Frequently Asked Questions about the iBio Graduate Program

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1. What is the purpose of the Integrated Biology Graduate Program?
2. How will I be supported?
3. Will I teach?
4. When do I do research? How do I pick an advisor?
5. What courses do I take?
6. What do I have to do to obtain the PhD degree?
7. What research facilities are available for students?
8. What is the quality of research being done in the Department of Biology?
9. Have students who obtained their degree from the Graduate Program done well?
10. What is the living situation in Iowa City?
11. What is there to do in Iowa City?


 

1. What is the purpose of the Integrated Biology Graduate Program?

The Integrated Biology Graduate Program is designed to produce well-rounded, practicing scientists who are capable of solving interesting and important experimental problems in Biology. Our intention is to help incoming students, who are primarily “consumers of knowledge,” to become “producers of knowledge” through scientific discovery. Even more important than the specific information learned or the specific experimental techniques mastered is the ability to recognize significant and exciting questions and to design experiments and develop tools to answer them. We also strive to train students broadly for the “scientific life,” including training in effective teaching, public speaking and communication of scientific results, and opportunities for fulfilling academic service to the university and to the broader public.

2. How will I be supported?

All Ph.D. students making satisfactory progress toward the degree are supported in the Department of Biology until they receive their Ph.D. Currently, total compensation is approximately $35,000 per year (~$23,000 stipend paid monthly, a full tuition annual scholarship, and a generous health insurance plan).

All first-year Ph.D. students who participate in the laboratory rotation program are supported by a department stipend plus full tuition scholarship for the first semester (during rotations) and by a teaching assistantship (TAship) during the second semester. After the end of the first academic year, support comes from a variety of sources, including: research assistantships (RAships) from the grants of their thesis advisers, University-sponsored RA fellowships, nationally competitive fellowships (e.g., from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, etc.), and teaching assistantships (see also #3 below). Typically, Ph.D. students will be supported by a combination of TA and RA appointments during the course of their graduate career. The level of support is the same, regardless of the source.

M.S. students are generally supported by TA appointments each semester in the program. The current total compensation for M.S. students is approximately $29,000 per year (~$19,000 stipend plus tuition and health insurance).

3. Will I teach?

The Integrated Biology Graduate Program strongly believes that experience as a TA benefits a future scientist, whether he or she pursues a career in academia, a research institute, the biotech industry, or other fields such as science writing. While the usefulness of this experience for a future college professor is obvious, being able to explain science to others is a critical skill for all scientists. Therefore, one of the program’s requirements is that every Ph.D. student spend two semesters during their graduate career as a half-time TA. Students will undergo intensive TA training and will TA in our foundational undergraduate Biology classes during the Spring semester of their first year. Their second TA assignment can take place any subsequent semester but is typically done after passing the Comprehensive Exam at the end of the second year. The Integrated Biology Graduate Program is not unique in having a TA requirement as most Ph.D. programs do. However, we are distinguished by our strong commitment to train our graduate students in effective teaching techniques. Students with a strong interest in teaching may TA additional semesters if they desire and/or as needed for funding provided that positions are available and approved with their thesis adviser.

4. When do I do research? How do I pick an advisor?

Our program is designed to get graduate students involved in research as soon as possible while ensuring that they make an informed choice about the questions on which to work and the laboratory in which they would like to pursue their thesis research. In order to accomplish these goals, the program has developed an accelerated research rotation plan that takes place during the first semester on campus.

During the Fall semester of their first year, Ph.D. students do short (6-7 week) research rotations in three laboratories of their choosing. While students will also begin taking classes during this semester, they are expected to spend at least 20 hours a week working in each lab as full immersion in the lab’s work is the best way for students to decide which lab is the right one for them. Faculty members understand that the rotation period is short; therefore, the emphasis is on introducing the student to the questions being asked and the general approaches used in each laboratory. It is not expected that major research problems will be solved during one rotation period. Rather, students and faculty use this period to assess each other. In making a final choice of the thesis lab, students should take into account many factors, including the research projects available, the style of the potential thesis mentor, and the relationships among others in the lab environment. Thesis work leading to a Ph.D. generally takes 4-5 years after lab affiliation, so students should be sure that the lab they choose is a good match for them and will provide them with a happy scientific “home."

The program provides new students with an overview of research opportunities in the department. An orientation is held in early August in which professors present brief descriptions of faculty members’ research. However, all new students will communicate with potential rotation sponsors during the summer prior to matriculation in order to discuss possible projects before submitting their choice for the first rotation to the Graduate Affairs Committee (GAC) by July 15. Decisions concerning the second and third rotations are made later on during the first semester.

After completing all three rotations, the student chooses a research adviser, and in consultation with the adviser, a research project. Together student and sponsor decide upon a thesis committee to help guide the student during graduate work. Thus, students begin their thesis research at the end of the first semester, although TA training and continuing coursework in the Spring semester of the first year will account for a significant amount of time until the end of the first year.

Students who intend to pursue the M.S. degree in the graduate program do not participate in research rotations. These students must identify a faculty member in the program who is willing to serve as their M.S. thesis research mentor. Mutual agreement between the student and the prospective mentor is required before a student can be admitted to the graduate program as an M.S. student.

5. What courses do I take?

Formal course work in the Integrated Biology Graduate Program is highly individualized. We believe that students should take courses that help to further their particular plan of study and also provide sufficient breadth in Biology to place one's own research into broader perspective. Students may take courses both within the Department of Biology and from other departments and programs including Biochemistry, Microbiology, Physiology and Biophysics, and Anatomy and Cell Biology. The major focus of the Ph.D. program is on original research, not coursework; course requirements are thus designed to give students the rigorous academic background they need for their future research, teaching, and service activities.

Upon entry, most students must enroll in Fundamental Genetics: Graduate Discussion (BIOL:5512). Students are excused from this course’s undergraduate lecture component only if they have previously taken a comparable approved basic genetics course. Also, during the first semester, students will take “Principles of Scholarly Integrity” (BIOL:7090), a series of workshops on the responsible conduct of research held prior to the first week of classes. During the first year, students are also required to attend two weekly seminars: The COSMOS Student Seminar Series (BIOL:6298) on Monday afternoons during which graduate students and postdoctoral fellows give presentations of their original research; and the Biology Seminar on Friday afternoons, which includes talks by nationally and internationally renowned scientists. In the Spring semester, all Ph.D. students will enroll in the COSMOS (“Concepts, Systems, and Models in Biology,” BIOL:6298) seminar course, which is designed to analyze a broad topic in biology across many levels of analysis, from the molecular to the ecological. Each week students read, discuss, and present research papers from the literature that explore this topic across many different model- and non-model organisms. Students also take Writing in Natural Sciences (BIOL:6488) in their second year, in addition to courses in advanced biology topics and data informatics. Typically, students also take a variety of seminar courses through their graduate career to maintain state-of-the-art knowledge of their field. Other courses are chosen based on each student’s needs and interests in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies and, once entering a lab, with the student’s advisor and thesis committee.

6. What do I have to do to obtain the PhD degree?

a. Both the Graduate College and the Integrated Biology Graduate Program have requirements that must be met to receive a Ph.D. degree from the University of Iowa. The Graduate College (and iBio) requires registration for a total of 72 hours. These credit hours can be earned by taking formal courses or by registering for research credit based on laboratory work done under the supervision of a faculty member.

b. Each Ph.D. student is required to pass a Qualifying Examination (QE) in the summer following the first year. A set of topics covering the four major research foci of the department (Cell and Developmental Biology, Evolution and Ecology, Genetics, and Neurobiology) will be handed out to students in May. Each topic will include a review article that summarizes recent research on the topic and an article from the primary literature that focuses on one portion of the field. Students spend two months during the summer studying these articles as well as any supplementary literature that may provide context and/or additional detail about the topic. Students may discuss the QE topics with fellow first-year students. The actual exam takes place in July and will consist of a multi-part question based on each of the topics handed out to students. Students must answer 4 out of 8 questions taking one hour to write each answer, typically 1-2 pages. No notes or written materials will be allowed. The QE is administered by the Graduate Affairs Committee (GAC) and will be graded by GAC members. Students who pass will automatically continue on in the Ph.D. program. In the event that QE performance is unsatisfactory, students may be asked to rewrite some answers as short papers, or they may be dismissed from the program with or without the option to finish an M.S. degree.

c. Each Ph.D. student is required to pass a Comprehensive Exam at the end of their second year. The written portion involves preparing a research grant proposal directly related to the student’s thesis research. In the Spring semester of the student’s second year as part of the seminar course “Writing in the Natural Sciences” (BIOL:6488), the student begins to prepare an NIH/NSF/AHA style predoctoral grant proposal based on the student’s own projected research. During the summer (between June 1 and the start of the Fall semester), the student continues writing and eventually finalizes the proposal. This proposal is then presented orally. The Thesis Committee will question the student about the proposal to ascertain that the student understands the background to the proposed research, has formulated solid aims with clear expected outcomes and alternate strategies, and has a sufficient grasp of the experimental methodology to perform the planned work. The Thesis Committee is assembled by the student in consultation with the thesis adviser no later than early February of the student’s second year in residence and consists of the student’s adviser plus four other faculty members (one of whom must have their primary appointment outside of the Department of Biology). Passing the Comprehensive Exam allows the student to advance to Ph.D. "candidacy." (For more details see the Graduate Student Handbook and the Graduate College’s Manual of Rules and Regulations.)

d. The final (and most important!) requirement is completion of an original research project and the presentation of the results of the research in a written thesis followed by an oral thesis defense. The thesis work is supervised by the student's faculty adviser and is usually conducted in the adviser's laboratory. Often much of the final semester is spent writing the thesis.

7. What research facilities are available for students?

Research facilities at the University of Iowa can be classified into three categories: individual laboratories, departmental facilities, and university facilities. All of our laboratories are well equipped for the type of research conducted by the faculty member in charge. This is a result of the excellent funding records of individual faculty members. The equipment in individual research laboratories is supplemented by departmental equipment, including ultracentrifuges, confocal and two-photon microscopes in the Carver Center for Imaging, and a huge array of instrumentation in the Carver Center for Genomics (sequencing, real-time PCR, gel/blot imaging). These items are located in common equipment rooms and are readily available to students. The department also maintains a large greenhouse, special controlled environmental chambers, and land for growing experimental plants. All laboratories have access to a wide range of online scientific journals and software licenses as well as genomic and proteomic databases.

The university also maintains specialized research facilities devoted to next-gen sequencing, protein structure, image analysis, flow cytometry, high resolution mass-spectrometry combined with NMR, advanced microscopy, and gene editing. Funds available from the Graduate College are devoted specifically to the use of these facilities for graduate student research, and students can access all of the shared instrumentation at these facilities as needed for their research.

Please see the Biology Facilities page (https://biology.uiowa.edu/facilities) and the resource page for the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine (https://medicine.uiowa.edu/research/core-research-facilities-institutes-and-centers) for more information. 

8. What is the quality of research being done in the Department of Biology?

The Biology faculty are consistently recognized for research excellence and have accrued numerous prestigious awards and honors at the national and international levels. These include Research Career Developmental Awards, Searle Scholarships, Pew Scholarship in Biomedical Sciences, Fogarty International Fellowships, and others. Most faculty maintain active, competitive external grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), though faculty members also hold grants from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes, and many other private organizations. Biology faculty also typically publish in prestigious journals including Nature, Cell Reports, Journal of Cell Biology, among others.

For the fiscal year 2017, Biology faculty received over $4 million in grant funding from external sources with the majority coming from NIH. Several Biology faculty maintain multiple grants and have large collaborative projects with other departments that are administered in the Department of Biology. 

9. Have students who obtained their degree from the Graduate Program done well?

In the past ten years, our Ph.D. graduates (iBio and the previous Biology Ph.D program) have had close to 100% success in finding employment in their chosen areas. For most, this has meant going on to do postdoctoral research for three or more years before entering a research/teaching position at a university or college, or a research position in a governmental agency or industry/biotech lab. Our Ph.D. students have secured excellent postdoctoral positions in major research laboratories. Subsequently, they have become faculty at major universities including Texas (Austin), California (Berkeley), Case Western Reserve (Cleveland), and Illinois (Urbana), as well as smaller institutions such as Wesleyan, Union College, and Skidmore. Several of our recent graduates have joined biotechnology companies and a few have opted for high-level management positions or entrepreneurial endeavors. Students emerge from our program well-rounded and prepared for a wide variety of career options both in and outside of academia.

10. What is the living situation in Iowa City?

Iowa City is a very affordable and easy place to live. The cost of living in Iowa City is typically about half that of major metropolitan areas such as New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco, and is generally more affordable than many other Midwestern cities and college towns. Housing in Iowa City is plentiful and convenient with many apartments and houses available within walking/biking distance to campus. The affordability is such that students often purchase homes during their stay in Iowa City. Also, both the University of Iowa and Iowa City/Coralville have superb free or low-cost bus systems and many apartment complexes have bus stops nearby. In the Iowa City area, apartment rent averages about $700-$1000 for a two-bedroom apartment and $500-$800 for a one-bedroom apartment.

The university operates a clearinghouse in which prospective tenants and landlords can submit listings describing what housing they need or have available. Though most landlords also advertise elsewhere, the clearinghouse provides the unique service of matching individuals looking for roommates.

Off-Campus Housing Service: http://offcampushousing.uiowa.edu/

 

11. What is there to do in Iowa City?

Iowa City and its surrounding communities make up an attractive, cosmopolitan metropolitan area with a total population of ~150,000. A wide variety of outdoor activities, art and literature events, and sports are available in Iowa City. The area is home to a vibrant running and cycling community, frequently hosting stages of the statewide bike ride, RAGBRAI. The proximity of rural gravel roads has made Iowa City internationally renowned for gravel riding and cyclo-cross. In the winter, cross country skiing is also popular. There are also many parks and trails along the Iowa River as well as nearby recreation areas at Lake Macbride and the Coralville Lake, all of which support great hiking/biking trails, canoeing, camping, and other outdoor activities.

As for the art scene, both the University of Iowa and Iowa City attract acts and events typical of much larger cities. The beautifully-renovated Hancher Auditorium, located on the university campus, hosts 30-40 events per year by internationally acclaimed actors, artists, musicians, and performers (e.g. the Chicago Joffrey Ballet). University groups also offer a wide range of free or discounted theater and music events. In addition, there are several community theater groups, including the Riverside Theater, which holds an annual Shakespeare Festival. Local music venues such as the Englert Theatre, The Mill, The Blue Moose, and Gabe’s host bands ranging from classic rock to jazz to the latest college bands. Each summer, the Summer of the Arts initiative hosts downtown art fairs and an International Jazz Festival that is widely acclaimed. A local movie house, FilmScene, is also becoming widely recognized for its limited-release films and original productions. Together, these activities are contributing to Iowa City becoming one of the best small towns for the arts in the nation.

Iowa City has a rich literary history and the University is home to the #1 creative writing program in the country; as such, Iowa City was chosen as the first UNESCO City of Literature in the U.S. Luckily for our students, the Department of Biology is located in the heart of downtown Iowa City with dozens of restaurants, coffee shops, cafes, bookstores, and other shops and movie/music venues just steps away.

Students interested in college spectator sports will quickly find that Iowa City has a great deal to offer in the form of Big Ten football, men's and women's basketball, baseball, wrestling, field hockey, gymnastics, and other sports in which university teams are consistently competitive nationally. Tickets for these events are available at discounted prices for students.

The Iowa City community has recently been ranked:

  • One of the nation’s top 10 college towns (Livability.com)
  • #1 most livable small metropolitan area by Editor and Publisher magazine.
  • 3rd most educated metropolitan area by USA Today.
  • One of Kiplinger's “Top Ten Smartest Cities.”
  • One of Money magazine's Best Places to Live (in top 10%).
  • 6th safest, healthiest, and sexiest place to live in America by Men's Journal.
  • 5th best small town in which to work by the Forbes magazine.
  • Top U.S. town in the Midwest by the active lifestyle magazine Outside.