PhD Curriculum

Population Biology Ph.D. Program

Curriculum Overview


The Population Biology curriculum sets our graduate program apart from all others. Our first-year core is an intensive year-long series of courses that is taken by all first-year students. The core consists of formal lectures and discussion sessions with two or three instructors each quarter. These courses provide a sophisticated introduction to current knowledge in population genetics, population dynamics, species interactions, community ecology, quantitative genetics, speciation, statistical phylogenetics and comparative phylogenetic methods.

The core involves extensive interaction between faculty and students. Other PBG/CPB seminars bring together groups of Center for Population Biology graduate students, postdocs, and faculty to discuss research topics in population biology or to develop skills such as public speaking or grant writing.

Units: A typical program will involve 50-60 units of course work, including seminars.

Please refer to the Platypus Guide for a printable version of our curriculum.

Curriculum is also available as approved by Graduate Council 2018.


A Year by Year Look at Curriculum...

The First Year: An Overview

Our first year curriculum is specifically designed to support students as they progress through the core.

A Guidance Committee and First-Year Mentor is assigned to each entering student to guide them through their first year in the program.  (See below for details.)

PBG 200 (A, B, and C): The one-year core series of courses taken by all first-year students. The course includes lectures and discussions.

PBG 231 "Quantitative Methods in Population Biology": All first-year students, except those explicitly exempted by their Guidance Committee because of their previous mathematical training, must take PBG 231.

PBG 270 and PBG 271: Student will take at lease one quater of PBG 270 and at lease one quarter of PBG 271

Supporting Courses: Students will normally be required to take three additional courses as determined by their Guidance Committees. These courses are generally taken during the first and second year - prior to the students Qualifying Exam in year two or three.  (Please see below for information on supporting courses and the qualifying exam, and visit Courses for a listing of frequently suggested courses.)

Remedial Courses: All students must take courses to fill any gaps in their background identified by their guidance committee. These courses are generally taken during the first and second year - prior to the students Qualifying Exam in year two or three.  See below 'Remedial Courses' for further details.

Tuesday/Thursday Seminars: Students are also expected to attend (and enroll in) the Tuesday Center for Population Biology seminar series (PBG 290) and the Thursday "Topics in Ecology and Evolution" seminar series (PBG 292) every quarter that they are on campus.

First Year Exam: A written exam is taken at the end of the first year to test mastery of the material presented in PBG 200 and to assess the student's suitability to continue in the program.  See below under "The First Year: Defined".

Teaching Experience: Each student is encouraged to have at least two quarters of experience as a Teaching Assistant (TA), normally before the qualifying exam.  See below under "Teaching Experience".


Year Two and Higher: An Overview

In years two and higher, students enroll in the Tuesday/Thursday seminars each quarter of residence on campus.

Second-year students will continue towards the completion of supporting courses outlined in the Guidance Committee report. Those courses identified as "required" will need to be complete before the student can petition for their Qualifying Exam.

Qualifying Exam: The qualifying exam is taken at the end of the second year (or the Fall Quarter of the third year, at the latest) and is based on a written research proposal.  See the Platypus Guide for details, and below under Qualifying Exam.

Advancement to Candidacy: Upon passing of the Qualifying Exam, the student will be given an Advancement to Candidacy form. On this form the student will list the members of the dissertation committee. (Note to International Students: International Students will continue to be charged non-resident tuition until the Advancement to Candidacy form is submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies.)

Dissertation and Dissertation Seminar: Just prior to (or immediately following) the presentation of dissertation to the Office of Graduate Studies, all students are required to present a seminar based on the contents of their dissertation to the graduate group.  See the Platypus Guide for details, and below under Year Four and Higher Defined: The Dissertation.


The First Year: Defined

The Guidance Committee and the First-Year Mentor: Each new student will be assigned a three-person Guidance Committee when they arrive on campus. This committee is made up of the student's first-year mentor (see below), a Population Biology Graduate Group faculty adviser, and a third person with interests close to those of the student. The committee will meet with new students within the first week of Fall Quarter and together will agree on the courses that will be required for graduation. These requirements will be recorded on the First-Year Guidance Committee Report form, which serves as a contract between the Group and the student. This contract may be changed at any time by mutual consent of the student and the Guidance Committee, recorded by written notification of changes submitted to the staff graduate adviser.

Every student who is accepted into the program is assigned a first-year mentor who is typically the person with whom the student intends to work. An official graduate adviser (Major Professor) is not assigned until the beginning of the second year. Students may request a different adviser if, for any reason, they feel that they will be more successful with someone other than their current adviser. Such changes are not final until approved by the Chair. Please contact the graduate coordinator for additional information.

In the beginning of the second year, the first-year mentor on the Guidance Committee is replaced by the student's major professor, who may or may not be the same person. During the second year, the Guidance Committee, in addition to its role in academic advising, has the additional responsibility to recommend a committee for the qualifying examination, which must be scheduled no later than the Fall Quarter of the third year.

The Guidance Committee is charged with overseeing all aspects of a student's academic life up to the Qualifying Exam (Cohort years one and two) and should meet as often as is useful, but at least once every year in Spring Quarter. At the annual Spring meetings, the Committee will evaluate the student's progress toward a degree and record their assessment on the Annual Progress Report form. (The Dissertation Committee will take the place of the Guidance Committee upon passing the Qualifying Exam (Cohort years three through six).

To learn more about student/faculty mentoring at UC Davis, please see mentoring information and read the UC Davis Graduate Council Mentoring Guidelines.

Supporting Courses: Students are normally expected to take three additional courses as determined by their Guidance Committee. More or fewer courses may be required by the Guidance Committee depending on the student's background and interests.

Remedial Courses: Students entering the graduate group are expected to have completed a set of courses that are typical in undergraduate biology majors. Certain courses are viewed as sufficiently important that entering students who have not taken them will be required to do so. These courses are:

  • a one-year course in introductory biology for biology majors (e.g. BIS 1 or BIS 2 series or equivalent)
  • a one-year course in calculus (e.g. MAT 17 series or equivalent)
  • a course in statistics (e.g. STA 13 or STA 100 or equivalent)
  • an upper-division course in general ecology or population biology (e.g. EVE 101 or equivalent)
  • an upper-division course in genetics (e.g. EVE 102 or equivalent)
  • an upper-division course in evolution (e.g. EVE 100 or equivalent)


The Guidance Committee is charged with the assignment of courses that will fulfill these requirements. 

First Year Examination: In June, during the period of Spring Quarter finals, all first-year students will take a written examination based on the contents of the six modules that make up the core curriculum. The faculty in charge of the lecture modules will supply questions and evaluate the answers. The questions may include material from the discussion groups as well as the formal lectures. This written exam takes the place of questions on general population biology during the qualifying examination taken later in the student's academic career. The exam is meant to identify weaknesses in a student's understanding of population biology and to help determine what additional course work or study might be appropriate. On occasion, the exam may be used to dismiss a student from the program who, by failing to exhibit a mastery of the material, is judged unsuitable for continuation in the graduate group.

When the examination is completed, the examining committee (the six module instructors) will reach one of three decisions for each student: pass, conditional pass with a requirement of further study and examination on some aspect of the material, or fail. In case of failure, the student must retake the written exam in September. Failing the second exam will result in dismissal from the graduate group.

Fall 2007: The Executive Committee met to discuss and formalize policy for outcomes of the First-Year Exam (pass/not pass).  The long-standing policy of the group is that students can fail one section of the exam and still receive a “Pass” outcome on the exam as a whole.  Students who fail two or more sections of the exam will receive a “Not Pass” on the exam as a whole.  In these cases, the student will be given the option to retake (by the end of the summer) the portions of the exam that were initially failed OR, at the discretion of the examining committee, other requirements (such as writing papers, TA’ing courses in the area where weakness was apparent, or doing a small research project) may be substituted.  Students retaking portions of the exam must fail no more than one section in order to convert their “No Pass” to a “Pass” for the First-Year Exam.

Teaching Experience: Each student is encouraged to have at least two quarters of experience as a Teaching Assistant (TA), normally before the qualifying exam. We encourage our students to apply for TAship in courses closely related to their subject of study. Not only does this approach provide a refresher for material you may not have reviewed in a while, it will also help strengthen your presentation skills as you prepare for your qualifying exam. Many of our students TA undergraduate courses in evolution and ecology while others TA courses in entomology, plant sciences, and genetics. Please visit the Dept. of Evolution and Ecology TA website for additional information. For information regarding other courses to TA, please contact those departments directly.


Year Two and Three Defined: The Qualifying Exam

Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam is intended to test the student's ability to design and execute a research project leading to significant publishable results. A research proposal provides a point of departure for the examination. In that proposal the student must demonstrate an ability to formulate general scientific questions and to build and test hypotheses. The student must also demonstrate a thorough understanding of the discipline encompassed by the proposal.

Schedule of the Qualifying Exam

1. Before taking the qualifying exam, students must have completed all course requirements set by Graduate Studies, the Population Biology Graduate Group, and the Guidance Committee.

2. Qualifying exams must be taken no later than the seventh quarter after matriculation.

Faculty Membership on the Examination Committee

1. A five-person committee will examine the student in population biology and three other designated areas.

2. At least three of the examiners, including the chair, must be members of the Population Biology Graduate Group. The student's major professor is not eligible to serve on the exam committee.

3. At least one of the examining faculty members must not be a member of the Population Biology Graduate Group.

4. The student, in consultation with the Guidance Committee, will propose three examination areas (in addition to population biology) representing subdisciplines of population biology. These subdisciplines include behavior, population genetics, molecular genetics, evolution, community ecology, systematics, conservation biology, environmental physiology, mathematical theory in population biology, statistical and experimental methods in population biology, resource economics and management, paleontology, or the biology of a particular taxon (e.g., mammalogy, ornithology, entomology, invertebrate zoology). One faculty member will act as an examiner for each of these areas. A fifth faculty member will be designated to chair the qualifying exam.

5. The graduate adviser and master adviser will review the recommendations and, on approval, will have the graduate program staff forward them to the Dean of Graduate Studies, who officially appoints the committee.

6. Given that the general area of population biology will have already been extensively covered in the first-year exam, the faculty member assigned the area of population biology will be expected to examine the student in only those areas of population biology that relate directly to the proposed dissertation research.

7. The primary role of the chair, who is not assigned a specific area for questions, is to oversee the exam.

Structure of the Research Proposal

The proposal will be a written document that follows the style of an NSF research proposal. The proposal will be a maximum of 15 single-spaced pages.

After a one-page summary, the proposal should present a rationale for the proposed research. The body of the proposal should focus upon a few important, related ideas that lead to a small number of coherent objectives. The objectives should be possible to accomplish within the student's graduate career.

All proposals will include some treatment of the essential quantitative methods to be integrated into the research. These include statistical analysis or other mathematical techniques.

A final section of the proposal should address the broader scientific significance of the objectives, and future directions that could be taken from different possible outcomes of the proposed research. The "future directions" portion of the proposal should be brief, outlining some courses of investigation that could follow from possible outcomes of the research in the body of the proposal.

Conduct of the Exam

A typical exam will begin with a 15- to 20-minute oral presentation by the student of the research proposal. The next component of the exam will be faculty questions pertaining to the proposal and the broader scientific issues of the student's three specialty areas.

In these discussions, the student should be able to respond to faculty perceptions, reactions, and criticisms of the proposal in some detail.

It is the student's responsibility to place the proposed research within the broader context of science and it is the responsibility of the examining committee to explore the student's understanding of scientific concepts, issues, and techniques that relate to the research.

Results of the Examination

In accordance with University policy, there are three outcomes for the qualifying examination: Pass, Not Pass, or Fail.

A failure will mean dismissal from the Graduate Group. In case of a "Not Pass," the student will be allowed to retake the exam a second time.

In the case of either a "Not Pass" or a "Fail," the committee will provide a written explanation of its decision.

If a second examination is necessary, the possible outcomes are "Pass" and "Fail." A "Fail" on the second exam will mean dismissal from the Graduate Group.

A student dismissed from the Graduate Group may be awarded an M.S. degree, if all course requirements have been successfully fulfilled. 


Year Four and Higher Defined: The Dissertation

Dissertation Committee

When a student passes their qualifying examination, their Guidance Committee will propose a Dissertation Committee with at least three members. At least two members, including the chair, must be members of the Population Biology Graduate Group. EFF 05-06: At least one faculty member will be from outside of PBGG (discuss with advisor should you need help).  Faculty from other UC campuses are permitted.  However, faculty outside of the UC system are permitted by exception only. The committee will be appointed (confirmed) by the Dean of Graduate Studies. Any changes to the committee after Dean’s approve require a “reconstitution of committee” form and must be reconfirmed by the Dean.

The Dissertation Committee will now take the place of the Guidance Committee to help guide the student’s research and review the student’s progress.  The student will meet with the committee at least once a year for the annual student progress report. Contents of the thesis must be approved by the committee at least six months before the submission of the dissertation. In cases where a committee member is not in residence (outside of UC Davis), suitable alternative arrangements may be made.

Insofar as it is consistent with the regulations of the Office of Graduate Studies, the dissertation will normally be presented in a form suitable for publication with minimal modifications. Students will be encouraged to present their theses in the form of several manuscripts suitable for publication in major peer-reviewed journals.

Filing Your Dissertation

In order to file your doctoral dissertation, it is required that you make an appointment with the Graduate Program liaison in the Office of Graduate Studies: Laura Young, (530) 752-2772.  Be prepared to spend 15-20 minutes in the Graduate Studies office, while the dissertation and degree requirements are checked.

The Office of Graduate Studies website contains all of the information on preparation and specifications for formatting of your thesis: Submittal deadlines for your thesis:

Dissertation Seminar and Defense

After presentation of the dissertation (or just prior to), all students are required to present a seminar based on the contents of their dissertation. Normally, the seminar will be given in the Tuesday Population Biology Seminar series. If this is not possible, the seminar may be scheduled for any convenient time. An announcement of the seminar to the entire Population Biology Graduate Group membership must be circulated at least one week prior to the seminar.