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University Bulletin
Graduate Degree Programs

Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Biosciences (MCIBS)

Program Home Page

201 Life Sciences Building
University Park, PA 16802

Degrees Conferred:

Ph.D., MD/Ph.D, M.S.

The Graduate Faculty


The Program

The Intercollege Graduate Degree Program (IGDP) in Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences (MCIBS) is designed to prepare researchers across an array of specializations in the biological sciences that share an emphasis on  trans-disciplinary training, an approach that considers the whole organism and spans the continuum of understanding from fundamental mechanisms of action at the molecular/cellular level of discovery, to the function of the organism in its environment, with applications that enhance health and well-being. To achieve this goal, the IGDP in MCIBS serves as an umbrella portal for the entry and subsequent training of the next generation of researchers for academic, industrial, non-profit foundation, government, and other research entities in the biomedical sciences. Researchers will be trained across a wide range of specializations in the biological sciences that share the goal to elucidate mechanisms of action at the molecular, cellular, and organismal level, including disease.

The program currently offers educational and research emphasis areas in Cell and Developmental Biology; Immunology and Infectious Disease; Molecular and Evolutionary Genetics; Molecular Medicine; and Molecular Toxicology; and an Option in Bioinformatics and Genomics, but is structured to remain contemporary with evolving or emerging fields within the biological/health sciences. Incoming students enroll in core courses of instruction covering basic biochemistry and molecular biology of cellular processes; ethics; and current research topics related to the diverse pathological mechanisms that underlie disease etiologies in humans and animals. In addition, students take specialized courses associated with one of the above programmatic emphasis areas or the option, as well as elective courses that complement and support their research interests and foci.

Calling upon the expertise of an extensive list of life science research faculty members representing an array of different departments across multiple colleges, the IGDP in MCIBS offers a unique opportunity to learn about and work in multiple bioscience disciplines. The MCIBS graduate program is supported by modern telecommunications facilities and equipment, and students not only explore new conceptual connections at the frontiers of research, but also engage in active group learning experiences and explore a variety of potential career opportunities before graduation.

General Admission Requirements

Review of completed applications begins December 1 of each year. Applicants to the Ph.D. program only are considered for admission. Required application materials include:

    1. Completed official Penn State Graduate School application (online).
    2. Paid, nonrefundable application fee (see Requirements for Graduate Admission for current fee).
    3. Two official transcripts from each institution attended.
    4. Application for a U.S. visa (international applicants only).
    5. Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test; successful applicants generally have scores above the 75th percentile for each of the verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing sections.
    6. Names and contact information, including business email addresses, for three references.
    7. Statement of goals that pertain to the life sciences including motivation for pursuing a research doctorate; research experience and interests; and professional goals. The statement should include biological problems that are of interest to the applicant and how the applicant’s past experiences have prepared him or her to pursue this research.
    8. All international applicants must take and submit scores for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), with the exceptions noted below. The minimum acceptable score for the TOEFL is 575 for the paper-based test, or a total score of 90 with a 21 on the speaking section for the Internet-based test (iBT). Successful applicants generally have a minimum score of 100 (with a 23 on the speaking section) on the Internet-based test. Applicants with iBT speaking scores between 15 and 20 may be considered for provisional admission, which requires completion of specified remedial English courses ESL 114G (American Oral English for Academic Purposes) and/or ESL 116G (ESL/Composition for Academic Disciplines) with attainment of a grade of B or higher. The minimum acceptable composite score for the IELTS is 6.5. International applicants are exempt from the TOEFL/IELTS requirement who have received a baccalaureate or a graduate degree from a college/university/institution in any of the following: Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and Wales.
    9. An applicant must hold either (1) a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution or (2) a tertiary (postsecondary) degree that is deemed comparable to a four-year bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution. This degree must be from an officially recognized degree-granting institution in the country in which it operates. Successful applicants generally will have completed coursework in biochemistry, molecular and/or cell biology, physics, chemistry (organic and inorganic), and calculus have a minimum 3.5/4.0 Jr./Sr. undergraduate grade point average.

Degree Requirements

  1. Core Curriculum (Required of all Students in MCIBS):

Core Required Courses:


First Semester



Colloquium (2 cr)



Ethics in the Life Sciences (1 cr)


BIOL 593*

Experiential Teaching in Biology (2 cr)



Individual Studies (for Research Rotations) (1 cr)



After First Semester


Current Research Seminars (2 cr)



Thesis Research



Ph.D. Dissertation (post-Comprehensive only)


Total Required Core Credits



*Students in the BG Option are not required to complete BIOL 593 during their first semester, but are required to complete this course prior to undertaking the required semester of TA experience (see additional requirement below). 

2. Emphasis Areas: The IGDP in MCIBS offers curricular/research specializations in the following Emphasis Areas:

  • Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Immunology and Infectious Disease
  • Molecular and Evolutionary Genetics
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Molecular Toxicology  
Specialized Courses and Research for Emphasis Areas: To complete an emphasisin any of the areas listed above, students take a minimum of 9 credits of specialized coursework, in addition to the required Core and Additional courses (indicated above and below, respectively), and conduct original research associated with the respective Emphasis Area. Specialized courses for each Emphasis Area are listed on the IGDP in MCIBS website [program URL to be inserted once the website has been finalized. Note to curricular reviewers: Appendix B contains a general outline of the curricular information specific to each Emphasis Area that will appear on the website].

3. Bioinformatics and Genomics (BG) Option: The IGDP in MCIBS also offers an option in Bioinformatics and Genomics. In addition to the Core required courses described above, to complete an Option in Bioinformatics and Genomics, students must take a minimum of prescribed course work and conduct original research associated with Bioinformatics and Genomics. Prescribed courses for the BG Option for students at University Park and in the College of Medicine are listed in #4 below.

Students admitted to the BG option will be tested for their knowledge in STAT 500-Applied Statistics (3 credits), BIOL 405-Molecular Evolution (3 credits) and BMMB 852-Applied Bioinformatics (2 credits). Those found deficient will be required to register for these courses (UP) or equivalent courses (HY) during the first 18 months in the program.

4. Additional Course Requirements:

"Base” Program (All Emphasis Areas):

MCIBS/BIOL/BMMB/VB SC 503 Critical Elements of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology (4 credits)
(taken the first semester in the program)

Quantitative Foundation Course (> 3 credits): 400- or 500-level courses in a quantitative area such as statistics, genetics, bioinformatics, etc. (e.g., STAT 501 Regression Methods; STAT 502 Analysis of Variance and Design of Experiments; STAT 503 Design of Experiments; Population Genetics; etc. - See emphasis area course lists for specific suggestions [program URL to be inserted once the website has been finalized]).

Prescribed Base Program Credits: 7

Specialized Courses -To complete an emphasis in any of the areas listed above, students take a minimum of 9 credits of specialized coursework in the respective Emphasis Area. Specialized courses for each Emphasis Area are listed on the IGDP in MCIBS web site [program URL to be inserted once the website has been finalized. Note to curricular reviewers: Appendix B contains a general outline of the curricular information specific to each Emphasis Area that will appear on the website].

Specialized Course Credits: 9

Total Additional Credits: 16


Option in Bioinformatics and Genomics (Prescribed Option-Specific Courses):

IBIOS/BMMB 551 Genomics (3 credits)
IBIOS 541 Critical Analysis of Bioinformatics and Genomics Research Topics (1 credit per offering; 2 credits required) IBIOS/BIOL/STAT 555. Statistical Analysis of Genomics Data (3 credits)
IBIOS/BMMB 554 Foundations in Data Driven Life Sciences (3 credits)

Prescribed Option-Specific Credits: 11

Elective Courses – In addition to the above prescribed courses, students electing the BG Option in MCIBS must take > 5 credits of 400- or 500-level elective courses relevant to their research and career interests from an extensive list (see the BG Graduate Student Handbook), contingent upon approval in advance by their adviser and doctoral committee, in consultation with the BG Option Director. Available elective courses may vary from year to year.

Elective Course Credits: 5

Total Additional Credits: 16


5. Teaching Experience - All graduate students in MCIBS are required to have one semester of teaching experience by serving as a teaching assistant (TA) in an undergraduate course (400-level or lower) in a bioscience-related field. Teaching assistant opportunities are arranged in consultation with the adviser and program chair.

M.S.-specific Degree Requirements

Master’s students must take a minimum of 30 credits (24 of core, specialized/prescribed, and elective courses for the selected Emphasis Area or Option, as described above, plus at least 6 credits of MCIBS 600, Thesis Research). At least 18 credits in 500- and 600-level courses combined must be included in the program. A minimum of 24 credits in course work (400, 500, and 800 series), as contrasted with research, must be completed in the major program.

Master’s student must complete at least 6 credits of thesis research (MCIBS 600), and up to 6 of the MCIBS 600 credits may be assigned a quality grade (A-F). In consultation with the adviser, the student must select a thesis committee of at least three members, including the adviser, write a thesis, and defend the thesis. The final master’s thesis that is accepted by the student’s thesis committee must be submitted as an eTD to and approved by the Graduate School. If all course credits and requirements are met, a student does not have to be registered for classes while writing and/or defending his/her thesis. Students must present their thesis in accordance with Graduate Council and Graduate School guidelines as described in the THESIS GUIDE: Requirements for the Preparation of Master's Theses and Doctoral Dissertations.

Ph.D.-specific Degree Requirements

Course Work:

Ph.D. students must take a minimum of 24 credits of core, specialized/prescribed courses, and electives for the selected Emphasis Area or Option, as described above. At least 18 credits in 500- and 600-level courses combined must be included in the program. A minimum of 24 credits in course work (400, 500, and 800 series), as contrasted with research (MCIBS 600), must be completed in the major program. Additional course work is left to the discretion of the student and adviser.

English Competence:

Candidates for all doctoral degrees are required to demonstrate high-level competence in the use of the English language, including reading, writing, and speaking, as part of the language and communication requirements for the doctorate. This will be assessed for both domestic and international students as part of the candidacy exam, which includes a reading and original writing component. Should deficiencies be identified at the candidacy examination, students will be directed into appropriate remedial activities, including additional English and communication courses. Competence must be formally attested by the program before the doctoral candidate’s comprehensive examination is scheduled. (Note: Passage of the minimal TOEFL or IELTS requirement does not demonstrate the level of competence expected of a doctoral degree candidate and for conferral of a doctorate from Penn State.)

Candidacy Exam:

All Ph.D. students in the IGDP in MCIBS must take a candidacy exam no later than the fall semester of the second year. The purpose of the exam is to ensure that students have mastered the core concepts necessary to proceed further towards the Ph.D. The exam consists of both written and oral components, and is based primarily on the students' ability to critically read, understand, and communicate the key findings of a current research paper selected from the literature.

Doctoral Committee:

Upon successful completion of the Candidacy Examination, the student in consultation with his/her adviser will, as soon as possible, select a doctoral committee. The committee must meet Graduate Council guidelines for the composition of doctoral committees. This committee is responsible for supervising the academic program and monitoring the progress of the student towards his/her degree. It is the charge of this committee to assure that the student carries out a substantial piece of independent research and presents it as a dissertation.

Comprehensive Examination:

The Comprehensive Examination is administered and evaluated by the entire Doctoral Committee when the student has completed substantially all required coursework, and is intended to determine the feasibility of the student’s proposed research and the preparedness of the student to embark on his/her dissertation research. Students must be registered for classes (typically MCIBS 600) the semester they take this exam. The examination will consist of a written research proposal using an NRSA or NSF format, based upon the student’s proposed dissertation research, and an oral presentation of the proposed research. The proposal must include a timeline for the completion of the work that will be considered in the feasibility of the work.


All Ph.D. candidates must conduct original research and prepare a dissertation that makes a significant contribution of new knowledge, is presented in a scholarly manner, and demonstrates an ability on the part of the candidate to do independent research of high quality. The contents and conclusions of the dissertation must be defended at the time of the final oral examination.

Students must present their dissertation in accordance with Graduate Council and Graduate School guidelines as described in the THESIS GUIDE: Requirements for the Preparation of Master's Theses and Doctoral Dissertations.

Final Oral Examination:

The final examination of the doctoral candidate is an oral examination administered and evaluated by the entire doctoral committee. It consists of an oral presentation of the dissertation by the candidate and a period of questions and responses. These will relate in large part to the dissertation, but may cover the candidate's entire program of study, because a major purpose of the examination is also to assess the general scholarly attainments of the candidate. The portion of the examination in which the dissertation is presented is open to the University community and the public; therefore, it is expected that the examination will take place at University Park or the Hershey campus.

Information regarding Graduate Council requirements for the Ph.D., including the establishment of a doctoral committee; candidacy, comprehensive, and final oral examinations; and submission of a dissertation of original research in the field can be found in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin.

Additional Requirements:

All MCIBS graduate students must maintain a cumulative grade-point average of > 3.0 to remain in good academic standing. Furthermore, the Ph.D. student must have a 3.0 to take the doctoral candidacy, the comprehensive and the final oral examinations. One or more failing grades (F) or a cumulative grade-point average below 3.0 will be considered evidence of unsatisfactory scholarship and may be grounds for dismissal from the program.

MD/PhD Admissions Requirements

In addition to the basic college level premedical school requirements for the Penn State College of Medicine (one each year of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and organic chemistry), the MD/Ph.D program has the following requirements:

• Academic Achievement - Applicants to our program generally have very strong grades and MCAT scores. In recent years, successful applicants have an average GPA of 3.75 and MCAT scores of 33-34. Applicants are not required to take the GREs.
• Research Experience - We are especially interested in students with a strong and sustained background in research. Students who have spent 1-2 years after graduation conducting research are strongly encouraged to apply. Alternatively in-depth research experience as an undergraduate can suffice.
• Recommendations - We are especially interested in receiving letters of recommendation from faculty with whom you conducted research and who can comment on your passion and potential for research.
• Goals - Applicants must be able to clearly articulate the reasons for pursuing the joint degree.
• International Students - All qualified students are eligible to apply regardless of citizenship.


MD/PhD Degree Requirements

Students interested in simultaneously pursuing an MD and PhD degree must apply to the College of Medicine MD program using the national American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) application system and indicate their intent to pursue the joint degree program.  The College of Medicine MD/PhD Admissions Committee reviews applications and evaluates candidates for acceptance into both the MD and PhD program.  Students not accepted into the joint degree program can be referred to either the MD or PhD program, depending on their qualifications and interests.

During the first two years of medical school, the student conducts at least three research rotations.  After successful completion of the first two years of medical school the candidate joins their thesis lab in the MCIBS Graduate Program. 

During the summer after the second year of medical school MD/PhD students take Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which serves in lieu of the knowledge-based part of the Candidacy Examination for the MCIBS program. Successful completion of BMS 506 A and B, which is taken in the second year of medical school, with a grade of B or higher meets the critical thinking and paper analysis requirement of the candidacy exam.

MCIBS Program Requirements

The doctoral committee of an MD/PhD student in the MCIBS program is formed upon entry into the thesis laboratory.  The committee must include a minimum of four faculty members, i.e., the chair and at least three additional members, all of whom must be members of the Graduate Faculty.  The committee must include at least two members of the MCIBS program graduate faculty and one MD/PhD steering committee member.  One regular member of the doctoral committee must represent a field outside the candidate's major field of study in order to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspectives and expertise.  This person is the “outside field member.” Additionally, one member of the committee must be an “outside unit member:” a member of the graduate faculty outside the adviser’s administrative home (for a tenure-line faculty member this is the department that serves as their tenure home). The same person can be the outside field member and outside unit member. The outside member(s) can be members of MCIBS.

In addition to taking the required courses MCIBS 590, Colloquium, MCIBS 591, Ethics in the Life Sciences, and MCIBS 592, Current Seminars, elective courses are selected in consultation with the student’s dissertation adviser and doctoral committee, with guidance from the MCIBS emphasis area course lists and program chair. 6 credits of elective courses will be selected.

The MD/PhD candidate prepares a written comprehensive examination in the format of a grant application and gives an oral presentation of this proposal to their doctoral committee.

A dissertation must be prepared and defended by each MD/PhD candidate as for all MCIBS students. In addition, MD/PhD students must have submitted a first-author manuscript before defending their dissertation. Before returning to medical school the doctoral thesis must be accepted by the Graduate School.

The MD/PhD Program requires that students have one first author peer-reviewed paper published based on their research accepted prior to completing medical school, and preferably accepted for publication prior to returning to the third year of medical school. At the discretion of the College of Medicine Vice Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, in consultation with the MCIBS Program Chair, the requirement for a first author publication prior to completing medical school may be waived. Examples of conditions that might warrant exemptions include: (a) prolonged illness, (b) mentor’s relocation, (c) mentor’s reluctance to submit the student’s work for publication, (d) the student’s project is published by another research group, or (e) delays or challenges in the publication review process beyond the control of the student or dissertation advisor.

If a student decides not to return to medical school, or for some other reason is not able to complete the last two years of medical school, but they have successfully completed their Ph.D. dissertation and oral defense and met all other degree requirements of MCIBS, they will be able to complete the PhD. The latter will be conferred after the student notifies the program that she/he wishes to withdraw from the MD program and completes all requirements for conferral of the graduate degree.

For students who choose the Option in Bioinformatics and Genomics within MCIBS, all requirements are the same as above with the exception of coursework taken during the PhD. BG students will take required courses: MCIBS 590, Colloquium, MCIBS 591, Ethics in the Life Sciences, MCIBS 554 Foundations in Data Driven Life Sciences, MCIBS 541, Critical Analysis in BG Research Topics, STAT 555, Statistical Analysis of Genomics Data. In addition, based on the background and needs of the student at least one of the following elective courses will also be taken: BIOL 405, Molecular Evolution, STAT 500, Applied Statistics, BMMB 852, Applied Bioinformatics (2).


Graduate courses carry numbers from 500 to 699 and 800 to 899. Advanced undergraduate courses numbered between 400 and 499 may be used to meet some graduate degree requirements when taken by graduate students. Courses below the 400 level may not. A graduate student may register for or audit these courses in order to make up deficiencies or to fill in gaps in previous education but not to meet requirements for an advanced degree.

Last Revised by the Department: Spring Semester 2016

Blue Sheet Item #: 44-06

Review Date: 4/5/2016

Faculty linked: 8/21/2015


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