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Ph.D. Program Details

With the diversity of incoming students it is important to ensure that we provide high quality education in the multiple areas of biophysics without overwhelming the students and, at the same time, that we ensure students are on track to completing their Ph.D. At present, the average time to graduation for Biophysics students is 5.6 years.

The Biophysics Graduate Program addresses this challenge by offering a curriculum that aims to accomplish two goals: (a) provide a common academic base; and (b) accommodate the different backgrounds of the students. Consistent with our interest in broadening our student body, we have worked to increase the program's flexibility while enhancing the student's exposure to the core concepts in biophysics.


Curriculum Overview

We require coursework in three areas: the physical sciences, the biological sciences, and biophysics. The physical science requirements are designed to give students at least an advanced undergraduate understanding of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. The biological sciences requirements ensure that the students are conversant in biochemistry, cell biology, and protein structure and function. All Biophysics students take four core courses in biophysics: Biophysical Chemistry (theory/methods and techniques), Intro to the Biophysics Lab and Professional Development, as well as a research ethics course plus two additional cognates/electives. Often these are chosen from other courses offered by the unit, including Dynamical Processes in Biophysics, X-ray Crystallography of Macromolecules, Biophysical Principles of Microscopy, and Multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy. A typical student is required to take seven or eight courses, typically finishing their coursework sometime in their second year.

To custom-fit the curriculum to the specific needs of each student, faculty advisors consult with them to design a list of courses that both meet the curriculum guidelines and satisfy their specific goals. Cognates and electives are chosen to assure that each student attains competence in the broad areas of physics/physical chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, and cell and molecular biology. For students with a background in chemistry or physics, typically at least two cognates are chosen from the biochemistry/cell and molecular biology group and one from the molecular biophysics group. For students with degrees in the biological sciences, two cognates are selected from physics/chemistry and at least one from molecular biophysics or cell and molecular biology.


Course Requirements

Coursework for the Biophysics Ph.D. program at Michigan is designed for students with diverse academic backgrounds. The main focus is to offer research training in the applications of physics-based techniques to biological systems ranging in complexity from single molecules to whole cells and tissues. The coursework is flexible and is designed to give students the opportunity to take exciting classes in the field of specialization, while providing the fundamental background knowledge necessary for putting this specialization in a broader context.

The following courses are required for Biophysics graduate students. Individual requirements may be waived based on prior coursework.

For students in their first year:

A. Research Rotations

During the first year, students must register for two research rotations: BIOPHYS 890 (Fall and Winter). A minimum of 6 credits of 890 must be completed in order to achieve candidacy.  Tips on choosing rotations.

B. Biophysics Core (four courses)

  • Biophysical Chemistry I (Biophysics 520)
  • Biophysical Chemistry II (Biophysics 521)
  • Professional Development in Biophysics (Biophysics 595)
  • Biophysics Seminar (Biophysics 801)

C. Electives/Cognates (at least 2 courses)

It is suggested that students take elective courses in consultation with their graduate advisor or program director, in order to fill gaps in preparation or gain specific knowledge relevant to anticipated thesis projects. Course must be approved by graduate program director in order to count towards the elective requirement. 

The Rackham Graduate School has an additional cognate requirement that requires that at least 3 credits be taken outside of Biophysics. This can take the form of a single 3 credit course, or a 2 credit course plus a 1 credit seminar. The PIBS 503 course (described below under Responsible Conduct of Research) can be counted as a one-credit course towards the cognate requirement. Courses that
satisfy the cognate requirement will also count as an elective, as long as they are approved by the graduate program director. Elective courses within biophysics that are not cross-listed in another program cannot be used to satisfy the cognate requirement

Students wishing to further develop their lab skills may consider taking BIOPHYS 550, Introduction to the Biophysics Laboratory.

Students with a background in physics may consider taking:

  • Biochemistry: BIOLCHEM 550 (Fall)
  • Cell Biology: MCDB 428 (Winter, Biological focus) or BioMedEngin 418 (Winter, Quantitative/Engineering focus)
  • Macromolecular Structure/Function: CHEMBIO 501 (Fall) / CHEMBIO 502 (Winter) or BIOLCHEM 515 (Fall)

Students with a background in Biology may consider taking:

  • Statistical/Thermal: CHEM 463/575 (Fall - Thermodynamics), or CHEM 576 (Winter - Statistical Mechanics), or PHYSICS 406 (Fall or Winter - Statistical and Thermal Physics)
  • Quantum: CHEM 461/570 (Fall or Winter - Physical Chemistry) or PHYSICS 453 (Fall or Winter - Quantum Mechanics)
  • Mechanics: PHYSICS 401 (Fall or Winter - Intermediate Mechanics)
  • E&M: PHYSICS 405 (Fall or Winter - Intermediate Electricity and Magnetism)

D. Research Ethics Requirement 

As federally mandated, students must enroll in one Research Ethics Course: PIBS 503, CHEM 415 or UC 415 (offered by LSA, choose the appropriate section depending on the nature of your interests/research). Note: this requirement must be fulfilled prior to achieving candidacy.

E. Biophysics Seminar Requirement

At least 1 credit of BIOPHYS 801 must be completed prior to achieving candidacy. Note: a total 7 credits of Biophysics 801 are required for the Ph.D.

For students beyond their first year:

Dissertation research (BIOPHYS 995): candidates must register in the fall and winter terms for 8 hours of research.

Biophysics 801 Seminar:
At least 7 credits of 801 is required for the Ph.D. degree. 

Additional courses:
Candidates can also take either one additional course per term or more than one course for a total of no more than 4 credits without paying additional tuition beyond candidacy tuition (as per Rackham guidelines). Other classes may be taken as a visit (audit). Taking extra courses after Candidacy must be discussed with the thesis advisor.


Any questions regarding courses can be directed to the Biophysics student services administrator.

Preliminary Examination & Candidacy


Preliminary Examination (Checkpoint 1)
To demonstrate that they are qualified to proceed in the Ph.D. program, first-year Biophysics students are given a preliminary examination during the spring term. This examination is based on primary research articles that are distributed in advance. Students are expected to read and understand the material in the research papers, including the background and experimental methods. They are also expedcted to write an NSF GRSP-style (2 page) research proposal on a topic related to the paper materials. The preliminary exam is administered and graded by the members of the Graduate Prelim Committee.

Course Requirements for Candidacy

  • At least 18 total credit hours, to be comprised of 
    • 10 credit hours of Biophysics core courses with a B or better
    • 3 credit hours of cognate coursework with a B or better
    • 1 credit hour of an RCRS/Ethics course with a B or better. 
    • 6 credit hours of BIOPHYS 890 with a B or better.

Dissertation Proposal & Oral Defense (Checkpoint 2)

The Checkpoint 2 exam is a defense of the student's thesis proposal to their dissertation committee. The written component consists of a NIH F31 style proposal of their proposed research project. The oral exam consists of a brief presentation on a research project of the student's choosing (related to what the student plans to accomplish during their Ph.D.). During and after the presentation, students will be asked questions related to, and possibly beyond the scope of, their research. The goal of this exam is to ensure that students possess the necessary formal background to successfully implement their proposed research project(s). 

Timing and Eligibility
Students in good academic standing who have advanced to candidacy will take their "Checkpoint 2 exam" in the winter semester of their second year.

In the fall of their second year the student will, in consultation with their research advisor, assemble a Dissertation Advisory Committee. The committee will administer the Checkpoint 2 exam and will regularly serve in an advisory role throughout the student's graduate career. The make-up of the committee is as follows:

  • At least 4 members in total
  • The Committee Chair (cannot be the student's dissertation mentor but must be a core faculty member)
  • Two Core Biophysics faculty members (one of whom can be the Committee Chair)
  • One Cognate member (a UM faculty member who does not hold any appointment in Biophysics; can hold appointment in related department as long as he/she isn't affiliated with Biophysics however they must be affiliated with a Rackham program)

Please consult the Graduate Student Handbook for more important details regarding the Checkpoint 1 and 2 exam or any other requirements.

After Candidacy

Candidates can also take one additional course per term or more than one course for a total of no more than 4 credits without paying tuition beyond candidacy tuition (as per Rackham guidelines). Other classes may be taken as a visit (audit). Taking extra courses after Candidacy must be discussed with the thesis mentor. 

Candidates are required to meet with their Committee at least once a year (starting from the date of their Checkpoint 2 exam)

Progress Reports

All Biophysics graduate students in their second year and beyond have their progress reviewed annually. In the spring of each year, students and faculty will receive via email the evaluation form, instructions for completing the form and a deadline by which it must be submitted to the Student Services Administrator. The form is completed jointly by the student and the advisor and reviewed by the Graduate Chair. The goal of this process is to assist students and advisors in overcoming any barriers to success and to facilitate open communication about degree and research requirements.

More Degree Information

The Biophysics Graduate Student Handbook covers the program in great detail.

More information can be found online via the Navigating Your Degree section of Rackham's website.