Frequently Asked Questions

Coursework / Financial / Laboratory Rotations / Miscellaneous / Preliminary Exam and Dissertator Status / Teaching


  • How much time as a first-year student is spent on coursework?

    Typically about 50%, with the remainder being spent on lab rotations and getting started in the lab you select for thesis research. Students usually take two, 2-4-credit hour courses per semester (in addition to seminar and journal club) the first year.

  • What courses do most first-year students take?

    There is significant variability, depending on your background, interests, and future directions. A useful resource to consider is the listing of Bacteriology and Medical Microbiology & Immunology courses counting toward the major given in the document describing the Microbiology Program. Once you arrive on campus, you will also be guided by the faculty and students who serve on the Advising Committee as well as (formally or informally) by senior graduate students who have taken the courses.

  • Do I still have to take these courses if I've taken a comparable undergraduate or Master's degree course?

    The program would consider a waiver, but it would be unusual for a student to have taken comparable courses as an undergraduate.

  • What are the major and minor coursework requirements and what is the nature of the minor?

    Major: 10 credit hours are required. All students are required to take 2 semesters of the one credit course current issues in microbiology (MMI 810/Micro 811). At least 3 courses must come from the major course list. (see Program Requirements).

    Minor: 10 credit hours, which may be in a single department (Biochemistry, Genetics, etc.). However, the vast majority of students choose a distributed minor option that can be satisfied by choosing courses from one or more other departments. Courses from Bacteriology or Medical Microbiology & Immunology, including those listed in the program document can also count towards a distributed minor if approved by your thesis committee. Ultimately, a student's thesis committee approves the major and minor courses, within programmatic and University guidelines.

  • How long do students usually take courses?

    Most students complete their coursework requirements in the first two years.


  • How will I be supported my first year?

    Unless you have received an independent fellowship, you will be supported by Program resources until you select a thesis laboratory. After that, the laboratory assumes responsibility for your support. Program resources used to support first-year students without independent fellowships can include Research Assistant (RA) positions funded by the Graduate School or Departmental RA positions.

    You are guaranteed first year support by the program, but at this time we cannot tell you precisely the source of support, in part because we do not know how many of you will accept our offer of admission, or how many may be awarded independent fellowship funding. The important point is that all students are guarenteed the same stipend regardless of their support.

  • What will I be paid?

    The stipend for 2014-15 is $25,500 per annum. You are required to pay income taxes. You will have to pay student fees each semester.

  • Is health insurance provided?

    You have access to the same choices for excellent and comprehensive health care as do faculty and staff. This includes a variety of HMOs and fee-for-service options, and does not involve a student health service. The current cost for health insurance is $44.00 for an individual and $105.50 per month for a family plan. If you choose a fee-for-service option, your contribution to the premium will be substantially more. You may find that this situation is substantially more attractive and economical than situations in which health insurance is not wholly or largely covered, or in which you are limited to special student health care.

  • What are typical cost-of-living expenses in Madison?

    A poll of students resulted in the following average costs / month: rent - $500-900 without roommates. - $350-600 with roommates. food - $250-350

Laboratory Rotations

  • What are laboratory rotations?

    Laboratory rotations provide you with an opportunity to do research in prospective laboratories prior to selecting the one in which you do your thesis work. They provide first-year students, faculty, and other lab personnel a chance to get to know one another in terms of specific lab projects, scientific approaches and thinking, mentoring style, and lab atmosphere and dynamics. Joining a lab at the conclusion of your rotations is a mutual decision between you and the lab director.

  • How do I choose labs for rotations?

    Rotations may be performed: a) with the idea of joining a lab for several years of thesis research, b) to gain experience with a particular technique or experimental approach, or c) to get once-in-a-lifetime exposure to a particular organism or type of work. Any of these rationales for doing a rotation are fine, but should be clearly understood by both the student and the lab director from the beginning. Even if you arrive with a focused idea of which lab you want to join, you should do several rotations for the experience, and because you may find other labs that interest you more. Once you arrive on campus, the faculty and students on the advising committee will aid you in choosing lab rotations that meet your interests.

  • Who is eligible to train Microbiology Ph.D. students?

    Any of the Microbiology trainers listed on our website are eligible. This includes faculty in the Departments of Bacteriology and Medical Microbiology & Immunology, as well as trainers with appointments in many other departments.

  • How many rotations must I do, and how long is each rotation?

    Three is the minimum number and the number chosen by most students, although some do four, or even more. Typically, rotations are 4-8 weeks in duration.

  • How and when do I set up lab rotations?

    You may set up all rotations at the start of the fall semester, or as the semester proceeds. You may already have one or more labs in mind when you first come to Madison, or you may not. To aid you in making an informed set of choices, there will be brief presentations by many of the Microbiology faculty to the entering students during orientation week. The goal of these sessions is to introduce you to the faculty and what is going on in their labs. You may get ideas for rotations, and you will get an idea of the breadth of microbiology research on campus. At this time, you will be encouraged to make appointments to talk with faculty about doing rotations in their labs and about scheduling the specific time frame, both start date and duration.

  • When are decisions about joining a lab made, how are students matched with a lab, and do most students get their first choices?

    Currently, the deadline for finishing rotations and joining a lab is March 1, with a decision to that effect by mid-February. Students with independent fellowship support may choose to do rotations through the first academic year. However, many students choose to make their decision and arrangements by the end of the fall semester. This decision occurs because many other Biological Sciences graduate programs on campus provide support for rotations only during the fall semester. This issue is important because Microbiology faculty may also be trainers in other departments and programs where students typically choose a lab by the end of the fall semester. Students from various programs may rotate in the same lab, and resources (funding support and space) in any particular lab are not infinite.

    The best strategy for choosing a lab is to maintain an open line of communication between you and the faculty member. Joining a lab is a mutual decision between a student and a faculty member, and most students are able to join labs that are their first choices. Occasionally, problems do arise, and alternatives should always be considered.

  • Will the Program support me if my professor cannot?

    Unless you have an independent fellowship, responsibility for support of a student rests with the director of the lab you join after the rotation period. The departments in the Microbiology Program have a long history of providing a safety net in cases of temporary interruptions in funding but cannot provide indefinite support for an unfunded research lab. Faculty members should understand that they must have funding to accept a student. Consequently, the funding situation in a lab is one consideration in choosing rotations for the purpose of joining a lab for thesis research. It is reasonable for you to inquire if a lab director has funding available or pending for your long-term support. UW-Madison in general and Microbiology faculty specifically have outstanding funding records using a variety of sources, but individual cases vary at particular times.


  • What computer and internet resources are available?

    A free e-mail account and web space is provided free of charge. Discounted software packages as well as free virus protection software is available to all students. There are extensive university, departmental, and investigator computer resources as well as specialized campus or departmental resources, e.g., for computer or molecular graphics. Macintosh computers and/or PCs are available in many laboratories as shared or individual resources.

  • What is the average time-to-degree for a Microbiology student, and is it comparable to other programs?

    Currently about 5-6 years, which is pretty typical in the biosciences. Annual thesis committee meetings provide a way to ensure that you proceed to degree in as timely a fashion as possible. Research is inherently unpredictable, but diligent student and faculty efforts as well as adherence to programmatic guidelines should make achieving a Ph.D. in 5 years a realistic goal.

  • What opportunities exist for students after receiving their Ph.D. degrees?

    Students primarily pursue postdoctoral training in academic, industry, clinical, or government labs, industry or government positions not requiring postdoctoral training, or academic positions in liberal arts colleges or Universities. Students graduating from UW-Madison Microbiology trainer labs have an outstanding track record for placement in desired positions. See our Alumni page.

  • Are there resources that will help me with postgraduate opportunities?

    Your faculty adviser and thesis committee members are excellent primary resources. Attendance and presentations at scientific meetings often give you and future employers or mentors a chance to meet one another. Faculty in the program also help organize a career options symposium for graduate students every other year.

  • Are there any resources to help find employment opportunities for spouses?

    A variety of community resources are available, and all university job openings are listed on the internet.

  • What about vacation time for students?

    Work schedules and vacation times are negotiable with your faculty adviser.

Preliminary Exam and Dissertator Status

  • What is the preliminary examination?

    There are two linked components: a written NIH-style research proposal on your planned thesis research, and an oral defense of that proposal to your thesis committee.

  • When do I take my preliminary examination?

    The exam must be completed before the end of the summer semester in your second academic year.

  • How will the student be examined?

    The student will be examined in two rounds of questioning.
    1) In the first, the committee will ask questions pertaining to the proposal, and assessing the student's ability to pose testable hypotheses, interpret data, recognize potential pitfalls and alternative approaches, and think critically.
    2) In the second round of questioning the student will be examined for the breadth of knowledge, with an emphasis on those areas outlined by the committee in year 1, including those that were perceived as deficiencies.

  • Do most students pass the preliminary examination?

    Yes. A description of options when a student does not pass is given in the program guidelines, including the retaking of the exam.

  • What is "dissertator status," and when is it usually achieved?

    You become a dissertator when you have completed your coursework requirements and passed the preliminary examination. It usually takes 2 years.


  • Is there a teaching requirement? What is it? Can it be waived, especially if I have teaching experience?

    Completion of a 1-semester teaching practicum is an academic requirement for every student as part of the degree program.

  • When will I teach?

    It would be very rare for a student to teach in the first semester of the first year, and unlikely in the first year at all (see below). Many students fulfill their teaching requirement in their second year.

  • Do I get to choose my teaching assignment?

    You will be asked to choose from a ranked list of preferences, which might be influenced by your background, interests, and career plans. Your choices will be seriously considered, but are just one of numerous factors involved in making teaching assignments.