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Grad Program Policy


The Master of Science program in the Department of Biology is based on thesis research. Students complete course work that extends their breadth of knowledge in biology and the concepts and techniques of their chosen discipline. They also conduct original research under the direction of a faculty member, and write up their findings as a master's thesis. Graduate students must be supervised by a research faculty for the full duration of their program. Typically, students take two to three years to complete their graduate degree requirements.

Graduate students in the Department of Biology are supported through various sources. The department has approximately 30 teaching assistantships available each semester and these positions are filled one semester in advance (contact the Graduate Coordinator for details). In addition, students may receive research assistantships through individual faculty members and their research grants. The University offers a limited number of tuition fee waivers for qualified teaching assistants. Students can also obtain academic scholarships as well as financial aid (usually in the form of low-interest loans). The Department of Biology encourages current and prospective students to apply for external scholarships, fellowships and grants ).

Graduates of this program find themselves with an enhanced understanding of biology and first-hand experience in the practice of science. Many of our graduates move on to doctoral programs and careers in teaching and research. Others pursue careers in environmental consulting, resource management, industry, and various health professions.

Advisory Committee

During the first semester in attendance, the student will consult with their faculty advisor who will be their principal guide in planning research and academic activities. By the end of the first semester, the student and faculty advisor must identify two other people to serve on the student's Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee consists of the advisor (chair of committee) and at least two other members. A minimum of two members of the Advisory Committee must be members of the Department of Biology's Graduate Faculty. At least one committee member must be a tenured/tenure-track faculty member in Biology. The third member of the Advisory Committee may be from another institution or agency, subject to approval of the Graduate Committee. Within the first year, the student may change their faculty advisor in consultation and agreement with the new advisor and approval of the Graduate Committee.

The student meets with the Advisory Committee by the end of the first semester to complete the MS Coursework and Timeline Form listing the committee approved courses that the student intends to apply to the degree, timeline for advancement to candidacy and completion of degree. This form is submitted to the Graduate Coordinator for approval by the Graduate Committee. Without filing additional forms, students can make changes in their coursework if changes meet the approval of their Advisory Committee.

Students Admitted as Conditionally Classified

Students admitted under a “conditional acceptance” must fulfill specific requirements outlined by the graduate committee and faculty advisor before completing their GSO1. The GSO1 will not be processed until the requirement has been completed and the student cannot register or start their BIOL 599 coursework.


From the time of initial enrollment until awarding of the graduate degree, students must have enrolled in at least 30 units of committee-approved coursework (maintaining a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0). The allocations of these units must be as follows:

  1. A minimum of 18 units must be in Biology.
  2. A minimum of 15 units must be at the 500-level and must include:
    1. a maximum of 9 units in BIOL 597 (M.S. Thesis Preparation) may be applied toward the MS degree requirements. Students who have not advanced to candidacy should enroll in these units.
    2. a maximum of 6 units in BIOL 599 (M.S. Thesis) can be applied toward the MS degree, but 3 units is required. Students must have advanced to candidacy to enroll in these units. Students will be given an "RP" grade until the final approval of the thesis. If work is not completed within four semesters, including the semester of their enrollment, students will be required to re-enroll in this course.
    3. a minimum of 3 graduate-level seminar courses (at least 6 units).
    4. a maximum of 8 units in BIOL 595 (Special Studies) may be applied toward the MS degree requirements.
  3. Students are encouraged to attend Biology Colloquium regularly and can apply 2 units of BIOL 590 to their 30 unit total.
  4. A maximum of 9 units of extension, transfer credit or credits taken in the last semester of a student's senior year may be applied to the M.S. degree. See the University catalog or consult Admissions for details

Teaching Associateships

All graduate students, including those supported by extramural sources of funding, are required to participate as a paid Teaching Associate in the Department of Biology in a minimum of one laboratory section.

To be eligible for a University Tuition Waiver graduate students must be a paid Teaching Associate for a full academic year (i.e., at least one lab in both the fall and spring semesters).

Advancement to Candidacy

To advance to candidacy, students must:

  1. Demonstrate competency in the breadth of biology. This can be met by:
    1. Coursework reported on transcripts as described in the admissions criteria.
    2. Equivalency to the above courses as determined by the Graduate Committee.
  2. Complete or have in progress a minimum of 12 units of advisory committee-approved coursework (as outlined on the MS Coursework and Timeline Form).
  3. Demonstrate proficiency in written English. This may be met by:
    1. Possessing a bachelor's degree from a CSU institution, or
    2. Obtaining a score of at least 4.0 in the analytical writing portion of the GRE general test
  4. Pass a two-hour Oral Qualifying Examination. The student's Advisory Committee administers this examination and a fourth member selected by the Graduate Coordinator from the biology faculty. For full-time students, this examination should be completed no later than the end of their second semester. During the examination, students must demonstrate that they are able to articulate the purpose of their proposed research project and the hypothesis(es) they are testing, and are competent to complete the work. Competency includes knowledge in the areas appropriate to the work proposed. Students are also required to demonstrate an ability to integrate general principles of biology with their proposed work. Procedures for the oral qualifying examination are as follows:
    1. Request that the Graduate Coordinator appoint a fourth member to the Qualifying Examination Committee.
    2. At least two weeks prior to the pre-examination meeting (see below), circulate a preliminary research proposal to all Qualifying Examination Committee members. This proposal outlines the student's proposed thesis research (minimum 5 pages in length) and is developed in close consultation with the student's thesis advisor
    3. Meet with the Qualifying Examination Committee for the pre-examination meeting. In this meeting, the committee will discuss the format of the examination, appropriate student preparation and schedule the date and time for the examination.
    4. Complete the Qualifying Examination. Each student's performance is evaluated as a pass/no pass based on the consensus of the Examination Committee.
      1. A "pass" may be conditional upon additional coursework, or independent study determined by the Examination Committee. This coursework or independent study is added to the earlier draft of the MS Coursework and Timeline Form and given to the Graduate Coordinator.
      2. If a student passes the Qualifying Examination, members of their committee sign the Advancement to Candidacy Form (GS01), and the student submits this form to the Graduate Coordinator, who submits this form to the Graduate Studies Office for final approval.
      3. If a student does not pass the Qualifying Examination, their committee will decide if this result is final or if the student will be offered a second attempt. In the latter case, the student may take the examination one more time with the same or a different thesis proposal and committee. The fourth member of the examination committee will remain the same unless this person has become a member of the student's new thesis committee, in which case a new fourth member will be appointed.

Completion of Degree

After advancing to candidacy, students must complete the following tasks to meet their graduate degree requirements within 4 semesters:

  1. Approximately 1 semester before graduation (see dates to apply for Graduation) submit the Application for Award of Degree Form to the Graduate Coordinator.
  2. Prepare a thesis for defense. A complete draft of the written thesis, approved by the Advisory Committee Chair, must be presented to the Advisory Committee prior to scheduling the thesis defense. Students may schedule their defense once the Advisory Committee has signed off on the thesis as 'ready to defend'. Thesis design format (manuscript or traditional) is to be agreed upon by the student and Advisory Committee (but must conform to SSU thesis format).
  3. Publicly present thesis research as the "Thesis Defense." Steps for the thesis defense are:
    1. Students present results of their research in a public forum such as the Biology Colloquium and notify the Graduate Coordinator at least one week in advance of the upcoming defense by submitting the title, date, time, and meeting room for the defense. The graduate Coordinator will then notify the Department. The presentation should not exceed 45 minutes and students should be prepared to address questions and comments. All three members of the committee must be present at this seminar.
    2. Immediately after the defense presentation, the student and their committee meet to further discuss, evaluate and comment on the thesis. At the end of this meeting, the student is excused and the committee decides on the acceptability of the thesis. The Committee may require the student to revise the thesis. Once accepted, step 4 (below) must be completed and the thesis will be signed for final submission to the Graduate Studies Office.
  4. Submit a final copy of the thesis abstract to the Graduate Coordinator.
  5. Submit the signed copy of the thesis to the Graduate Studies Office for final review, accompanied by the signed Completion of Requirements Form (GSO2). The details of editorial format and procedures for submitting work to SSU's Graduate Studies Office are contained in Guidelines for Master's Theses and Projects.

The Graduate Studies degree completion checklist is here:

Continuous Enrollment

Continuous enrollment is expected of all graduate students during their entire degree program. If students have completed their coursework and do not register for thesis units, they must enroll in BIOL 578 through Extended Education. This involves a fee and requires written permission from the Graduate Coordinator.

Leave of Absence

An approved leave of absence from the Graduate Program may be granted for up to 2 semesters in cases of extenuating circumstances. The student must submit a written request to the Graduate Coordinator for approval, followed by submission to the Graduate Studies Office for final approval. Approved leaves of absence will be granted for one semester.

Academic Probation

A graduate student is subject to academic probation if at any time the student’s cumulative grade point average in all post-baccalaureate work attempted at SSU falls below 3.0. A graduate student will be removed from academic probation when the student’s cumulative grade point average in all graduate program course work attempted at SSU is 3.0 or higher.

Academic Disqualification

A graduate student may be subject to academic disqualification if, after the student has been on probation for at least one semester, the student’s cumulative grade point average in all post-baccalaureate work attempted at SSU falls below 3.0. Students are not academically disqualified from the University on the basis of a single semester of unsatisfactory work. A student who is academically disqualified is not permitted to register for or take courses at Sonoma State University, except through intersession or open university, from the time of disqualification until such time as the student is reinstated according to the procedures below.

Administrative Academic Probation

A student may be placed on administrative-academic probation for

  • withdrawal from a substantial portion of a program in two successive terms (for reasons other than a chronic or recurring medical condition); or
  • repeated failure to progress toward a degree; or
  • failure to comply, after due notice, with an academic requirement or regulation that is routine for all students, such as failure to complete a required milestone, or failure to comply with professional standards appropriate to the field of study. The graduate student’s faculty advisor must meet with Graduate Coordinator and Graduate Committee to request probation status.

Administrative Academic Disqualification

A student may be placed in administrative-academic disqualified status if the student fails to remedy the condition resulting in administrative-academic probation; if the student becomes subject to academic probation while on administrative-academic probation; or if the student becomes subject to administrative-academic probation for the same or similar reason for which the student has been placed on administrative-academic probation previously even if the student is not current on administrative-academic probation. In addition, a student may be disqualified if, at any time during enrollment, he/she has demonstrated behavior so contrary to the standards of the profession for which the student is preparing as to render him/her unfit for the profession. In such cases, disqualification will occur immediately upon notice to the student, and the student may be immediately disenrolled from the university.

Reinstatement after Disqualification

Students who have been disqualified may not apply for immediate reinstatement. Graduate students who have been disqualified must reapply to their department and the university for admission. Disqualified students who are reinstated will be on a probationary basis and must meet any requirements outlined in the reinstatement letter by the University Standards Committee

Progress Report

By the end of their fifth semester students are expected to provide to their Advisory Committee a completed draft of the thesis (see Section 6.2), or a Progress Report. The critical section of the progress report is a timeline indicating the work to be completed in the upcoming (terminal) year. A copy of the Advisory Committee-approved progress report must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator by the student.

Policy for Adjunct Faculty Advisors

Tenure-track faculty in other departments at SSU are eligible to chair Advisory Committees for the master's degree program in the Department of Biology, provided they have been granted adjunct faculty status in the Department of Biology. Adjunct faculty are expected to provide office space and research support for students they advise.

Revised Policy approved March 2024