FAQ

Graduate Study (Ph.D) in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at MSU Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Should I study for a Ph.D. in science?
  2. How should I choose a mentor?
  3. As a graduate student, am I "cheap labor" for research and teaching?
  4. What are my responsibilities as a professional scientist?
  5. How do I meet this responsibility for my own research?
  6. How hard will I need to work?
  7. Besides classes and the lab, how do I learn the profession?
  8. What else will I need to do?
  9. How should I document my research?
  10. What ethical standards are expected of me?
  11. What about comprehensive exams (pre-lims)?
  12. Are there assistantships available?
  13. What do I need to submit to apply?
  14. What are the minimum GRE or TOEFL scores or GPA for acceptance to the graduate program?
  15. Can the application fee be waived for international students?
  16. What about financial proof?
  17. What about teaching requirements?
  18. What is the application deadline?
  19. How many credits do I need per semester?

The goal of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and each faculty member is to prepare well-trained, productive, self-educating and independent Ph.D.s. This is our chance to continue the tradition of academic science that we inherited from our mentors. Therefore, we view graduate education as an extremely important opportunity and responsibility. The quality of our Ph.D. graduates continues to be the single most important benchmark by which this Department is judged around the world. For this reason, we only admit students to the Ph.D. program who we believe have the ability (and, hopefully, the commitment) to succeed. Although we are by no means perfect, it is our goal that each of you will benefit to the utmost from your graduate experience at MSU.


1. Should I study for a Ph.D. in science?

First and foremost, a Ph.D. scientist must be a professional. Like all professions, science demands more dedication and talent and higher ethical standards than most "jobs". Ph.D. scientists work in a highly competitive, challenging, and, occasionally frustrating, environment (and they always have). The major rewards to such a career involve the chance to continually experiment and learn new things, the potential for a high level of independence, the opportunity to train students at many levels, and, in many cases, national and international recognition by your peers. Salaries for Ph.D. scientists are generally comfortable, but lower than those of the medical and legal professions, which require similar standards and length of training. There is little unemployment among Ph.D. scientists, but, as with most professions, some Ph.D.s aren't able to find jobs that allow them to fully exploit their training and creativity. The chance to do research and to teach should be far more important to you than the long hours, frustration of failed experiments, competitive environment, and lower pay level (relative to M.D.s) of our profession. The faculty of this department have already made their choice and will expect the same level of commitment from you. If doctoral level science turns out not to be right for you, we will do all we can to help you choose a better alternative.

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2. How should I choose a mentor?

The choice of your mentor is one of the most important you will make in your professional career. The lab rotation system gives you the ideal opportunity to make that choice in an informed manner. Listen to the brief discussions of research made by the faculty early in the term. It is also best to talk individually to each faculty member in whose lab you'd like to rotate--don't be shy, they will be happy to talk to you. Try to plan at least 2, if not all 3 rotations at the beginning of the year (you can always change your plans later, if necessary). Find out if a rotation mentor expects to take one or more students into their lab at the end of the year, and how they go about deciding whom to accept.

Once you are in a rotation, try to learn as much as possible about the research going on in the lab and the techniques that are used. Even if you don't end up in this lab, those techniques may be useful to you elsewhere. Besides a chance to look for a permanent position, the rotations also are a one-on-one substitute for formal graduate lab classes. Get to know as many people in the lab (and in adjacent labs) as possible. You will be provided desk space in or near the lab during your rotation. Spend as much of your "free" or study time there as possible, rather than in the library or at home. Be sure to attend lab meetings or other meetings or journal clubs in which lab members routinely participate.

The most important factor in choosing a mentor is that you must be excited by the project you'll be doing. A potential mentor may have more than one research project, but may only be able to add a student to one of those projects. Take time to discuss exactly what you'll be working on. Don't hesitate to provide your own ideas about the project(s). Your mentor will appreciate your interest and your creativity. Ask a potential mentor for reprints and/or research proposals related to what you'd be doing. Also, talk to other lab members about working in that lab to make sure the environment is one in which you can prosper. Your first priority should emphasize the science you can do, not whether a potential mentor is well-funded or how long his or her grants extend. It is the mentor's (and the Department's) responsibility to support you if he or she offers you a position in the lab. In very rare situations, especially if still early in his/her graduate career, a student might switch projects and/or mentors due to funding issues.

It is rare that a student changes mentors after they've begun their thesis project, but it does happen. Sometimes it's the student's choice; sometimes the mentor's; however, it is no one's "fault" nor is it something of which to be ashamed. If you have a problem that you don't think you can discuss with your mentor, talk to the Director of Graduate Studies or other faculty on your Guidance Committee or the Department Chairperson. They can usually resolve any problem in a mutually satisfactory way. However, if a problem is not otherwise resolvable, and you need to change your mentor, it is best for everyone involved to do this as soon as possible in your career and in an amicable fashion.

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3. As a graduate student, am I "cheap labor" for research and teaching?

Definitely not! Despite the opinion of the IRS and many others, your assistantship is primarily meant as a stipend so that you will be able to survive while you complete your Ph.D. training (and so that you can afford to give your research the full attention it requires). Do not equate what you are being paid with how much your research is worth or how hard you should work.

There are more cost effective ways to do purely technical science or introductory teaching. However, graduate education (and postdoctoral training) should be a bargain to you, to your mentors, and to the public. Besides your stipend, you receive valuable (and hopefully enjoyable) training in research, teaching and communication skills that will last you a lifetime. Besides your "hands", your mentor benefits from your intelligence, dedication, and creativity, along with the satisfaction of having trained his or her "scientific progeny". In short, graduate education is a remaining vestige of the apprentice system which is ideal for fine craftsmen, artists, and scientists, but is not cost effective for those jobs which are less challenging and which demand less individual creativity. Put another way, the goal of the academic mentor is that each of his or her graduate students should reach at least an equal position in the profession as he or she enjoys. The goal of the factory foreman is not that every employee will someday become a foreman.

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4. What are my responsibilities as a professional scientist?

As a professional, you are responsible for your research. This means you are responsible for understanding everything you can about your research and solving the problems inherent in your project. This is what earning a doctorate is about: defining a research problem, accepting the responsibility for solving the problem and communicating the results of that problem. Your mentor is responsible for helping you and training you to do this. She or he is also responsible to the University and to granting and contracting agencies that fund and administer the research. Use your mentor and others in the department as resources, but realize that you alone must take the responsibility to successfully achieve your goal in the research project.

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5. How do I meet this responsibility for my own research?

A scientist must try to be objective and self-critical, but at the same time must be obsessed by his or her research. As a scientist your curiosity and the excitement of learning new things should constantly gnaw at you. Otherwise, you are unlikely to find real joy as an independent investigator. You should try to fully understand why you are doing each experiment, what the possible results may be, what those results mean and if they really mean what you thought they would mean beforehand. A scholar has to constantly re-evaluate and question what s/he is doing; not only while doing it but before and after. Be alert when you're at work. If, by the time you've finished an experiment, you haven't already thought of several reasons why it might not work and/or ways to do it better next time, then you aren't thinking aggressively enough. Be alert to results that don't make sense. Some of the most important scientific discoveries begin this way. Equally important, this is how you learn something is wrong in what you're doing or how you're interpreting it. Get everything you can out of each experiment and don't pass off a curious result as an "off day" or "bad luck."

Develop a broad perspective. Why are you doing this experiment? Why are you doing this project? Who should benefit from your work and why? Why should someone pay you to do this? How does your work relate to science as a whole? Talk to other students, faculty and staff about your research and theirs. Often explaining your data or experiments to others offers insights previously unappreciated. Talking with other researchers may generate a new approach or valuable technique.

Learn to appreciate the "beauty" of outstanding research. Virtually all science eventually has some application in "real life", and this is why public and other sources support our research. But to those who know and understand it, outstanding science also has a beauty and majesty all its own. Since all science is interconnected, we all participate in this to some small extent. Learning to appreciate the beauty of science will encourage your own success in research and will be essential in your teaching efforts.

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6. How hard will I need to work?

There are no rules about when you should come to work or how long you should work, because if you need such rules, you're in the wrong profession. The key is less how hard you work, as opposed to how effectively you work. Progress is made by cumulative, regular and dedicated effort, not by trying to "cram" before your next committee meeting or lab meeting. When you are at work, focus and let your curiosity and ambition drive you! Your approach to research should be like that of an outstanding artist or athlete to his or her art or sport. Doing science requires complete attention to detail, so that you can later successfully repeat (or improve) an experiment, determine what went wrong, or make that observation that results in a new discovery.

For the rest of your professional life, there will never be a time when there isn't something valuable you could be doing. In fact, you will never have enough time to do everything you should do. Sometimes this can be frustrating, but it's really for the best, since to a scientist doing research and learning are always more fun than doing nothing. There are always journals to read, notebooks to up-date, new experiments to plan and execute, old experiments to interpret, or, if all else fails, things in the laboratory that may need fixing, cleaning, etc. Part of your success will depend on how efficient you are; in other words, filling in the blank spaces of your day with useful tasks. Learn to run 2, 3 or 4 experiments at once (in order to do this right, you must shut out distractions).

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7. Besides classes and the lab, how do I learn the profession?

Read the literature avidly. Students (and most faculty) spend too little time reading the literature. You may think there is too much to read and you are correct. However, you should make a routine of scanning one or more databases for your research area and looking up new papers. You should also read the more general journals such as Nature and Science which have simplified reviews of the latest "hot" research. You should also begin a collection of reprints for your research area and a computerized file of references.

Attend seminars, professional meetings, and journal clubs. You can often learn more in a one hour seminar than by reading all day. Go to seminars even if you do not understand the titles or are initially uninterested in the topic. This will help expand your horizons and may be related in unexpected and exciting ways to your research. Ask questions. A journal article can't talk back, but a seminar speaker can. When possible, go to receptions, meals or informal meetings with speakers. Talk about science and about science as a profession. As a student, your future in science will hopefully be longer and less predictable than that of your mentor. So you need to learn and think more broadly than he or she does. You also need to make contacts that will come in handy later in your professional life.

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8. What else will I need to do?

Be a good departmental and laboratory citizen. Do your share of laboratory chores. Keep the laboratory clean, especially in common areas. A good "rule of thumb" - leave the area/equipment cleaner than you found it. If something is broken, fix it or tell someone who can fix it. Put things away. Ask before borrowing something and return it in the same shape as when you borrowed it. Be polite and courteous even to those who are not. In the long run you will benefit from the respect and appreciation good citizenship generates. Reputations are important to professionals. Everyone soon learns who is sloppy and inconsiderate and that can be deleterious to their career. Do things right and other members of your lab will follow your lead. The whole lab, including you, will benefit. Someday we hope you'll be in charge, so start practicing leadership skills now.

Meet deadlines. You will have to meet deadlines throughout your entire career: start now. There is usually no penalty for early completion. You will be judged by your ability to meet deadlines. Late grant applications are not accepted. Late committee reports only antagonize committee members who you should be trying to impress. It is rude to be late and often places unreasonable burdens on others.

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9. How should I document my research?

Keep an organized and thorough notebook. It is best to write in your notebook daily. Write everything: date, time, reagents, purpose of experiment, results. Write experimental procedure before you start the experiment including the calculations for dilutions and buffers, tables for additions, etc. Good preparation will pay off in the long run. It will allow you to run more than one experiment simultaneously and will cut down on mistakes. In research, a careless mistake or two can cost you (and others) months of wasted effort.

Pay attention to details as they often may not seem so trivial in hindsight. Note any unusual observations. Analyze the data carefully. Examine your results before doing the next experiment. Keep your results orderly and have a table of contents. Write out conclusions for each experiment, whether it is successful or not.

A good notebook is the first step towards publication. Research that doesn't lead to publication and sharing isn't research; it's a waste of time. Your mentor or other lab members should be able to understand your notebook without you as an interpreter. Someday, you'll have that Ph.D. and you'll be somewhere else. Besides, if you meet this standard now, it will save you an enormous amount of time when you need to go back after months or years to assemble manuscripts or your thesis.

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10. What ethical standards are expected of me?

You are the guardian of the ethical standards in research. The public has funded your research and entrusts that you will maintain high ethical standards in conducting the project, whether it is your project or the research of others. It is your responsibility to be above reproach. Certain guidelines regarding the conduct of science are available and you should be familiar with the commonly accepted practices in biomedical sciences.

Ethical standards are not always as obvious as you might think. Learn to try to go beyond headlines and put yourself in the place of your colleagues. However, the first and abiding rule of all science is "TELL THE TRUTH!". Without truth and the mutual trust it generates, science has no value whatsoever.

The mark of any profession is that the profession matters more than the professionals. In other words, the good of science must come before your own ego and reputation and, as an academic scientist, the good of education must come before your own well-being and comfort. Happily, in science (unlike politics) we can test what is correct and the truth will eventually emerge. For the most part, those scientists and educators who adhere to high standards will be rewarded in this life, let alone any future one.

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11. What about pre-lims?

Despite what you might think or hear, pre-lims are not primarily for "weeding out" some of our graduate class. (If they were, they would be a dismal failure and not worth the effort, since very few students fail pre-lims in the long run.) The main purpose of pre-lims is to give students an idea of what is expected of them as a professional colleague--what they are expected to know, what they are expected to be able to discuss, how they should be able to critically analyze and contribute to the work of others, how to write a research proposal, etc. This is done by a pre-lim Committee (excluding your mentor since he or she is (hopefully) biased in your favor) of people who will one day be your peers. The principle of peer review is one of the most central to modern science (and to academic scholarship in general). You will be dealing with peer review for the rest of your career.

A pre-lim is not like the exams you've taken in most of your classes. It is designed to reflect situations that scientists find themselves in all the time. You have to write a research proposal. While it is improper to try to get your mentor or your Committee members to write the proposal for you, it is perfectly acceptable to discuss your ideas and experimental design with them, and it is also appropriate to solicit comments on your written proposal from other colleagues: students, postdocs, even other faculty not on your Committee (just as your mentor solicits the comments of others when he or she writes a proposal).

In the oral exam, the Committee hopes to engage in a lively discussion with you just as they would with any collegue. You probably won't be able to answer every one of their questions; questions will be asked that the Committee members can't answer--maybe that no one can answer. Research is about asking questions like that. You also probably won't remember every fact that you would like to or answer with 100% accuracy. That's OK, too! What is essential is that you demonstrate that you follow the relevant literature like a professional, that you have developed the broad perspective of a professional and that you can discuss science in an open and critical manner with colleagues like a professional (all these are discussed above).

Your Committee wants you to pass! They've been on your side of the fence and they know you're nervous. However, they also have a responsibility to the Department and our past Ph.D. graduates. Once you get your degree, you won't want the value of that degree to be damaged by the Department lowering its standards. We don't intend to lower the standards, but we do believe that all the students we accept can achieve those standards, and we (including the exam Committees) are proud and pleased to be able to help them do so.

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12. Are there assistantships available?

For the MMG PhD program students are only accepted and provided support by the department/program on an assistantship that provides a stipend, health insurance and tuition and fee waivers.

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13. What do I need to submit to apply?

See our "How to Apply" page.

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14. What are the minimum GRE or TOEFL scores or GPA for acceptance to the graduate program?

The programs do not have a minimum standard for GRE scores but consider them an important component in our evaluation of applicants. A grade point average of at least 3.0 is generally required. For international students the TOEFL scores should be at 250 total score and 25 section 1 (listening section). The application is reviewed in its entirety and if there is an area of weakness, strong letters of support or research experience will be taken into consideration by the committee.

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15. Can the application fee be waived for international students?

The application will be reviewed without the application fee but priority in processing will be given to those that have included a fee.

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16. What about financial proof?

This is not required since PhD students receive stipends.

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17. What about teaching requirements?

The PhD program requires one teaching experience.

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18. What is the application deadline?

Interested students are encouraged to complete their application by December 1 when the review process will initiate, with a final deadline of February 1 for Fall of the same year.

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19. How many credits do I need per semester?

Full time at MSU is:
Masters without assistantship: 9 credits per semester
Masters with assistantship: 6 credits per semester
Doctoral without assistantship: 6 credits per semester
Doctoral with assistantship: 3 credits per semester
Doctoral students who have passed all required comprehensive exams: 1 credit per semester
Additionally grad students must meet a "residency requirement" which involves two consecutive semesters with at least 6 credits.

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