Frequently Asked Questions main content.

Frequently Asked Questions

Program Overview and Mission

Comparative Biology

Graduate Training at AMNH



Course of Study




Program Overview and Mission

What is the Richard Gilder Graduate School?

The Richard Gilder Graduate School encompasses the American Museum’s post-secondary training programs in science. This broad community includes our Ph.D. program in Comparative Biology and MAT program (Master of Arts in Teaching - Earth Science); and all other doctoral work with collaborating universities and in fields other than biology; undergraduate training programs; museum grants programs, and postdoctoral fellows. (top)

Why did the Museum create this new graduate school and Ph.D. program?

The American Museum of Natural History is recognized as a global leader in research and education in systematic and evolutionary biology, earth and planetary sciences, genomics, and cultural and physical anthropology. The Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology, covering the origins, history, and range of life on Earth, significantly expands the AMNH’s longstanding role of training the next generation of scientists and educators in one of the most exciting and challenging research areas of contemporary biology. The Richard Gilder Graduate School is both a natural extension of the Museum’s integrated mission of science and education, and the keystone for an ongoing leadership role in addressing the broad spectrum of needs of science and society. (top)

When was the graduate school started?

The New York State Board of Regents authorized the school, and our offering of an initial Ph.D. program (in Comparative Biology), on October 23, 2006. This marks the first time that an American museum has been granted the authority to award its own Ph.D. degree. (top)

Is it accredited?

The graduate school is accredited by the New York State Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education.
Contact information: New York State Education Department, New York State Education Building, 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12234, (518) 486-3633. (top)

What distinguishes the Richard Gilder Graduate School from a conventional university program?

While the new graduate school program has the same advantages as a university in quality, organization, facilities, and personnel, it provides a number of unique advantages not available in a typical university setting:

  • Field work with AMNH scientists.
  • Access to one of the world’s most important natural history collections of 33 million specimens and artifacts; huge astrophysical and biological databases; advanced technological and research laboratory capacity; and the largest independent natural history library in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The opportunity to be part of a legacy and continuum of achievement at one of the world’s leading institutions for science, with a long-standing history of theoretical and field-based contributions.
  • A balanced curriculum, which combines a conventional, highly theoretical degree program with practical, hands-on work in the laboratory, and unparalleled opportunities to carry out collections-based and field research.
  • A commitment to a high level of student advisement and mentoring.
  • A wider range of educational experiences for students than those available at most other institutions of higher education, including the opportunity to participate in the Museum’s public education mission, through its innovative public programs in exhibitions, on-line learning, and K-12 education and teacher training. This singular advantage provides faculty and students alike with a strong and unique bridge between their scientific work and society. (top)

How is the Richard Gilder Graduate School funded?

Like other AMNH programs, the Graduate School is funded by public and private funds, including endowment. Students in the Comparative Biology Ph.D. Program are typically fully supported, through Richard Gilder Graduate School funding and/or extramural awards, with tuition, stipend, health benefits, computer, and a research budget. (top)

Can I defer my U.S. federal student loans while I am enrolled at the graduate school?

Yes. The graduate school is an eligible institution under the U.S. Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, for the purposes of loan deferment. See for more information. The graduate school currently does not offer federal financial aid. (top)

Comparative Biology

What is comparative biology?

Comparative biology is the broad-based, multidisciplinary study of organisms, including their anatomy, ecology and genetics, relationships among organisms, and evolutionary biodiversity. Unlike much of biology, which tends to focus on a single exemplar organism or a small subset of model organisms, comparative biology takes a cross-species approach in looking at the history and interactions among myriad species, within and between biotas. Comparative biology is a field in which AMNH is a leading institution, with tremendous existing strength and coverage. (top)

Why is comparative biology so important now?

The 21st Century has been called the “Century of Biology.” Sequencing of the genome in humans and select other species has catalyzed entirely new research directions. At the same time we are just beginning to appreciate and understand the tremendous complexity and diversity of life at all levels—from genes, to anatomy, and behavior—and the critical role of organisms in ecosystems. Bringing these specific research areas together in a single area of study - comparative biology - promises to give us a broader, more meaningful understanding of life on Earth and provide a foundation for our effort to secure a sustainable environmental future. An improved knowledge of the “tree of life” in all its complexity is a key to dealing with the especially urgent challenges that come with the loss of species due to the destruction or disruption of natural habitats. There is a growing need in academia, industry, government, and medicine for rigorously trained biologists to understand and interpret the social and scientific challenges of the 21st Century. (top)

What is systematic biology, or systematics?

Systematics is the science that deals with the exploration and understanding of relationships among species and the organization of life, past and present. Longstanding leadership in this field is one of the hallmarks of the AMNH’s scientific program. In the 1970s and 1980s, AMNH pioneered the study of the branching patterns of evolutionary relationships among organisms and promoted a revolution in this field, with further advances continuing today. Although systematics is a discipline with its own methods and goals, it can also serve as a tool to support researchers pursuing other areas of comparative biology. (top)

Graduate Training at AMNH

Does the AMNH have prior experience in university-level training?

Yes. AMNH has long been engaged in graduate training. Doctoral training is embraced by AMNH’s mission and is a vital and defining characteristic of the institution. Its doctoral and postdoctoral training programs date from 1908 and are the oldest and largest of any science museum. Authorization by the State of New York (in October 2006) to grant M.Phil, Ph.D. and Honorary degrees acknowledges the Museum’s important role in graduate training of future generations of scientists. A list of students who recently earned a Ph.D. while being at advised at the AMNH is available via this link (top)

When were the first Ph.D. students admitted to the Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology?

The first class entered in September 2008 for the 2008-2009 academic year.  Applications will be accepted between October 1 and December 15 for the Ph.D. class enrolling the following Fall term.  The four-year Ph.D. program complementing the Museum's existing collaborative graduate programs, is designed to attract exceptionally talented, independent, and motivated U.S. and international students. (top)

Who are the AMNH’s university partners?

AMNH currently has graduate training partnerships with Columbia University, the City University of New York, New York University, Cornell University, and Stony Brook University. (top)

How do those long-standing graduate training partnerships work?

Agreements with university partners include course cross-enrollment agreements (currently with Columbia and CUNY), and service by AMNH staff as adjunct faculty for teaching, doctoral student advising, and field and laboratory work. AMNH and its partners share costs and responsibility for student funding; AMNH students receive support from the collaborative university and the AMNH’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, other funding sources administered by the Museum, or extramural funding sources. Students register at the collaborating university, and receive their degrees from that university, but study at the AMNH with AMNH scientists. All students in these collaborative programs are members of the Richard Gilder Graduate School community. (top)

How many scientists currently train at the AMNH?

The AMNH community typically includes approximately 75 AMNH-funded graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Of that group, approximately 40 are students supported through AMNH Graduate Research Fellowships or other Museum funds, conducting doctoral research at AMNH through our graduate training partnerships. AMNH also has longstanding and successful NSF-funded programs for undergraduates, known as Research Experiences for Undergraduates, which serve 10–20 students each summer in both systematics and physical sciences. (top)


Who are the faculty?

The Museum’s staff of more than 40 curators serve as the professorial faculty for the Richard Gilder Graduate School, complemented by involvement of other selected Ph.D.-level scientific leaders at the Museum. Visiting faculty, lecturers and other faculty members with special expertise may be appointed to teach additional courses and mentor students. (top)

What is a curator?

“Curator” is the term used in museum settings for tenured and tenure-track academic scientists engaged in collections-based research, post-secondary teaching and advising, and public education. The AMNH scientific staff is led by a core of more than 40 curators. All curators hold Ph.D. degrees. The most senior position is that of curator, the equivalent of a full professor at a conventional university. The second and third level positions are associate curator and assistant curator, respectively. Following an affirmative decision in a standard rigorous, university-style tenure review of an Assistant Curator, tenure can be granted and a promotion to the position of Associate Curator is awarded. In an innovative program, tenured curators also undergo post-tenure review every seven years. (top)

What’s the difference between a curator and a professor?

Recognizing that the title of curator is not common within the university setting, the Museum awards the titles of professor, associate professor, or assistant professor, along with the appropriate curatorial rank and title, to all faculty actively participating in our training programs. The Museum also awards the affiliated professor or adjunct professor title to non-curatorial faculty members during the time they serve in an active role teaching and advising in the Richard Gilder Graduate School. (top)


What is the general curriculum plan?

Students in the AMNH Comparative Biology Ph.D. Program enroll in an accelerated 4-year training program that integrates a high faculty to student ratio, common core curriculum, small-enrollment and intensive specialty or "immersive" elective courses, extensive research experience, and both university-based and museum-centered public education training. Several potential specialization "tracks" have been envisioned while establishing our program, but we expect that each highly motivated student will work with the Richard Gilder Graduate School faculty and administration to tailor their coursework, training and research to fit their own unique objectives. (top)

What are the credit requirements?

Students are required to complete a minimum of 62 credits, including core, elective and research courses. (top)

What is the purpose of the core curriculum?

The core curriculum is meant to give students a broad overview of the conceptual basis for studying life and to provide them with a common language and basic set of tools and methods for research. Three core courses are required for all students during the first year: Evolution; Systematics and Biogeography; and Grantsmanship, Ethics, and Communication. In addition, all first year students participate in an extensive seminar course. (top)

What is the purpose of the elective courses?

Elective courses are immersive, flexible, and innovative courses meant to assist students in achieving a concentration and a depth of knowledge in an area of individual interest. Elective courses provide a combination of lecture, workshop, and laboratory and field segments, as appropriate. Some specialty courses of broad interest are offered on a biennial basis, while others will be offered less frequently (every 3 or 4 years, or as appropriate). The spectrum of courses offered in any given year is determined by student interests and educational needs. Examples of previously offered elective courses include Tree of Life and Invertebrate Zoology, Phylogenetic Applications, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) Informatics, GIS Methods & Applications, Marine Biodiversity Survey & Inventory, Insect Taxonomy, and Reptile Biology and Diversity. Students may also create their own independent studies, subject to faculty review and approval. (top)

Are core and elective courses available to students who are not registered in the Comparative Biology Ph.D. Program?

Both the core and immersive specialty courses serve not only our students in the AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology, but also are of interest to students enrolled in our collaborative graduate programs and in area universities. (top)

What is field work?

Expeditionary field work is when a scientist or team of scientists travels to a selected locale in the world to conduct investigations in a natural setting. With a century-long tradition of excellence in field research and a current program of more than 120 field expeditions each year, AMNH has a great deal to offer students studying life and earth history. Field research is a hallmark of the AMNH program. In most cases, students’ independent research will involve either extensive field research in a specific locale or laboratory research, or both. (top)

When are qualifying exams taken?

Qualifying exams are taken in early in the Fall semester of the second year. (top)

When is the dissertation proposal submitted?

Dissertation proposals are submitted in the Winter session of the second year. (top)

What is special about the teaching assistantships?

A particular strength of the AMNH graduate program is the opportunity for a student to fulfill the teaching requirement either through a conventional teaching assistantship (teaching graduate courses at the Museum school or partner universities, or undergraduate courses in our REU program or at partner universities) or by conducting a comparable educational project. Since the AMNH, unlike a university, is an institution specifically committed to enhancing the broader public understanding of science, it has many outreach programs geared to a wide variety of audiences, such as schoolchildren, young adults, teachers, undergraduates, and the general public. A student may develop skills in exhibitions, museology, collections management, organizing seminars, or collaborate with the Research Library on AMNH publications, special collections, and online databases. (top)

Do students need to publish?

The Richard Gilder Graduate School strongly encourages students to publish during their graduate training. Although not formally required, publishing dissertation chapters as academic papers is a major element of graduate training. (top)

Course of Study

How long is the AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology?

This accelerated program for highly motivated and experienced students typically will be completed within four years. (top)

Are students able to finish in four years?

Because of the unique nature of the program, our student population is self-selecting and highly focused, and therefore well prepared for a four-year program. Many have Master’s degrees already and/or have research experience. During the application and admission process, students are matched to a professor and his or her research program or laboratory so that the student may begin developing independent research projects as early as the first semester. A high degree of mentoring and guidance encourages students to be focused and productive. (top)

What if a student cannot finish in four years?

In special circumstances, students will be permitted to petition for funding for part of a fifth year, and may continue to work on their research and dissertation up to the eighth year, though such a long term will be strongly discouraged. (top)


Who constitutes the graduate student community?

The student body includes doctoral students matriculated in the AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology, doctoral students matriculated at partner universities, and other students taking courses at, or receiving fellowships from, the Richard Gilder Graduate School. (top)

What is the enrollment in the Program?

To ensure excellent supervision and to provide adequate financial support, the program is limited to around four new students each year. (top)

What type of student is the program aimed at?

This novel program is an accelerated one (4 years), designed to attract exceptionally motivated and qualified U.S. and international students, who have demonstrated proficiency in academics and original research. Extensive faculty interaction for all students is facilitated by the 2:1 faculty-to-student ratio, broad course offerings, and regular academic committee oversight. To ensure enrollment of the highest-caliber students, excellent mentoring and supervision, and generous financial support, the new Comparative Biology Ph.D. Program is limited to around four new AMNH-funded students annually. Admissions thus is highly competitive, and applicants are assessed on their academic preparation and record, recommendations, intellectual depth and breadth, and fit between their interests and the program. (top)

How are students from groups under-represented in science involved in the Ph.D. program?

AMNH has successfully recruited diverse participation within New York State for its NSF-supported undergraduate research programs and pre-college science pipeline programs (which have enjoyed high participation rates by minorities and women). As part of its doctoral student recruitment, AMNH reaches out to successful participants in these programs and employs a variety of techniques to encourage the involvement of, and applications from, students in groups underrepresented in science. (top)

How are students funded?

Students admitted into our AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology typically are fully funded, with tuition, a competitive stipend for 12 months per year, and some research support guaranteed for 4 years (presuming satisfactory progress in the program). The Museum provides this commitment through a combination of generous philanthropic support, as well as foundation and governmental training grants to the institution or individual students. We also expect our students to be highly competitive for foundation-based fellowships, U.S. federal or New York State grants, or international governmental support. This exceptional level of support allows our students to focus on research, while receiving training in teaching in both formal academic and informal public settings, all in the context of the unique museum-based setting. (top)

Will the American Museum continue jointly sponsoring students through other universities?

Yes. The AMNH Ph.D. Program is meant to complement, not replace, the Museum’s longstanding collaborations with Columbia, CUNY, Cornell, NYU and other partner universities. Prior to the opening of the Richard Gilder Graduate School, at any given time there have been approximately 70 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows working across the scientific divisions of the Museum. All students working on their graduate degrees with American Museum curators and faculty are part of the broader Richard Gilder Graduate School. (top)

Where do students live?

The New York City metropolitan area has a wide range of housing opportunities. Like all of our staff and postdoctoral scientists, and most of our current graduate students, students in the Comparative Biology Program choose to live in areas that appeal to their preferences in cost, location, ambience, and commuting convenience. To ensure housing for all students entering the Museum’s Comparative Biology Ph.D. Program, we have entered into a partnership with International House on W. 120th Street ( for their first and second years. The Richard Gilder Graduate School Dean’s office also can assist students in finding other sources for housing. (top)

What career opportunities will be open to students when they graduate?

There is a diverse array of U.S. and international career opportunities for graduates from the AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology, from conventional academic careers to employment by government agencies and the private sector. The array of potential career options includes postdoctoral research, high school or college faculty appointments, and museum curation. Increasingly, governments and non-governmental agencies, particularly in the developing world, require in-country expertise to conduct biotic surveys and biogeographic studies necessary for biodiversity conservation and environmental planning. Private sector opportunities include the fields of biotechnology, food industry, and health. There are career paths for industry-related positions, such as pharmaceutical research and development, environmental consulting, and bio-defense. Graduates may also find openings in public advocacy and research policy organizations, think tanks, and charitable organizations. (top)

Where have your prior students secured jobs?

Alumni of our collaborative Ph.D. Programs have been extremely successful in their careers, and most are employed throughout a wide array of organizations and settings, ranging from schoolteachers to university professors to leaders in conservation organizations. A few examples of graduates advised by our curators in the past 6 years alone include: ASPCA-New York Animal Behavior Specialist; Assistant Professor of Community Health and Prevention at Columbia University and other university professors in the N.Y. area and across the U.S.; geologist at Chevron; veterinarian; and curators or research scientists in museums and universities in Latin America (e.g., Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru), Asia (e.g., China, Mongolia), Europe (e.g., England, Germany), and North America (including two curators, in ichthyology and dinosaur paleontology, at Chicago’s Field Museum). The first student to complete the Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology (in 2012) secured a postdoctoral position at Harvard University, then went on to become a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum. Other Comparative Biology Ph.D. graduates are working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, and the Spence School, an all-girls, K-12, independent, college-preparatory school in NYC; others are postdoctoral fellows at the California Academy of Sciences, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Columbia University, and AMNH. (top)


I didn’t know that museums had research laboratories - what kind of facilities are available?

Our graduate students have the advantage of working in some of the most advanced, state-of-the-art scientific facilities in the world, all located within the Museum. These include three molecular laboratories; powerful parallel computing clusters; a frozen tissue collection with a one-million-sample capacity; an imaging and microscopy laboratory; vertebrate paleontology and osteology preparation laboratories; and more. They also have access to the Southwestern Research Station, a Museum field research facility in the heart of a species-rich area of southeastern Arizona, the Black Rock Forest, a 4,000 acre site with field station facilities situated 50 miles north of New York City, and a consortium partnership with South Africa’s "SALT" telescope, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere. Complementing these more typical "laboratories", students have access to the "natural labs" of field programs throughout the world, vast organismal and anthropological collections, and various research facilities shared with collaborating institutions. (top)

Do students have library access?

Yes. Broad and deep access to library resources is one of the program’s strengths. For example, the AMNH Research Library is the largest independent natural history library in the Western Hemisphere—housing nearly one-half-million printed items as well as extensive non-print collections that span the full range of all the natural sciences and date back to the 15th century. Students also have access to the library at Columbia University.  Access to library resources at other partner universities may also be arranged. (top)


How is the program administered?

The Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS) is directed by the Dean, who reports to the Provost (the Museum’s chief scientific and academic officer), and who is responsible for all academic and administrative aspects of the post-secondary, research-based educational activities of the AMNH, including the AMNH Ph.D. Program in Comparative Biology, research fellowships for postdoctoral trainees, training of graduate students from other institutions (both those funded with AMNH Graduate Student Fellowships and others) pursuant to partnership agreements, and undergraduate training programs (such as REU). The programs and students are supported by several faculty committees, administrative staff members for the RGGS, and various departments and units throughout the Museum. An AMNH Board of Trustees Committee (including the Museum’s President and Chairman) also has been constituted for the graduate school. The Board of Trustees is the entity conferring the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s degrees, upon recommendation of the faculty. The RGGS also benefits from a three-member External Advisory Committee, of distinguished professors from other universities  who periodically provide advice and guidance and evaluate the quality and effectiveness of its academic programs. (top)