Degree Requirements

General Degree Requirements can be found under the Graduate Studies section of the SFU Calendar.
In addition to the General Degree Requirements listed in the calendar, certain Departmental Regulations apply.  What follows is to be read in conjunction with the SFU Calendar and are in addition to the General Degree Requirements set out therein.

Transferring from a Master's program to the PhD program

Section 1.3.4 Transferring from a Master's program to the PhD program 

Transferring from a Master's program to the PhD Program
Students in a Master's program may transfer to the PhD program after meeting the follow criteria:

  • at least two semesters (and no more than six semesters) in one of the Master's programs at SFU
  • completion of at least 3/4 of the required coursework, with a CGPA of 3.5 or better
  • approval of the transfer by all members of their supervisory committee
  • evidence of scholarly accomplishments, such as submission of manuscripts for publication or presentations at national or international meetings

To apply: Complete the "Program Transfer" form available from the Dean of Graduate Studies website, and include the following in your application package which should be given to the Biology Graduate Program Assistant (support letters are usually sent independently by the supervisor/committee):

  • undergraduate and graduate transcripts
  • a PhD research proposal (five pages, single-spaced excluding references in the style of an NSERC proposal with background, research objectives, methods, and significance of research)
  • a letter of support from the senior supervisor in which they describe why they support the transfer. Separate letters from other committee members are not necessary, but they must confirm that they support the transfer.

Application Deadline: No later than 3 weeks prior to the start of the semester of intended transfer.

The application will be considered by the DGSC and a recommendation is made to accept or reject the application.
Please note that transfer is NOT automatic.  The Committee considers carefully the quality of the proposal, the extent of tangible accomplishments to date and the supervisor's comments before approving a request to transfer.

In addition, please note that the number of semesters already completed in the Master's program are calculated as part of the 18 semester time limit for completion of the PhD.  Because of this, your eligibility for a Graduate Fellowship may be reduced. Also be aware that the timing of a transfer may affect your eligibility for scholarships (e.g. Vanier, NSERC Doctoral).

  • The minimum requirement for test scores is TOEFL 580 and TWE 5 (paper-based TOEFL), TOEFL iBT 100 (internet based test) with a minimum score of 20 in each section, and I.E.L.T.S. overall band score of 7.0 of the academic test with a minimum of 6.5 in each section.

Course Requirement for the Doctoral Degree 

Section 1.7.4 Course Requirement for the Doctoral Degree

  • If a student already has a Master's degree, the PhD program requires a minimum of two courses totalling not less than six credit hours.  Of these all must be graduate courses.  Additional course work maya be set by the supervisory committee.  Where advance approval is obtained, a PhD student may take up to one-half of the above course requirement at another university for credit toward the PhD degree at Simon Fraser University.
  • PhD students entering directly from a bachelor's program or transferring from the MSc program must conplete 12 credit hours in total.  Additional course work may be set by the supervisory committee.
  • The student must complete a PhD Candidacy Exam and register in BISC 892 PhD Graduate Candidacy Exam in the semester the exam is to be completed. Normally taken prior to the end of the 4th semester (2nd semester after transfer from MSc).  See outline below.

Progress Evaluation (Annual Progress Report)

Section 1.8.1 Progress Evaluation

  • The student must meet at least once a year with his/her supervisory committee and submit an Annual Progess Report.  Completion of an Annual Progress Report is a joint responsibility between the supervisory committee and student.  Annual Progress Reports are approved by the Chair of the DGSC.  Progress must be satisfactory for students to be allowed to continue in their program.

See also:  Annual Progress Report

Learning Outcomes


Upon completion of this degree, the student will have demonstrated the ability to undertake original research. The thesis will include one or more empirical or theory-based chapters that are of such quality that they merit publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Publication is strongly encouraged but is not a requirement for graduation.


Upon completion of this degree, the student will have made a significant contribution to knowledge in their field of research and will be able to perform as an independent scientist. The student will have the ability to interpret data, communicate his/her findings orally and written to a scientific audience and will be familiar with the scientific publication process. The thesis will meet the standards of the field and will embody the results of original investigations and analyses. The thesis will normally include 2-5 empirical or theory-based chapters, as approved by the student’s supervisory committee. It will normally be expected that at least 1 of these chapters will have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal by the time of thesis submission to the examining committee.

Guidelines for the PhD Candidacy Exam in Biological Sciences

Purposes of a Candidacy Exam

Paperwork for the PhD Candidacy Exam must be received by the Graduate Program Assistant 4 weeks before your exam.  Please contact the Graduate Program Assistant for the 'Step-by-step' guidelines.

  1. To stimulate the student to prepare and defend a written research proposal.
  2. To ensure that he or she has sufficient knowledge of the relevant literature and background information.
  3. To identify the student's areas of weakness in the discipline or in the subject matter relevant to the student's general field of research and to permit the examining panel to recommend courses or reading for the student well before the time of the defense.
  4. To ensure that the student is able to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level.
  5. Only minor attention is given to work already done on the candidate's thesis.

Composition of the Examining Panel

The examining panel is composed of the advisory committee, a faculty member external to the advisory committee to act as external examiner, and a member of the DGSC to act as chair.  The external examiner is chosen by the senior supervisor, in consultation with the DGSC.  For some candidates an external examiner from outside the department might be suitable. The external examiner should have some degree of expertise in the student's general area of research, and be able to provide an independent assessment of the candidate, but should not have attended any previous committee meetings.

Format of a Candidacy Exam

  1. Normally an oral exam of not more than 2 hours duration, closed to the public.
  2. Normally taken prior to end of 4th semester (2nd semester after transfer from M.Sc.).
  3. The examining committee should be provided with an original research proposal of the student's intended doctoral research two weeks prior to the exam. The proposal should take the general form and approach of an NSERC Operating Grant Proposal; however, do NOT use any NSERC forms, and there is no need to refer to any NSERC materials; simply follow the guidelines described below.
    The proposal should include discussion of relevant background literature, a clear explanation of the rationale for the proposed research, presentation of methodology to be used, and explanation of how the results of the work should contribute to progress in the field. Progress to date and preliminary results may also be included. A separate one‑page document outlining a research budget may be required at the discretion of the advisory committee.
    The proposal should be five pages maximum in length (not including references), with at least a 1 inch margin on all sides, in 12 point font. Any material beyond five pages will be discarded and not considered.
  4. The exam will begin with a short (10-15 min) summary of the proposed research. Questioning by the panel follows. The exam will concentrate on the student's area of research. See section on "Nature of the Questioning" below for more details about questioning. After the questioning, the candidate retires and the committee considers the performance of the candidate and the quality of the proposal.
  5. Under the guidance of the Chair, the committee reaches a consensus and the exam is graded ‘Acceptable’, ‘Acceptable after conditions listed below are met’, ‘Re‑evaluation required’, or ‘Not acceptable’. ‘Not acceptable’ is only used for an unacceptable second exam.
    (5a).    Acceptable can include recommendations for additional work.  Course work or directed study may be suggested.
    (5b).    Acceptable after the conditions listed below are met should be used when the Examining Committee requires additional course work, directed study, or revisions to the proposal or other work, but no re-examination is necessary. In this case, the DGSC will approve the examination when the Senior Advisor indicates that the required work has been completed.
    (5c).    Re‑evaluation would require a second candidacy exam within 6 months. This grading is to be used following the first candidacy exam when there are substantial problems with the student's background preparation and/or research proposal.
    (5d).    A student receiving a Not acceptable rating following the second defense will not be permitted to continue in a Ph.D. program, except under unusual circumstances.

Nature of the questioning

The following could serve as guidelines for posing questions and for appraising the candidate.

  1. Has the student satisfactorily demonstrated how the proposed research logically follows from existing scientific knowledge and previous investigations in the subdiscipline?
  2. Has the student satisfactorily demonstrated how the proposed research will contribute to the advancement of science in the particular subdiscipline?
  3. Is the candidate familiar with relevant literature?
  4. Are the objectives of the research clearly defined and achievable?
  5. Has the candidate demonstrated sufficient knowledge of experimental design, data collection and methods of analysis to ensure completion of the research program?
  6. Is the time envisioned to complete the research program realistic?
  7. Does the candidate possess sufficient skills in written and verbal communication to complete Ph.D. dissertation requirements?
  8. Does the candidate have sufficient knowledge of the discipline?
  9. Does the student need to improve his/her understanding of subject matter related to his/her general field of research?
  10. On the whole, is the student able to pursue and complete original research at an advanced level?

Thesis Defense

Section 1.9.2. Preparation for Examination of Master's Thesis

  • Six weeks prior to the examination date, the student must submit his/her Approval of Examining Committee form that has the signatures of all committee members, indicating that they have seen the thesis and agree that it is essentially complete and ready for defense.  The Graduate Program Assistant will obtain a Chairperson for the defense.
  • Please contact the Graduate Program Assistant for detailed information.

Section 1.9.4 Preparation for Examination of Doctoral Thesis

  • Ten weeks prior to the examination date the student must submit his/her Approval of Examining Committee form that has the signature of all committee members, indicating that they have seen the thesis and agree that it is essentially complete and ready for the defense.  The Graduate Program Assistant will obtain a chairperson for the defense.
  • Please contact the Graduate Program Assistant for detailed information.

Section 1.10.2 Classification of the Thesis

  • 2 a)   the senior supervisor.  All other members of the Examining Committee have signed the thesis.
  • 2 b)   the examining committee.  Some members have withheld signatures pending revisions.
  • 3 a)   A second oral defense will be required.
  • 3 b)   The examining committee will reach its decision based on the written, revised thesis.  A re-defense is not required.

Thesis Defenses:  Important Information for External Examiners