College of Science & Engineering

Graduate Coursework

Course Requirements

To be eligible for a Master’s degree in Biology or MESP-Biology, you must complete the credit and course requirements described in the university catalog for Biology or MESP-Biology. Below is a description of those requirements (but if you find a discrepancy between the information below and catalog, follow the requirements in the catalog). The course requirements are identical for Biology and MESP-Biology students. The core graduate curriculum in the Biology Department is composed of four courses (BIOL 520-523), as well as a minimum of 12 credits of Thesis Research (BIOL 690), and elective courses (400- and 500-level courses).

  • BIOL 520 (Essentials for biology graduate studies) - You are required to take this course Fall of your first year (3 credits).
  • BIOL 521 (Introduction to biology research) - You are required to take this course Fall of your first year (1 credit).
  • BIOL 522 (Research proposal develop and writing) - You are required to take this course Winter of your first year (3 credits).
  • BIOL 525 (Research presentation) - You are required to take this course both Spring and Winter of your first and second year (4 credits, 1 credit per quarter).
  • BIOL 690 (Thesis Research) - To register for thesis credits, you must have your Thesis Topical Approval form accepted by the graduate school (which you can find here). A minimum of 12 credits of BIOL 690 are required for graduation, but you can take up to 36 credits of BIOL 690, of which up to 21 can count toward the 45 credit degree.

You must take 45 credits to graduate. The requirements and restrictions of these credits are summarized below.

  • 11 credits of required courses (Biology graduate core courses, BIOL 520-523)
  • Minimum of 13 credits of approved 400- and 500-level electives
    • Maximum of 10 credits of 400-level courses
    • Maximum of 10 credits of independent study (BIOL 500)
  • Minimum of 12 credits of BIOL 690
    • Maximum of 21 credits of BIOL 690 (given the requirement above).  Though you can take up to 36 credits of BIOL 690 if you need credits to meet other requirements (like full-time status). 
    • You CANNOT register for BIOL 690 until you advance to candidacy (see Advancement to Candidacy section under Graduate Program Structure). Typically, students start taking BIOL 690 credits in the spring quarter of their first year.
  • 300-level coursework does not apply to your graduate requirements

Plan of Study

The “Plan of Study” lists the coursework that will fulfill the above requirements (see the Graduate School's webpage with information about the Plan of Study). You will fill out the Plan of Study form, which can be found here, after your Course Approval Committee approves the planned coursework at the your initial committee meeting (see Initial Meeting with Course Approval Committee section under Thesis Committee). The form online form requires approval from your thesis advisor, the Graduate Program Chair in Biology, and the Graduate School (not your committee, but the committee should verbally approve the plan during the committee meeting). Once approved, any changes to your coursework will require formally amending the Plan of Study.

Amending the Plan of Study

The Plan of Study may be amended as necessary at your request with the approval of the Thesis Advisor, Thesis Committee, and Biology Graduate Program Advisor, with final approval granted by the Graduate Dean. The form can be found here.

Choosing Courses

Your advisor, committee, and the Graduate Program Chair are the primary sources for help with coursework.  For your first quarter, you will register for BIOL 520 and BIOL 521 and other classes based on guidance from your thesis advisor prior to the start of the quarter. Students typically take 8 credits or more because 8 credits is considered full-time and initially required to receive a TAship.  For subsequent quarters, you should follow the proposed Plan of Study as decided upon by you and your Course Approval Committee.

The Course Approval Committee can approve courses that are outside Biology.  So, you should look through courses in other departments.  For example, students in Biology often take courses in Environmental Science, Chemistry, Math, and Computer Science (and it is worth looking at Physics, Environmental Studies, Engineering and Design, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Geology).

Deficiencies in Past Coursework

Occasionally, the Biology Department Graduate Committee notes deficiencies in an entering graduate student’s academic preparation, and recommends that the student take specific courses at Western to ensure a breadth of knowledge in contemporary biology. These potential deficiencies, if any exist, are listed in your letter of offer. The Course Approval Committee should weigh the recommendations entered in the student’s file by the Graduate Committee and decide on a course of action. The Course Approval Committee’s directions with regard to making up course deficiencies are binding. Any make-up courses that are below 400-level must be taken in addition to coursework in the Plan of Study. Furthermore, any makeup coursework that is below 400-level does not count toward financial aid. If circumstances encountered later in the program warrant it, the student can petition the Graduate Committee to reconsider any course requirements stipulated by the Course Approval Committee. Remedying all deficiencies is necessary to Advance to Candidacy (see Advancement to Candidacy section under Graduate Program Structure).

GRAD 699 – Continuing Enrollment

What is it? GRAD 699 is a one-credit placeholder course that costs $50 per quarter and maintains current student status until a student is ready to graduate. Because University regulations require that a student is enrolled continuously from the start to finish of their graduate degree, if a student isn’t enrolled in any other classes, GRAD 699 is required every fall, winter, and spring quarter until graduation. If the student will graduate in summer, it would be required for that summer quarter, but is not required in the summer otherwise. 

Why use it? Registration will keep your WWU email, universal account, library access, etc. active. If you do not maintain continuous enrollment, these accounts will go inactive and you would have to file a returning student application with fee for readmittance.

When to use it? GRAD 699 is intended to cover situations in which students are just finishing writing their thesis, typically outside of the initial two years of their program and when they are not officially working for the university.

  • If the student is still doing primary research associated with their thesis, they should register for BIOL 690, Thesis Research.
  • GRAD 699 does not meet the Student Employment Office’s requirement for WWU student jobs (including TA and grant-funded RA positions). If a grad student will be employed in any capacity by Western, they need to register for regular academic credit rather than GRAD 699.

How to register? GRAD 699 requires an override each quarter. The Graduate School enters the override, so please contact to request that when registration opens for the quarter of interest.

See also “Continuous Enrollment” at the Graduate School web site (