Stages of the PhD Program
- Laboratory rotations
- Enrollment in 22-24 units
- Petition for transfer units (prior to 1st year screening at end of spring semester)
- Choose a mentor for PhD studies (after 4th rotations, spring semester)
- First Year Screening – Immediately after spring semester concludes
- Continue enrollment in coursework (complete required courses and electives)
- Form Qualifying Exam Committee (fall semester)
- Qualifying Exam (end of spring semester, unless approved by Program Chair for summer).
- Written qualifying exam – submitted to committee prior to taking oral
- Oral qualifying exam – within 60 days of submitting written exam
- Form Dissertation committee (within 90 days of PhD candidacy)
- PhD Defense (see Graduate school deadlines)
Most graduate students in the PhD program take part in an organized laboratory rotation program prior to selecting their dissertation advisor, except for very advanced students with extensive prior lab experience (see Special Exemption below). This rotation program is a course (GERO 614L) that allows students to participate fully in lab activities, including handling an individual project, contributing to group meetings and events, and presenting the results of their work at the end of the rotation period. The insight obtained into the inner workings and personalities of several of their potential research group choices helps students make informed decisions when choosing an advisor with whom to work during their tenure in the department.
Most students spend their first year performing experimental research in the laboratories of faculty members in at least two, semester-long (fall and spring) lab rotations. During the rotations, students interact with individual faculty members and explore possible subjects for future dissertation research. Some students choose to carry out more than one rotation per semester (by undertaking two, half semester rotations) or may undertake an additional rotation during the summer following their first year, if they have not yet decided upon a home lab. Each student, thus, arranges for a faculty dissertation advisor and begins dissertation research at the end of the Spring semester of their first year, or by the end of the Summer following their first year. At the conclusion of each rotation, students are required to submit, to the Student Advisor, a one page (max) summary of their rotation project, methodologies utilized, and major accomplishments.
Prior to starting each rotation, students must notify the Student Advisor, Jim deVera, of which Principal Investigator (PI) top three choices they would like to rotate in the upcoming semester. The Student Advisor will verify the rotations with the PIs and notify the student of the rotation confirmation. Issues with finding a lab rotation should be brought to the attention of the Student Advisor and PhD Program Director as soon as possible.
Laboratory rotations are a major commitment for most students during the first year, involving 8 units (4 in the fall and 4 in the spring) of GERO 614L They provide practical research experience and exposure to different research approaches and techniques. Incoming students are required to rotate through at least two research laboratories in the first year, except for very advanced students with extensive prior lab experience (see Special Exemption below). These rotations provide broad exposure to the area of research, methods, techniques, rules and regulations of each lab, as well as the general lab organization and personnel. Each rotation will be either a semester long, or half a semester long, and will occupy up to 20 hours/week. Students may take as few as 2 full-semester rotations, or as many as 4 half-semester rotations during the regular school year. If needed, a final lab rotation may be taken during the summer following the first year of study. By the end of the spring semester (or summer if an extra rotation is done), students must submit a Graduate Advisor Selection Form (see appendix), which commits a student to a Principal Investigator (PI) for the duration of the Biology of Aging PhD program.
Special Exemption from Laboratory Rotations for Advanced Students with Extensive Lab Research Experience
In exceptional cases, students with extensive prior laboratory research experience may be exempted from undertaking lab rotations, and may select a lab for their dissertation research (by mutual assent) upon entering the program, or after just one rotation. Such matters are decided by the Biology of Aging PhD Committee on an individual basis.
Prior lab experience in undergraduate or graduate laboratory courses, or experience working as an undergraduate lab helper does not count as extensive prior laboratory research experience for this purpose. To be exempted from the lab rotations requirement, a student’s prior lab research experience must be judged to be extensive, substantial, meaningful, and truly advanced by the Biology of Aging PhD Committee.
Students directly admitted to a faculty lab are not required to rotate. However, even if exempt from rotating labs, all students must still register for GERO 614L in order to complete the course requirements. As part of the evaluation for GERO 614L students are required to submit a 1pg (max) summary of their rotation project, the methodologies utilized, and major accomplishments at the conclusion of each rotation. Students that are exempt from rotations, must submit one summary each semester of their first year in the program to document their progress on their research projects.
Laboratory Rotations – Expectations and Responsibilities
The purpose of laboratory rotations is two-fold. First, it exposes the student to a broad range of research topics and research environments available at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and the Buck Institute for Aging Research. The faculty represent a diverse group with aging-related research interests including biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, molecular genetics, biophysics, physiology, pathology, and medicine. Most students upon entering graduate school will not have been exposed to all these potential research topics and, thus may not really know what will eventually be most interesting to them and what will not, or which projects are reasonable for thesis research and which are not.
Most entering students will have only limited prior laboratory experience, discounting laboratory courses for undergraduate or graduate degrees which do not provide sufficient experience. Therefore, we require most students to undertake lab rotations throughout their first year in the program. Rotations may be of one semester in length, or half a semester in length (in which case a second half-semester rotation must be taken). Students spend one semester at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and one semester at the Buck Institute in their first year. Therefore, most students go through a total of 2, 3, or 4 rotations during the fall and spring semesters of their first year. Some students may undertake an additional rotation during the summer following their first year, if they have not decided upon a home lab.
Each faculty member runs their laboratory in a distinctive way. Research groups may be large, with many postdoctoral research associates, other graduate students, technicians and/or undergraduate students, or they may be much smaller with students responsible for much of the research in the lab. The major professor may be intimately involved in all aspects of research, and may actually work in the laboratory, or he/she may be distant from the lab, primarily functioning to define the broader research goals of the lab and fundraising. Students may be more comfortable with one style as opposed to another. The rotation allows students to “try out” a laboratory and, similarly, allows a lab to “try out” a student. A student’s decision in selection of a laboratory for their thesis research may also depend on how well they mesh with the people in the lab.
At the end of each rotation, professors are required to complete a form evaluating the student’s performance. Student Laboratory Rotation Evaluation Forms (see appendix) become part of the student’s permanent record that is considered during the first year evaluation.
The most successful lab rotations occur when students maintain good communication with the professor. It is the students’ responsibility to learn what they are expected to accomplish during their rotations and to learn about the standards by which their performance will be judged. This should be discussed with each professor, even if a student may actually be working under the direct supervision of a postdoc. or senior graduate student. In such a situation, it is in a student’s best interest to clarify the chains of command, communication, and responsibility. This initial understanding should be revised as the rotation progresses, since research projects usually take unforeseen turns. Students should also try to learn as much as possible about the different research projects underway in each lab in which they rotate, from the other members of the group. This requires that students communicate widely with the various members of each group and attend any group meetings held by the laboratory.
Choosing a Lab for your Dissertation
In addition to being exposed to multiple techniques and experimental approaches, the major purpose of the laboratory rotations is to help students find out which lab they wish to choose for their dissertation research. This is very much a combination of research interests and human interactions and students should think very carefully before deciding they want to spend the next four years in a particular lab.
All rotations should be undertaken in labs where the Professor is willing to take on new PhD students and able to support their stipends. Remember that although the program pays your Research Assistant stipend for the first year, the Professor in whose lab you do your dissertation must be willing and able to pay your stipend for the next 4 or 5 years, until you graduate. Therefore, when starting a rotation be sure to ask the Professor if she/he is willing to take on a new dissertation student and if they have the money to support your stipend.
Students must understand that the PhD program will not continue to pay their Research Assistant stipends beyond the first year of enrollment in the program.
Once a student has found a lab, students may find the Graduate Advisor Selection form here. The completed form will need to be submitted to the Student Advisor at the end of the spring semester of the first year (or end of the summer term if an extension was approved).
Annual Progress Evaluations
Each year the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program shall review the performance of all students. First-year students’ performance will be based on grades in coursework, participation in seminars and colloquia, and lab rotation reports.
At the end of the first year after selecting a lab for their dissertation research, students’ performance will continue to be evaluated annually by the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program. Performance evaluations will take into account grades, participation in classes, research progress, progress towards satisfying degree requirements, the extent to which the student followed previous recommendations, and other matters relevant to professional development and advancement. In addition, all students will be required to submit a 2 page description of their research plans and progress and their projected timeline for completing degree requirements as part of their semester report for Gero 790. This report will be required for credit in Gero 790 and for continuation of student stipends.
Every semester, each faculty preceptor or mentor must also submit a report outlining the performance, progress, and updated timeline for degree completion of their PhD students which will constitute an important component of the overall evaluation as mentorship is a cornerstone of the training of PhD students. The mentor’s report must include details of presentations, manuscripts, evaluation of research aptitude, etc., as well as any challenges the student may be facing. The PI report utilizes a simple scoring system of 1, 2, or 3 (defined as below), with an area to identify issues/or plans. This establishes a paper trail of both accomplishments and potential issues. It allows the executive committee the opportunity to resolve problems, facilitate mentorship changes (if necessary), and remove students from the program in extremis.
Students will be given one of the following four ratings: (1) Acceptable performance, (2) Acceptable performance assuming certain actions are taken, (3) Unacceptable performance, or (4) No report was provided by the student or the mentor. Students receiving a (2, 3, or 4) must schedule an appointment with the program directors as soon as possible. In this scoring system, a “2” could include a range of concerns from adequate lab performance but failure to meet milestones (e.g., late in taking the qualifying exam), to poor lab productivity with good coursework, to marginal coursework with adequate lab performance. Two consecutive semesters or three total semesters with a 2-3 may be sufficient for expulsion from the program. These measures are designed to ensure that the student, mentor, and committee are all aware of any potential issues and that there is time to resolve problems before resorting to removal from the program.
After passing the qualifying exams students, in consultation with their mentors, must establish a Dissertation Committee that must meet at least once per year to evaluate the progress of each student and to advise changes including additions and/or deletions to the research plan as necessary. The Dissertation Committee must also provide an annual written report of each student’s research and degree progress to the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program. The committee report should be generated by the mentor (the Chair of the dissertation committee), with the accomplishments to date and the plans for the next year upon which the committee has reached agreement. The committee report will also include completion of a box listing the expected degree completion date. This will default at 5 years but can be edited at any period, with appropriate and adequate explanation and approval from the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program.
It is the goal of the USC-Buck Biology of Aging PhD Program to graduate all qualified and worthy students within five years of entering the program. Students must request and receive special permission, based on exceptional circumstances, from the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program in order to be allowed to continue into a sixth year in the program. Should a student fail to graduate within six years, they may be expelled from the program, possibly with a terminal masters of science degree, at the discretion of the Executive Committee of the Biology of Aging PhD Program. Under highly exceptional circumstances a student may be allowed to continue into a seventh year in the program. In such cases, the student’s mentor will be required to pay for the student’s tuition and health insurance, in addition to the regular stipend. Mentors who repeatedly fail to graduate their PhD students within the five-year target may be removed from the program.
End of First Year Screening Review
After completion of the core Biology of Aging course work (GERO 600, GERO 601, GERO 602a, GERO 602b, GERO 603, GERO 592, and GERO 614) at the end of the first year, the student’s degree progress is discussed and evaluated by a screening committee composed of the members of the Biology of Aging PhD Executive Committee. The purpose of the Screening Review is to determine competence to continue graduate study and identify areas that may need to be strengthened prior to taking the qualifying examination.
Students whose first year performance and progress is considered satisfactory by the PhD Executive Committee will be deemed to have successfully passed the Screening Review. Should a student’s performance and progress be considered unsatisfactory, however, a meeting with the PhD Executive Committee will be arranged during which an oral assessment of the student’s suitability to continue in the program will be made. Successful completion of the Screening Review is required for continuation in the program and progression to the Qualifying Examination. The Screening Review will occur between the end of the spring semester of a student’s first year, and beginning of the fall semester of a student’s second year.
Students are first required to maintain an overall GPA of 3.0 or better (‘B’ or higher) in all graded USC coursework in order to remain in good academic standing with the Graduate School. Students must also achieve grades of 3.0 or higher (‘B’ or above) in each one of the following graded required or ‘core’ courses GERO 600, GERO 601, GERO 602a and 602b, GERO 592, and GERO 603 as preconditions for successful screening. Students are also required to have successfully completed at least two lab rotations, as evidenced by satisfactory Student Laboratory Rotation Evaluation Forms, unless they have been granted a special exemption from laboratory rotations as an advanced student with extensive lab research experience (see above).
Students who are clearly making successful and appropriate progress towards the PhD degree, and who have identified a Dissertation mentor who is able and willing to support their dissertation research, and their Research Associate stipends, will be deemed to have successfully completed the screening process and will not be required to take an Oral Assessment.
Failure to pass the screening review is grounds for dismissal from the program, although students may be granted a second chance at the discretion of the Biology of Aging PhD Committee (see below). If granted a second chance, the student will need to retake the Screening Review and also pass an Oral Assessment during the fall semester of the second year. No extensions of Screening Reviews and Oral Assessments beyond the end of the fall semester of the second year will be allowed.
Students whose coursework grades and/or lab rotation reports indicate substandard performance or progress, And students who have not successfully identified a Dissertation mentor will undergo a more rigorous examination and may be required to meet with the screening committee for an oral interview and to discuss and review their plans for remedial work. Such students may also undergo an oral assessment of their understanding of the core concepts underlying the biology of aging. Students who have met, or who can meet, the Graduate School’s requirements to maintain good academic standing, but who fall slightly short of the specific requirements of the PhD in the Biology of Aging program may be granted an opportunity to stay in the program on a conditional basis and improve their performance. Such conditional approval for continuation will be made on a case-by-case basis, at the discretion of the PhD Committee.
Item to be submitted to the Student Advisor at the conclusion of the Spring semester of the first year:
Completed Course Summary
- Printable through OASIS via my USC web portal
- Spring grades must be included
At the beginning of their second year (Fall Semester – August 16), students should choose a five-member Guidance Committee, which will also be their Qualifying Exam Committee. Students should discuss the content and format of the Qualifying Examination with their mentor and with other Qualifying Examination Committee members. The PhD Qualifying Examination consists of both a written examination and an oral examination. The Written Examination must be passed in order to proceed to the Oral Examination and both portions of the examination must be passed in order to continue in the PhD program and be advanced to candidacy. The Qualifying exams should be scheduled for completion by the end of the Spring semester (May 15) of the student’s second year in the program. Under rare circumstances, and only with the approval of the Biology of Aging Executive committee, students can request an extension to complete their qualifying exam by the end of the Summer semester (August 15) of the student’s second year (before the start of their 3rd year in the program). Additional deferrals to extend the deadline beyond the Summer of the second year are unusual and require exceptional circumstances. In this unusual scenario, both the PhD student and the faculty advisor must petition and receive approval by the Biology of Aging executive committee.
The Qualifying Examination Committee – At the end of the first year in the program (typically when a student has joined a lab), the student will assemble a qualifying exam committee. Committee selection should be done in consultation with the PhD advisor (who acts as chair of that committee). The qualifying exam committee consists of five (5) members, of whom no less than four (4) members must hold faculty appointments in the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Additionally, the committee must include a minimum of one faculty member from the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, a minimum of one faculty member from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. One faculty member outside of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology (outside member) can be included but must be petitioned and approved by the director of the Biology of Aging PhD program in consultation with the USC Graduate School. Because the mentor is the topic expert and the committee member most knowledgeable of the PhD student, the principal advisor or mentor will serve as the chair of the committee. Students should consult extensively with each committee member regarding subjects to be covered in the exams.
The qualifying exam committee must be approved prior to scheduling the qualifying exam and the “Request to take the PhD Qualifying Exam Form” must be submitted to Jim DeVera for approval.
The Qualifying Exams consist of both written and oral portions. Both parts must be finished before the end of the spring semester of the second year unless the Program Director approves deferring after receiving a written petition from the student and mentor and consultation with the executive committee. The written exam will incorporate evaluation and synthesis of existing knowledge related to the topic areas, creation of a set of experiments to test relevant hypotheses, and interpretation of anticipated results. The oral exam consists of an oral defense of the written exam, approval of the basic outline of the dissertation research plan, and will be conducted within 60 days of the written part of the Qualifying Exam.
Upon successful completion of both portions of the qualifying exams, students will be advanced to candidacy for the PhD in the Biology of Aging but actual conferral of the PhD degree will require the successful completion and defense of an original dissertation. Students who fail to complete the qualifying exams in a satisfactory manner will be dismissed from the program. In exceptional cases, the Biology of Aging PhD Committee might decide to allow a student a second chance to pass the Qualifying Exam, which must be taken within six months.
Items to be submitted to the Student Advisor by the end of the spring semester of the second year in order to take the Qualifying Exam:
- Request to Take Quals form (see Student Forms)
- Appointment of Qualifying Exam Committee form
- Students should keep a copy of the signed form for their record
Students are required to submit a 1-page Specific Aims portion of their written proposal at least four (4) weeks prior to the qualifying exam date. Qualifying Examination committee members must all agree that the proposed Aims are appropriate. The full proposal must be submitted to the qualifying examination committee at least two weeks before the oral examination. During the Oral Qualifying Examination, committee members are allowed to ask students questions about any material that they deem relevant to a student’s background preparation and understanding of the field, research aptitude and preparedness, professional success, and their ability to actually complete all phases of a PhD in the biology of aging.
The Written Qualifying Examination
The Written Qualifying Examination will consist of a research project organized as an NIH-style R01 grant proposal with three specific aims:
- Aims 1 and 2 will encompass experiments that the student will undertake as the core of the PhD dissertation research. Each aim will likely result in at least one 1st author publication and subsequently become chapters in the student’s dissertation.
- Aim 3 must be an experimental approach or goal that is the student’s own idea. Aim 3 cannot be anything that has been previously planned or envisioned by the student’s mentor. Students can decide for themselves whether their Aim 3 will be something they actually try to incorporate into their dissertation research, or simply an academic exercise to demonstrate independence and experimental originality.
Students are strongly encouraged to use the written proposal (especially Aims 1 and 2) as a basis for a F31 or NSF grant application, thus making the exercise more relevant and increasing the potential for academic reward.
The topic, hypotheses, and experiments proposed for Aims 1 and 2 of the written qualifying examination may be directly related to the planned dissertation research but must not be a simple verbatim reiteration of a mentor’s grant proposals. Aim 3 of the written proposal provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their independence and experimental originality and must explore avenues and opportunities not initially planned for the dissertation. Importantly, the qualifying exam research project must not simply reiterate investigations already planned by a student’s mentor or contained in a mentor’s grants or grant applications. In other words, for Aim 3, the student is expected to expand and extend a research topic of interest to their mentor’s laboratory in altogether new directions, or to devise an entirely novel topic of their own choosing, but not to reproduce an existing topic. This exam is designed to probe the students’ depth of knowledge of their field of research, their ability to put their studies in the context of the biology of aging, and to articulate the importance and innovative aspects of their proposal.
The written exam generally follows the format of an NIH-style R01 grant application, except that it is somewhat shorter. For general style and approach, but not for page limitations, students should be directed to the following NIH web-site which has a very helpful and quite detailed Quick Guide for Grant. Applications: http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/extra/extdocs/gntapp.pdf. Please note, however, that the page limitations in the NIH Quick Guide should not be followed. Instead, the written exam, which will be rigorously assessed, will be no more that 13 pages (not including references), single-spaced with at least 0.5-inch margins and an 11-point arial font. The introduction to the project must present a mini-review of the field, corresponding to a shortened version of what will eventually become the first chapter of the student’s dissertation. The research proposal is expected to be roughly organized as a 5-year NIH grant (13 pages maximum), as follows: Specific Aims (1 page only); Significance and Background – 3-4 pages; Innovation – 0.5 page, Research Plan for the 5 years – 6-7 pages (structured according to the Specific Aims and including Potential Difficulties & Alternative Approaches – 1 page (how will you cope with problems), Timetable for the 5 years – 0.5 page, References–no page limit (literature must be referenced throughout the proposal). Inclusion of preliminary data is encourage but is not required for the qualifying exam. In the absence of preliminary data, the student is expected to use relevant scientific literature as the scientific basis of each component of the proposal.
The research proposal must be an independent project generated by the student. The advisor is required to read and approve the proposal, but not to write or revise it in any way. By signing the proposal, both the student and the advisor will assure that the students’ proposal has been generated independently by the student and not from pre-existing grant proposals written by the PI or other written exams generated by other trainees or members of the laboratory. Copying even selected parts of an advisor’s grant proposal of the advisor is considered plagiarism and can result in dismissal from the program.
Students must provide their full written proposals to all members of their guidance committee, no later than two (2) weeks prior to the scheduled oral qualifying exam. Committee members may require that minor or major revisions to the proposal are made before the oral exam can be taken. Committee members can request that the oral qualifying exam be postponed if the written proposal is deemed inadequate. Requests to postpone, must occur 72 hours before the scheduled examination. If revisions are inappropriate or insufficient, the committee may decide that a student has failed the written qualifying exam.
The Oral Qualifying Examination
Advisors/Mentors attend the oral exam and participate in discussions and final evaluation but are not permitted to answer questions on their students’ behalf during the exam. Advisors should largely be observers during the Oral Qualifying Examinations of their own students since they are perceived as potential advocates. Instead, they should allow the other committee members ample opportunity to test the understanding and abilities of the candidate.
The Oral Qualifying Examination begins with a deep analysis of Aims 1 and 2 of the Written Exam, with Aim 3 being examined as deemed necessary by the Qualifying Exam Committee. The oral qualifying examination consists of two main parts: 1) An oral defense of the research proposal previously submitted for the written Qualifying Exam. Students will deliver a powerpoint (or equivalent) presentation of their proposals, including all relevant preliminary results, and must be prepared to defend it from critical appraisal by the Committee and 2) A power point presentation and defense of a preliminary outline of the student’s actual proposed dissertation research, including any particularly relevant preliminary results. Those students whose Qualifying Exam proposal is quite close to the topic of their actual dissertation research will, naturally, spend less time on part 2) than those whose qualifying exam proposal is very different from their actual dissertation research plans.
Several formats for the oral qualifying exam are acceptable as long as the candidate can demonstrate a mastery of core geroscience concepts and an appropriate scientific knowledge-base for the dissertation research project. The committee should assess whether a general research capacity to advance to candidacy is warranted. In general, the oral examination uses powerpoint to assist the students in presenting material. The number of slides should be minimized so that the student can verbally demonstrate competency without reading directly from prepared material. As such, a chalk talk-type presentation would be acceptable.
Students are expected to have extensive knowledge of the literature related to their project as well as the general literature in their subject area. They are also expected to have extensive understanding of the techniques used in the field, approaches and preliminary results. They are expected to be able to discuss their research plans in great detail, including a review of potential problems and alternative strategies.
Students are expected to have extensive knowledge of the literature related to their project as well as the general literature in their subject area. They are also expected to have extensive understanding of the techniques used in the field, their approaches and preliminary results. They are expected to be able to discuss their research plans in great detail, including a review of potential problems and alternative strategies. Advisors attend the oral exam and participate in discussions and evaluation, but are not permitted to answer questions for their students.
Students must notify the Student Advisor at least 1 week prior to the Oral Qualifying Examination in order to prepare the Report on Qualifying Exam form. Due to the sensitive nature of the form, the Report on Quals form is only provided to the student an hour or two prior to the start of the Oral Examination. At the conclusion of the exam, the student must obtain the signatures of the attending Committee Members and promptly return the form to the Student Advisor. Students may use an electronic signature program (Docusign preferred) to obtain signatures from members not physically present, including the Department Chair and Dean signatures. The Student Advisor may also assist students who are having difficulty in obtaining the necessary signatures on the form in order to submit the completed form to the USC Graduate School.
The Dissertation Committee – Formation, Composition, and Annual Meetings
Upon successful completion of both portions of the qualifying exams, students will be advanced to candidacy for the PhD in the Biology of Aging. A PhD student’s advisor serves as the chair of the student’s dissertation committee. The Dissertation Committee can minimally consist of four (4) faculty members, but a full five (5) member committee is preferred and is considered the norm in this program. The committee must consist of at least four faculty of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology with at least of one faculty member from the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology campus and one faculty member from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging campus. The optional fifth member of the committee can be any faculty member at USC or following petition and approval of the Director of the Biology of Aging PhD program, a faculty member outside of the USC can be selected to enhance the training of the PhD candidate (see notes below). This committee is distinct from the qualifying exam committee but can have similar or even identical membership. In consultation with the advisor, PhD students select two to four additional faculty as member of this committee – again, a full five-member committee is preferred and is considered the norm. Faculty should note that membership on a dissertation committee is a long-term commitment, typically 3-4 years, until the student graduates from the PhD program. Students are REQUIRED to meet with their committee at least annually to update them on their research progress, discuss technical challenges and plans to resolve them, and to present a timeline for degree completion.
- Co-mentors count as one committee member total for the purposes of the previous guidelines;
- Faculty with actual or perceived conflicts of interest (COI) may not serve on the same committee;
- Appointment of a faculty member from another academic unit at USC or an expert from an outside university, to encourage an interdisciplinary perspective, can be accommodated. Be sure to review the current student handbook (School of Gerontology and the Graduate School) regarding the composition of the committee as you work with your student to build their committee.
- At the request of the committee, advisors should be prepared to share performance assessments of each trainee: Semesterly progress reports made by the trainee; semesterly assessments made by the PI (see below).
Students who fail to meet with their committee in the prior academic year will not be allowed to enroll in the subsequent Fall semester, which can have insurance, tax, and future academic consequences.
The academic experience is greatly enhanced if faculty members other than the direct advisor are readily and formally available for consultation and discussion with the graduate student. To provide this element of supervision, a dissertation committee should be put in place for the PhD student early in the dissertation stage, as soon after the Qualifying Examinations as possible, and be responsible for monitoring the progress of the student through the dissertation committee, as follows:
- It is required that the dissertation committee meet with the student, as an assembled committee, at least once per year to assess the student’s progress in the program and to provide advice on future work. Having a meeting each semester is actually preferred since it ensures greater supervision and guidance; one-on-one meetings with individual faculty can also be useful (in addition to the required annual meeting of the group). A form that requires the signatures of all committee members must be delivered to the USC Leonard Davis School Graduate Advisors Office following the meeting (DocuSign). Students may obtain the Annual Dissertation Progress Review form here.
At the end of a student’s fourth year in the program (before the Fall of the 5th year), the committee chair (the faculty advisor) MUST submit a written report to the Biology of Aging executive committee, the recommendations of the dissertation committee, any observations of the student’s progress and potential obstacles, and most importantly a detailed plan, developed with the student for the completion of PhD studies. Note that this form is required for continued tuition and programmatic support beyond the fifth year.
Students must submit the Appointment of Dissertation Committee form to the Student Advisor within 90 days after advancing to candidacy. Students must also keep a copy of the signed form since it will be required during the dissertation submission process.
Good research progress is also required to stay in the graduate program, and must be evaluated by the students’ advisor/mentor and the Dissertation Committee at annual meetings to discuss progress. At least one meeting of a student’s Dissertation Committee must occur in each year following successful completion of the Qualifying exams and advancement to candidacy for the PhD degree. In most cases, it will be advantageous to hold two such formal meetings each year. Students are responsible for arranging meetings of their Dissertation Committee to review research productivity and progress towards the PhD degree. Students must also ensure that the Annual Dissertation Progress Report form (see Student Forms) is completed by their mentor and committee members each year and submitted to the student advisor no later than the end of the Spring semester. Failure to demonstrate satisfactory research progress, as evidenced by filing a satisfactory Annual Dissertation Progress Report form, may result in expulsion from the program.
The Dissertation is based on original, publishable, and substantial research that makes a significant contribution to human knowledge. The dissertation research is to be independently conducted by the student under the guidance of their mentor, and the Dissertation Committee.
Students should consult regularly with their Dissertation Committee Chairperson and other Committee members in conducting the research and preparing the dissertation, and be prepared to write multiple drafts of the Dissertation before the formal defense. Doctoral Dissertations must be prepared in accordance with the USC graduate School’s dissertation requirements, and will not be finally accepted until they conform. Doctoral dissertations must be provided to all members of the Dissertation Committee, no less than three (3) weeks prior to any scheduled Oral Dissertation Defense. Committee members may require that minor or major revisions to the proposal are made before the Oral Dissertation Defense can be taken. All members of the Dissertation Committee must agree that the written dissertation is appropriate before the Oral Dissertation Defense can take place.
Students who fail to submit a satisfactory Dissertation, or who fail the Oral Dissertation Defense, but who have performed well in coursework, and who are judged competent in conducting laboratory experiments under suitable supervision, may be recommended for a terminal Master’s degree by their committee. The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology shall decide whether to propose such students to the Graduate School for conferral of a Masters degree. In all cases, the Graduate School shall have the final decision on granting degrees.
Oral Dissertation Defense
Upon notification that the Committee considers the Dissertation ready to be defended, the student must orally defend the Dissertation. The Oral Dissertation Defense consists of a formal (powerpoint) presentation by the student and a question/answer session and discussion to assess the written manuscript and the student’s ability to defend it. The oral defense consists of an open meeting of the committee, which is announced to the USC/Buck communities. All interested parties are entitled to attend the presentation and a limited number of questions may be allowed from the general audience, at the discretion of the Dissertation Committee. The PhD Candidate is responsible for scheduling the meeting and arranging for a room. At least one month prior to the oral defense, written notification of the date, time, and place is to be submitted to the Graduate School.
The candidate must defend the dissertation in such a manner as to determine to the unanimous satisfaction of the dissertation committee that the candidate has attained the stage of scholarly advancement and power of investigation demanded for final recommendation to the doctorate. While the oral examination is open to the general university community, only the members of the dissertation committee shall have the authority to recommend acceptance of the dissertation, which must be unanimous.
Students should be aware that it is very unusual for the version of the Dissertation submitted for defense to end up as the final version. Usually, recommendations of further changes result from the Oral Dissertation Defense. These may require significant work but do not typically require a new defense. Upon successful defense and completion of the dissertation, the student must submit the written dissertation to the University Publications office. Dates for final submission and a schedule of deadlines are listed in the University Catalog, and in the schedule of classes for each semester. Upon completion, the student must provide a bound copy of the dissertation to their mentor. Other Dissertation Committee members may also request copies. The degree is posted after a degree check and the submission of the signed dissertation cards. The diploma is printed and mailed to the student within six to eight weeks after it is officially granted by the University.
Students should follow USC Graduate School instruction and create a profile in the Thesis Center system at least one month prior to the oral defense. Beginning 24 hours before your defense, you may go to the Checklist page in Thesis Center to generate the electronic Approval to Submit form. Your action will prompt Thesis Center to sent an email containing a link to the form to all of your dissertation committee members. Dates for final dissertation submission and formatting edits and a schedule of deadlines are listed in the University Catalog, the schedule of classes, and on the USC Graduate School website. Upon completion, the student must provide a digital copy of the dissertation to the Gerontology Student Advisor.
The degree is posted after a degree check and the submission of all documents, forms, and dissertation corrections. Degrees are posted about a month after all required documents have been submitted. The diploma is printed and mailed to the student within six to eight weeks of conferral of the degree.
Expectations & Responsibilities of the Advisor and Student
Responsibilities of the Faculty Advisor
Within the context of their role as advisors, faculty members’ primary task is to guide and inspire their students to reach their scholarly potential. At the same time, each advisor must try to ensure that each student is in compliance with the rules and regulations of the University of Southern California’s Graduate School. The advisor should promote conditions conducive to a student’s research and intellectual growth and provide appropriate guidance on the progress of the research and the standards expected.
Note: PhD trainees are USC students first and subject to the protections, rules, and regulations of the USC graduate school and the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
Questions regarding student status, enrollment, and appointments should be directed to Jim DeVera and the School of Gerontology Academic Services team.
Most PhD students have USC employment appointments as graduate student research assistants. These students are employees of the University of Southern California.
All questions regarding compensation and work-related issues must be discussed with USC Human Resources (firstname.lastname@example.org).