a public seminar ~1 hr (45 min presentation, 15 min of Q and A) and the second part is a closed oral defense of the dissertation with the student’s PhD committee.
The written dissertation represents the culmination of a student’s scholarly activities. The dissertation itself can be prepared in one of two forms: 1) standard option or 2) manuscript option. Guidelines can be found on the MSU Graduate School electronic theses and dissertations website; https://www.montana.edu/etd/index.html
The dissertation is a professional scientific document. Research presented in the dissertation should be new, innovative, and advance knowledge in the student’s field of study. The dissertation’s content should meet the standard for publication in the peer reviewed literature.
While requirements will differ between research groups, a student preparing to defend a PhD. dissertation is expected to have authored one or more first author manuscripts.
Specific expectations regarding authoring manuscripts should be communicated clearly and consistently to the student by the research advisor and the committee during annual committee meetings and prior to the scheduled defense.
A student ready to defend:
- receives approval from their research advisor that a defense can be scheduled.
- receives approval from their research advisor that their dissertation document can be sent to the graduate committee.
- meets with the graduate program director prior to scheduling a date for the defense.
- reads the Graduate School’s information on Electronic Theses and Dissertations at
- completes a dissertation/thesis points document prior to the defense. The document is to be returned to the graduate program director 5 days prior to the defense date.
The dissertation/defense is graded as pass or fail. The student is told of the outcome directly after the closed oral defense. The Department is responsible for submitting a “Report on the Thesis/Dissertation document” found on the Graduate School’s website to the Graduate School after the defense. Even with a passing grade after the defense, a student may be required to make additional corrections to their dissertation and submit again to their committee for final approval. The official form will be submitted to the Graduate School when the committee approves the dissertation document.
Year 5 and beyond
If no dissertation defense is scheduled before the start of the 11th semester, students must meet with their committee annually until the defense is scheduled (see Annual Committee section for responsibilities).
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry adheres to the Graduate School’s policies on grade requirements and academic standing. Good academic standing is maintaining a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above. We expect all students to familiarize themselves with the information on the Graduate School’s website regarding academic standing and the policies enforced if a student fails to meet the expectations. The link can be found at
If a student’s term or overall GPA falls below 3.00, the student may be placed on probation or suspension. Information on probation and suspension can be found at Graduate School’s website under Academic Probation & Suspension.
The Assistant Dean in the Graduate School will track GPAs of every student after each semester. If a student’s cumulative or program GPA falls below a 3.00 after being placed in University Probation status, the student may be placed in suspension.
According to the Graduate School’s policy, if a degree-seeking student wishes to appeal their suspension they must follow the steps in the timeline outlined below:
Step 1) Notice of Appeal. The student must notify the Office of Student Services (OSS) in The Graduate School, their intent to appeal within five (5) business days of receiving the suspension letter.
Step 2) Submission of Appeal. The student has an additional ten (10) business days to provide a letter and any supporting documents to the OSS.
Step 3) Plan of Action proposal. The submitted appeal can be accepted or denied. If the appeal is accepted, the student will be sent a Plan of Action from the OSS to be completed with their committee chair/graduate coordinator. The committee chair/graduate coordinator and the department will make a determination if they are willing to support the student’s Plan of Action proposal. If the Plan of Action is supported, the plan must enumerate the items to be completed for the student to return to good standing.
Final approval of a suspension appeal resides with The Graduate School.
In addition to good academic standing, students must demonstrate progress to degree by completing degree requirements in a timely manner. If a student fails to meet the academic expectations and progression to degree requirements, their eligibility for a GTA/GRA appointments may be in jeopardy.
Professional Conduct Expectations
As members of the University community, all students in our department are expected to uphold the standards of conduct that support the educational mission of the university and create a campus environment conducive to academic success at MSU. The University has standards of behavior that are expected of every student. MSU will not tolerate students who are unwilling to abide by these expectations. Students in our department should be aware of MSU’s code of conduct, its policies, and the conduct process if a student violates the conduct code. MSU’s code of conduct can be found at the following link: http://www.montana.edu/knowyourcode/
Any student who violates an academic or conduct policy as written in MSU’s code of conduct will be subject to academic and/or disciplinary sanctions.
Funding & Financial Information
- Eligibility for GTA / GRA support
Graduate student appointments are available in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as either graduate teaching assistants (GTA) or graduate research assistants (GRA). All first year students will be placed on a GTA. After the first year, appointments are determined by the student’s research advisor.
As stated on the Graduate School’s website “Graduate appointments are union-represented positions. You will be a member of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) bargaining unit, represented by MEA-MFT. (See Collective Bargaining Agreement). You are bound by the terms and conditions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, applicable policies of the University and Board of Regents, and applicable state and federal laws.” All students must be in good academic standing to be eligible for any type of appointment and remain in good academic standing to be appointed every semester.
Additional information about student appointments can be found at http://www.montana.edu/gradschool/policy/appointments.html.
Several resources are available to graduate students. Links are provided below.
- Grad School Resource Page https://www.montana.edu/gradschool/resources/
- Office of Institutional Equity Resource page http://www.montana.edu/equity/resources.html
- MSU Counseling Resource Page https://www.montana.edu/counseling/services/index.html
- Dean of Students Office https://www.montana.edu/deanofstudents/
- Student Conduct Code https://www.montana.edu/knowyourcode/index.html