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Biological Chemistry Graduate Student Guidelines & Requirements

Below are the requirements and guidelines for Biological Chemistry Program Students.

I. First Year of Graduate Study

A. Curriculum

B. Laboratory Rotations

C. Recruiting Involvement

D. Evaluation of First Year Academic Performance

II. Selecting a Thesis Advisor

III. Following Years

The Biological Chemistry Program at the University of Utah is designed to provide students with excellent graduate education at the interface of biology and chemistry. Students can choose from one of three independent research tracks (Biochemistry, Chemical Biology/Medicinal Chemistry, and Structural Biology/Biophysics) as a framework for the interdisciplinary training they receive during the first year of graduate school. The Biological Chemistry program further provides students with a strong foundation of knowledge that will support their training as they transition into a laboratory for the remainder of their graduate education. Investigators span diverse disciplines and use chemical or physical approaches to biological problems in one of the seven participating science Departments of Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Medicinal Chemistry, Oncological Sciences, Pharmaceutics / Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Pharmacology and Toxicology.

All PhD students admitted to the Biological Chemistry Program who remain in good standing receive financial support including a fellowship ($29,130 for the 2020-2021 academic year, $29,714 for the 2021-2022 academic year), tuition waiver through the Tuition Benefit Program, and health insurance throughout the entirety of their graduate student tenure.

I. First Year of Graduate Study

Most students in the Biological Chemistry Program will complete the standard program outlined below during their first year. First-year graduate students begin their studies Fall semester, although some students may elect to arrive earlier in the summer to accommodate an additional lab rotation. (Not available Summer 2020)

Prior to arrival, each student is assigned a faculty advisor, who will provide guidance on first-year curriculum and laboratory rotation choices. The student and Academic Advisor will meet at least twice each semester to plan coursework and discuss rotations (see below).

In addition to coursework and rotations, the Bioscience Program Office sponsors annual social events that students are expected to attend such as the Student Retreat, Annual Bioscience Symposium, summer student picnic, and recruiting events.

A. Curriculum

  • Designed to provide students with a solid background in key areas of biological chemistry
  • Designed to teach independent, critical thinking skills, and grant writing
  • Designed to fulfill the NIH-mandated requirement for training in scientific ethics

The standard first year coursework is as follows:

Fall Semester
BLCHM 6050 Faculty Research Interest Seminars
MBIOL 7570 Research Ethics (1 credit, full semester)
BLCHM 6410 Protein & Nucleic Acid Biochemistry (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 6400 Genetic Engineering (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 6460 Protein Chemistry (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 6450 Biophysical Chemistry (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 7960 Graduate Research (2-3 credits, full semester)
Spring Semester
BLCHM 6200 Critical Thinking in Research (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 6300 Guided Proposal Preparation (2 credits, half semester)
BLCHM 7960 Graduate Research (2-3 credits, full semester)

Electives (choose 3)

Choose 3 different electives during the semester (students are encouraged to select courses from the research tracks and to take two electives in the A-term plus one in the B-term)

Students must be registered full time for between 9-12 graduate credit hours per semester during Fall and Spring.

Core Curriculum

Biological Chemistry Program students take four half-semester length core courses that have been designed to provide students with a solid background in a variety of important areas of biological chemistry.

If deficiencies in the academic background are identified, the student may be advised to register for appropriate courses at the undergraduate level and to delay taking a core course until the second year.

By the end of the second year of study, all students are expected to have fulfilled the Program's core requirements.


Case Studies in Research Ethics is taken in the fall semester of the first year of graduate study. In this class, students discuss ethical issues of scientific research and integrity. Specific topics include scientific fraud, conflicts of interest, plagiarism, authorship designation, and the role of science in formulating social policy.

Critical Thinking in Research / Guided Proposal Preparation

In order to teach the skills required to be a successful independent scientist, this course will instruct students on how to digest and analyze papers and problem solve - both of which involve will reviewing and applying material from previous core courses. The instructors will develop the specific course content, and topics may include: How to read a paper (read at home, discuss in class); Survey of the core services; and Problem solving with open-ended problems posed on real-life or made-up situations. A focused effort will be made to help students identify topics that they can develop into grants in the Spring term. Grading will be based on participation and individual work.

To prepare students for their thesis research, prelims, and qualifying exams, we will offer a guided proposal preparation course in the second half of the Spring semester that builds on their experience earlier in the semester (critical reading of primary literature and problem solving). The guided grant writing course will provide an opportunity for students to create an original research proposal by critical review of other grants, training in hypothesis generation, scientific writing, and experimental design. The written original grant proposal will be used as a basis for an oral capstone examination by a faculty committee.


In spring semester, students will self-select 3 elective courses. Classes from the Biochemistry, Medicinal Chemistry/Chemical Biology, and Structural Biology/Biophysics tracks are recommended. These are didactic courses designed to help students gain proficiency in specialized areas of interest.

These courses vary by year - please see the Curriculum page for recent examples.

Biochemistry Research Track Courses:
Metabolic Regulation; Advanced Biochemistry; Nucleic Acid Chemistry

Chemical Biology/Medicinal Chemistry Research Track Courses:
Fundamentals of Drug Discovery & Design; Understanding Therapeutically Relevant Biomolecules

Structural Biology/Biophysics Research Track Courses:
Structural Methods; Optics in Biology; Biological Motors; Molecular Modeling

B. Laboratory Rotations

Biological Chemistry Program students complete three (3) laboratory rotations with different faculty members in their first year of graduate study. A summer research experience is available before they begin classes or an additional rotation can be done at the end of the first year if needed. Neither can substitute for one of the three rotations during the regular academic year.

Laboratory rotations are essential for identifying the appropriate thesis mentor and lab. In addition, laboratory rotations may provide: exposure to areas of research they might not otherwise experience; familiarize the student with research in different groups and departments through research seminars; and help them develop contacts and learn experimental techniques that may prove helpful in subsequent thesis research.

To assist students in identifying productive and exciting laboratory rotation experiences, program faculty present short talks about their research programs during the fall semester in the Faculty Research Seminar forum. Program faculty talks inform students about the diversity of possible thesis topics and the variety of experimental approaches employed in the different program laboratories.

General guidelines for a student choosing and successfully completing a lab rotation are outlined below:

  1. A student should choose a rotation lab only after careful thought and discussions with the Academic Advisor. This is the faculty member assigned to advise the student in his/her first year.
  2. The primary goal of the rotation system is for the student to find a lab in which to pursue thesis research.
  3. A student may only rotate through a lab belonging to the Molecular Biology or Biological Chemistry programs.
    1. Given that these programs cover the vast majority of PhD degree-granting laboratories in the life sciences at the University, exceptions to this rule will only be permitted after consultation with the student's Academic Advisor and with written permission by the Program Director.
    2. BC students are required to complete at least 2 of the 3 required rotations in BC faculty labs.
    3. Note: If a student elects to join a thesis lab outside the Biological Chemistry Program all program guarantees, such as the stipend assurance, are no longer binding. Please see guidelines about selecting a thesis advisor below.
  4. Students are encouraged to rotate in at least two (2) different departments throughout the year.
  5. At the outset of the rotation project, students are asked to discuss conceptual and methodological details with the Rotation Advisor.  It is the Rotation Advisor’s responsibility to ensure students understand rotation expectations, such as attendance at group research meetings and the format of the end-of-rotation report/presentation (see below).
  6. Before the end of the rotation, students must submit a Rotation Report in the format of either a Power Point presentation and/or a written 2-4 page rotation report to the Rotation Advisor. This report will also be submitted to the Program Office as evidence of the completed rotation.
  7. The content of the Rotation Report should be discussed beforehand with the Rotation Advisor and should reflect the students' understanding of the basic principles involved in the project.  A rotation report/presentation includes:
    1. a description of the basic background of the research area
    2. a statement of the specific problem to be addressed in the project
    3. a description of the experimental approach to the problem
    4. a summary of experimental results, if any, and their analysis
    5. Note: The emphasis should be on the explanation of the scientific problem and experimental approach rather than on obtaining a large body of results
  8. Approximately one week before the end of the rotation, the Program Office will give each student a Rotation Verification Form.  The student should:
    1.  Meet with Rotation Advisor to review Rotation Report and obtain signature indicating both satisfactory performance during the rotation and approval of the Report.
    2. Meet with Academic Advisor and obtain signature indicating satisfactory completion of rotation and to ensure finalization of the next rotation selection.
    3. Return signed Rotation Verification and an e-mailed electronic copy of the Rotation Report to the Program Office in order to receive a “CREDIT” grade.
    4. Note: Students will be given an “INCOMPLETE” grade until both documents have been submitted.  ALL rotation documents need to be submitted before a student can officially transfer to a thesis lab. Stipend coverage will not be extended for late submission.
  9. Faculty are encouraged to only have one or two rotation students at one time. Faculty should email the Program Director if they intend to have more than 2 rotation students at a time. (Fall 2020 rotations are restricted to 1 student at a time without permission from Program Director)
  10. In principle, students and faculty should be talking during the rotation about the possibility of joining the lab. However, this commitment should not be finalized until signing day (see below).

Rotation Schedule for 2020-21

(Please note: these dates do not correlate with the academic quarters.)

Fall 2020 Semester

1st Rotation: Monday, August 31 - Tuesday, October 13, 2020

2nd Rotation: Wednesday, October 14 - Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Spring 2021 Semester

3rd Rotation: Monday, January 11 - Friday, March 5, 2021

Lab Commitments can begin: Monday, March 8, 2021

C. Recruiting Involvement

All students are expected to participate with recruiting new students during their first year. This will include hosting prospective students during the recruiting weekends.

D. Evaluation of First Year Academic Performance

Every effort will be made to help students succeed during the first year, including consultation from an academic advisor. However an unsatisfactory Biological Chemistry Program academic and/or research performance can result in dismissal.

Satisfactory academic performance includes, but is not limited to:

  • Students must earn a B- or better in all graded core courses.
  • Students must maintain a GPA of at least 3.0
  • Students must be eligible for the Tuition Benefit Program tuition waiver
  • Satisfactory completion of laboratory rotations

Academic Standards

Biological Chemistry Program students are required to comply with the Policy Statement on Academic Standards outlined here.

Every student is required to sign a statement regarding the University of Utah Honor Code. Some university courses have take-home exams. Cheating, plagiarism or collusion on examinations is not permissible. Academic dishonesty will likely result in revocation of stipend and tuition benefits and a recommendation for dismissal from graduate school. Collaboration on certain problem sets may be permitted as specified by the course instructor. If any doubts exist, the student should ask the instructor for clarification. This information should be read carefully and students should contact a faculty advisor, the Director, or the Program Office with any questions.

Unsatisfactory Performance

Evaluation of students with unsatisfactory academic and/or laboratory rotation records is conducted by the student’s academic advisor and the director. Any student with a grade of C or lower in 2 or more of the core courses, and/or with a GPA less than 3.0 will be evaluated for appropriateness for continuation in graduate school.

  • Students who earn a C or lower in a graded core course may retake it during the second year.
  • Only one retake is allowed. By the end of the second year of study, all students are expected to have fulfilled the Program's core requirements.

  •  Students with a GPA less than 3.0 will have 1 semester to bring their GPA back up

Students with an unsatisfactory performance in their rotations and thus unable to identify a suitable dissertation lab by the end of their first year will also be evaluated for appropriateness for continuation in graduate school.

Capstone Exam

The written original grant proposal prepared in the Guided Proposal Preparation course will be used as a basis for an oral capstone examination by a faculty committee. This exam will ensure that students meet our standards for thesis work and review material from the core courses before they join a department and lab. Students will prepare an R21-style grant proposal (~6 single-spaced pages, covering 2 years of work) to be submitted 5 days before the exam. They will present and defend the proposal in front of a 3-member capstone exam committee. Students must pass this exam in order to join a lab and department.

II. Selecting a Thesis Advisor

Choosing a Mentor

Students choose thesis advisors at the end of Spring semester. Arrangements are made by mutual agreement between mentor and student, and automatically admit the student to the degree program of the advisor's department (Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Medicinal Chemistry, Oncological Sciences, Pharmaceutics / Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Pharmacology and Toxicology). Note that acceptance to a lab is conditional on passing the end-of-year capstone exam.

In order to allow fair access to thesis labs, students and faculty should not make firm commitments regarding choice of a thesis lab until the Monday after the end of the last rotation (early March). Students should discuss their interest in working in the lab of the potential Thesis Advisor during the year and learn whether space will be available and whether a faculty member “in principle” will direct their thesis. When a choice has been made, submit this information to the Program office.

A Thesis Agreement Form will be signed by the student, PI, and Department Chair after final grades have posted. This form states the student's progress during the first year.

The Biological Chemistry Program is responsible for students only during their first year. Financial support beyond the first academic year is a departmental responsibility. Every effort will be made to assist students in finding an advisor, but ultimately, each student is responsible for making appropriate arrangements. Only in exceptional circumstances, and with approval of the Program Director, will the Program continue financial support beyond one year.

Faculty are urged to accept only one student from each year's class. Mentors wishing to take more than 2 thesis students from the Molecular Biology and Biological Chemistry Programs at the end of spring semester should discuss their plans with the Program Director.

A student may elect to join a thesis lab outside the Biological Chemistry Program. However, the Program cannot guarantee stipend support for students in labs outside the Bioscience PhD Programs. Additional coursework may be required.

The Program recommends each participating department maintain the current stipend amount but departments may vary on other support, i.e., insurance benefits. Please consult the individual department and potential thesis advisor about support.

III. Following Years

After the first year, each student's education will be conducted under the policies of the department of the Thesis Advisor. This requires satisfactory completion of the standard first year program, including any courses that have been deferred or that must be repeated. In addition, requirements of the graduate school must be met, including a cumulative grade point average above 3.0 and the writing and defending of a PhD Thesis.

Additional requirements common to all departments include the following:

  1. A Preliminary Examination / Advancement to Candidacy must be passed. The form and content of the exam may differ slightly from department to department. In general, the preliminary exam will not be undertaken (and in no case shall be considered to have been passed) until the Biological Chemistry core program has been satisfactorily completed. The preliminary exam should be taken before the end of the second year.
  2. Upper-level graduate students are required to take a minimum totaling three half semesters (1 1/2 semesters) of additional graduate level courses. This could be a mix of didactic and journal clubs or discussion courses centered around primary literature. Please check the individual department requirements. Some non-graduate level courses may also be accepted.
  3. Each of the participating departments has weekly journal clubs and research-in-progress seminars and participation is considered a continuing and vital part of the students' graduate education.
  4. Graduate students admitted to the Biological Chemistry Program are required to obtain a minimum of one full semester of teaching experience in their second or later years. Teaching opportunities include, but are not limited to: assisting instructors in graduate level courses, leading discussion sections in undergraduate lecture courses, supervising undergraduates in laboratory courses, and serving as a teaching assistant in local public schools. There is no teaching obligation in the first year of Program study, thereby enabling students to concentrate on laboratory rotations and first-year academics.
  5. A student transferring from one department to another after the first year will be subject to the specific guidelines of their new department. There is no guarantee that a Preliminary Examination or Advancement to Candidacy in one department will be sufficient for another department’s requirements.


Last Updated: 1/4/21