Ph.D. Degree in Biochemistry or Biophysics

The Ph.D. program is designed to train students in the ability to independently conceive and carry out original research in the general area of the chemistry of life functions. Successful defense of an independent research dissertation is required for the Ph.D. degree. The program requires, on average, about 5 years of graduate level study. The majority of a student’s time is spent doing research on his or her dissertation project, although considerable time also is devoted to advanced coursework and professional seminars. The dissertation research project is undertaken in the laboratory of a faculty mentor, under her or his close supervision. The program also offers training in the teaching of biochemistry at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Almost all students receive financial support in the form of a research or teaching assistantship.

General Timeline

Below, is a timeline for achievements characteristic of a successful PhD program. Failure to reach some benchmarks can result in the loss or interruption of financial support. Throughout the PhD graduate programs in biochemistry and biophysics, the student must maintain a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0 or above, and after joining a research lab group, make adequate progress toward the successful completion of the thesis project.

Year 1

Fall Semester

Administrative. Students meet with professors and submit preferences for three, one-month rotations, usually by the end of the second week in the semester. Rotations begin in the first week of September and end by mid-December. Student and faculty preferences then determine the placement of students in research groups by the end of December. The temporary major professor for rotating students is the Director of Graduate Education (DOGE) for the PhD program in biochemistry or biophysics.

Coursework. Initiation of 500-level core coursework.

Research. Work as assigned by the professors who host the rotation student.

Spring Semester

Administrative. Student joins a research group, selects a Program of Study Committee (POSC), meets with their POSC to develop a Program of Study (POS) and submits the POS as an electronic form routed for the approval of the POSC and the Director of Graduate Education (DOGE) for the PhD program in biochemistry or biophysics.

Coursework. Completion of 500-level core coursework.

Research. The student begins development of a thesis project and begins research. The thesis project is subject to comprehensive review by the POSC during the Preliminary Oral Exam (See Year 3).

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the first year requires completion of core coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, completion (with approvals) of an electronic POS form and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor.

Year 2

Administrative. Successful completion of the Oral Research Proposition Exam (ORPE) by end of spring semester.

Coursework. Continuation of 500- and 600-level discipline-broadening coursework as required by the POS.

Research. Development of a thesis project and research continues.

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the second year requires completion of coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, completion (with approvals) of an electronic POS form, completion of the OPRE and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor.

Year 3

Administrative. First attempt of the Preliminary Oral Examination before the end of the fifth semester (excluding summer terms), and successful completion of the Preliminary Oral Examination by the end of the sixth semester.

Coursework. Continuation of 500- and 600-level discipline-broadening coursework as required by the POS.

Teaching requirement. Typically two ¼ or one ½ time teaching assignments to be fulfilled before completion of the PhD program.

Research. Development of a thesis project, culminating in an approved thesis project by the POS.  Thesis-related research continues.

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the third year requires completion of coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, a current electronic POS form with completion of the OPRE and Preliminary Oral Examination indicated in notation, and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor. In addition, the student completes a CV and a statement of career plans for approval by the DOGE.

Year 4

Administrative. Modification of the POS as necessary to reflect changes in curriculum and committee membership.

Coursework. Continuation of 500- and 600-level discipline-broadening coursework as required by the POS.

Research. Thesis-related research continues.

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the fourth year requires completion of coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, a current electronic POS form with completion of the OPRE and Preliminary Oral Examination indicated in notation, and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor. In addition, the student updates his/her CV and statement of career plans for approval by the DOGE.

Year 5

Administrative. Modification of the POS as necessary to reflect changes in curriculum and committee membership.

Coursework. Continuation of 500- and 600-level discipline-broadening coursework as required by the POS.

Research. Thesis-related research continues.

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the fifth year requires completion of coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, a current electronic POS form with completion of the OPRE and Preliminary Oral Examination indicated in notation, and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor. In addition, the student updates his/her CV and statement of career plans for approval by the DOGE.

Year 6 and beyond

Administrative. Student receives the following warning: Students in years 1—5 in good standing have first priority for financial support.

Coursework. Continuation of 500- and 600-level discipline-broadening coursework as required by the POS.

Research. Thesis-related research continues.

Annual Review. Financial support beyond the fifth year requires completion of coursework with a grade point average of at least 3.0, a current electronic POS form with completion of the OPRE and Preliminary Oral Examination indicated in notation, and an evaluation of satisfactory research performance by the major professor. In addition, the student updates his/her CV and statement of career plans for approval by the DOGE.

Preparation for Graduation (After year three)

Departmental Seminar Presentation. If possible, this presentation should take place before the Final Oral Thesis Defense Exam.

Final Oral Thesis Defense Exam. Must follow Oral Preliminary Exam by at least six months. Occurs at the end of graduate studies.

Graduation Deadline. The Graduate College requires a memorandum from the major professor stating that courses taken more than 7-years prior to the indicated date of graduation remain valid. (The expiration date on courses for the MS is 5 years prior to the anticipated date of graduation). There is no limit on the time lapsed prior to graduation, but the Graduate College will monitor degree programs that extend beyond year seven.  Such monitoring may entail additional POSC reviews and certification of student progress.

Professional and Career Development

Teaching Requirements

Ph.D. students are required to serve as teaching assistants during two semesters, under the guidance of a faculty instructor who has overall responsibility for the course. In recent years students have typically spent one semester as a 1/2-time teaching assistant (20 hours per week), and one semester as a 1/4-time teaching assistant (10 hours per week). Assignments are made so that each student gains experience in both laboratory and lecture settings.

Career Opportunities

Various career tracks are available after completion of the Ph.D. degree. The typical course is to undertake postdoctoral research, usually at another institution. The postdoctoral period is a transition between the student phase of independent research into the state where a scientist begins to take on the responsibility of overall research design, incorporation of other scientists at lower levels into that design, and obtaining funding to support his or her project. Following the postdoctoral training, scientists then obtain some type of laboratory director position, either in academia or industry. There are many variations on this general approach, and many other options after completion of the Ph.D. degree.

Necessary Undergraduate Training

Most students that enter the graduate program will hold a B.S. degree in biochemistry, biological sciences, chemistry, or physics. All graduate students entering the Department of BBMB will be expected to have taken one semester of analytical chemistry, one year of organic chemistry and, in most instances, one year of physical chemistry. Students lacking any of these courses will be required to take them as soon as feasible after entering the program, preferably in the first year of study.

Difference between Biochemistry and Biophysics Ph.D. degree requirements

The major difference in the biochemistry and biophysics Ph.D. degree is that the eight-credit sequence, BBMB 504, 505, 506, 507, is required of biochemistry majors and the six-credit sequence BBMB 404, 405, can be taken instead by the biophysics major.  This reduction in required credits is intended to accommodate additional coursework required in physics by the biophysics major.

The other major difference between the two majors is in the qualifying examination process, which focuses on the subject matter specific to either biochemistry or biophysics.  See the BBMB Graduate Handbook for more information about the qualifying examinations for both graduate programs.

A minimum of 72 graduate credits are required to earn a Ph.D. degree.  The minimum grade required by the department for all core courses is a B minus (B-).  If a grade below B minus (B-) is earned, the core course must be retaken. <hr/ >

Course Requirements

For Biochemistry Majors

BBMB 504, 505, 506, 507 (2 credits each) Comprehensive Biochemistry

Each BBMB 504 through 507 course can be taken independently of the other, but are all four courses (total 8 credits) are required for the BS/MS, MS, PhD and graduate certificate programs in biochemistry.

Each course is a comprehensive treatment of biochemistry with emphasis on fundamental chemical and physical principles. BBMB 504 focuses on amino acids and proteins, BBMB 505 on bioenergetics and metabolism, BBMB 506 on membrane biochemistry and BBMB 507 on biochemistry of nucleic acids.

For Biophysics Majors:

BBMB 404 and BBMB 405 (3 credits each) General Biochemistry.  Fundamental, rigorous treatment of biochemistry. Structure of amino acids, structure and function of proteins, enzyme kinetics, enzyme mechanisms, structure of carbohydrates, structure of lipids, structure of nucleic acids, metabolism of carbohydrates, metabolism of lipids, metabolism of amino acids, biosynthesis of DNA and replication, the genetic code, translation and protein biosynthesis, and hormone action.

For both the Biochemistry and Biophysics majors:

BBMB 561 and 561L (2 credits each) Molecular Biophysics Lecture and Laboratory.

Physical methods for the study of molecular structure and organization of biological materials. X-ray diffraction, nuclear magnetic resonance, hydrodynamics and fluorescence spectroscopy. Registration for the graduate credit commits the student to graduate-level examinations, which differ from undergraduate-level examinations in the number and/or difficulty of questions.

Specialty Courses (at least 8 credits).  At least eight additional graduate credits in 600 level specialty courses in bioorganic mechanisms, cell biology, and physical biochemistry.  See ISU catalog for course listings.

BBMB 681. Advanced Seminar (1 credit per offering).  Exploration of research literature, involving oral presentations by students and class discussion and participation. Required one semester per academic year, except in the first and last year.

BBMB 682. Departmental Seminar (Registration credit, or R-credit, only).  Formal research presentations by staff, students, and invited speakers. Registration and attendance at the seminars is required each fall and spring semester.

BBMB 699. Research (variable credit).  Independent research towards the Ph.D. dissertation.

GR ST 565. Responsible Conduct of Research Training.  NSF, USDA NIFA, and certain NIH awards require that graduate students be trained in the responsible conduct of research (RCR).  We ask all graduate students in the biochemistry and biophysics graduate programs to take this course as early as possible during their degree program.

MyIDP.  myIDP is a career assessment tool developed by the NSF and Science to help determine which of 20 scientific career paths best fits your skills and interests.  All graduate students are asked to do this assessment during the first semester in their degree program and, with the assistance of their major professor and the BBMB GLC, to explore and set goals for their career path.  See the BBMB Graduate Learning Community web pages for more information about the My IDP.