Graduate Student Handbook

Animal Biotechnology and Biomedical Sciences Program


The  Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences offers Master of Science (MS) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in Animal Biotechnology and Biomedical Sciences (ABBS). The ABBS Graduate Program encompasses several scientific disciplines with particular strengths in reproductive and developmental biology, toxicology, cancer biology, and immunology and infectious disease.  Research topics focus on issues directly relevant to humans and agriculturally important animals.

The ABBS Graduate Program emphasizes research and all degree candidates complete a research-based program of study.  Dissertation research is completed for the Ph.D. while independent study research is done for the Master’s thesis program.  Coursework is required for all degree programs. Teaching experience (as a teaching assistant) is highly recommended for Ph.D. students. While there are no strict rules regarding pulications, it is expected that all graduate research will result in a major contribution to a publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Generally more than one publication and first authorshipon at least one of those publications is expected for the Ph.D level. Additionally, our program offers an accelerated Fifth Year Master’s degree that requires transfer of six graduate credits taken in the senior year of a Bachelor’s degree program at UMass and previous research with a faculty member. The accelerated Master’s degree is usually completed in approximately 15 months and requires an independent research project with a thesis or without a thesis. Sample PhD and MS schedules are int he Appendix of this handbook.

Governance and Policies

Graduate School Policies:  All requirements described herein are in accordance with and supplemental to those in the Graduate Student Handbook published by the Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts. The graduate program in ABBS operates under the guidelines of the Graduate School. Although rules generated by the individual department may not circumvent those established by the Graduate School, the department may impose requirements in addition to those established by the graduate school. Thus, both sets of guidelines must be adhered to to successfully complete the degree requirements.  The Departmental and Graduate School requirements complement one another as some requirements of the ABBS program will also satisfy the requirements of the Graduate School. It is to the student’s advantage to become familiar with both the Graduate School and Departmental requirements early in their degree program and to establish a tentative schedule for completing the requirements in consultation with their Major Professor (who serves as faculty advisor and research supervisor) and the Graduate Program Director. An example of the typical course of study is provided in Section VI of this handbook.

ABBS Graduate Program Policies: The faculty governance procedures for the graduate program in ABBS are by the Graduate Program Director, who serves as chair of the graduate faculty committee, which consists of all members of the ABBS graduate faculty. A graduate student representative elected by the students within the program may also attend graduate faculty meetings but is not a voting member regarding policy making decisions. The student representative conveys the opinions of the graduate student body to the faculty. The department head is an ex‑officio member of this committee. Adjunct faculty may be voting members if they serve as Major Professors of students in the ABBS program.

Graduate Program Director: The Graduate Program Director reports to the Graduate School of the University and its designated officers. In addition, the Graduate Program Director is responsible for monitoring compliance with the rules and regulations set by the department to govern the graduate program in ABBS.

Graduate Stipends: Teaching and Research Assistantships: PhD students are supported by three means: 1) Teaching Assistantships (TA) provided by the Department, 2) Research Assistantships (RA) funded by individual Major Professors through grant support, 3) external sources such as government scholarships and other non-departmental University-based sources. The selection of TA appointees is made by the Graduate Program Director and Department Head with advice from Faculty of the Department. RA appointees, specific terms of contract, and other details of RA appointments are at the discretion of the faculty member who is the Principal Investigator on the grant or contract, subject to Departmental and University regulations, and terms of the financially supporting grant or contract. Although Master’s students are sometimes eligible for a half time TA and are accepted into the Graduate Program only under the condition that they support themselves or are supported by an RA. Students whose Major Professor is an adjunct to the ABBS program are not guaranteed departmental Teaching Assistantships, and thus normally must be financially supported by their Major Professor.

Guarantee of Support for Five Years: PhD students who are recruited into the ABBS program as rotating PhD students supported on Teaching Assistantships  are guaranteed support for a 5-year period on TA or RA funding provided that they maintain satisfactory academic progress and (as relevant) and perform their required teaching and research duties satisfactorily. Support will consist, at the minimum, of the two academic semesters in each year. In some cases, if sufficient funding and need for TA appointments is present, students beyond the five-year (PhD) limit may receive TA support. Students who join the program onforeighn governement fellowhips are responsible for their support thoughout their tenure in the program although in come circumstances the department of Major Professor may contribute if fellowship funding is insufficient.

Expectations of RA and TA Duties and Hours: TA’s are given a contract with expectations of duties specified. The student, instructor, and major professor all sign this understanding. RA appointments are to fulfill the needs of research grants and contracts. While in most cases this work can be applied towards the dissertation or thesis research it is not guaranteed. Students are expected to be full-time students (40-50 hours/week).

General Limitations on Appointments: Appointment to a Teaching Assistantship is not guaranteed beyond the end of a given semester when (a) academic progress is unsatisfactory (failure to maintain a 3.0 grade point average), or (b) teaching duties are performed unsatisfactorily (as measured by teaching evaluations performed by the TA’s supervisor). Students may be terminated during the semester if duties are not performed to the satisfaction of the instructor.

Graduate students appointed as Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants should note that there are University regulations that govern the number of hours that a student may be employed while being a graduate student (calculated as the number of hours for the assistantship plus the number of course credit hours excluding dissertation or thesis credits). This is so that students can use their remaining time to conduct research, for course work preparation, homework, and study. International students may not exceed twentyhours of employment per week, in compliance with their visa requirements. Teaching Assistanthsip appointments include the January intersession period.

Vacation & Holidays: Details of public holidays, personal leave, and vacation entitlement can be found in the Agreement between the Graduate Employee Organiztion Local 2322/UAW and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Graduate Appointments Policies and Procedures document issued by the Graduate School at University has 12 paid holidays and fulltime Ph.D. students are offered 16 days of vacation time. While the Department has some flexibility in setting working conditions, any proposed departure from the terms of the contract should be discussed with the student’s supervisor well in advance. Other than University holidays, vacation time must be approved by the P.I. or the Graduate ProgramDirector in advance of booking vacation arrangements.

Safety Training Requirements: Prior to conducting any work in a research or teaching laboratory, students must undergo safety training provided by the University Environmental Health and Safety organization. If a TA or RA is informed in writing or by electronic mail about a need to comply with specific safety requirements by a specific deadline, failure to comply by the deadline is grounds for being barred from employment under those circumstances that require those safety protocols without further warnings. If documentation of safety compliance is presented after such an occurrence, permission is reinstated automatically to resume normal duties so long as the appointment has not been terminated in the meantime. This policy reflects the Department’s commitment to workplace safety guidelines.

Similarly, any student that is to be involved in animal research must undergo training in animal handling and care. The Office of Research Compliance conducts periodic training sessions. Training has to be re-certified every year in order to continue animal experimentation. The student must also be included in an approved animal protocol prior to the beginning of activities that involve animal use. An email memo to the Office of Compliance is enough to comply with this requisite. The student must also be trained in specific animal handling techniques as described in the approved protocol. It is the responsibility of the Principal Investigator to oversee that the student complies with these requisites.

Typical availability of positions: Typically, about 2 to 7 graduate students are admitted into the ABBS Graduate Program each year, but the number can vary greatly according to the applicant pool and availability of total funding to support TA and RA appointments. The total number of available TA positions varies somewhat from year to year, but typically is about 9-11. The number of RA positions available varies with the amount of funding available to faculty and recently ranged between 15-20 positions (including both Master’s and PhD students). Due to the uncertainties in obtaining outside funding, it is not possible to predict with certainty the number of RA positions that will be available in any given future semester.

 Mechanism for announcing availability of positions, and  notice of renewal: Faculty research mentors are asked to furnish a plan for the financial support of graduate students whom they are mentoring. A comprehensive support plan for all graduate students is then generated for the coming academic year, within the framework of the 5-year support guarantee made to students in good standing. This support plan is revised by multiple iterations of this request mechanism as the start of the new academic year approaches (based upon updates to availability of research funding for individual faculty), and is finalized several weeks in advance of the start of each semester. As funding becomes available at times that are not certain in advance, some fine-tuning of position availability is carried out as the Fall semester is ongoing, for the following Spring semester. Once a student has committed to a TA appointment by signing a contract, the student is expected to fulfill that commitment even if other support becomes available, unless released from the commitment by the Department Head.

The timing and availability of RA appointments is completely governed by availability of funds to individual principal investigators. In the vast majority of cases, RA appointments are made by principal investigators to students whom they are mentoring, and are only advertised beyond the research group of the Principal Investigator in cases where there are insufficient personnel. This policy is consistent with typical grant and contract conditions, and with a necessity for Principal Investigators to work with students who have appropriate professional and safety backgrounds.

English Competency Test for T.A.s: The SPEAK test is a screening test for spoken English skills and is given to first time international TA’s. The purpose is to identify any potential difficulties TA’s may have in understanding spoken English or in being understood speaking English in the classroom. A score of 50 or above is required to pass the test. If students score lower they are not allowed to deliver verbal instruction to students but may do clerical or lab prep work as a T.A. Students who took the test previously and scored 45 but did not participate in Communication Instruction classes should take the test again. The English Communication Instruction class is offered by the Graduate School through the Center for Language, Speech and Hearing. The classes are offered throughout the year. At the end of each semester, students are reevaluated and those who do not meet the criteria are allowed to continue in the Communication Instruction classes for additional semesters. Progress reports for students enrolled in the classes are sent to the Graduate Program Director. The report will indicate each student’s current functional level and the SPEAK Test equivalent score.

It is recommended that students who anticipate becoming TA’s in the future take the test. Other international graduate students may also take the test and participate in small group Communication Instruction classes on a space-available basis. Priority for participation in the classes is given to currently funded TA’s or those with the greatest need.

Students are exempt from the test if they satisfy one of the following:

  • ·TOEFL exemption at admission as appears on the SPIRE record for the student under FAQ.
  • ·A score of 26 or higher on the Speaking section of the TOEFL iBT at the time of admission. The SPIRE record shows the speaking section score.
  • A score of 8.0 or higher on the Speaking section of the IELTS. These scores are not broken down in SPIRE but the speaking section score is available for Graduate Admissions.

Graduate Student/Advisor Conflict Policy - Steps for handling problems arising between graduate students or between a graduate student and their faculty mentor

  1. The graduate student and or faculty member should first report the problem to the ABBS Graduate Program Director (GPD) or department head
  2. If the issue is sexual harassment or abuse the student or affected faculty member should be informed of his/her rights under title IX ( including the right to a confidential resource for discussion of the incident(s) and direct support to be removed from the abusive environment.
  3. If the issue is emotional abuse/bullying by a graduate student or faculty member the affected individual should report this to the GPD or department head.  Depending on the severity of the problem if it was reported only to the GPD the GPD may request a meeting with the perpetrator and the Department Head to discuss the issue and solutions, e.g., asking a graduate student to leave the program, or reporting a faculty member to a disciplinary committee.
  4. If a graduate student is dissatisfied with mentorship by his/her principal investigator (PI) the student should bring this up with the GPD or department head who may mediate a discussion between the graduate student and his/her PI to establish mentorship guidelines and/or next steps.
  5. If a graduate student is dissatisfied with the project on which he/she is working but has no other grounds for complaint against the faculty member the graduate student should:
    1. Address the cause of this dissatisfaction with his/her PI and/or dissertation or thesis committee members if a committee has been formed. (It should be recognized that a faculty member cannot guarantee scientific success of a graduate student, only rigorous training in an area of the faculty member’s interest.)
    2. If the graduate student feels unable to bring up scientific problems with his/her mentor the graduate student should bring the problem to the attention of the committee members if a committee has been formed or otherwise to the GPD or department head who may discuss it directly with the supervising faculty member and/or mediate a discussion between the graduate student and his/her mentor. 
    3. A graduate student may transfer to another lab within the graduate program contingent on another faculty member within the Program taking over mentorship of, and economic responsibility for, the graduate student; all data collected by that graduate student prior to the move would remain the property of the lab from which he/she is transferring.
    4. If a graduate student transfers to a laboratory that is not part of the particular program, neither the graduate program nor the department bears economic responsibility for support of the student although it is possible that the sponsoring faculty member may become an adjunct member of the department and thus a member of the graduate program. However priority for funding such as through TA’ships will be given to faculty who are members of the department first.

Departmental Awards

    Snoeyenbos Award
The prize was established in 1994 in honor of Professor Glenn Snoeyenbos who had been a member of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, by his family. The Prize is to be awarded annually to honor an outstanding ABBS graduate student based upon the student’s grade point average, research progress, presentations at meetings and faculty recommendations. The recipient is selected by a faculty vote from nominated candidates. To nominate a candidate a letter is written by the student’s Major Professor and a copy of the student’s CV is circulated along with the nomination letter. All graduate faculty vote on the award recipient.

    Hong Fellowship
The Frances and Chou-Chu Hong graduate student award in the Veterinary and Animal Sciences Department was established in 2014 by the Hongs’ sons. The award is for $9000 for the academic year and will be awarded once a year. This award may be supplemented by the Department to cover the costs of one semester. Major Professors may nominate their students by sending an email with materials attached to the ABBS Administrative Assistant. The following is the criteria for judging by a selection committee:

  • A letter of recommendation from the Major Professor.
  • The student’s CV that includes all authorships and meeting presentations as well as attendance and completion of specific technical or methodological trainings related to their studies.
  • A statement (1 paragraph) from the student about how they feel they have demonstrated ‘good citizenship by participating in the Veterinary and Animal Science department and ABBS Graduate Program activities’ which could include, among other activities, specific training of other graduate or undergraduates in the labs (for example for a specific technique or machine operation), organization of retreats, workshops, poster sessions, stewardship of a particular shared instrument/equipment, acting as a judge at undergraduate events, etc.

    Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society
Graduate students must have completed at least 18 graduate hours or the equivalent at their institution and rank in the top 10 percent of their class. Difficulty of courses taken is also considered. The selection is made by the GPD.

    Travel Grant
Students planning to present a poster or give a talk at a conference or workshopare awarded a travel grant based on seniority. It is approximately $700 per award.

Office of National Scholarship Advisement - ONSA helps eligible students—including UMass Amherst undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni not currently attending another graduate school—find and apply for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships. ONSA provides free advice and professional guidance throughout the application process and offers informational events, writing workshops, and other assistance during the year.


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