University of Toronto, Department of Molecular Genetics
utoronto.mogen.gsa@gmail.com

Frequently Asked Questions

The following section provides information about our graduate program in the Department of Molecular Genetics, as written by members of the MoGen GSA.


The first few months:

How does the rotation system work?

The purpose of the rotation system is to expose new students to the various research opportunities and environments available in the department. The current system is composed of three mandatory 5-week rotations, beginning in September of the academic year. These rotations must take place in at least 2 nodes. These nodes are: Medical Sciences Building, Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research, the Hospital for Sick Children, MaRS, and Samuel Lunenfeld Rsearch Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Based on the information that you send to the graduate program coordinator regarding the lab and/or research preferences, the department will arrange your first two rotations. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to contact a professor directly if you know you are really interested in their research. You will have the opportunity to set up your third rotation after learning more about the department at the annual departmental retreat at the end of September.

How do I set up my rotations?

You should start by looking at the departmental website (http://www.moleculargenetics.utoronto.ca/) and finding out what research areas interest you. You could also read some review articles about your fields of interest to get a better understanding of the research. The retreat is a great place to hear more about the different research projects going on in the department. The retreat takes place mid-September and is a mixture of talks and posters given by both students and professors to give new students a chance to check out current research.

What is expected of me during a rotation?

We would worry a lot more about what you expect to get out of a rotation that what is expected of you. Of course, you will be expected to show up for a reasonable number of hours each day and to learn laboratory skills. But don’t worry about working long days or 7 days weeks – there will be plenty of time to put in those kinds of hours later! This is your time to “comparison shop” and to pick the lab that will be the best for you. Find out not only about the projects available for permanent grad students (that’s the easy part), but also about the people, the hours worked, the funding situation, the supervisory style and all of those other details that become very important down the road. DON’T BE SHY!! Make sure that you take the time to read, think and talk a lot so that you can make a sound decision when it comes time to decide on a lab….(see below on how to do that).

How do I decide on a lab?

Ahhh…the hard part. Take into account all of the things you learned in each of your rotations (we suggest keeping a list as you go through – good and less-than-good things about each lab), so that by the end of your third rotation you still remember something about the details of your first rotation. And then, consider all aspects of each lab and pick the place that fits your needs/wants the best. Many students feel that the relationship with your supervisor is critical!
Who pays me and when?

Until you find a permanent lab, you will be paid by the department on the 28th of each month (starting September 28th). After that, the business officer/payroll department of the building in which you settle will start paying you from your supervisor’s grant, or if you have a scholarship, will pay it out to you. This means make sure your payroll paper work is done ASAP once you join a lab. This includes notifying the office of any external scholarships that you hold.

How can I apply for scholarships if I am still rotating?

Scholarship deadlines are in mid-October so you will still be rotating when you have to write research proposals for the applications. You can rely on your undergraduate thesis experience or write about your first rotation project, or even ask members of your current lab to help you propose a project. At this level, it doesn’t matter if you actually do the exact project you propose. Scholarship applications take a lot of time to prepare but are well-worth the effort – don’t hesitate to take time away from the bench to prepare a good application. More information on scholarships (application forms and deadlines) are available from Iliana Sztainbok (iliana.sztainbok@utoronto.ca) in the department office (Rm 4398 of MSB). Should you earn a scholarship, don’t forget to submit any “activation of payment” paperwork if required.

Where do I get info on student services at the university?

You can find most information on health, jobs, housing, and extra-curricular activities on the student service website: http://www.utoronto.ca/studentresources.html
The departmental student handbook is an excellent resource for all your questions on rules/regulations of the department. A copy is available on the department website and the most recent version will be mailed to you in hard copy in late summer/early fall.
The Graduate Student Union (GSU) is also a key resource for graduate student – visit their website to find out more on graduate student issues, health insurance coverage and how to find the graduate pub and gym. (http://www.gsu.utoronto.ca/). And for those who are new to Toronto and need info on housing, you may visit the following student-housing website. (http://www.housing.utoronto.ca/)

The next few months:

What classes should I take?

Please note – as of September 2019 there are two concurrent curriculums depending on time of entry. Students entering the program January 2019 and earlier are enrolled in the legacy curriculum (MMG1015 and MMG1017) and students entering September 2019 and later will be enrolled in the new curriculum (MMG1011, MMG1021, and MMG1031).  For new students – don’t worry about course selection, unlike in undergrad, you will be enrolled automatically in the required courses.  The only courses you have to pick are topic courses.  In the new curriculum, only PhD students are required to complete topic courses and these are taken later in your degree.  For more information about the curriculum please consult the Graduate handbook, which can be found here.

How do I choose my course topics?

When choosing course topics, you can consider both personal interest and your own project. Ask your supervisor for recommendations and visit the web site to look at course descriptions. Further information on course requirements for your degree is available in the departmental handbook.

The Med Gen GSA also conducts student course topic evaluations; you can access the opinions and comments of students from previous years through our web site:http://gsa.med.utoronto.ca

In order to expedite the progression of students through the program (especially those nearing reclass or graduation), you will be asked to submit your course preferences to the office in the fall. Course choices will be approved on a need basis accordingly. Watch for more information about this in email(s) from the department in the fall.

How do I set up a committee?

You are required to set up a committee meeting within a month of settling in the lab. Your supervisor will likely guide you in making decisions about committee members. Generally, you want someone sort of familiar with your specific field, and someone a little more distant. Your committee will meet periodically throughout your degree to monitor your progress, direct your research and help you make decisions about reclassification and graduation.

You should feel like your committee is there for you.


What is expected of me at my first committee meeting?

The first committee meeting functions mainly as a planning session. You will be expected to state the objectives of your research, know why the questions you are asking are important, how it will influence current knowledge in the field and how you are going to approach these questions experimentally. A basic idea of how others in the field have used the approaches you are proposing to use (review articles are a great place to start) will also be expected.

Relax…. this is not your defense, and you aren’t supposed to know everything (yet); your committee will not (probably) try and scare you away; these meetings will become progressively less friendly (i.e. the bar will be raised and you will realize how little you actually know) as you progress towards writing up or re-classing. When you are in front of your committee you should always stand-up – you’ll look and feel more confident.

 What is expected of me in the lab?

This will vary widely from lab to lab – you should find out as much as you can during your rotations about what your supervisor will expect. Some students manage grad school + kids and family, others sleep in the lab – you need to find your happy medium, make sure that your supervisor and your colleagues are okay with it, and stick with it. You are expected to work hard but, by the same token, he who works hardest does not “necessarily” work longest. Organization and time management will get you everywhere.

How can I establish a good relationship with my supervisor?

Work hard, express sincere interest in the work you are doing, ask questions and ask for feedback –this is really hard, and lots of supervisors are not forthcoming with this information. (Baking cookies and bringing them to lab meeting is always worth a few extra brownie points-beer works better for some supervisors!)

How do I make friends and get involved in the department?
Participate in events organized by the MoGen GSA and the department, such as orientation, the retreat, sports events and other social events that will be advertised on the MoGen LISTSERVE. First year reps will be elected in early January, and these folks will take care of organizing special events for your class.

Second Year

How do I decide between a M.Sc. and reclassification?

We would recommend making this decision based on your scientific drive and your career goals. Look at how successful your project is and whether it has the scope and breadth for a Ph.D. project. Your success is not necessarily how much data you have but rather whether you are getting good feed-back from your supervisor, your committee and from others in your lab. If you are unsure of what you want to do, talk it out with your supervisor and discuss your options – reclassification is logical if you intend to do a Ph.D., but sometimes writing up a Masters’ thesis is a better decision. Whatever you do, don’t panic! This decision is not as final as it seems. There are lots of (very successful) people who do both degrees back to back in the same lab, simply because they wanted the “milestone” of completing their M.Sc. That being said, reclassification is (often) a quicker way to a Ph.D.

What is expected of me at the reclassification exam?

A lot. There’s no real way to get around this one. This exam is tough (many say it’s more stressful than their defense). You must have a really good handle on the literature in your field, and be able to think critically – on your feet. As far as we can figure, the job of the examining committee is to find out what you don’t know (they care a lot less about what you do know), and so they will keep asking questions until they find out what you’ve missed. Just the same, don’t panic.

Get copies of old re-class proposals from students in your lab if possible, otherwise, ask around the department. Also, ask your colleagues to read your proposal (your supervisor can only “edit” – not make specific recommendations) and get your labmates to give you a practice exam. You really have to get over the undergrad notion of “I am ready for the exam because I have read and understand everything that was taught this semester”, and move to the idea of “I have a pretty good handle on how this technique works, how it’s been used by others, and what I expect will happen when I do this experiment. So, I should be able to figure my way out of most questions that I am asked.”

Your reclassification proposal often sets the tone for you exam. The better written it is, the more smoothly your exam will go.

What if I don’t have any data for my student seminar?

Hardly anyone does. It takes quite a bit of time to give the relevant background and explain your proposed experiments. Concentrate on your current experiment setup; your short-term and long-term plans; discuss why you failed to get the data, etc… Lots of people include data slides from other students who started the project (background data), and this is perfectly fine (as long as you give these nice folks credit for lending you their data). So, if at the end of it all you’ve shown only one or two (or less) slides of your own work, it’s okay.

The key here is to get as much help as possible in preparing. By the time you have to give your seminar, you will have sat through at least one year’s worth of student seminars (mandatory attendance), so you should have a pretty good idea of what works well and what doesn’t. Make your slides early and give at least two practice talks for your lab. Get feedback and try again. However, don’t practice so much that you sound totally rehearsed. This puts everyone to sleep.

Are there T.A. positions available?

Most T.A. positions are offered to students that have already reclassified. In fact, we think that life is hard enough in the first two years of graduate school that there is no need to take on a Teaching Assistantship. Work load, hours, duties all vary from course to course. T.A. positions are advertised in the summer months (often the deadline is July 31st) on the bulletin board outside room 4287 of the Medical Sciences Building. BIO courses are advertised through Botany and Zoology, while HMB courses are advertised through Human Biology.

The long haul: 3rd, 4th, 5th years and beyond!

What if my project is going nowhere?
Beer. Patience. There’s a certain element of luck involved and peaks and troughs are common in graduate school. You should discuss your project with anyone who can give you input – supervisor, committee, post-docs etc. and READ READ READ. All this will give you the smarts to know the very subtle difference between flogging a dead horse and persevering through tough times. It takes real guts to realize that your project is going nowhere but recognizing this early on and moving on to a new project is SMART. It’s way better to start over in your second, third or even fourth year than to find yourself in the last year of your Ph.D. with no conclusive data. Listen to other people’s advice.

How many papers do I need to publish?

If only we knew…. this is another grey area. As an absolute, bare minimum, 1 first author paper for a Ph.D., and you should likely shoot for 2. Beyond this, it is sort of up to you…if a strong publication record is very important to you, then you’ll want to have as many as possible. But nothing is clear-cut. You may publish 5 papers in smaller journals with lots of collaborators, or you may make a big discovery in your 4th year and publish your entire graduate career in one Science article. These are good questions to ask of your supervisor early on – find out what the average has been for past students, and what current students are up to.

When can I graduate?

That is up to your committee, your supervisor and you. It depends on how much you’ve learned, how much you’ve accomplished and how long you’ve been in the lab. The average is about six years. Discussing your career goals with your supervisor throughout graduate school is a good idea so that you are both going towards the same goal.

We hope this information has been useful to you.
Good luck and have fun as a graduate student!

This guide was written by the GSA.