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Grad school-biophysics vs physics w/ biophys emphasis

  1. Mar 29, 2012 #1
    I have been looking at graduate schools for biophysics and have found that some schools offer a PhD program for biophysics (often times in the biology or chemistry departments) and others offer a PhD in physics (physics department) with an emphasis in biophysics. I am wondering what the differences might be. Also, will this make a difference when applying for jobs in industry/academia? For example, would someone with a PhD in biophysics have an equal chance at an assistant professorship in a physics department as someone with a PhD in physics w/ emphasis? And would a PhD in physics w/ emphasis have an equal shot compared to someone with PhD in biophysics when applying to a biotech job?

    Insight much appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2012 #2
    The differences are what they are - the former are (usually interdepartmental) graduate programs which offer a Ph.D. in biophysics at the end, while the latter are physics Ph.D. programs where one has the option to pursue biophysics research. It seems as if you're concerned that if you do the former, you will no longer be considered a physicist - I hate to break it to you, but I did my Ph.D. in chemistry in an actual chemistry department, and work in another actual chemistry department, and I not infrequently get the "you're not an actual chemist" attitude since I work in the area of biophysics/biophysical chemistry. Scientists can be cruel. :wink:

    Insofar as private sector opportunities, it all depends on what your background is and what the biotech is looking for from you. If you did single molecule studies of protein-lipid interactions, but they want a crystallographer who can start cranking out the structures from the get-go, then you are probably out of luck. It will depend on what you bring to the table, and without any additional information, it is impossible to predict.

    I suppose one question to ask yourself is the following - do you envision yourself staying in biophysics after graduate school, or do you think you could end up wanting to go back to physics (in some reasonable manner)? If so, then you probably would want to go the physics Ph.D. program route. This way, you could go do a postdoc in a soft matter/materials/other reasonably related lab and go from there.
  4. Mar 30, 2012 #3
    That's interesting but I guess you're right... I never really thought of it like that but i would like to be viewed as a "real" physicist. So can you tell me more about how research in a "biophysics" program might compare to a physics program?
  5. Mar 30, 2012 #4
    There aren't any hard-and-fast rules, mostly since you will frequently find that there's a great deal of flexibility built into the system. To say nothing of the fact that each university does things differently. And that the research at each university is going to depend on the faculty's research interests, and as no school has the same faculty, well, you get the picture.

    For example - I have a friend who did a fellowship after graduate school with someone who managed to have a primary appointment in the chemistry department, was an adjunct in the physics department, and was involved in an interdisciplinary graduate program in biophysics. So, in principle, anyone from any of those programs could have chosen him as a dissertation supervisor. Students from other programs could have (and apparently did), after securing the necessary permissions.

    One difference is, however, likely going to be reflected in the initial coursework. If you go to a physics department, you are (I would figure this is fairly invariant) going to deal with the expected assortment of classical mechanics, graduate EM, quantum, stat mech, and so on. If you end up in a biophysics program, frequently they will have a core curriculum intended to put all students on a mostly even footing in biochemistry, molecular bio, and physical methods, with room for electives.

    I used to work on cytoskeleton biophysics back in the day at a cancer research institute - I know physicists who do the same sort of work, although using different methods. I suppose there might be more of a 'soft condensed matter' flavor in a physics department, but there are probably just as many physicists who have ended up as med school faculty who have brought a little of that environment over with them. I've made the following point elsewhere on this topic on these forums - there's a lot of research which doesn't squarely fit into neat disciplinary boxes. A topic you could work on in a physics department could be one where your closest competitors are a chemistry lab, a polymer science group, and a bioengineering lab.

    On my present to-read list of papers related to my research, one is from a molecular biology department, another is from a chemistry department, one is from a theoretical physicist who has taken a liking to biological questions, and another is from a regular bio sci department. My general advice is to pick a program where there's an adequate number of people who do things you could see yourself doing, whether it's a typical physics department or otherwise.
  6. Mar 30, 2012 #5
    You have no idea how helpful that post just was. I'll keep that all in mind when the time comes to start applying. Thanks!
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