Petchey uzh information

Masters specialisation in ecology information. All other information is here

Enquiries by prospective students

Who can be my supervisor?


Finishing your bachelors

The learning agreement


Elective 20CPs


BIO 520

BIO 510

Research seminar



If you would like to discuss anything on this page, please use

Ecology Specialisation of Masters in Biology

Instructions for students and supervisors

Please consult this page and the following information.

Enquiries by prospective students

If you are interested in doing a masters with Owen, please see the section "Postdoc & PhD enquiries" on this page.

If you are interested in doing a masters, though not with Owen: The Masters Thesis, based on a research project, is the most important element of the Masters. Therefore, finding the correct supervisor is paramount, and so make this your first priority. At the same time, you may wish to check that your Bachelors degree qualifies you to study for the Ecology Specialisation of the Biology Masters. You may contact the director of biology studies, Dr Karin Isler, to make an informal enquiry about the eligibility of your Bachelors degree. You can find her email address on this page.

The next step is to apply to study at the University of Zurich (if you are not a student already at UZH). Please consult this page, particular the link in the right column, "application information".

Next, please make your learning agreement in consultation with your Masters Thesis supervisor (see the relevant section below), submit it (see below for details), and then begin your masters studies.

Who can be my masters supervisor?

If you have any doubts about if a particular person can be your masters supervisor, please ask them. If they have any doubt, please have them contact Owen. This is particularly important if you are considering a masters thesis with an external organisation/supervisor. In any case, you may find this draft document, which is for masters supervisors, useful to look at.


The Masters is composed of three parts:

1. BIO 510 (The masters thesis). The duration of this part is 12 months. If work on the thesis is interrupted by work for the other two parts of the Masters, ensure the an end date of the Masters Thesis that includes this, and note this on the Learning Agreement in advance.

2. BIO 520 (Integrated knowledge in biology). This module requires 300 hours of self-study, so has a minimum duration of 2 months (8 hours per day, five days per week, for seven and a half weeks).

3. Elective modules (20 CPs). The time used for these is of course separate from time used for BIO 510 and 520.

Finishing your bachelors (transferring credits to masters)

You may wish to transfer some of the course credits you gained during your bachelors to your masters, and therefore need approval and signature of the masters coordinator. Please note below the number of credit points needed to take during your masters. Also note that signature of permission to transfer credits does not mean they can be used towards the 20 elective masters CPs: this can only be defined on the learning agreement (see below). Hence, it makes sense to decide which credit points to transfer AND to make the learning agreement at the same time. Consuequently, the masters coordinator will only authorise transfer of credits in the presence of a complete learning agreement.

The learning agreement

The learning agreement sets out the student’s programme of learning and research during their Masters. It should be well thought out and carefully planned, such that changes are unecessary. All sections should be completed before the signature of the Masters Coordinator is sought, the form is handed in to the Biology Studienkoordination, and masters studies begin. A common need for revision of the learning is specifying insufficient time for BIO 520 (it requires 300 hours of study, so around three months). A link to the learning agreement is on this page.

If you have an external supervisor (as well as internal), add their name to the Learning Agreement at the end of the Thesis description section or by adding a text box with appropriate editing software. Get their signature also.

If the length of time from your indicated start date to the end date is greater than 12 months, please state why at the end of the Thesis description section or by adding a text box with appropriate editing software.

BIO520: please indicate the weeks/months during which you will study for BI520 at the end of the Thesis description section or by adding a text box with appropriate editing software.

To obtain the masters coordinators signature: 1. Prepare a complete draft of the learning agreement in collaboration with your supervisor. 2. Email it to the masters coordinator for feedback and revise as required, in collaboration with your supervisor. 3. Repeat step 2 until the masters coordinator says the Learning Agreement can be signed. 4. Add student and supervisor signatures to the Learning Agreement. 5, Make arrangements with the assistant of the masters coordinator (currently Maja Weilenmann) to have the masters coordinator sign the Learning Agreement. (If necessary, it is possible to arrange to meet with the masters coordinator, of course.)

To make changes to the learning Agreement: student specifies the change, gains consent of supervisor, gains consent of the Masters coordinator, gains consent of Studienkoordination. This process can happen by email, and each stage of request for consent should include evidence that the previous stages are completed. While Owen is on sabbatical, once you have a complete learning agreement, with signatures of your supervisors, please give it to Maja Weilenmann (room 34-J-62).


Due to fairness, the total duration of a Master's project is one year, and not more except in exceptional circumstances. The fairness goes in both directions: students must be treated equally, but the should also not be overburdened by a project that (perhaps unexpectedly) requires more work than reasonably fits within one year. If a student has to work for a living a significant amount of time even during the Master's project, a delay must also be planned from the start. If a project turns out to be more extensive than planned, the student must be given the possibility to finish the thesis within time, and perhaps continue the project after graduation.

Circumstances that might require and qualify for an extension include:

1. Illness / injury of student (requires a doctors note).

2. Family emergencies.

Circumstances that do not qualify for an extension include:

1. Difficulties with the research (e.g., organisms not growing, more data than expected, analyses harder than expected, taking longer to write than expected, machine breakdowns, wanting to do “just one more experiment”, etc.).

2. Busy supervisors.

3. Badly planned learning agreements (e.g., setting a handing in deadline during holidays, not anticipating important activities).

To request an extension please discuss the request with your supervisor, and then email it to the Masters Coordinator and cc your supervisor.

Elective 20CPs

Twenty credit points need to be accrued from modules you choose. Please make your choices in collaboration with your supervisor, and enter them into your learning agreement. There are no mandatory courses; please choose courses that will meet your training needs.

At least fifteen credit points must come from courses taken during the masters and be from UZH or ETH Zurich.

Journal club and research seminar based modules cannot contribute to the 20 elective CPs. They are expected to be part of the masters thesis experience.


Please make sure that elective modules are given in a language you can understand. Many but not all are in English; some are in German.

BIO 520 "Integrated Knowledge in Biology

We are currently developing a new approach to BIO 520. At present, both the old (below) and the new approach are available, and you may choose which to follow.


Responsible for this module is Dr Schaepman-Strub (you can find her email address on this page. This module, designed as a self-study period of the Master degree course and comprising of a total of 300 study hours (corresponding to about 2 months), allows students to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of primarily the area of their chosen MSc specialization but also general fundamental biological concepts. The supervisor of the Master thesis discusses and designs the scope and content of the module with each individual student, with required assistance from the module coordinator. In general, it is expected that the student uses the opportunity to acquire a broad and solid overview in Ecology (for instance by working through an actual textbook like Begon, Harper, and Townsend, Ecology), with additional focus on the general area of their Masters Thesis research. At the end of the self-study period, the examination takes place in the form of a three-hour written and a 30-60 minute oral examination.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module students should be able to

Format of the exams

The three-hour written and the oral examination should ideally take place within one week, with the written exam coming first. While an approximate date is already determined in the Learning Agreement at the start of the MSc Program, the precise dates have to be arranged on an individual basis between the thesis supervisor and the student, and communicated to the module coordinator. In the past, the exam has often been scheduled after completion of the Master thesis. However, students may find it more sensible and useful to perform the study before the Masters thesis research, and to include in the essay, a thorough review of literature generally relevant to their Masters thesis (this could work well with option 1.3 for the written part, see below). The final grade will be the arithmetic mean (rounded to half grades) of the grades obtained in the two parts. The oral and written part must each be graded at least 4.0 to pass. Retaking individual components (i.e., oral or written) is possible.

Part 1: Written examination

The written examination lasts 3 hours. Unless otherwise agreed, the exam takes place at the Institute of Evolutoinary Biology and Environmental Studies (IEU) in a room organized by the MSc coordinator or delegate. In that case the thesis supervisor has to make sure that the exam questions are transmitted sufficiently ahead of time to the module coordinator. Supervision of the exam is then handled by the module coordinator. The candidate can bring written notes, but not a complete copy of the planned essay. The examiner can (with advance notice) provide a computer (with no internet access) on which the essay can be written.

Options for the exam:

1.1 Essay

One option is to offer the candidate two to three general topics in the field of Ecology. She/he selects one of these and studies it based on general ecology textbooks and/or selected primary literature. At the exam, the student will be given a title, and then writes a short essay (a few pages) to demonstrate her/his general knowledge in the field.

Examples of previous essay titles:

1.2 Analysis of primary literature

The candidate will be given three primary literature papers by the thesis supervisor one week before the date of the written exam, usually in electronic form (pdf). The candidate has to read and acquire an understanding of these papers until the exam. At the exam, she/he will be asked a series of “journal club style” questions about one two, or all three of these papers. These should be answered completely and succinctly.

Examples of previously asked primary literature questions. Obviously, the questions make no sense without the paper, but you get a general idea…

1.3 Literature review

A subject area within Ecology is chosen, perhaps an area that includes the Masters thesis research area, and a literature review is researched and written. The review could include documentation of previous work, critique of previous work, and synthesis of the same.

Part 2: Oral examination

The oral part should take place about a week after the written part. The module coordinator or delegate therefore must be present, in addition to the Masters supervisor. The supervisor or the module coordinator / delegate can also invite additional group leaders to attend.

Apart from the candidate and the Master thesis supervisor, the module coordinator (or delegate thereof) as well as perhaps additional group leaders may participate at the oral exam. It is the responsibility of candidate and Master thesis supervisor to arrange a date with the other examiners.


1. Who selects which option (general essay, literature review, study of particular papers)?
The student and supervisor, with any require input from the module coordinator or delegate.

1. Who selects the publications (if this option is taken)?

The supervisor, with any require input from the module coordinator or delegate.

3. How close to the topic of the Master thesis should the selected papers be?
The papers should address matters of the chosen MSc specialization (i.e. Ecology). They should not be too close to the area of the Master thesis research but they can be from the wider area of the Master thesis research.

3. Who hands out the pdfs of the selected publications to the candidate? When are they handed out?
The Master thesis supervisor. Exactly one week ahead of the date of the written exam by e-mail to the candidate with a cc to the module coordinator or delegate.

4. Who formulates the specific questions concerning the selected publications for the written exam? Specific questions are formulated concerning one, two or all three of the selected publications by the Master thesis supervisor, but it is not excluded that they are contributed by the module coordinator or delegate. The Master thesis supervisor presents his/her suggestions for these specific questions to the module coordinator or delegate ahead of the exam.

5. Who formulates the essay topics?

The Master thesis supervisor and student propose essay topics to the module coordinator or delegate. Note that these topics have to be rather general. They should not be too closely related to the Master thesis research project, but can include it.

6. Who is responsible that a definitive selection of questions and essay topics is available at the date of the written exam?
The Master thesis supervisor.

7. Who organizes the room for the written exam and the supervision of the candidate during the written exam?

In general, this will be the module coordinator or delegate. They must therefore be brought in possession of the definitive questions and essay topics at least a week before the written exam.

8. Who corrects and grades the written exam?
The Master thesis supervisor. She/he will get the original solutions written by the candidate from the module coordinator or delegate and is expected to communicate the corrected exam as well as a suggestion for an appropriate grade to the module coordinator or delegate within about a week. The module coordinator or delegate has the right to modify the suggested grade.

BIO 510 Master Thesis

The written Master thesis has to comply formally with the usual standards applied to scientific publications. Formatting / layout guidelines are in a pdf available here. The student has to hand in the final version of his Master thesis to the Studienkoordination on the date fixed in the Learning Agreement, both as a paper copy and a pdf. Additional copies will have to be given to the Master thesis supervisor and to the MSc coordinator (as a pdf at least) or delegate for evaluation. The supervisor should forward his evaluation report together with a suggestion for an appropriate grade for BIO 510 (full and half grades permitted) to the MSc coordinator or delegate. The coordinator or delegate has the right to ask for revisions of Master theses that do not fulfil formal standards, as well as modify the suggested grade.

The masters thesis is not graded on length as such. It should be long enough, and no longer, as required to represent the research carried out during the 12 months, and to meet the assessment guide below. Some have hypothesises a u-shaped relationship between quality per page (word), and number of pages (words). Example masters theses: here, here, here, here, here, here.

Thesis grading

In general the following six criteria (A.1-3, B.1-3) are most important for grading BIO 510:

A. Thesis: Overall style, presentation, logic, language, completeness

A.1 Introduction:

A.2 Results and Methods:

A.3 Discussion and Conclusions:

Note that the supervisor should base his grade recommendation on a version of the Master thesis that has not yet been corrected by the supervisor or (other experienced scientists) and that is considered to be the final version by the student. Upon request, the MSc coordinator is entitled to inspect this first final version. However, subsequent revision in response to comments by the supervisor (or experienced scientists) is permitted and in fact an important element of learning and teaching of the MSc program.

B. Practical work in the laboratory: Overall attitude, motivation, input, independence

B.1 Lab work:

B.2 Experimental design:

B.3 Communication:

Public research seminar on Masters thesis project

(About 25 minutes + 10 minutes of public discussion). Quality of the performance will be considered (among many additional points) when deciding on a grade for the Master thesis (BIO 510). The public research seminar is used as a convenient mechanism for the student to present his/her thesis work to the examiners. After the research seminar and the short public question/answer period, all guests are asked to leave the room. The final research seminar is followed by a maximum 30-minute question/answer session, in which the student’s supervisor and the MSc coordinator (or a delegate thereof) may ask the student questions related to the Master thesis.

Masters Abschluss

When you have completed BIO 510 and BIO 520, please have your supervisor complete this form. Be sure to complete all the fields. Once complete, please give it to Maja Weilenmann (room 34-J-62).


If you have any questions, please contact Owen Petchey. You can find his email address on this page.

If you have any questions, please contact Owen Petchey. You can find his email address on this page.