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.


Written Exam

The written component is taken at the end of the first year, typically in mid-June.  The exam may be postponed until the end of the second year if necessary with the approval of the BCB Director.  Students are assigned a reading list of about 10-15 research papers focusing on key analytical skills that should have been acquired from completion of core coursework during the first year.  These papers are released to during a study period two weeks prior to the exam date.  The exam itself is administered over the course of four days.  Exams are graded as either pass or fail.  Students who do not pass have the option to take the exam again the next year.  Students who fail a second time will be dismissed from the program.

Oral Exam

The oral component of the exam must be taken before the end of the third academic year.  Students are expected to submit a 6-12 page written proposal in the form of a fellowship application (e.g. NIH or NSF) to their thesis committee describing their dissertation research project.  Details regarding the content of the proposal should be discussed no later than the annual thesis committee meeting at the beginning of the third year.  Detailed guidelines for conducting the exam may be found here.  Once the proposal is submitted to the thesis committee, students are required to defend their proposals during an oral exam given by their thesis committee.  Students are expected to demonstrate sufficient knowledge in their chosen research area and feasibility in completing their research plan by the end of the fifth year.  The specific content of these oral exams is dictated by the thesis committee and moderated by the committee chair.  Students who fail the exam have the option to take the exam again at a later date under terms and conditions set by their committee.  Students who fail a second time will be dismissed from the program.