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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. 


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 can 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.

Research Rotations

In order to familiarize incoming students with the different research topics and laboratory environments offered by the Biophysics Graduate Program, all first year students must perform at least two full research rotations among the various Biophysics faculty before selecting a research advisor. 

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Chronology of PhD Degree

Biophysics Graduate Student Handbook

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.

PhD Suggested Course Plan

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

A. Biophysics Research Sequence

All students must complete at least 2 lab rotations prior to choosing a "home" lab.  Students must be enrolled in research credits every Fall and Winter term during the duration of their degree. Note: students wishing to defend during the spring/summer term must enroll for 8 credits of Biophysics 995.

  • Biophysics 890 (first-year students enroll in 890 to obtain credit for their lab rotations)
  • Biophysics 990 (pre-candidates who have chosen a lab enroll in 990 to obtain research credit)
  • Biophysics 995 (candidates enroll in 995 to obtain research credit)

B. Biophysics Core (four courses)

  • Biophysical Chemistry I (Biophysics 520)
  • Biophysical Chemistry II (Biophysics 521)
  • Introduction to the Biophysics Laboratory (Biophysics 550)
  • Professional Development in Biophysics (Biophysics 595)

C. Biochemistry/Cell Biology or the Physical Sciences (1-2 courses, if needed)

Students without a strong foundation in the physical sciences should take appropriate advanced undergraduate courses in quantum mechanics or quantum chemistry and thermodynamics or statistical physics. Conversely, students without a strong foundation in biological chemistry or cell biology should take the appropriate advanced undergraduate (or graduate) coursework. These can count towards the cognate/electives requirement.

D. Electives & Cognate (two courses)

The student's research advisor can help identify appropriate electives.

Cognate: 4 credit hours of cognate coursework is required. These courses are generally non-biophysics; however, if cross-listed with another department or program, a biophysics course can be counted towards the cognate requirement. Electives can also count as cognates. Required courses from a student's program may not be used to fulfill the cognate requirement.

A student with interests in Biological Physics might consider:

  • Dynamical Processes in Biophysics (Physics 417)
  • Physics of Complexity (Physics 413)
  • Physical Chemistry of Macromolecules (Chemistry 535)
  • Engineering Fundamentals in Biological Systems (Chem Eng 518)
  • Introduction to Non-linear Dynamics (Complexity 541)
  • Biophysical Principles of Microscopy (Biophys 608)

A student with interests in Structural Biology might consider:

  • Advanced X-ray crystallography (Biophysics 605)
  • Multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy (Biophysics 603)
  • Introduction to Probability and Statistics (Statistics 412)
  • Survey in Bioinformatics (Biochemistry 526)
  • Dynamical Processes in Biophysics (Physics 417)
  • Signal Transduction (Biochemistry 576)
  • Molecular Biology (Biology 427)

A student with interests in Computational Biophysics might consider:

  • Survey in Bioinformatics (Biochemistry 526)
  • Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (EECS 492)
  • Numerical Methods for Scientific Computing (Math 571)
  • Topics in Molecdlar Evolution (Biology 514)
  • Discrete State Stochastic Processes (Math 526)
  • Statistical Models and Numerical Methods in Human Genetics (Biostatistics 666)

E. Research Ethics Requirement 

The NIH and NSF requires that any student or postdoctoral fellow receive training on the responsible conduct of research and scholarship if they are funded on research, training grants or federally-funded fellowships.

All graduate students must enroll in a research ethics course before advancing to candidacy (preferably during the first year of study). The student may enroll in the following:

  • PIBS 503
  • an appropriate section of LSA's UC 415

F. Biophysics Seminar Requirement

At least 7 credits of Biophysics 801 are required.


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

Before Candidacy

During the first few years of graduate study, students have pre-candidate status. Pre-candidates take a substantial amount of courses. This is the time for students to consider options for research projects while maintaining flexibility.

Candidacy must be achieved by winter of the second year in the program. Some students follow an accelerated schedule and get promoted to candidacy in one year while others take a little more time.

Progression to Candidacy Form

The Requirements for Candidacy

  • 12 credit hours of Biophysics core courses with a B or better
  • 6 credits of Biophysics 890 (Intro to Research): Students are required to register for this class in the fall and winter terms of their first year
  • Take and pass at least 4 credit hours of cognate or elective coursework with a B or better. NOTE: cognates can count as electives, but not all electives are cognates. Consult the Graduate Handbook or Biophysics Student Services Office for more information.
  • Take and pass 1 credit hour of the RCRS/Ethics course requirement with a B or better. This can be done two different ways: by electing PIBS 503 or a suitable section of UC 415
  • Take and pass at least 1 credit hour of Biophysics 801
  • Take and pass your Preliminary Exam

Oral Preliminary Exam (Candidacy Exam)

Students become candidates once they have successfully passed this exam which consists of a brief presentation on a research project of the student's own 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).

To begin the process, students must:

  • Form a Prelim Exam Committee, comprised of at least 4 professors, including your research advisor as Chair. The committee must have the following:
    • Thesis advisor is the Chair 
    • Two Core Biophysics faculty members (one of whom can be the committee Chair)
    • One Cognate member (a 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) 
  •  Complete the Oral Prelim/Dissertation Committee Selection form and hand it in to the Biophysics Student Services Office. Often this is the same as your Dissertation Committee but you can always change your committee after obtaining candidacy.
  • Write a Research Proposal (expected length is around 10 pages) and distribute to the members of your committee well in advance of the Prelim Exam (at least two weeks prior).
  • Just prior to your prelim, pick up a Candidacy Exam Report form from the Biophysics Student Services Office. Take the form to your Prelim Exam, have your Committee Chair complete and sign the form and return the form to the Biophysics Student Services Office.


  • Upon receipt of the Biophysics Candidacy Exam Report form--if you have completed all of the above requirements--the Biophysics Student Services Office will complete your online Recommendation for Candidacy form with Rackham. 
  • View the Candidacy Deadline list from the Rackham website and know your deadlines!


After Candidacy

After promotion to candidate status, students can take one additional (i.e. non-research) course per term or more than one course for a total of no more than 4 credits. Students who are candidates spend virtually all of their time on thesis research. Students should be enrolled in 8 credits of BIOPHYS 995 until they graduate. 

Candidates are required to meet with their Committee at least once a year (starting from the date of their candidacy exam). Students are to obtain a report form from the Student Services Office, to be completed and signed. The student is also required to submit a written progress report.

Candidates Changing Advisors

In rare cases a student changes advisors even after having obtained candidacy. Such transitions are possible but may present certain challenges. The Graduate Chair can assist in such situations.

Progress Reports

All Biophysics graduate students (second year and beyond) have their progress reviewed each spring. At this time each student meets with her or his advisor to discuss progress in research and to agree on timelines for future degree milestones.

After the meeting the student's advisor signs off on the report and it is filed with the graduate program. 

For pre-candidates, the main purpose of the annual progress report is to monitor progress towards candidacy and integration into their research group. For candidates, the purpose is to monitor progress towards graduation.

More Degree Information

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

More information can be found online via the doctoral degrees section of Rackham's Academic Policies page.