IV. Committees and Examinations

Graduate Advisor/Research Mentor

The student’s Graduate Advisor and Research Mentor will be selected by the student in agreement with the faculty. The Graduate Advisor will assist the student in choosing appropriate courses until the time that a formal Committee is formed. If the student is rotating through labs, the Graduate Program Director will advise the student until the student has selected a lab and Major Professor.

Master's Committeegrad. student presenting poster

The Master's thesis committee will consist of at least three members selected by agreement of the student and Graduate Advisor. Non-thesis Master's committee require two members.  The Graduate Advisor and student should email mjschnei [at] umass.edu with a request to form the committee and provide committee member names. A form M.3 memo will be sent to the Graduate School for thesis students and non-thesis students.  Only the Graduate Program Director must be notified for non-thesis students’ Advisory Committee. The Graduate Advisor will chair the committee.

Ph.D. Committee

The PhD Dissertation committee shall be appointed in accordance with graduate school regulations. Upon recommendation by the student's Graduate Advisor, the Department Head or the Graduate Program Director, the Graduate Advisor and student should email mjschnei [at] umass.edu with the names of at least three members of the Graduate faculty to serve as a Dissertation Committee. At least two of the Graduate faculty shall be members of the ABBS graduate faculty (this may include the Chair) and one member from outside the program. The outside member shall serve as the representative of the Graduate Council and the Dean of the Graduate School. The PhD Dissertation Committee should review a general research plan and guide the student towards the Preliminary Comprehensive Examination.

Summary of Committee Structures

1. Master’s Committee
A.  Graduate Advisor who must be a member of the Animal Biotechnology & Biomedical Sciences graduate faculty. The Graduate Advisor acts as Chair of the committee.
B.    At least two more members who are members of the Graduate faculty of the University and may be from any department or faculty from outside the University who are appointed on a one-time basis by the graduate school. This requires a CV and memo from the GPD to be sent to the graduate dean. This member is a “voting member”.
C.    Additional members are not necessary but may be appointed if desired, including non-voting consulting members.
2. Ph.D. Committee
A. Graduate Advisor who must be a member of the Animal Biotechnology & Biomedical Sciences graduate faculty. The Graduate Advisor acts as the Chair of the committee.
B. A second member from the ABBS faculty.
C. A third member who must be a member of the graduate faculty of the University (adjunct or regular) but may be from outside the ABBS Program.
D. Additional members are not necessary but may be appointed if desired. (see above under Master’s ‘C’).
E. The committee should be formed by the end of the student's third semester.
F.  The first committee meeting should be held by the end of the student's fourth semester (20th month). See guideline below.
ABBS PhD Program First Committee Meeting Guideline
It is important that our students have an Advisory Committee meeting early in their program because ABBS does not operate with an Academic Affairs Advisory Committee system that meets with first and second year Ph.D. students, it is important that .

Items to cover:
1. Review course work taken or in progress with grades received and indicate courses left to take. Committee may have suggestions to fill gaps in knowledge.
2. Show preliminary data generated to date and the direction proposing to head (does not have to be a full dissertation outline but a general idea) with hypothesis or unmet need explained/justified.
3. Discuss which Qualifying Exam format based on committee and student preferences. Explain to the committee the option as some may be unfamiliar with the format, as explained below
4. Give the proposed date of Qualifying Exam and the timeframe for undertaking the work.  If it is a grant proposal-style qualifying exam then give the student a defined time to complete the exam, so it does not take an entire semester. It is best to give 4-6 weeks to research and write it. If it is a Grant Proposal, the topic can be proposed by the student during this meeting, or the student can request that the Committee give 3 topics to choose from. The student should submit an abstract of the proposal to the committee members at least one month prior to the examination.


Master's Research Outline (Prospectus)

A research outline (prospectus) must be presented to the Committee for approval at least 4 months before the completion of the degree. The student should provide mjschnei [at] umass.edu with the title of their outline ahead of the committee meeting and the (form M.5) for the committee members to sign will be generated, circulated and sent to the graduate school. For Master's Thesis submission requirements and completion of your degree, please view this link.

Master’s Final Oral Examination

The final Master’s Examination consists of a public oral seminar presented to the Department and other interested parties followed by a private examination by the Advisory Committee. The Master Professor must notify mjschnei [at] umass.edu of the results via email and a memo will be sent to the graduate school.

Ph.D. Preliminary Comprehensive Examination

A Preliminary Comprehensive Examination consisting of a written and oral component must be passed (to pass requires positive vote by all committee members by all doctoral candidates. The result of the examination must be communicated by memo from the Graduate Advisor to the Graduate Program Director or Department Head who in turn communicates it to the Graduate School by memo (form D.2). The examination must be in accordance with the following rules:

     1. The format of the written examination is flexible but has several possible general formats. It may be:
      a. take-home exam designed as a mini-grant proposal (e.g., 20 double-spaced pages plus appropriate references and supporting appended material). The intent of the examination is for the student to demonstrate their ability to propose testable hypothesis driven experiments based on acquired knowledge and knowledge gaps found in current literature. It also tests the student’s ability to organize written information and effectively communicate scientific ideas. It is appropriate for the student to seek help (from their Graduate Advisor or others)in understanding grant formats and grant writing, but it is appropriate to seek help in generating experimental ideas and hypotheses.
      b. An open or closed book comprehensive examination consisting of questions prepared by each member of the Committee and which requires substantial time to generate the written answers (e.g. At least one full day of writing for an entirely closed book exam and as much as one day/Committee member's questions for an open book [usually 4 questions with 1 day per question to research and write] or combination open and closed book exam).
      c. Other variations or combinations of the above, as long as it is a written exam of a quality generally accepted as sufficient for admission of a candidate to the degree of PhD.

The format should be decided by the members of the Dissertation Committee. It is recommended that the student be consulted as to the preferable format since individuals have differences in their learning styles. The intent of the examination is to not only to determine the extent of knowledge which the student possesses, to indicate to the student the limitations of their knowledge but to also be a learning experience (i.e. give the student practice in organizing knowledge). The topic for the exam must be approved by the Graduate Advisor and Graduate Program Director at least 2 months prior to the examination date. The final written document must be handed to the Committee members at least one week prior to the Oral Exam date. It is recommended that the student and committee discuss the specifics of the exam format well in advance of its due date.

        2.  The Oral Examination will follow completion of the written component and will not exceed 3 hours in length. It is recommended that the oral examination be used to clarify written answers and/or to be an extension or review of the material covered by the written component, although it will not necessarily be confined to such. The intent of the oral examination is to give the candidate the opportunity to elaborate or improve on weak or incorrect answers given in the written component. If the student chooses option ‘a’ above, the exam may start with a Power Point presentation by the student outlining the contents of the written grant proposal. In all cases, the examination should proceed as a round of questions from all Committee members, with approximately equal time being used by each Committee member. It is the responsibility of the Chair of the Dissertation Committee to ensure that each Committee member receives an adequate or appropriate amount of time to examine the candidate and that the student is fairly questioned at an appropriate level.

       3.  In case of failure, the student will be given a second opportunity. The second examination should be taken by 6 months after the first examination unless further course work is required to fill deficits. A second failure will result in the students’ academic dismissal from the program.

       4.  The Graduate Advisor should email mjschnei [at] umass.edu with the results of the oral examination. Notification will be sent to the Graduate School.

Ph.D. Dissertation Outline/Prospectus

A final dissertation outline should be approved at least 7 months before completion of the degree. The title of the Ph.D. Outline should be sent to mjschnei [at] umass.edu ahead of the meeting to create the signature page for the Committee and the Graduate Program Director or the Department Head signatures. The Dissertation outline is not meant to be an extensive written document, but instead should include background, preliminary results/current work and an outline (and timeline) of the planned experiments for the ensuing years of research. The Dissertation Outline is approved by the Committee after a meeting during which the student presents their current research and the experiments found within the Dissertation Outline. The purpose of the Dissertation Outline is for the Committee to help the student ensure that a volume and quality of work deserving of a doctoral degree will be accomplished in a timely fashion. The Dissertation Outline is not set in stone, but is subject to change as the Committee sees fit and the research progresses.

This document is called an ‘outline’ and thus students have the option to make it as skeletal or fleshed out as they wish by agreement with their P.I.

Here are some options:
     (1) make an Outline with I., A., 1., a. etc style and present it to your Committee as a Power Point that nevertheless includes the information below in the slides and talk (mostly oral)
     (2) get a jump on dissertation/thesis writing and make a fairly complete job of what you have to date, organized as Chapters as illustrated below (mostly written)
     (3) prepare what you have as a publication(s) and present it that way (some differences: much shorter literature review but well-written figure legends and Materials & Methods) (combo- oral and written))

What is described here is the ‘mostly written’ approach but the elements are key and required regardless of how you go about presenting it to your Committee (mostly oral, mostly written, or a combo).

Literature review & background of the field (~10 pages double spaced):  This should start broad and narrow down to your specific hypothesis(ses) and aims and approach.

  1. Start with information that most biologists would understand as the opening paragraphs/pages.
  2. Then become more specific so you can introduce the reader to the gaps in the field that you will be focusing on.
  3. The last page of this part should lay out the hypothesis and the approach you will take in each aim. Normally this would be 2 or 3 Aims for a PhD but perhaps only 1 for an MS. The different experiments under an Aim will be the sub-aims.
  4. This is/can become Chapter 1 of your dissertation or thesis if you are going with ‘mostly written’ prospectus approved. It depends on whether you want to spend the time at this point to make a complete Chapter 1 literature review or it is more of a skeleton. That is up to you and your PI. Be sure to use a referencing program such as Endnote from the start so you have that organized.   

    Preliminary Data/Results
  • By this time of your graduate career you will have data that has completed some of your sub-aims including perhaps data that allowed you to form the hypothesis initially if that was an ‘unknown’ when you started.
  • It is easiest if you organize it accordingly depending on what data you have (hypothesis, aims and/or sub-aims – you won’t have all of it but you might have a part of all of the sub-aims done or just one Aim completed and the other(s) not yet started but only conceived).
  • These will form the basis of your next Chapters when you have completed all the experiments outlined (e.g., Chapter 2 = Aim 1; Chapter 3 = Aim 2). The Chapters don’t have to correspond completely to the Aims (sometimes a sub-aim is so large that it is better to be a separate chapter) but that is a convenient way to think about it.

      Materials & Methods

           At this time, you don’t have to have all your methods detailed but you can if you wish. You do need to be clear about the approach and any critical details the reader or viewer needs to know (timepoints, treatments, etc) and these can be in the form of Figure Legends at this time. (FYI In the final version of the dissertation or thesis, Materials & Methods can be in a separate chapter or woven into the each Chapter of Experimental data (Chapters 2 and 3, for example, in the illustration above).)

What other experiments do you need to complete?

 As you go through your oral presentation, your committee will guide you regarding any additional experiments that need to be completed.  If you have experiments that you intend to do but have no data yet, you will state your approach to the committee. Expected results and pitfalls for this part can be in either the oral presentation or the written document. No written discussion or final conclusions or future studies is needed at this time.


The Committee will also arrange and conduct the final oral examination. All members of the committee must approve the dissertation before the final oral examination is scheduled. To schedule your final Oral Exam you must complete (form D.5) and submit it to mjschnei [at] umass.edu at least 35 days before your final defense date. A notification requesting your final exam will be sent to the graduate school to be scheduled. 

The final examination consists of a seminar presentation of the Candidate's research and an oral examination. The seminar is open to all interested persons while the Final Oral Examination is only open to Faculty members in the Department sponsoring the Candidate's graduate program (i.e., Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences) and any member of the Graduate faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. However, only members of the Dissertation Committee may vote on the Candidate’s defense.

A unanimous vote of the Dissertation Committee is required for the student to pass the Final Oral Exam. If, at the examination, 2/3 of the members of the Dissertation Committee cast negative votes, the Candidate will be informed that they did not pass the examination. If there is only one negative vote, the degree will be held up pending action of the Graduate Council. The result of the examination must be communicated to mjschnei [at] umass.edu and a (form D.6) will be sent to the graduate school.