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As a PhD student, you will be expected to complete coursework outlined below, complete research culminating in a dissertation which you will defend to a committee, complete teaching and project assistantships,  take part in various program activities including seminar series and lab group meetings, and maintain satisfactory academic progress. 


  1. Three core courses (4 units)
  1. Nine elective courses for graduate credit at the 300- or 400- level chosen from PBC and other departmental courses. Learn more about TGS courses across all university departments. The electives must include at least one course in each of the following areas: ecology, evolution, and genetics.

Research and Dissertation

  1. Independent Research (PBC 590), Units of Independent Research (PBC 590), will be taken to fill out your full time registration during your first 8 quarters (including summer). These are taken with your major advisor and involve working on your dissertation research.
  2. Zero credit Research Ethics course for one quarter.
  3. Zero credit Student Research Seminar for Fall–Spring quarters starting the second year. Each PhD student in their 2nd year or beyond will give an annual presentation about their independent research as part of this seminar series. This gives students experience and feedback on public speaking and keeps other students and faculty updated on student progress.
  4. The Qualifying exam and PhD Prospectus is necessary to advance to PhD candidacy. These are completed simultaneously and should be completed by the spring of the student’s second year. Students should discuss the timing of their exam with their advisor and work with their committee to schedule the exam. Once the date is scheduled, the PBC program assistant must be notified so the PhD Qualifying Exam form can be submitted online. Read more about the process in the Graduate Student Handbook.
  5. Oral defense of a written dissertation under the direction of a faculty member and approved by a dissertation committee. Read more about the process in the Graduate Student Handbook.

Teaching and Project Assistantships

  1. Teaching Requirements. Teaching experience is a crucial aspect of graduate student training and is required of all PhD students in Plant Biology and Conservation. Students serve as graduate assistants and will be expected to lead discussion or lab sections and grade homework and exams for at least two quarters (this will most likely take place during the second and third years in the program). Teaching is an essential element of the education and training experience of PhD students at Northwestern. The Graduate School requires that all PhD students serve in some instructional capacity for at least one academic quarter during their graduate education at Northwestern. This teaching requirement is an integral aspect of professional development. TGS expects students' teaching workload to be comparable to other students within their program. Students who would like to advance their teaching training can also explore opportunities with the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.
  2. Project Assistantships provide funding for PhD students who are not on a teaching assistantship, fellowship or external funding. They entail 10 hours/week during the academic year on a project that gives students useful professional skills, and helps serve Research or Civic Engagement Programs in the PBC program. Some examples of projects in the past have included: 1) Working in the herbarium, 2) Working in the GIS lab to set up user protocols and assist people with projects, 3) Working in the seed bank, 4) Analyzing community-sourced data about plant phenology from Budburst, 5) Working with Chicago Wilderness to develop a Priority Plants Effort. Students can also suggest projects.

Satisfactory Academic Progress

  1. Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) must be maintained by students. A student will not be in good academic standing if he/she has an overall grade average below B (3.0 GPA), has more than three incomplete grades, fails to pass the qualifying exam by the end of his/her third year, or fails to make satisfactory progress with research as determined by the student’s thesis committee. If a student does not maintain SAP, he/she risks academic probation, loss of funding, and removal from the graduate program.