Program Procedures

Graduate Program Procedures

The Graduate Program Procedures are the governing regulations of the Biology Graduate Student Program.  These procedures were approved by the Graduate Directorate, January 25, 2006 and the Committee of the Whole, March 21, 2006. Changes in regulations approved by the Committee of the Whole since 2006 have been incorporated in updates.

Graduate students and supervisors should read through the regulations at least once. For all intents and purposes, the Graduate Program Regulations conform to the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations which takes precedence over any and all department regulations.  The following guidelines are provided to give new and continuing students a general overview.  Any questions not covered in these pages, should be referred to the Biology Graduate Coordinator.

This handbook is designed to provide helpful guidance to students. The regulations and procedures of the University and the Faculty of Graduate Studies are listed in the Graduate Studies Calendar.



This document contains the Graduate Program Regulations of the Department of Biology that have been passed by the Committee of the Whole (COW) and can be altered at any time by COW. 

Formally stated regulations are required (a) to ensure fairness to both students and professors, and (b) to facilitate administration.

Some of the regulations are University ones (mostly of the Faculty of Graduate Studies) which the department cannot override. 

Others are departmental regulations, each of which has been formally approved by the Committee of the Whole.  The departmental regulations are subject to change by the Committee of the Whole. 

A student need adhere only to the departmental regulations that pertained in the year he or she entered the program (except that the Preliminary Examination is governed by regulations in effect at the time a student successfully completes the Admission to Candidacy Examination, ATC).

Students and supervisors should read through the regulations at least once. Forms and additional explanatory material are available under the Graduate Studies menu of the Biology Department website.

Any circumstance not specifically covered in these regulations or by the Faculty of Graduate Studies Calendar will be dealt with by the Graduate Coordinator on an ad hoc basis in consultation with the Graduate Directorate as appropriate. 

Appeals of such decisions, the application of the regulations in this document, or other decisions of the Graduate Coordinator or members of the Graduate Directorate should first be made to the departmental Chair, then the Dean of Graduate Studies, and then (if no satisfactory agreement has been reached) to the Faculty of Graduate Studies Appeals Committee. 

Students should bring general concerns about the graduate program to the attention of student representatives (Biology Organization of Graduate Students; BOGS) on the Graduate Directorate. 

Concerns of a specific nature should be addressed to the Graduate Coordinator.

1. Program terminology and time lines


One-Year MSc

MSc expected to take two years to complete, student pays full fees for one year, thereafter the continuing fee.

Two-Year MSc

MSc expected to take two years to complete, student pays full fees for two years, thereafter the continuing fee.

Part-time MSc

MSc, time lines doubled from above.

Two-Year PhD

PhD, expected to take four years to complete, student pays full fees for two years, thereafter the continuing fee.

Three-Year PhD

PhD, expected to take four years to complete, student pays full fees for three years, thereafter the continuing fee.

More details of the requirements of the different programs are given below.

2. Admission to full-time study

2.1 Recommendation for admission

All applications will be considered by the Graduate Admissions Committee of the department.

Recommendations to admit or not admit a student are sent to the Faculty of Graduate Studies. These recommendations are based on the academic qualifications and record of the student and availability of:

  • a supervisor in the area of biology in which the student wishes to study who is willing to supervise him/her
  • financial support for the student (usually a scholarship, often partly or fully from the supervisor’s research grants)

2.2 Full-time employment

Students with full-time employment are not accepted for full-time graduate study but may apply for a part-time MSc program (see sections 4.5, 4.2and 8.11).  Because no part-time PhD program is available, full-time employees who wish to study for a PhD must obtain a leave of absence.

2.3 Honours BSc in biology

Students who have an Honours BSc in biology, or have graduated from an approved university with 20 undergraduate credits (or equivalent academic experience) and an adequate concentration in biology, may be accepted into a one-year MSc program (see sections 6.1 and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).

2.4 Combined honours degree in biology

Students holding a combined Honours degree in biology or a discipline which prepares them well for the particular area of biology in which they wish to do graduate work may be accepted into a one-year MSc program.

However, if a significant change of discipline is to occur between undergraduate and graduate studies, the student will be required to register in a two-year MSc program (see sections 6.1and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).

2.5 General BSc

Students with a general BSc, and those who have graduated from an approved university program with less than 20 but no less than 15 undergraduate credits (or equivalent academic experience) may be accepted into a two-year MSc program provided that they have an outstanding academic record and a minimum of four classes in biology (see sections 6.1 and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).

2.6 Unassessable BSc

Where the level of undergraduate experience cannot be readily assessed, students may be accepted initially into a two-year MSc program but after arrival and with approval from their Supervisory Committee, may apply for transfer to a one-year MSc program after taking the Admission to Candidacy Examination (section 4.2).  

Application for transfer must be supported by full documentation of undergraduate experience.

2.7 BSc Honours – applying to PhD program

Students with a BSc Honours or an equivalent degree in biology and who wish to proceed directly to a PhD will normally be asked to register initially in a one-year MSc program.

They should then apply for an in-course transfer to a three-year PhD program at their admission to candidacy examination (section 4.4).

Exceptional students may occasionally be admitted directly into a three-year PhD program (see sections 6.1 and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).

2.8 MSc in Biology – applying to PhD program

Students who have a MSc in biology or an allied field from an approved university may be accepted into a two-year PhD program (see sections 6.1 and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).

2.9 MSc in non-biological subject – applying to PhD program

Students with a masters degree in a non-biological subject or from an unapproved university may be accepted into a three-year PhD program (see sections 6.1 and 8.2 for definitions and requirements of different programs).  

Such students may apply for transfer to a two-year PhD program after their admission to candidacy examination (section 4.3).

2.10 Qualifying student program

The Biology Department normally does not accept students in the Faculty of Graduate Studies qualifying student program.  

Students can upgrade their background by taking classes in the undergraduate faculty as special student status (non-degree) students.

2.11 Other graduate classes

Students who have taken graduate classes at Dalhousie or elsewhere before applying for graduate studies, and who have not used these classes for another degree, can apply for appropriate graduate credit, although these cannot usually be used to account for more than half the required credits from the degree.

2.12 Dalhousie graduates

Dalhousie graduates are encouraged to widen their experience during graduate studies and are not normally accepted into a PhD program unless one of their degrees is from another university.

3. Admission to part-time study

3.1 Part-time study application

Students are recommended to pursue full-time studies whenever possible and applications for part-time study must be accompanied by a letter explaining the circumstances that prevent full-time residency.

3.2 Application procedures

Applications are dealt with by the same procedures as those for full-time study and the same general admission requirements apply, although part-time students do not generally require a scholarship.

3.3 Regulations defining part-time study

Faculty regulations defining part-time studies are set out in section 4.3 of the Graduate Calendar.  

For departmental requirements see sections 7.2  and 8 of this document.  

Applicants who are employed and who must obtain special privileges from the employer to pursue graduate work must include written consent from the employer with their application.

4. In-course transfers

4.1 Applications for in course transfers

Normally, applications for in course transfer to a different program (e.g, MSc to PhD) will first be considered at the Admission to Candidacy exam in January to May of the student's first year, assuming the student commenced the program in September (see section 11).  

If approved, transfers take effect at the beginning of the next academic year.

4.2 Equivalent-to-Honours BSc

Students with undergraduate experience equivalent to an Honours BSc and with a minimum of either nine full-credit classes in biology, or six in biology and three in allied subjects related to their graduate studies may apply for transfer from a two-year MSc to a one-year MSc program at any time after the admission to candidacy exam during their first year of study.

4.3 MSc or equivalent graduate experience

Students with a Masters degree or equivalent graduate experience and who are registered in a three-year PhD program may apply during their first two years of study for transfer to a two-year PhD program at any time after the admission to candidacy exam during their first year of study.

4.4 Student registered in a one-year MSc

Students registered in a one-year MSc program and whose academic record includes at least nine full-class undergraduate credits in biology may apply for transfer to a three-year PhD program at their admission to candidacy exam (see section 11), normally during the four terms of the student's studies (transfers after the 4-term limit will require special permission of the Faculty of Graduate Studies).

Time and class credits spent in the MSc program will be credited towards the PhD degree.

4.5 Transfers between full-time and part-time study

Applications for transfer between full-time and part-time MSc studies will be considered at any time.  

Time spent in each program will be prorated in assessing degree and residency requirements.  

Requests should be made to the Graduate Coordinator.

4.6 Transfer to the one-year MSc

Students registered in the two-year PhD or three-year PhD programs may apply for transfer into the one-year MSc program by written request to the Graduate Coordinator after consultation with the supervisor.

4.7 Change of supervisor

A change of supervisor requires permission from the Graduate Coordinator.

Applications may be made at any time if a suitable and willing new supervisor is available.  

If his/her assistance is requested, the Graduate Coordinator or designate may help arrange the change, after consulting the existing and proposed supervisors and examining the student's graduate record.

4.8 Leaves of absence

Leave of absence, suspension of studies for up to a term, or parental leave may be given according to the regulations in 4.5, 4.6 and 4.7 of the Graduate Calendar for medical reasons or because of:

  • a serious problem outside the student's control (leave of absence)
  • an unexpected emergency (suspension of studies)
  • pregnancy, birth or adoption (parental leave).  

Students should apply in writing to the Graduate Coordinator, with the request countersigned by their supervisor, who will forward the request to the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

5. Registration

5.1 Responsibility of the student

It is the student's responsibility to register on the day(s) specified for graduate student registration.

All students, each term, must register via the web at Dal Online.  

Students who require an extension to their Program or have an outstanding progress report will not be permitted to register until the extension or progress report has been officially approved by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Registration information is on the Faculty of Graduate Studies web site (which include deadlines).  

New students should initially register for REGN9999 and the thesis (BIOL9000 for MSc students and BIOL9530 for PhD students).  

Registration for particular classes is usually carried out after the initial meeting with the Graduate Coordinator.  

All students should register for the thesis each term, and for classes only in the term(s) that the class is taken.

5.2 Lapsed registration

If graduate students allow their registration to lapse they will be considered to have withdrawn, and will be required to apply for re-admission (contact Graduate Coordinator).

6. Residency

6.1 Residency requirement

The residency requirement for a degree program is the minimum time within which the degree may be obtained.  

One year of full-time residency is equivalent to two years of part-time residency.  

Appropriate full-time or part-time fees are paid only during residency.  

If all requirements for the degree have not been completed during residency, a student may continue up to the statutory maximum by registering as a continuing student and by paying the continuing fee.

7. Full-time, part-time and other categories

7.1 Full-time student definition

A full-time student is one who has not yet completed the residency requirement for a full-time Program in which he or she is registered, and who is registered for at least two and a half full-credit classes (including the thesis).

7.2 Part-time student definition

A part-time student is one who has not yet completed the residency requirement for a part-time program in which he or she is registered, and who is registered for two or less full-credit classes.

7.3 Continuing student definition

A continuing student is one who has completed the minimum period of full-time study in a degree Program and is still completing other requirements (usually principally the thesis).

8. Programs of full-time and part-time

8.1 Requirements of the program

A student must meet the requirements for the program for which she/he is registered in order to graduate.

Each is designated by the minimum period of full-time study (residency) required for the degree (section 6.1).

Equivalent part-time MSc programs have the same requirements except that the minimum time to be spent in each program is tripled.

8.2 Class requirements for each program

Minimum class requirements are given below for each program

One-year MSc

Two-year MSc

Two-year PhD

Three-year PhD

Number of Half-credit classes





BIOL5700: Communication skills



Compulsory, unless previously taken at Dalhousie


BIOL5705-6: Modules





Other Graduate Classes

Two half credit

Two half credit

Two half credit*

Two half credit

*May include BIOL5700, BIOL5705 or BIOL5706.


Students who have already taken BIOL5705 wishing to take another half credit of modules can register for BIOL5706.


8.3 Mandatory classes

All graduate students must take Communication Skills (Biology 5700), unless they have previously taken it at Dalhousie, and the Graduate Module (Biology 5705), unless they are two-year PhD students, normally in their first year.

The Graduate Module Courses (Biology 5705 and Biology 5706) consist of three month-long modules chosen from a list prepared by the module coordinator (as well as graduate modules given at the Nova Scotia Agriculture College).  

The Module Coordinator, a faculty member appointed by the departmental Chair, is responsible for organizing the Graduate Module class, assigning final grades (the average of the grades for the three modules taken) and transmitting them to the Registrar.

8.4 Graduate classes

Required graduate classes are numbered in the 5000 series, and may be given by the Biology Department or other departments at Dalhousie University.

No class may be assigned a graduate number without approval from the Graduate Coordinator and Faculty of Graduate Studies.

8.5 Special topics classes

Special topics classes may be arranged with faculty members, honourary adjunct professors or honourary research associates.

They may include a combination of directed reading, seminars, written assignments, individual study and discussion or laboratory projects in a prescribed area. Students should approach potential instructors directly with their requests.

Each topic must be approved by the Graduate Coordinator, using a form (see below) on which the instruction and evaluation are described and agreed to by the instructor and student.

Permission is not normally given for students to take a class from their research supervisor.

Download special topics form [PDF-65KB]

8.6 Ancillary classes

At the discretion of the Supervisory Committee, supervisor or ATC examiners, a student may be directed to take for credit classes needed to make up deficiencies or acquire skills considered beneficial but of subsidiary importance.  

If these are undergraduate level classes they are designated as ancillary, to be passed with a minimum grade of B-.  

They must be reported to the Graduate Coordinator or Stream Chair at the interview in September and are listed on the Graduate Student Information System (GSIS).

They may not be used for graduate credit.

8.7 Audit classes

Students may also elect or be required to audit classes relevant to their Program. No credits are received for these.  

A maximum of one audit class is allowed for each year of the specified Program (i.e. one for a one-year MSc, two for a two-year MSc, etc).  

Continuing Students may not audit. However, additional classes may always be audited if paid for with extra fees.

8.8 Passing grade requirement

All classes not designated audit or ancillary at the September interview are considered to be required and must be passed with a grade of at least B-.  

Classes in which a student fails to obtain this grade may not be reclassified as audit or ancillary at the end of term.

8.9 Failed classes

Failure to obtain the minimum grade in any class disqualifies a student from further graduate study and from graduation unless permission is obtained from the Dean of Graduate Studies to reenter the program.

Students who wish to continue must apply immediately to the Graduate Coordinator for readmission.  

The Graduate Coordinator will review the application with the student's Supervisory Committee or supervisor and a recommendation will be submitted to the departmental Chair for consideration by the Dean.

8.10 Other program components: Thesis

For all graduate degrees from the Biology Department a satisfactory thesis embodying contributions to original research must be presented and successfully defended in a public oral examination (sections 14 to 16).

8.11 Other program components: Demonstrating (Teaching Assistant)

Each graduate student must demonstrate for a total of at least two half-credit classes (see section 18).   

This requirement can be waived if satisfactory evidence of previous teaching experience (either at Dalhousie or elsewhere) is submitted to the Graduate Coordinator.

8.12 Maximum length of programs

The normal time limits for the completion of degrees are:

  •  One-year MSc, full-time: four years
  •  One-year MSc, part-time: five years
  •  Two-year MSc, full-time: five years
  •  Two-year MSc, part-time: seven years
  •  PhD: six years

Two annual extensions may be granted by Graduate Studies.  

Requests for extensions should be made on the progress report forms (section 13).  

The second extension is FINAL.

8.13 Withdrawal from program

A student who decides to withdraw from graduate studies must notify the Dean of Graduate Studies, Chair of the Department and the Graduate Coordinator by letter.

Refund of fees will be calculated from the date this letter is received.

9. Class selection and enrollment

9.1 Selecting a program

Students should meet with their supervisor before classes begin and work out a program of suitable classes for each year of study.  

It is the supervisor's responsibility to arrange this meeting but he/she may need reminding by the student.

  • In selecting appropriate classes, bear in mind the following:
  • Students in full-time PhD or one-year MSc programs should take all formally taught required classes in their first year, if possible. However, to take advantage of classes offered only in alternate years, etc., the specified number of class credits in a degree program may be spread over more than one academic year.
  • All graduate students must enroll for Thesis Research (BIOL9000 for MSc thesis; BIOL9530 for PhD thesis) even though they may expect to make little progress in that year.
  • Graduate credit is obtained only for graduate classes. Classes given at both graduate and undergraduate level have two numbers and the correct one must be used (5000 or above if taken as a graduate class).

9.2 Start dates for classes

Students should begin classes on the first day each class is given.  

Consult the University timetable in the Biology Department office and appropriate notice boards.

9.3 Formal enrolment procedures

This will be completed at the September (or January for January-starts in their first year) interview by the Graduate Coordinator or the Stream Chair and requires the entry of program requirements in the Graduate Student Information System (GSIS).

9.4 Class changes

Any change in classes after the interview must be approved by the Graduate Coordinator or a Stream Chair, who updates the ‘program’ form in the Graduate Student Information System (GSIS).

10. Registration

10.1 Biology Department streams

The graduate program of the Biology Department is organized into three streams.

  • Ecology and Evolution
  • Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Agriculture

Each stream is coordinated by one or more Chairs who are appointed by the Committee of the Whole for a three-year term.

Each entering graduate student must choose a stream to be a member of.

10.2 Stream chairs

Stream Chairs are responsible for interviewing continuing students in their stream at the annual interview conducted in September. Stream Chairs are also responsible for chairing the admission to candidacy (see section 11) and preliminary examinations (see section 12).

11. Admission to candidacy (ATC)

11.1 Admission to candidacy required for a graduate degree

Admission to Candidacy Guidelines can be found here.

All students must be admitted to candidacy for a graduate degree before submitting a thesis.

Requirements for admission will normally be completed during the first nine months in which a student is registered.

Information about procedures is obtainable from the Biology office or the Biology Department website.

Admission to Candidacy is based on presentation of an acceptable research proposal and successful defence of this proposal before an examining committee.  

The examiners will consider not only the merit and feasibility of the proposal but also the student's knowledge of methodology, literature and general academic background in areas relevant to the research.

The ATC will constitute the first meeting of the potential Supervisory Committee. The supervisor will not participate in direct examination of the student but will vote on the decision.  

The ATC will be chaired by a Stream Chair, or by the Graduate Coordinator/designate at the request of the Stream Chair (e.g. when the Stream Chair is supervisor, external examiner, or otherwise unavailable).  

In addition to the potential Supervisory Committee, the examining committee will consist of one external examiner from within the university.  The supervisor is asked to suggest a potential external examiner.

In selecting a date for the examination, the student will have consulted the Supervisory Committee members as to their availability.  

In the event that a potential Supervisory Committee member would be unavailable, the student will inform the Graduate Coordinator who will find an alternative examiner. At least two examiners, in addition to the supervisor/co-supervisors, Chair and external examiner must be present for the ATC exam to be valid. Only one member of the examining committee may take part remotely via phone or video conferencing.

Decision will be by simple majority vote; the alternatives are pass/conditional pass/repeat/fail.  The Chair will vote only if the committee vote is tied.

A conditional pass will be given if the student requires further background preparation. Appropriate classes or remedial effort must be assigned. A timeline for completion of conditions must be given. The Graduate Coordinator will ensure that these conditions are completed.

Students whose performance is unsatisfactory but capable of improvement will be asked to repeat the examination by a specified date. As far as possible, they will be reexamined by the same committee.  

A failure is given when the student’s performance at the Admission to Candidacy Examination indicates that they are not suitable for graduate studies in Biology. Failure results in academic dismissal (according to FGS regulations). If the student wishes to be readmitted, he/she should apply to the Graduate Coordinator to petition FGS for readmission. If readmitted, the student must repeat and pass the ATC examination within 12 months.

11.2 MSc transfer to a PhD

MSc students may request transfer to the PhD program at the time of their ATC. Students who have successfully completed the ATC for the Masters program and who wish to apply for transfer to the PhD program, are also eligible to be considered under the following provisions:

  • the request for transfer will normally take place within the student's first four terms of study (if not permission of the Faculty of Graduate Studies is required).
  • the student must defend a new proposal and must take a second ATC examination
  • the composition of the examining committee for the second ATC will normally but not necessarily be the same as for the first ATC.

11.3 Request for delay of ATC (two-year or part-time MSc)

Students in a two-year or part-time MSc program may elect to delay the candidacy defence for up to one year beyond the normal time subject to agreement of the supervisor.  

In all such cases, the student shall meet with the provisional Supervisory Committee at the end of the first year of study, to present a progress report.  

For all postponements in the date of the ATC examination beyond the first 9 months of study, written requests should be made to the Graduate Coordinator, with the request supported by the supervisor.

12. Preliminary examination


Preliminary Examination Guidelines can be found here.

Preliminary examinations are to be held 30 months after starting the program (this means 30 months after your ATC examination if you transferred from a MSc to PhD), and at least 12 months before defending your thesis.

Extensions will only be granted in special circumstances by written application to the Graduate Coordinator (with justification and supervisor's support).  

The examination will assess the student's knowledge in the area of the thesis research (see section 8 of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations). 

Detailed information on procedures is available from the Biology office or the Biology Department website.

The examination can replace an annual progress report meeting and will consist of two parts:

Part 1

A written assignment which shall include a literature review in the thesis area and a research progress report.

Part 2

An oral defence of the review and of research progress, showing adequate mastery of the field, as well as a plan for completion of the program.

The preliminary examination examiners will normally consist of the Supervisory Committee and an external examiner with expertise in the field of the thesis.  The latter will be appointed by the Graduate Coordinator on the advice of the ATC examiners. The examination will be chaired by a stream chair (or designate of the Graduate Coordinator). The chairperson does not vote, except in the case of a tie.

The examination is judged on a pass/fail basis.  Faculty regulations allow a second attempt within one year of the first (see section 8 of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations).

The outcome of the examination must be reported to the Graduate Coordinator on a form signed by each member of the examining committee.

13. Progress reports


Each student must submit an annual progress report within the Graduate Studies Information System (GSIS), at least one month before the anniversary of the student’s admission date (i.e. 1 Aug for September start students) beginning with the second year of registration. Information on GSIS can be found here

Registration and scholarship funding may be delayed if progress reports are not submitted on time. Requests for extensions beyond the usual program time limits are made on the GSIS forms.

14. Preparation of thesis


An acceptable thesis will describe in clear and concise language an original contribution to knowledge of sufficient value to merit publication. It must be prepared according to instructions published by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and conform to university requirements for theses.

The thesis must be written by the student but advice and criticism from members of the supervisory committee, especially the supervisor, should be sought during its preparation.  

Students are also encouraged to present a synopsis for discussion and conditional approval before beginning to write, but formal approval by the supervisory committee is not mandatory.  

Responsibility for the document presented rests with the student. The examining committee, in judging the thesis, is concerned primarily with the quality of the work and evidence of original contributions to knowledge.

It may be helpful for students, when preparing their thesis, to examine approved Biology Department MSc and PhD theses from previous years which are kept in room 2086 (see Main Office for access).

The thesis should be concise, bearing in mind the need for scholarly discussion, clear presentation of experimental method and results, and adequate review of the main issues.  A student may opt to submit some or all of the thesis as a series of related papers.  However, if this is done, the Faculty of Graduate Studies regulations referring to this option must be adhered to carefully.  Students are encouraged to publish the results of their work at any stage of their graduate program but must avoid conflict of copyright.

15. Submission of theses for examination

15.1 Photocopying facilities

Department copying facilities may be used to prepare examination copies of a thesis.

15.2 Thesis submission forms

A submitted thesis should have been read and approved by the supervisor, or designate, (both MSc and PhD) and other members of the supervisory committee (PhD).  

The supervisor and, in the case of PhD students, other supervisory committee members indicate that they consider that the thesis is suitable for submission by signing the thesis submission form.  

There are separate thesis submission forms for MSc and PhD theses.  

A student has the right to submit a thesis which has not been approved by the supervisor or Committee, but they must sign the appropriate part of the thesis submission form, indicating that they are aware that they are doing this without departmental support.

15.3 MSc Thesis

An electronic copy of the MSc thesis along with the Biology Department MSc Thesis Submission form completed by the student and supervisor must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator.

A minimum time of three weeks must be allowed the external examiner to read the thesis.

The submitted thesis must follow the Faculty of Graduate Studies format guidelines.

Detailed information on procedures and guidelines for MSc thesis defence is available from the Biology Office.

15.4 PhD Thesis

An electronic copy of the PhD thesis along with the completed PhD Thesis Submission Form and PhD Examination Information Form must be submitted at the same time to the Faculty of Graduate studies. See Faculty of Graduate Studies Guidelines on Preparing for a Doctoral Defence

The PhD thesis submission form has to be completed by the student, supervisor and committee members and submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

At the time of submission, the candidate should provide a brief abstract of the significant findings, no longer than 350 words, suitable for publication in a public notice of the defence.

An electronic copy of the PhD thesis must also be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator for distribution to the internal examining committee members.

The examination will be held no earlier than four weeks after submission of the thesis, thereby allowing adequate time for the thesis to be read by the external examiner.

The submitted thesis must follow the Faculty of Graduate Studies format guidelines.

15.5 Final submission deadlines

Information on thesis submission deadlines and convocation are published each year by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and are strictly adhered to.  

Final submission of a MSc thesis to the Faculty of Graduate Studies must be accompanied by a completed Master’s Thesis Approval Form signed by the supervisor, and examining committee members.

Forms required by the Faculty of Graduate Studies for final thesis submission (PhD and MSc) are the Dalhousie Thesis Licence Agreement and Student Contribution to Manuscripts (if applicable).

Faculty of Graduate Studies require all theses to be submitted electronically via DalSpace.

16. Theses defense

16.1 Appointment of examiners

MSc Thesis
The examining committee is normally the supervisory committee, an external examiner and a full-time associate or full professor in the Biology Department who chairs the examination.  

The Supervisor provides the names (including contact information) of at least two potential external examiners to the Graduate Coordinator in order of preference, at least eight weeks prior to the anticipated date of the defence. The Graduate Coordinator, assisted by the Graduate Secretary, will contact the external examiner. A copy of the potential external examiner’s CV is submitted to the departmental Chair for final approval.

The external examiner should be knowledgeable and experienced in the area of research covered by the thesis, and must not have been involved in the thesis work, or other research, of the student.  The external examiner should not be currently associated with Dalhousie University (either as an employee or with an honorary appointment).

The external examiner does not normally attend the defence but submits a written report beforehand.  

Supervisors should provide the Graduate Secretary or Graduate Coordinator with the necessary information for arranging the defence.

PhD Thesis
The examining committee consist of the supervisory committee, external examiner, departmental representative (nominated by the departmental Chair) and a nominee of the Faculty of Graduate Studies who chairs the examination.  

The names of at least two suitable external examiners (along with contact information), approved by the Supervisory Committee, is submitted to the Graduate Coordinator in order of preference. The Graduate Coordinator, assisted by the Graduate Secretary, will contact the external examiner. The Request to Arrange an Oral Defence Form along with the name and CV of the potential external examiner is submitted to FGS at least 12 weeks prior to the anticipated date of the defence.

The Faculty of Graduate Studies will issue a formal invitation to the external examiner once a date and time has been set and will send a copy of the thesis to him/her at least four weeks before the defence.  

The external examiner should be an acknowledged expert in the field of research being examined in the thesis. Also refer to the Faculty of Graduate Studies ‘Conflict of Interest Guidelines’ for external examiners of Doctoral thesis.

The external examiner submits a report at least one week prior to the defence to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and attends the defence.  

Supervisors should provide the Graduate Secretary or Graduate Coordinator with the necessary information for arranging the defence.

16.2 Arranging the date and time of the examination

The time, date and place of MSc examinations are arranged by the Graduate Secretary.  An outline of all procedures to be followed for arranging MSc examinations is available from the Biology Office. The Graduate Secretary arranges the time and date for PhD examinations. PhD examinations are be held at a central location on campus. For PhD examinations, the Faculty of Graduate Studies Office will send announcements to departments.

Because extensive revision may be asked for, students should not enter commitments that prevent them from devoting full attention to correcting inadequacies immediately after the examination.

16.3 Examination formats

The thesis shall be defended orally before the examining committee and any other interested persons who choose to attend.  A public announcement of the examination shall normally be posted before the event.

A defence consists of a 10-20 minute survey by the candidate of the scope of the problem and main achievements. This is followed in MSc examinations by presentation of the external examiner's report (by the Chair) and the student's response. In PhD examinations, the Chair will give priority to the external examiner where one is present. After the remaining examiners and the audience have questioned the candidate, the examiners deliberate in camera, basing the decision both on the quality of the thesis and the candidate's ability to defend it.

16.4 Examination results

The outcome of MSc examinations is decided by the majority opinion of examiners present. No PhD thesis shall be accepted without approval of the external examiner, except that a negative opinion of an external examiner who does not attend the defence should not prevail over the unanimous opinion of other examiners present and voting.

Theses are graded on a pass or fail basis.  A thesis can be:

  • Accepted as submitted
  • Accepted on condition that specified corrections are made. The supervisor is normally asked to monitor the required changes and a time limit is set by the examining committee. Revisions should be made in the same typescript - insertions by pen are not acceptable. Pagination must be changed, if necessary, so that all numbering is consecutive.
  • Rejected with permission to submit a revised thesis. When resubmitted, the thesis will be re-read by an examining committee, containing at least two members from the original committee. The thesis shall be sent to an external examiner who may be the original external examiner if Chair of the examination considers this desirable. The revised thesis shall be defended in the usual way.
  • Rejected. The rejection may be on grounds of form as well as content. The candidate, research supervisor or departmental Chair may appeal this decision to the Chair of the examination. If the evidence presented appears sufficiently strong, the Chair shall initiate the procedure for a re-examination. No more than one appeal may be entertained.

16.5 Change in procedure

Regulations governing theses defence may be varied only if permission is obtained in writing. For MSc theses, discretion lies with the departmental Chair; for PhD theses, with the Dean of Graduate Studies.

17. Presentation of theses for graduation

17.1 Deadlines

Students are responsible for submitting to the Faculty of Graduate Studies Office the corrected and approved thesis.

 Information on thesis submission deadlines and convocation are published each year by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and are strictly adhered to.

Faculty of Graduate Studies require all theses to be submitted electronically via DalSpace.

17.2 Binding and distribution

Submitted theses are accessible online via DalSpace. To obtain a bound copy of the thesis, students and supervisors must contact directly and make arrangements with a binding company.

18. Demonstrating (Teaching Assistant)


As part of their graduate training, all students must spend at least two half-credit classes teaching in a Biology Department class. Students with external supervisors may teach in classes in the supervisor’s home Department or Faculty. 

This will occupy normally 3-6 hours per week. Students that TA at Dalhousie University will be paid in accordance with the CUPE rate. Students should examine the posted TA advertisements and apply to the TA Coordinator for TA positions.

19. Financial support

19.1 Research Support

A student's supervisor is responsible for costs directly associated with research for the thesis (except in occasional cases where there is a written agreement between student and supervisor before the student enters the program) but all costs associated with writing and presenting the thesis are the student's responsibility.

19.2 Scholarship support

This is available on a competitive basis from several sources. The Graduate Admissions Committee recommends students to the Dean and appropriate university committees for all internal scholarships and awards.

In arriving at these recommendations it uses:

  • class grades
  • references from supervisors and other knowledgeable persons

19.3 Self support

On the very few occasions, when a student with no financial support is accepted to a full-time degree program, the department requires that the student draft and sign a letter waiving any responsibility for financial support on the part of the university for the duration of the given degree program. However, this does not negate the possibility that support funding may subsequently be procured during or after the initial year.

19.4 Support beyond standard deadlines.

If the student has, through no fault of their own, failed to complete their thesis in the standard two years (MSc) or four years (PhD), the supervisor will normally support the student for up to an additional three months (MSc) or six months (PhD) from their research grants when necessary.

19.5 Travel grants

Students planning to present their research at a scientific meeting may apply to the Dean of Graduate Studies for a grant towards their expenses, at least a month before the conference, on the conference travel grant form.

A student may expect only one travel grant up to a total of $750 during the course of a degree program. Receipts for expenses must be submitted to the Dean's office; otherwise the travel grant will be recorded on the student's T4 form as income.

19.6 Lett Bursaries

The Patrick F. Lett Graduate Students Assistance Bursary is funded by an endowment from Dr. Lett. Its purpose is to assist biology graduate students in financial need either in emergency situations or with the loss of previous sources of support.

Bursaries awarded can be used to support the student's research, living expenses, tuition, books, lodging and travel that relates to his or her research.

The criterion is need. Application forms and guidelines are emailed to all graduate students several times a year and are available in the biology department main office

20. Graduate admissions committee (GAC)


The GAC has four faculty members elected for three-year terms by the Department of Biology Committee of the Whole, and one graduate student elected by the Biology Organization of Graduate Students (BOGS). It elects its own chair for a three year term from the faculty members.

The GAC processes all applications for graduate studies and recommends qualified students to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for admission, with financial support where appropriate. It is responsible for monetary aspects of the graduate program and selects or ranks students for scholarships, awards and other forms of financial support.

The GAC is responsible for drawing up the department's budget for graduate scholarships and submitting it to the Chair of the Department of Biology and the Faculty of Graduate Studies as requested. In doing so, the GAC reviews the needs and eligibility of continuing students for scholarship support and allocates funds accordingly. At an appropriate time after the Department of Biology budget allocation is known and the award of Killam and NSERC postgraduate scholarships has been announced, the GAC allocates Dalhousie Graduate awards to new students.

21.Graduate coordinator and graduate secretary


The Graduate Coordinator is appointed for a three-year term by the Committee of the Whole. This person is responsible for general administration of the graduate program and for channeling information to and from the Faculty of Graduate Studies Office. He/she is assisted by the Graduate Secretary.

The Graduate Coordinator, and Graduate Secretary maintain all graduate student records and help students with any difficulties they may encounter.

Each year before classes have started in September, the Graduate Coordinator and the Stream Chairs interview each graduate student who is registered but has not defended a thesis. At this meeting graduate program forms and program update forms are be completed.

Meeting purpose

  • Update departmental records.
  • Check that the student is meeting departmental and Faculty of Graduate Studies requirements.
  • Offer appropriate advice and listen to suggestions or criticisms on any aspect of the graduate program.

The Graduate Coordinator is responsible for taking whatever steps are needed to correct mistakes or deficiencies revealed by these interviews.

In November the Graduate Secretary will distribute to all first year students information about the admission to candidacy examination. The Graduate Secretary will schedule the examinations. The Graduate Coordinator will inform students of the results and follow up all issues arising from the examinations.

Graduate Coordinator responsibilities

  • Consult appropriately when any student has failed two attempts at a Preliminary Examination and advise the departmental Chair on a course of action.
  • Consider all applications for program extensions beyond the usual limits.
  • Consider applications for in-course transfers (section 4).
  • Consider all applications for readmission to graduate studies from students who have failed classes (section 4).
  • Solicit and approve all graduate classes, including special topics classes
  • Update procedures manual (this document).
  • Consider all grievances from students concerning their graduate work, and listen to advice or criticism on any aspect of the graduate program in general.
  • Conduct an evaluation of the graduate program by means of a graduate student survey every three years
  • Call and chair meetings of the Graduate Directorate (section 22).
  • Present a report on the graduate program at the Biology Department Annual General Meeting.

Graduate Secretary responsibilities

  • Take minutes at Graduate Directorate meetings.
  • Assist in preparing by August each year the departmental booklet “Graduate Classes for Biology Students.”
  • Assist in preparing the departmental entry for the Faculty of Graduate Studies Calendar.
  • Inform the Registrar's office of any changes in graduate class offerings not included in the University timetable for the current year.
  • Give students mail slots.
  • Maintain student records.
  • Setup ATC examinations.
  • Set up preliminary examinations.
  • Setup MSc thesis defences.
  • Liaise with the Faculty of Graduate Studies in setting up PhD thesis defences.
  • Assists Graduate Coordinator and Chair of Biology Department in management of program

22. Graduate directorate


This consists of the stream Chairs, the Chair of the GAC, the Executive Assistant, two student representatives appointed by BOGS,  and is chaired by the Graduate Coordinator.

It reviews all policy recommendations from stream and committee chairs as well as student representatives and transmits them to the Committee of the Whole.

On request, it advises the Graduate Coordinator on dealing with situations and procedures not covered in this book.

23. Supervisors

23.1 Initial meeting with supervisor

The supervisor must meet with the student to select a program before classes commence.  

If the student is not on campus by this time, the meeting must take place within one or two days of arrival.  

Students on campus and unable to meet their supervisor should consult the Graduate Coordinator.

The responsibilities of the supervisor at his/her first meeting with the student are:

  • To help the student plan classes and other course work and advise on all requirements for the degree sought.
  • To determine which classes are required and whether any should be designated ancillary or audit.
  • To ensure that the student has suitable working space and facilities for research.
  • For overseas students, to advise on matters such as health insurance, social security numbers, etc., and to ensure that housing and finances are adequate.

23.2 Responsibilities of students and supervisors

Responsibilities of students towards supervisors, and supervisors towards students are laid out in the regulations of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations.

23.3 External supervisor

Before a student is admitted to be supervised by anexternal supervisor (not biology department faculty), the supervisor (if not Dalhousie faculty) must be appointed an adjunct professor, must be in good standing in terms of fulfilling their responsibilities as laid down in the Procedures and Guidelines for  adjunct professors, and have attended an adjunct information session.

Unless the supervisor is a faculty member of an institution with a MSc program in biology, a willing co-supervisor from the full-time biology department faculty (see section 24.1) for the student must have been identified, and financial arrangements for the student's scholarship and research costs must have been arranged by the co-supervisors.

23.4 Termination of supervision

Supervisors have the right to “terminate supervision and advise the student to find another supervisor if the student does not heed advice and ignores recommendations for changes in the thesis, or if the student is not putting forth a reasonable effort.”  If the supervisor decides to invoke this right:

(i) It should only take place after several written warnings.

(ii) A written record of the warnings and the student's response should be kept by the supervisor.

(iii)  The Supervisory Committee should be advised and a meeting should be called at an early stage when problems arise.

(iv)  If the supervisor exercises her/his right to discontinue supervision, and the student agrees that the supervisor has behaved fairly, then:

a) The supervisor may stop contributing to the student's scholarship effective on termination of supervision.

b) The student may attempt to find a new supervisor but there is no obligation on the part of the Biology Department to provide one for the student.


c) The department will attempt to persuade Graduate Studies to continue any portion of the scholarship from FGS. funds for a period while the student is searching for a new supervisor, and after a new supervisor is found.

d)If no supervisor can be found then the student must withdraw from the program.

(v)If the supervisor exercises her/his right to discontinue supervision, and the student does not agree that the supervisor has behaved fairly, then a review committee will be formed to consider the case.

The review committee will consist of:

a) the student's supervisory committee (excluding the supervisor);

b) two graduate stream chairs (not members of the supervisory committee) nominated by the graduate coordinator; and

c) one graduate student nominated by BOGS.

The review committee will first elect its chair from amongst its members, and then consider the arguments and perspectives of the supervisor, student, and anyone else who they think may have relevant information.

If the review committee agrees (by majority vote with the chair breaking ties) that the supervisor behaved reasonably then the consequences are as in step (iv) (above). However if the review committee does not support the supervisor then:

If no suitable alternative supervisor can be found by the student and graduate coordinator, the Chair of the Biology Department will nominate a new supervisor for the student.

The previous supervisor will continue any financial commitments to the student's scholarship until the end of the academic year or current contract (whichever is shorter).

Should suitable alternative financial support not be found then the Biology Department is obliged to continue the student's scholarship at its current rate for the remainder of the full two years (if MSc) or four years (if PhD).

(vi) The student may appeal the actions taken according to this policy through the usual Faculty of Graduate Studies procedure: first the departmental Chair, then the Dean of Graduate Studies, then (if the matter is still unresolved) the Appeals Committee of the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

24. Supervisory committee


The Supervisory Committee is recruited by the student, taking account of advice from the supervisor.  This committee is responsible for guiding the graduate student through his/her degree program.  It consists of the supervisor and other persons with expertise or interests relevant to the student's field of study.  Its composition must be reported to the Graduate Coordinator when the student applies for admission to candidacy.  The Supervisory Committee for both PhD and MSc students consists of the supervisor/co-supervisors and at least two others.  Supervisory Committee members may be chosen from outside Dalhousie University, however:

(i) Students supervised by adjunct professors at other institutions must have a co-supervisor from within the full-time faculty of the Biology Department.

(ii) All member of the supervisory committee must be members of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University.

(iii) At least half the supervisory committee members must be regular members of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University.

The student may change the composition of his/her Supervisory Committee by application to the Graduate Coordinator, after consulting with their supervisor and those members of their Committee they wish to add or remove.

The first meeting of the potential Supervisory Committee is usually at the Admission to Candidacy Examination (ATC) (see section 11).

Supervisors should encourage students to consult other members of their Supervisory Committee, either individually or as a group, whenever it would be useful.  Students have the right to call a committee meeting at any time but should do so at least once per year.  The committee should also have opportunities to criticize the work in progress and make alternative suggestions before it appears in thesis form.  Supervisors and students are therefore encouraged to call the committee together to discuss research progress as often as necessary.

It is recommended that students write a report of all their supervisory committee meetings other than the ATC exam, Preliminary exam, and defence, and circulate it to their supervisor and committee for comments.

Last updated, March 29, 2016 by Sophie Stone