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Graduate Studies

Graduate Studies Program Guidelines

These graduate student guidelines were written to advise incoming graduate students and help guide them through their tenure here in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. This should not be used as a "rulebook".

Decisions made by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) may supersede any departmental policies. Furthermore, changes may be made to these guidelines as the graduate program continues to evolve. For all questions regarding policy and protocol, students should consult the FGSR Graduate Program Manual.

Graduate Training Committee
Graduate Recruitment Committee
Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology
November 2003

Admission Supervisor Selection Laboratory Rotations Course Requirements Candidacy Exam Supervisory Committee Financial Support University Teaching Program Thesis Defense Student/Supervisor Conflicts



The University of Alberta charges an application fee of $100. Students who are admitted into and enter the MMI program will have their application fee refunded at the beginning of the term. Applicants can be accepted into either the MSc or the Ph.D. program. Students need not have a MSc to be admitted into the Ph.D. program. Applicants must have the minimum of the equivalent of a 3.3 average at the U of A. The Department generally does not accept students with less than an honors grade in their undergraduate degree, or an equivalent qualification from another recognized institution. Applicants that have degrees from institutions where English is not the official language of instruction must have a TOEFL score of at least 600 on the written test, 232 on the computer test or 96 on the internet test (with at least 20 on each of the skill areas). The TOEFL is not required for applicants that have been educated in Canada or other countries where English is the native language. In addition, students that graduated from a university listed on the following list are exempt from the TOEFL exam . Applicants from outside Canada or the USA must score in the 75th percentile in the quantitative, verbal and analytical sections of the GRE to be considered for admission.



Course Requirements

To obtain a degree, a student must take at least two graduate-level courses for a MSc or three courses for a PhD. In addition students in both the MSc and PhD programs must take MMI 601, a required seminar course which they must take for credit in their first year. In the case of Ph.D. students, one of their three courses must be MMI 605 (MSc students may take this course but they are not required to do so.)  MMI 605 will generally be taken in the fall term of the second year.  Students in both programs must maintain a GPA of 3.3 or more in these designated courses and in all courses taken for credit while in graduate school. A list of acceptable courses can be obtained from the departmental office.



Laboratory Rotations

All incoming graduate students may consider the option of taking part in laboratory rotations during their first year. The purpose of the laboratory rotations is not necessarily to complete a research project but to gain skills and insight that will be useful when designing a thesis project. These rotations will also allow the student to meet members of the Department, learn how various laboratories operate, and determine where the work for the thesis project will be carried out.

Prior to arriving at the University, the student should try to talk to several of the staff members in the Department to learn about the various research projects ongoing in the Department. The student, after consulting with staff members, will then decide in which laboratories the rotations will be done. Rotations run from Sept. to Dec. 31.  A total of two rotations can be done with two different supervisors with the second rotation beginning in the last week of October. A single supervisor may take on no more than four rotating students and no more that two permanent students in a single academic year. So that students' progress is not delayed through the program, rotating students are still required to take courses during the first year. Coursework cannot be delayed until after completion of the rotations. Students not making satisfactory progress during the rotations could be dismissed from the program.

The rotations are funded through departmental graduate research assistantships and offer support from September through December at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) rate of $17,000 per year (pro-rated for 4 months). This support is contingent on the student performing satisfactorily in the rotations and courses. Any student that is not rotating and is going directly to a given supervisor would not be supported by these departmental funds but by the supervisor during this period. Students cannot join the rotation program after taking up residence in a specific lab, however students may join a particular lab before the completion of the rotations at which time the supervisor would then assume the financial support of the student.



Selection of a Supervisor

By January 1 of the first year the student should have selected a supervisor to direct the thesis project. This can be anyone in MMI or can be a cross-appointee who is able to take MMI students, and does not have to be anyone with whom rotations were done. This decision is made after a mutual agreement between the student and staff member. No staff member is obligated to accept a student into their laboratory and a student must have a supervisor to remain in the program. Therefore, if a student has not found a lab in which to carry out their project by January 1, they may not continue in the program.

Once selection of a supervisor is made the student must then, after consultation with the supervisor, design a suitable thesis project. This project is then presented to the student's supervisory committee for approval.



Graduate Student Supervisory Committee

Within a year of beginning graduate school, the student and his/her supervisor must convene a meeting of members of the student's supervisory committee. The committee is comprised of the supervisor, who acts as the chair, plus two or more academic members of the University (those who are members of the Faculty of Graduate Studies), at least one of whom should be a member of the Department. In order to keep the number of members of the candidacy examining committee and the thesis defense committee to a minimum, the Department recommends a supervisory committee consisting of the supervisor plus two members for a total of three. The choice of committee members is left to the student and supervisor, but usually members are chosen for expertise in aspects of the student's research project and must be approved by the Department and the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR).

The supervisory committee meets at least once yearly to review progress made both academically and in the thesis research. The student usually presents a review of research progress, courses taken and the grades obtained in these courses. Future plans, both research and academic, are then considered at the meeting. Decisions are also made for formal advancements within the program (promotion to provisional Ph.D. status, setting the candidacy exam, approval of setting the thesis defense). Students are required to submit an annual progress report at each committee meeting; a copy of that report goes on the student's file and is available to the Graduate Training Committee.



Financial Support

Each supervisor is responsible for finding financial support for the graduate student until completion of the degree unless the student is not making normal progress towards completing his/her degree. Examples of inadequate progress would include not maintaining the minimum grade average, unsatisfactory performance at two consecutive supervisory meetings, and failure to pass the candidacy exam. The supervisor is required to support the student for up to three years for a MSc and up to five years for a Ph.D. The level of support should be consistent with that outlined in the CIHR guidelines (currently $17,850) and should be paid through University-administered funds. Supervisors are also reminded that foreign students pay a 100% differential fee which will be more than $5,000 per year, depending on the number of courses taken and should be supplemented accordingly. The supervisor will provide funds separate from the stipend amount listed above to cover the entire cost of tuition fees.

All students, if they are qualified to do so, are required to apply to outside granting agencies, such as the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, for funding as soon as it is appropriate to do so. Students with excellent academic records are encouraged to apply for NSERC awards prior to or at the initiation of the graduate program. They should also apply for any University-sponsored fellowships for which they qualify. The Department can make no commitment to the financial support of the graduate students beyond the first term (for rotating students) and has no source of long term funding for students.



TAing Requirements

All Medical Microbiology & Immunology graduate students are required to serve as teaching assistants at least once. This should be undertaken in the second or third years (Ph.D. students must be mindful of when they will be taking their candidacy exams so there is no time conflict). Students cannot TA in their first term and can do so only with permission during their second term. TAships are set up as 'teaching units' and are paid positions. Students may teach additional teaching units during their careers - up to two per term, but this teaching requires permission from their supervisor and it must not interfere with their work in the lab.



Candidacy Examination

In order to become a Ph.D. candidate, the student must pass the candidacy exam. Students are required to take the examination within the first 30 months of beginning the program - they are encouraged to take it by the 24 month mark but if this doesn't happen it must be scheduled at the 24 month mark to take place some time in the next 6 months. The candidacy exam is comprehensive and addresses the qualifications of the student in terms of their ability to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level. Thesis research is not the subject of examination. The exam is based on a written proposal prepared by the student which forms the basis for the majority of the questions. The details of the candidacy exam are provided in the Graduate Program Handbook available from the departmental office. The FGSR Manual also provides the details on the timing and the composition of the examining committee.



Final Examination and Thesis Defense

When a student has completed the research project and has a body of publishable data, the student should, after approval by the supervisory committee, begin writing the thesis. Students are strongly encouraged to have at least the data equivalent to one publication before the completion of a MSc and generally three publications before completing the PhD. At a minimum, one of these PhD publications should be a first author paper in press prior to the final examination.

Guidelines for thesis formats (structure of the thesis, paper, margins etc.) are available from the Faculty of Graduate Studies. There are two general formats available: the traditional and the paper format. The Department encourages publications but recommends the traditional thesis format for a number of reasons:

  1. if written in this way, scientists from outside the Department will know that the writing is that of the student
  2. reformatting the published papers to fit the thesis format and integrating them together in a way that creates a cohesive document is often more difficult than writing it in the traditional thesis format
  3. this format allow examiners outside of the specialized area to more easily evaluate the work, and
  4. only work done by the student can be included in the thesis.

Since many papers have multiple authors, the student's contribution to each paper must be delineated. All collaborative efforts and technical assistance must be acknowledged in the thesis.

The time line for convening the final examination committee meeting is important to consider. For a PhD thesis, a lead time of two months before the exam date should be allowed for the Faculty of Graduate Studies to approve a prospective External Reader or Examiner (who is nominated by the Department Chair usually upon the recommendation of the supervisor). There is no external reader or examiner from outside of the University for a MSc thesis - the thesis should be distributed to the supervisory committee six weeks before the final exam so that revisions can be made before it is sent to the External Examiner (four weeks before the exam). Before the thesis is forwarded to the External Examiner, supervisory committee members must submit in writing that the thesis is of adequate substance to warrant a final examination. The student should be aware of deadlines to be met for submitting the final document to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for spring or fall convocations.

According to FGSR policy, the final PhD examining committee will consist of the supervisory committee, to which at least two members are added for a minimum total of five. For a MSc examining committee, the minimum number of examiners is three. At least one member must be from another department and be at "arms length" from the thesis project or the supervisor's projects. The second extra supervisory member can be an External Examiner (from outside the University), or if an External Reader is chosen (an external examiner who does not attend the exam, but who submits comments to the committee), any other faculty member recognized by the Faculty of Graduate Studies. The final exam is chaired by a departmental designate who is not a member of the examination committee and who is present to moderate discussion and record the minutes of the exam. Since the chair of the examination is not a member of the Examination Committee, s/he does not vote. If not already a member of the examination committee, the Chair of the Department may be a non-voting participant.  The Dean of FGSR may appoint a pro Dean who acts as the Dean's representative and is a full voting member of the examining committee.  The main function of a pro Dean is to assure the proper conduct of the examination.

A candidate is required to present a public seminar based on the thesis, usually just prior to the final exam. Members of the examining committee must attend the public seminar and any member of the University community is free to attend the seminar and question the candidate on any aspect of the presented research during the question period following the seminar. The chair of the examination will moderate the question period so that it does not result in the discussion of material that is more appropriate for the examination. The presentation plus questions is generally approximately one hour long. Members of the examining committee (including the supervisor) must refrain from questions and comments during the presentation and question period.

Immediately after the seminar, the examining committee convenes for the examination which lasts two or more hours. Exam questions usually are concerned, but not exclusively so, with the thesis. The questions are set to enable the committee to form an opinion on the quality of the candidate's thesis work as well as his/her capability to comprehend its significance in the context of the field. Thus, both the document and the candidate are being examined. The supervisor usually does not participate in the questioning in the final exam. The committee can approve the thesis, approve the thesis with minor modifications, approve with major modifications (in which case the exam is postponed until modifications are complete) or reject the thesis. All modifications have to be completed within six months of the original examination date.



Graduate Student/Supervisor Conflicts

Because of the pressures on both supervisors and students, the relationship between them can become strained, particularly if open communication between the two is not maintained. Regular meetings between a graduate student and the supervisor, in addition to the annual supervisory committee meetings, may serve to circumvent a number of potential conflicts. Should problems arise, either the student or the supervisor may call a meeting of the supervisory committee that will be attended by a member of the Graduate Training Committee to try to resolve the conflict. This should be done immediately after it is apparent that a problem exists, before it becomes unresolvable. If no decisions can be made, or if a decision is made that is not satisfactory to all those involved, the student and supervisor will then meet with Graduate Training Committee and the Department Chair to resolve the conflict.



University Teaching Program (UTP)

The University Teaching Program (UTP) began in 1998 and is an opportunity to learn the theory and practice of teaching. It is:

  • an optional program based on the initiative of the graduate student
  • cost-free to the student
  • equivalent of an academic credit on the student's transcript

Whatever your future career, it will have a teaching element in it.

Be prepared - gain confidence in your abilities

For more information, see UTP Requirements

If you are currently enrolled in the University Teaching Program, you can access the new WordPress Blog  to connect with other students in the program.