Skip to main content

Biomedical Engineering

Guidelines for Graduate Student Research


Graduate study provides a unique opportunity for students and faculty to work together in advancing the boundaries of knowledge through innovative research and to discover new ways to apply this knowledge for the benefit of humankind.  The faculty also recognizes and supports another purpose, which is the training of graduate students for future careers as independent investigators in academia and industry.  Research activities are central to the success of any good graduate program.  Consequently, faculty tenure decisions, promotions and salaries are highly correlated to research productivity.  But other responsibilities often leave faculty with little time to engage in all aspects of the research process.  They rely on assistance in their research from students, particularly graduate students.  This gives students an opportunity to apply theories they learn in the classroom under laboratory conditions. 

Students are provided with the opportunity to develop new and important knowledge in biomedical engineering and gain an appreciation for the excitement of discovery.  In addition, students gain a mentor who can guide them through the joys and frustrations of experimental and theoretical research.  They also gain experience in communicating their research results to the scientific and technical community by writing manuscripts for publication in archival journals and making oral presentations at conference proceedings.  Both the student and mentor gain significantly when they work together as a team, respecting each other's abilities and responsibilities.  Both fail miserably when this mutual respect is missing.  These guidelines are formulated so students can better understand what is expected of them and what is expected of the faculty as they work together as partners in pursuit of common research objectives in the BME graduate program. 

Faculty Responsibilities and Expectations

Although graduate students are familiar with the roles of faculty as teachers and mentors, they are often unaware of the other duties and responsibilities of the faculty.  A partial list of expectations and responsibilities of BME faculty members is given below. 

  • Teaching.  Faculty are expected to teach undergraduate and graduate level courses; prov ide a syllabus for each course describing course objectives, requirements and assessment criteria; discuss responsibilities with Teaching Assistants; write proposals to acquire equipment and materials for teaching laboratories; write proposals to fund innovative teaching methods; incorporate new research findings into courses and curricula; review student course evaluations, student faculty evaluations, and student TA evaluations for each course, each semester; evaluate teaching assistants each semester.

  • Research.  Faculty are expected to engage actively in research; publish results in the scientific literature (expect at least two papers per year); present results at scientific conferences; regularly survey relevant scientific literature; write proposals to fund their research program; write proposals to fund graduate students; prepare materials for site visits; mentor individual graduate students; meet regularly with their research team; supervise undergraduate and graduate students in the laboratory; be available to discuss research projects with students; secure suitable facilities to conduct research; provide lab/office space for graduate students; seek collaboration with other faculty where appropriate; attend and assist with BME seminar; evaluate graduate student research annually.

  • Service.  Faculty provide academic advice to about 40 undergraduate and/or graduate students; write letters of recommendation for students applying to medical school, graduate school, and professional positions; evaluate qualifications of applicants to the BME Graduate Program; critique written, oral and poster presentations by undergraduate and graduate students; serve on MS, Master of Engineering, and PhD committees; evaluate faculty in promotion and tenure; provide service to the professional community through activities like serving as a reviewer for professional journals, serving on review panels for funding agencies, holding national offices in professional societies, judging science fairs, providing for public laboratory visits, etc.; provide service to the University by participating in activities like sitting on university-wide committees, serving on Graduate Faculty Council, Faculty Senate, etc.; provide service to the School of Engineering through activities like participating in school-wide committees, advisory boards, etc.; provide service to the BME Department through activities such as organizing seminars, serving as Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, research committee, graduate committee, laboratory committee, and other committees; serve as mentors, advisors and sponsors for students in professional and volunteer organizations; provide professional counseling for students for summer internship and career opportunities.

  • Accountability.  Faculty submit a written annual report to the department chair on all research and teaching activities, which is forwarded to the dean; review the annual evaluation from the department chair; review mentor evaluations by senior graduate students; submit written annual summary reports to funding agencies for each grant awarded; participate in periodic site visits for research grants and training grants.


Students should note that many of these activities involve submission of proposals, summaries or evaluations.  In addition, faculty are themselves evaluated by funding agencies, by the department chair, and by students through course and mentor evaluations.  In short, faculty members are expected to provide professional service beyond their immediate needs and are held accountable for their activities.


 Responsibilities and Expectations of BME Graduate Students

To facilitate the success of their academic and research training, graduate students should be aware of some important program expectations and student responsibilities.  These, along with relevant guidelines, are provided below. 

  • Research.  New graduate students are expected to familiarize themselves with available research projects in the BME department and discuss research opportunities with several faculty members.  Students are urged to select an MS or PhD faculty research advisor by the end of their first semester, and must have selected their research advisor before the end of their second semester.  Students who are required to rotate through laboratories as part of their obligation on a training grant may postpone this decision until the summer of the first year.  Under the supervision of a faculty mentor, graduate students are expected to engage in research during the academic year and in the summer, and to maintain a consistent high level of motivation.  They are expected to gain the background knowledge and skills needed to successfully pursue the research project.  Students should work with their supervisor to develop a plan that includes a timetable for completion of each stage of the research.  They should meet with their advisor regularly to assess research progress and discuss possible revisions to their plan.  Students should strive to meet appropriate deadlines and to adhere to their research schedule.  They should take special care in collecting, labeling and preserving experimental data and should provide the research supervisor with full access to all data, data analysis software and simulation software.  Graduate students should realize that the data they collect and the programs they write for data analysis and simulation are intellectual property of the laboratory. Students are free to make copies of data and programs for analysis outside of the laboratory, but must consult with their research advisor before sharing these with individuals outside of the research team.

  • Attendance, Holidays and Vacation.  The BME Graduate Program prepares students to be professionals.  Professionals are expected to be productive beyond the convenient hours between 9 AM and 5 PM.  Evenings, weekends, summers and academic breaks are excellent times to engage in research activities.  No one expects graduate students to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to work on their research.  The number of hours spent on research is a function of the other obligations of the student (e.g., courses, TA responsibilities, outside job) and on the nature of the research project.  Students who receive an annual stipend are expected to work 40 hrs/wk during the summer.  Graduate students with full course loads who are funded as Research Assistants, NIH Trainees or Graduate Fellows are expected to spend 20 hrs/wk on research during the academic year.  The number of hours is expected to increase to 40 hrs/wk as didactic coursework is replaced with research hours (BME 369 or BME 399).  Teaching Assistants should spend 20 hrs/wk on their combined TA responsibilities and research.   Students are expected to attend lab meetings, to work as a member of a research team, to encourage and assist other students in the same or related research group, to plan for enough time each week to conduct the research scheduled for that week, to assist their research advisor in preparing research proposals, and to regularly monitor the available scientific literature relevant to their research.  Graduate students in the BME Department should be treated like faculty or professional staff in regards to holidays.  With the exception of Labor Day (classes are held), they may take standard Vanderbilt University holidays (New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day) and two personal days.  Students receiving summer stipends will be treated as professional staff in regards to vacation accrual rates, amounting to 15 days per year.  Ordinarily, vacation is taken between the end of the Spring Semester and the beginning of the Fall Semester, but students may elect to use some of this time during academic breaks.   Stipends will be reduced proportionally if larger time increments of leave are sought.  Students are expected to consult with their research advisor before taking personal days or taking vacation time.  If the student does not have a research advisor, holiday and vacation leave should be approved by the DGS.  In keeping with the professional nature of the graduate student-faculty advisor relationship, students should inform their research advisor when they must be absent because of illness or an emergency, just as faculty should inform students when they will be absent for an extended period of time.

  • Publication. An important research goal is to disseminate knowledge to the scientific community in the form of published manuscripts.  Reasonable expectations are one publication for a MS project and three for a PhD project.  Students are encouraged to publish their results as the research unfolds, rather than waiting until the entire project is completed.  Presentations at scientific meetings are also encouraged.  The student and supervisor have a joint responsibility to publish work that arises from the supervisor's research program. Students will share authorship on all manuscripts that result primarily from the creative research and writing of the student.  Students and supervisors should agree on revisions before a manuscript is submitted for publication and should decide together the order in which they appear as authors.  Since publication is essential to the research process, the research advisor has the right to submit a manuscript for publication if the student leaves the program, refuses to write a manuscript, or causes excessive delays in the publication process.  Manuscripts written under these circumstances will not be considered for inclusion in a thesis or dissertation.  Theses and dissertations should follow the format specified in the Regulations of the BME program.  Note, this is different than the general Graduate School format.

  • Individual Fellowship Applications.  The average cost of tuition, stipend, fees and benefits for a graduate student is approximately $50,000 per year.  Students with appropriate qualifications are expected to apply for their own financial support in those cases where they have been notified of special funding opportunities by their research advisor or DGS.  These applications must comply with all University policies and procedures for application of external support, including, but not limited to, approval through the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the University's extramural funding transmittal process.  The DGS, department graduate administrator and department grant administrator will advise and assist in the transmittal process and students should consult with them in a timely manner when preparing applications to ensure such compliance. 

  • Renewal of Financial Aid. Students should realize that renewal of financial support is not automatic.  Financial support is contingent upon the availability of funding, on academic performance, on adequate research progress, and in the case of service stipends, on satisfactory performance as an RA, TA or trainee.  Research progress is based on annual reports submitted by the student and faculty advisor.  Academic performance is based on GPA and on adherence to the degree program.  TA performance is based on the student's annual report, faculty evaluations submitted at the end of each semester, and on TA evaluation forms filled out by students at the end of each semester. The department reviews student performance on a semester-by-semester basis, and allocates financial aid accordingly.  The department will attempt to fund all continuing students as long as they are in good academic standing and are making satisfactory research progress.   Students should realize that the department is evaluated on the basis of the quality of our research and the quality of the students that graduate from our program.  It is the department's responsibility to admit students with excellent qualifications and we expect graduate students to assist us in maintaining the quality of the program.

  • Moonlighting.  By accepting a stipend, students agree to devote full time to their research and graduate studies.  The BME Regulations strictly prohibit other employment during the period for which aid is provided unless prior approval is obtained from the Department Chair.  If outside employment becomes necessary, then departmental aid will be withdrawn or reduced.

  • Tuition Scholarships. Tuition scholarships are restricted to a maximum of 24 hours for MS students and 72 hours for PhD students.  Additional hours needed to correct undergraduate deficits, to fulfill departmental requirements, or to raise a student's GPA to 3.0 to satisfy the Graduate School graduation requirement must be borne by the student.  Generally, tuition scholarships will not cover more than 12 semester hours in a single semester.  Some research grants have limited funds available to pay tuition, so students should consult with their research advisor before registering for classes to determine the maximum number of hours that can be charged to a grant.

  • Intellectual Property. Students should be aware that some research activities may have commercial potential.  Vanderbilt University has a strong interest in maintaining and protecting these rights.  Research results are not to be disclosed outside of Vanderbilt University without appropriate non-disclosure agreements in place.  These agreements are negotiated through the Vanderbilt Technology Transfer Office.  If you have any questions concerning the commercial potential of a laboratory activity, discuss them with your advisor.

  • Service.  Success of the BME Department depends on service of its faculty and graduate students.  Examples of service include assistance in mentoring undergraduate students in laboratory projects, assisting less senior graduate students with troubleshooting laboratory problems, assistance with the recruitment of new graduate and undergraduate students, providing laboratory demonstrations to the public, serving on university and departmental committees, and other non-academic tasks.  Graduate students are expected to partner with faculty in providing these services.  Many laboratories also expect faculty and graduate students to contribute to the laboratory environment by caring for specific instruments, cell cultures, pieces of equipment, etc.  Students in such laboratories should consult with their advisor(s) for individual laboratory responsibilities.

  • Seminars and Workshops. Like faculty, graduate students are expected to attend all BME seminars, whether they are taking the BME seminar course for credit or not.  Graduate students should participate in departmental seminars by asking questions, making practice presentations for scientific meetings, and by presenting the results of their MS research to the rest of the department.  Students and faculty should make an effort to attend PhD dissertation defense presentations given by BME graduate students.  All first year BME graduate students are encouraged to attend the "Ethical Conduct of Research" seminar series, and students supported by training grants are required to attend these seminars.  Teaching Assistants and ERC Research Assistants are required to attend a 2-day ERC teaching workshop.

  • Academic Progress.  Students are responsible for informing themselves of all academic and degree requirements.  Every student should become familiar with pertinent information contained in the Regulations of the Graduate Program in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, these Guidelines for Graduate Student Research, and the Vanderbilt Graduate Catalog.  All are available online.   Students should consult the Vanderbilt University Schedule of Courses each semester prior to meeting with the DGS and faculty mentor(s) in regards to course selection.  Changes to course schedules should only be made after obtaining approval from the DGS.  Graduate students are required to maintain a Vanderbilt graduate GPA above 3.0, and BME PhD students are expected to maintain a GPA above 3.3.

  • Progress Report. Graduate students are required to submit an annual progress report each year documenting the courses that they have taken; TA, RA or Training Grant activities; program milestones reached; a short research summary; and a list of publications and presentations.  It should be a relatively easy task to cut and paste the required information from proposals, publications, and presentations coauthored by the student.   The report will be reviewed by the student's faculty advisor(s), by faculty TA supervisors, and by the DGS.  The primary purpose of this exercise is to give the student an opportunity to review his/her progress in the last year and to plan activities for the upcoming year.  It also provides needed information to the faculty concerning student performance and productivity.  Feedback based on this report and other sources, such as the research supervisor's evaluation and student TA evaluations, will be provided to the students by the DGS

  • Mentor Evaluation. PhD candidates who have completed all requirements for graduation except for submission of the dissertation are requested to evaluate mentoring by BME faculty.  This should be submitted to the department chair, who will provide anonymous feedback to the faculty and DGS.  A student may request that the chair postpone feedback until after the student has graduated.

  • Student Conduct. Students are expected to behave ethically in conducting their research, as well as in the classroom. Falsification of data, plagiarism, or any violation of the Vanderbilt Honor Code is grounds for immediate dismissal.  Students should respect the rights of others in office and laboratory areas by keeping those spaces safe and orderly.

  • Communications.  Students are provided with a mailbox and an email account and should check these daily during the week.  Important announcements involving registration, seminars, fellowship opportunities, TA issues, employment opportunities and other matters are routinely sent via email.  Students should also periodically check the Graduate Student Bulletin Board on the 9th floor of the Science and Engineering Building for additional information.

  • Departmental Resources.  The department will provide students with space appropriate for their work.  Typically, first year students are assigned a carrel in a room with other graduate students, consistent with their need to interact with other graduate students and to meet with undergraduates as part of their TA activities.  More senior students will generally move from a carrel to office space adjacent to the laboratory where their research is conducted.  This move often accompanies the transition from TA to RA responsibilities and is consistent with the need to allocate limited carrel space to incoming graduate students.  Computers provided by the BME Department or by individual preceptors are for academic, non-personal use.  Software installations should be approved by the department or preceptor.  Students should be responsible for maintaining a professional local environment with minimal disruption of the activities of others. Students should also be mindful of the limited resources of the department and its research programs when making photocopies, generating computer output, or using laboratory supplies.

  • Resolution of Conflicts.  Students who are having difficulty working in laboratories or offices because of disruptions by other students should discuss this with the laboratory supervisor or the DGS. Teaching assistants who are consistently working more than 16 hr/wk on their TA assignment should discuss how to reduce the load with the instructor.  If, after meeting with the instructor, the time spent is still more than 16 hrs/wk, the student should discuss the problem with the DGS.  Students who have been advised that they are not making satisfactory progress, who are unsure of their role on a research project, or believe that they are treated in an unfair manner should meet with their research advisor(s) to resolve these issues.  If the student is not satisfied with the outcome of that meeting, then she/he should discuss the problem with the DGS.  If the problem is still not resolved, the student should present his/her grievance in writing to the Department Chair.  The chair will appoint a committee of impartial faculty to review the grievance, and their decision will be final.


Additional Guidelines for Teaching Assistants

Teaching Assistants should be prepared to devote 16 hr/week to TA duties in one or more classes, including substitution for instructor when the instructor is sick or out of town, designing in-class exercises and/or laboratories, assisting students with in-class problems, conducting review sessions, holding office hours, grading homework,

preparing homework solutions, assisting the instructor with assessment duties, and other relevant duties.  A Teaching Assistant should make every effort to avoid scheduling their own classes at the same time as the class he/she is scheduled as an assistant.  Teaching Assistants for laboratory courses cannot schedule their own classes during laboratory hours.  Teaching Assistants should consult with the course instructor before registering for their own courses to determine if the student is expected to be present in the classroom.    Assessment of TA performance is based on student evaluations and on faculty evaluations of TA duties.  It is inappropriate behavior for a Teaching Assistant to be romantically involved with a student in a class that he/she is teaching.  In such cases the TA should request a reassignment from the DGS.  Initiation or continuation of such a relationship during a TA assignment is prohibited and is grounds for termination of TA funding.


Guidelines for progression through the academic portion of the BME Graduate Program

  • Students are assigned an academic advisor at the beginning of their graduate studies.  They should consult with their advisor before registering for courses each semester.  After obtaining their advisor's signature on their study list, students should have the list approved by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), who will provide the student with an advisor approval code for registration.  Once the student has teamed with a research advisor, that individual also becomes their academic advisor and should be consulted when planning course schedules.

  • Twelve hours is the maximum load a graduate student should take in any given semester.  Students are considered full time if they are taking 9-12 hours or if they are taking either BME 369 (MS Research) or BME 399 (PhD Research)

  • No more than one F or one U grade is allowed, and the student must repeat and pass with a grade of C or higher a course in which an F is made.

  • Students admitted to the BME MS or MEng Programs are not automatically eligible to continue in the BME PhD Program.  Students in these programs who wish to continue for a PhD must petition the BME faculty in writing and their request will be reviewed along with new applications to the PhD Program.

 Revised: Oct 28, 2013