Program of Study

The department offers a doctorate (PhD) in Biochemistry, a PhD in Translational Biosciences (emphasis area biochemistry and biophysics), and a PhD/MD cooperative degree in biochemistry.

Timeline for the PhD graduate program

The average graduation time in the graduate program is approximately five years.

Along with courses and seminars, students embark on lab rotations, dissertation research, qualifying and comprehensive exams and committee meetings, cumulating in the dissertation defense.

  • Coursework: Years 1-2
  • Lab rotations: Year 1
  • Qualifying exam: Year 1-1½
  • Dissertation research and committee meetings: Years 1-5
  • Seminars: Years 1-5
  • Comprehensive exam: Year 2-2½
  • Dissertation defense: Year 5-5½


Prior to successfully completing the comprehensive examination, a student must complete nine credit hours per semester, or four per summer, to remain a full-time graduate student. Following successful completion of both parts of the comprehensive exam, the student should register for a minimum of two hours of dissertation research per semester (one in summer) to maintain continuous enrollment. More than the minimum may be needed to obtain the 72 credit hours required by the Graduate School for completion of the PhD.

More information on courses.

Research rotations

To acquaint students with research laboratory settings, all incoming students participate in at least three research rotations during the first academic year. The purposes of rotations for the student include learning about laboratories of potential thesis advisors and exploring new areas of science. By the end of the second semester, most students have chosen their labs. Each rotation should be conducted for a period of at least eight weeks. Two rotations are performed in the first semester, with the second rotation ending Dec. 31. The third rotation begins Jan. 1 or soon after. One-half of the student’s time and effort should be directed toward the rotation project and the other half toward course work. The rotation laboratory should serve as an academic home, and the student should participate in all usual laboratory activities, including weekly group meetings.

Dissertation advisor and doctoral program committee

By the end of the third rotation, each student should identify a dissertation adviser, choosing from doctoral faculty with financial support for students. An important early task for the student is to assemble a doctoral program committee (DPC), in consultation with his/her adviser, by the summer after the second semester. The DPC membership is selected by the student’s adviser in consultation with the student and appointed by the dean of the Graduate School by the end of the second semester. The DPC is composed of at least four members of the MU graduate faculty: at least three from biochemistry and an outside member from a different MU program. At least two must be MU doctoral faculty. Additional faculty may serve on doctoral committees as a fifth or sixth members.

Program qualifier

Students who have earned grades of B or better in the required Biochemistry core courses and are in good standing academically (cumulative GPA 3.0) should take the qualifying exam by the end of their third semester. Students who have received a C in a core course must retake the course and receive a grade of B or better to remain in the PhD program, even after passing the qualifying exam.

The purposes of the Qualifying Examination (QE) are to evaluate the student’s potential to successfully progress towards his/her degree, to evaluate the student’s foundational knowledge, and to identify areas that need to be strengthened. The QE shall assess the student’s foundational knowledge, including knowledge of proteins and enzymes, metabolism, nucleic acids and gene expression, and supramolecular structure and gene expression. The decision of the timing and format of the QE is at the discretion of the student’s DPC. However, the QE should be completed before the end of the fall semester (December) of their second year. The format can be oral or written. The criteria and format of the QE component can range from basic questioning of the student, including specific assessments in the context of the student’s research interests or as extensive as providing a student in advance with a formalized set of specific foundational concepts or topics and evaluating the student orally or in a written format.

Regular reviews to acknowledge progress

The first doctoral program committee (DPC) meeting between committee members and the student is designed to provide an opportunity for the DPC to approve the planned program of study. This meeting should occur no later than the summer after the student’s second semester of graduate study. The student should prepare a brief written document, to be distributed to the committee members at least one week in advance, outlining the student’s program of study. This document consists of two parts: a list of the formal coursework and a two- to three-page description of the proposed research project.

Teaching experience

An important part of graduate education is learning to communicate effectively as a teacher. Two semesters enrolled in Biochem 9001 helps prepare the students for their teaching assistant experience which consists of one semester in an undergraduate laboratory or lecture venue. This is a required component of the PhD degrees and typically is performed in the second year of graduate study. Students must satisfy this teaching experience requirement with a grade of B or better to remain in good standing as a graduate student in Biochemistry. This teaching experience usually involves assisting a faculty member in one of several courses and interacting with the students fairly extensively. The Biochemistry Department also offers a Zahler Fellowship for graduate students interested in teaching as a career. Missouri requires that students whose first language is not English demonstrate adequate oral proficiency before assisting in teaching.

Comprehensive examination (oral and written components)

Students who have passed the qualifying exam (QE) should complete the written comprehensive exam within the next one to two semesters (i.e. by December of their third year). This examination involves writing a proposal for doctoral research in the format of a federal postdoctoral fellowship application. The student must then orally defend the proposal before his/her doctoral program committee plus a member of the Biochemistry graduate education committee (GEC). This is designed to assess the student’s ability to think critically about science and to communicate effectively both in writing and in an oral presentation.