Biochemistry & Biophysics

Program Overview

Welcome to the Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The primary mission of any academic department is education. Here PhD students and post-doctoral fellows train in more than 40 different laboratories engaged in cutting-edge biomedical research. Training in research comes at a time of tremendous change, as new tools are uncovering the molecular causes of human disease, revealing new drug targets, and fostering the development of innovative new therapies. With a PhD degree in Biochemistry & Biophysics, the next generation of scientists will be well equipped to solve some the most vexing and complex health problems of the day.


The curriculum is designed to emphasize basic skills and principles, and yet be sufficiently flexible to allow students to focus on different research areas. Students in the Biochemistry track currently take BIOC 701 – Research Topics in Biochemistry, a course that is linked to the Department’s extramural Seminar series. Likewise, students in the Biophysics track participate in BIOC 704 -Seminars in Biophysics, where they attend the Biophysics Seminars as part of the course. Through presentation and discussion of the upcoming speakers’ publications in both seminar courses, students are not only better prepared for talks given by outside speakers, but are also better equipped to give their own departmental research presentations. Another required course, Biochemistry 712, is designed to help students with the art of grant writing, and specifically preparation of the grant-style qualifying examinations.


Our Department believes that teaching is an invaluable part of graduate education, as well as a benefit to the University. Hence, Ph.D. students are asked to serve as assistants in one semester of a course. These are typically courses for professional students in the Schools of Dentistry, Nursing, or Medicine. Most students satisfy their teaching requirements during their first year of study.


Students are required to pass three qualifying examinations to be admitted to candidacy for a PhD degree. Our Department has chosen to administer the exams in the following stages: 1) an oral comprehensive exam of the initial thesis proposal is completed before the end of the second year, 2) a written comprehensive exam is taken at the beginning of the third year, and 3) the final thesis defense is completed at the conclusion of the student’s graduate work. For the oral exam, students first prepare a complete proposal (and submit it one week prior to the oral exam date for approval by their thesis committee), using an NIH-style grant application format, of their ongoing dissertation research. A required class in scientific writing that students are required to complete in Spring of their second year guides the students through this process. Based on this written proposal, the student then demonstrates expertise in the area with an oral presentation and defense of the proposal before a “site visit” committee of faculty reviewers.

For the written exam, students are provided exam topics and then then receive a take home exam and have one week to complete it (this occurs in October of the third year). The final thesis defense on the dissertation is public and is the formal presentation of the student’s completed body of work. The examination is divided into a public seminar presentation, followed by a more in-depth examination by the student’s five-member Thesis Committee.