Thesis defenses in Biology

  • For PhD defences: The examiners must submit a written report to the Grad School on your thesis one week before your defense, by email in response to an email that the Grad School will send them. If two (or more) examiners say the thesis should not be defended, the Chair will recommend that the exam be cancelled, though the student always has the right to proceed with the exam even in the face of negative reports. The Chair of the committee is chosen by the Grad School. You may not know this person but that does not matter; the Chair is there to see that the committee follows the rules of the School of Graduate Studies. The examining committee is comprised of:
  • Chair of the Committee
  • Head's delegate
  • Supervisor(s)
  • At least one other member of the Department
  • At least one faculty member from another Department
  • External examiner
  • For MSc defences: The examiners will submit a written report to the Biology Graduate Assistant ONLY if they have serious concerns about the thesis, and at least 72 h in advance of the defence. If two (or more) examiners say the thesis should not be defended, the Chair will recommend that the exam be cancelled, though the student always has the right to proceed with the exam even in the face of negative reports. The Chair is selected by the Graduate Studies Assistant and will normally be from another department. At least one member of the Examination Committee must be from a different department. Normally this is the Chair but a Chair from Biology is permitted, if one of the examiners is from a different department.  The Chair of the Master's Thesis Examination Committee is not a voting member of the committee. The Graduate Coordinator (or Head, if the Graduate Coordinator is a supervisor) must approve the composition of the Examining Committee and signing the applicable departmental form. The MSc Examining Committee is comprised of:
  • Chair of the Committee
  • Supervisor(s
  • Head's delegate
  • At least 2 examiners 
PhD Defense Seminar: At the discretion of the student and supervisory committee, PhD students may elect to present their departmental seminar immediately before the examination. Such a seminar is a requirement for the PhD and can be given either at the start of the PhD thesis defense or at some other time, usually in the departmental seminar series. If this seminar is presented before the defense it should be no more than 45 min long, including questions, and should be followed immediately by the defence. No further summary/seminar will be required during the defense itself. This seminar will be open to the department and should be presented in the same room as the thesis defense. NOTE: the Chair of the thesis defence and all of the examiners are expected to attend this seminar and should be notified of this. Thus the thesis defence actually begins at the start of the student's seminar.

Examination: You will be asked to leave the room while the Chair reads the examiners' comments and also asks for verbal comments. Often the comments are contradictory, but sometimes all the examiners have seized on one point. It is not uncommon for the examiners to become sidetracked and start to talk about something else. If you seem to be waiting for some time it is probably not because of your thesis.

When you enter the room you will be asked to give a short talk of approximately 15 minutes, unless you are a PhD student who has given a departmental seminar immediately before the exam (see above). This, hopefully, will make you feel relaxed prior to the questions. It is better not to simply review your thesis since you can assume that everyone has read it. Tell the committee why you think the work is important and the conclusions you have reached. Suggest work which might be done and how you would have modified the experiments if you were to perform the work again.

You will be asked questions first by the external examiner, followed by the rest of the committee, then the Head or delegate. Your supervisor comes last and may not ask questions. In the first round of questions, each examiner is normally limited to 15 or 20 minutes. After the first round, there may be a second round of questioning. Remember you are there to defend the thesis not to agree with the examiners. Remember that the examiner is often asking questions because he or she feels obligated to do so and is not deliberately attacking your work. Many examiners are, in fact, truly interested in knowing more about your results.

Decision: You will be asked to leave the room again while a decision is reached. The committee has three options: 1) passed; 2) referred; 3) failed. The first does not mean the thesis is perfect but that the changes are small. The second means more extensive revisions and one member of the committee, usually your supervisor, will have to verify that you have made the required changes. There is often a time limit on these changes and if the changes are not made by that time your pass will automatically become a fail. Be warned, and complete the changes promptly. If you fail, the committee will usually give you some idea about how you should proceed.

    I've spent more time than many will believe [making microscopic observations], but I've done them with joy, and I've taken no notice those who have said why take so much trouble and what good is it?

    Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

    It's a parts list... If I gave you the parts list for the Boeing 777 and it had 100,000 parts, I don't think you could screw it together and you certainly wouldn't understand why it flew

    Eric Lander

    What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant

    Jacques Monod

    The world becomes full of organisms that have what it takes to become ancestors. That, in a sentence, is Darwinism

    Richard Dawkins

    Shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life?

    Erasmus Darwin

    Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it's impossible to determine the line of demarcation


    Cells let us walk, talk, think, make love, and realize the bath water is cold

    Lorraine Lee Cudmore

    In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history

    Charles Darwin

    It is my belief that the basic knowledge that we're providing to the world will have a profound impact on the human condition and the treatments for disease and our view of our place on the biological continuum

    J. Craig Venter

    Imagine a house coming together spontaneously from all the information contained in the bricks: that is how animal bodies are made

    Neil Shubin

    A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die - which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct

    Charles Darwin

    The stuff of life turned out to be not a quivering, glowing, wondrous gel but a contraption of tiny jigs, springs, hinges, rods, sheets, magnets, zippers, and trapdoors, assembled by a data tape whose information is copied, downloaded and scanned

    Steven Pinker

    We wish to discuss a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biologic interest

    Rosalind Franklin

    We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget

    Mary Roach

    The systems approach to biology will be the dominant theme in medicine

    Leroy Hood

    I've always been interested in animal behavior, and I keep reading about it because it's so surprising all the time - so many things are happening around us that we neglect to look at. Part of the passion I have for biology is based on this wonderment"

    Isabella Rossellini

    Because all of biology is connected, one can often make a breakthrough with an organism that exaggerates a particular phenomenon, and later explore the generality

    Thomas Cech

    Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution

    Theodosius Dobzhansky

    Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century

    - Freeman Dyson

    Nothing can be more incorrect than the assumption one sometimes meets with, that physics has one method, chemistry another, and biology a third

    - Thomas Huxley