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The Master of Science degree in the Department of Biology offers students the opportunity to pursue advanced study in biology through both coursework and independent research. All M.S. students will prepare and defend a thesis based on their independent research.
Students pursuing the M.S. degree are required to conduct independent research under the direction of a Villanova faculty member, the Thesis Mentor. The Thesis Mentor not only will have primary responsibility for directing the student's research, but also will act as the Chair of the student's three-person Advisory Committee. In a general sense, the Advisory Committee is expected to play an active role in guiding the graduate education and intellectual development of the student. More specifically, working with the student, the Advisory Committee has responsibility for approving the student's program of study (formal course work), the student's written thesis research proposal and oral presentation, and the student's written thesis and oral defense. Thus, selection of a Thesis Mentor and an Advisory Committee are important decisions for those students wishing to pursue the M.S. degree.
Many students begin their graduate studies in Biology at Villanova with questions about whether an M.A. or M.S. degree would be more suitable for their own goals. The Department of Biology offers an approach to academic advising that ensures that faculty will be available to both full-time and part-time graduate students (see page 2, Academic Advising section). As a part of their academic advisement role, advisors can help a student identify faculty whose research seems to overlap with the student's interests. The brief faculty presentations in the Research Prospectus course also are useful in this regard.
Students contemplating pursuing an M.S. degree are encouraged to make that decision as early as possible in their graduate career. The logical first step toward this end is obtaining a Thesis Mentor. Preferably during the first semester of study for full-time students, and early on in the tenure of part-time students, those contemplating an M.S. degree are encouraged to discuss thesis research possibilities with several Biology Graduate Faculty. Some students may come to Villanova having already discussed thesis research possibilities with one or more faculty members, and some may come with a preliminary commitment from a particular faculty member to serve as their Thesis Mentor. Prior discussions with and/or commitments from individual Biology faculty are not a requirement for pursuing the M.S. degree.
The Application for Thesis Option form is the vehicle by which the Thesis Mentor and Advisory Committee are created. Through this form, a single Thesis Mentor, who must be a tenured or tenure-track Biology Graduate Faculty member, and exactly two additional Advisory Committee members, are identified. Research Assistant Professors (or ranks above) may serve as either the thesis mentor or as one of the additional members of the M.S. Advisory Committee. Such professors will also be expected to perform other functions associated with the Graduate program upon request (e.g., evaluation of graduate research fellowships, serving as moderator for the thesis proposal and/or thesis presentation, etc.). At most, one member of the Advisory Committee may come from outside the Department of Biology, subject to approval by the Biology Graduate Committee. A Curriculum Vitae for such a potential Advisory Committee member must be submitted along with the Application for Thesis Option form. In addition, these individuals will be required to indicate in writing that they have been made aware of and agree to abide by the rules and regulations of our M.S. program. Of particular relevance, the Thesis Mentor and Advisory Committee members are required to attend the student's thesis research proposal presentation and final thesis presentation. The Department of Biology assumes no responsibility for any travel costs that may be incurred by an Advisory Committee member who is not a Villanova Biology Graduate Faculty member to attend either the proposal or thesis presentations.
Changes in the composition of a student's Advisory Committee may be made only if the student petitions the Chair of the Department of Biology, who will evaluate the petition in consultation with an appointed Review Committee.
Once the Application for Thesis Option is approved, the student and the Advisory Committee will work together to formulate a Program of Study for the student. Specifically, the group collectively will decide which courses the student will take during his/her tenure at Villanova. A word-processed or typed Program of Study form, signed by the student and each member of the Advisory Committee, will be submitted to the Chair of the Biology Graduate Committee. The Chair of the Biology Graduate Committee, having checked the Program of Study for consistency with all requirements for the degree, will place the completed form in the student's permanent file. Any subsequent changes to the student's Program of Study must be approved by all members of the student's Advisory Committee in a memorandum delivered to the Chair of the Biology Graduate Committee, who, after verifying that the changes are consistent with all requirements for the degree, will place the memorandum in the student's permanent file.
The Department of Biology recognizes that not all research can take place within the confines of Mendel Hall. In particular, field research and studies involving equipment and/or facilities that are not available within the Department may dictate that students conduct some or all of their research elsewhere. Students are not prohibited from conducting research elsewhere when doing so is necessary or intellectually justifiable. However, the Department embraces the concept that the intellectual development of graduate students is enhanced through active participation in Departmental activities. Specifically, all graduate students are expected to attend the weekly Department of Biology Seminars. Also, participation in informal journal clubs, opportunities for impromptu discussions between and among students and faculty, opportunities to meet researchers who "pass through town," etc. require graduate students to be physically present and to be mentally receptive to being active Departmental citizens.
The Department of Biology absolutely prohibits students who are gainfully employed as researchers to use the work for which they are paid as thesis research. Thesis research must be an independent activity in which the student has a substantial personal intellectual investment. Work done in the context of a job meets neither of these criteria. Under some circumstances, it may be possible for a student to conduct some parts of their research at their place of employment, as long as: 1) the student is not being paid by the employer to conduct the thesis research, 2) the student's thesis research is as independent as research that might be done outside of his/her place of employment, and 3) the research is the intellectual product and property of the student. The Biology Graduate Committee reserves the right to request that a student's employer certify their assent to and/or compliance with these policies in writing. Wherever thesis research is conducted, it will be carried out under the supervision of a Biology Graduate Faculty Member as Thesis Mentor.
Research is a human endeavor, which begins with an idea and culminates in the dissemination of findings to the larger scientific community. Although characterization of these steps as a linear progression may be overly simplistic, the structure of the M.S. degree acknowledges that research progresses through a series of phases: a conceptualization phase (getting an idea), a design phase, a data collection phase, an interpretation and synthesis phase, and a final writing and dissemination phase. Critical thinking and analysis play a central role through all phases of this progression. As a mechanism for a student to demonstrate mastery of the conceptual and design phases, our program requires the student to prepare a written thesis research proposal and to present the proposed research in a public seminar.
In the written proposal, the student should: 1) demonstrate a thorough knowledge and understanding of the historical and current literature relevant to the proposed research, 2) present a clear statement of hypotheses (objectives, questions), consistent with the literature, 3) present a detailed experimental design and set of procedures needed to address the stated hypotheses, 4) describe how the data obtained will allow for the acceptance or rejection of the stated hypotheses. Preliminary data, especially if presented to demonstrate familiarity with methods, may be included in the written proposal. However, preliminary data are not required. Indeed, given the rationale stated above, the written proposal is not meant as a progress report for thesis research already well into the data collection phase.
The oral presentation of the student's proposed thesis research is consistent with the Departmental philosophy that scientists need to develop skills to communicate research ideas and results to their colleagues both orally and in writing. More specifically, the oral presentation serves two complementary functions that are not well served by the written proposal. First, the oral presentation informs the faculty and students in the Department of Biology about the proposed research. This sort of communication helps build a spirit of community in a diverse Department. Second, the oral presentation serves as a mechanism by which the student may solicit constructive comments about the proposed research. Research must not be conducted in a vacuum. All researchers need to be intellectually open to comments and to constructive criticism, as well as to new ideas. Discourse and discussion play important roles in this regard.
Satisfactory performance on the written proposal and the oral presentation, as judged only by the student's Advisory Committee, constitutes an endorsement of the student's intent to continue the research into the data collection phase toward eventual completion and defense of a thesis.
Each M.S. student will submit a written thesis proposal to the members of his/her Advisory Committee for review and comment. It is the responsibility of the Advisory Committee to pass judgment on the written proposal; thus, it is likely that one or more revisions of the written proposal will be required. The Advisory Committee's unanimous approval of the written proposal is indicated by submitting the completed Approval of Written Thesis Proposal form, along with a copy of the proposal, to the Chair of the Biology Graduate Committee. At this point, the written proposal is considered to be complete; the Advisory Committee may not require further revision. After submitting this form, the student will post an announcement for the oral presentation, giving at least one week's notification between posting and the date of the presentation. The announcement will include: the title of the thesis proposal; the date, place, and time of the oral presentation; and an abstract of the proposed thesis research, directed toward a general biology audience. The announcement should be distributed to all faculty and graduate student mailboxes, and should be posted on the graduate student bulletin board and the Department of Biology seminar bulletin board.
The oral presentation must be attended by all members of the student's Advisory Committee. A Moderator, a Biology faculty member chosen by the student (but who is not on the student's Advisory Committee), will preside at the presentation. The Moderator will introduce the student, identify the student's Thesis Mentor and Advisory Committee members, and announce the protocol for the presentation/defense. During the presentation, which should take about 35-40 minutes, the Thesis Mentor is not allowed to speak. Following the presentation, the student should expect to field questions poised first by the general audience, then by the Advisory Committee members, and finally by the Thesis Mentor. The Moderator will identify questioners and may intervene if, for example, the student seems to not understand a particular question or if a line of questioning seems inappropriate. At the end of the question period, the student and the Advisory Committee will meet privately for an additional session to further discuss aspects of the presentation and/or the proposed research.
Satisfactory performance on the oral presentation (requiring a unanimous vote of the student's Advisory Committee) will be conveyed to the Chair of the Biology Graduate Committee through the submission of the signed Evaluation of Thesis Proposal Presentation form. Should the Advisory Committee find the student's performance on the oral presentation to be unsatisfactory (one or more negative votes), the Advisory Committee will provide the student with specific written suggestions for improvement, using the Evaluation of Thesis Proposal Presentation form. The student will be allowed to repeat the oral presentation; unsatisfactory performance in the second presentation will result in the student being dropped from the M.S. program. In this event, the student may petition the Biology Graduate Committee to transfer into the M.A. program; the extent to which research credits accumulated as an M.S. student will count toward the M.A. degree will be determined by the Graduate Committee.