1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

PhD Program: Biophysics vs. Physics w/ biophysics research

  1. May 15, 2015 #1
    Hi everyone,

    Long time lurker here coming out to make my first post. I just finished my B.Sc. in Physics and I am getting ready to apply to graduate schools in the Fall of 2015. I did some undergraduate research in experimental biophysics (understanding the statistics of the transport of insulin granules) and I really liked it so I am looking to do more of it in a PhD program.

    It seems that there are PhD programs specifically designed for Biophysics. On the other hand, there are faculty members in physics departments who do biophysics. I am torn as to which program to apply to. I was wondering if anyone went through this and what they decided on?

    Also, if I wanted to be a professor, what kind of department will I end up in if I were to do a PhD in Biophysics? Its not clear to me whether I'd end up in a Physics, Chemistry, or a Biology department. I know physics departments very rarely hire someone without a traditional Physics PhD. On the other hand, I am inclined to apply to Biophysics programs because they do not require the Physics GRE and I feel its generally less competitive.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 15, 2015 #2
    You can end in the department of Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Medical Physics or Biophysics, depending on the place and structure there and the nature of the work.

    But, does it matter what it is called?
  4. May 15, 2015 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    In general you probably won't have much to worry about if one program is run as a branch of the physics department and another is an interdisciplinary department on its own. Biophysics is a broad and interdisciplinary field. I think you have to look at the specific programs rather than the general categories they fall into to know which one is right for you. Look at what specific projects are being done, what is being published from that group, and what expertise that program has. Also look at the graduates of the program. Where are the PhDs that the program has recently produced ending up?

    Remember that the majority of graduating PhDs in physics are going to end up outside of academia. With biophysics and an interest in drug kinetics, you might want to look into R&D positions in the pharmaceutical industry.
  5. May 16, 2015 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    The course requirements for the two are quite differentPhysics programs have course requirements like two semesters of quantum, stat mech etc. biophysics programs have different course requirements. Research wise I think at most schools you have access to faculty in both departments.
  6. May 16, 2015 #5
    He is talking about the PhD. Not the master. Also, I think those subjects are a must for a pure biophysics programs.

    I did a biochemistry BSc and I had quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics as mandatory sources in the bachelor phase.

    And even if he is talking about doing the masters/grad school first, what the program would be depends on that particular institution.
    Donno how you can do biophysics if you don't know QM, waves, Fourier analysis, thermodynamics.
  7. May 17, 2015 #6
    Thanks for the reply. I'm glad to hear that I could potentially end up in those departments. I guess the most fundamental question in my post was what you are asking -- does it matter what its called? I personally think no, but I have no experience with hiring professors/people.
  8. May 17, 2015 #7
    Hi Choppy. I actually didn't know that Biophysics is itself a "field." I figured it was something like Condensed Matter or High-energy that is usually done in a Physics department. But after some googling, I see that some schools have a Biophysics department, such as Johns Hopkins.

    I understand that my chances of obtaining a tenure-track position are slim but I just wanted to know what kind of department will take a PhD biophysicist. From what I heard, physics departments tend to only want to hire someone with a Physics PhD.

    Knowing there are industry careers is a relief. I was actually wondering about pharmaceutical industry. Wouldn't pharmaceutical sciences be more of a chemists job? I think kinetics are studied in physical chemistry, however, I've taken virtually no chemistry classes as an undergraduate student.

  9. May 17, 2015 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I think what happens is that historically "biophysics" started out as a branch of physics. But over the year there has been enough interest and growth that some places have set up specific "biophysics" departments.

    It's wise to be a little cautious. A smaller physics department will likely not hire someone who does not have a PhD directly in physics as they will tend to want people capable of teaching a wide array of courses. It would be difficult to convince someone that you can teach fourth year E&M if you never took a graduate level E&M course, particularly when there are a dozen others in in with you who have. On the other hand a larger department may place more weight on the specifics of your research. If you have a history of bringing $200k grants in every couple of years, the fact that your PhD doesn't come from a physics department may well be overlooked.

    I can't answer too much about the pharmaceutical industry other than pointing out that a friend of mind who specialized in biophysics ended up in it. I'm sure that chemists and biochemists end up in it as well, but at the research level a lot can depend on the specifics of one's expertise.
  10. May 17, 2015 #9
    Thanks for the insight Choppy, I will keep that in mind when applying to a PhD program.

    If I may ask, what did your friend specifically do his PhD research on? Was his background in physics and/or did he know a fair amount of chemistry? Sorry for the bother but your answers could very well guide me!

  11. May 18, 2015 #10
    If you work at the faculty of biophysics but you have a degree in chemistry or biology, you aren't going to get hired doing cosmology or particle physics. But if you want to do those kinds of things, why try to get into biophysics?

    Biophysics can be almost any type of physics. Thermodynamics, molecular orbitals, imaging, flow and diffusion, lasers, physical chemistry, nanotech, electrodynamics.
    But it is problem-based and applied.

    Maybe physicists think biophysics is where all those that failed in physics go. Some people here make it sound like that. If enough believe it, I guess it will be true.

    If you aren't going to get your masters and you BSc is in physics and you want to keep a wide scope in all of physics, I don't know how that would work out. Would you take biology classes? I can imagine it is possible to do a PhD in biophysics at a place where you don't have a traditional physics track, and thus no advanced physics courses. Is that what worries you? Where I work, we have biophysics research but no physics students and little advanced physics courses. Same with math.
    We have mathematicians and physicists that got their degree at other instutitions. Of course all students complete their degree first, then get a job as a PhD researcher. So no issue of incomplete physics education of people joining biophysics research with a background in physics as their education has finished and their professionar career has just started.

    Wherever you do your PhD at, what matters is the nature and quality of the research. If it is bad, alas. If it is not physics, alas. No pharma or medical company is going to reject you for their position on drug diffusion or medical imaging when that is exactly what you worked on during your PhD in a biophysics group under a biology faculty. Their aren't going to hire Mr.Cosmologist instead.
  12. May 18, 2015 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    She was into pharmacokinetics - developing models and simulations of drug dispersion within the body for cancer chemotherapy drugs. Understanding this is important for determining an optimum doseage, particularly when the systemic effects associated with the drug are extremely toxic. Her background was in physics, but I assume that she knew a fair amount of chemistry as well - I don't know how much was formal and how much was informally learned during her graduate work.

    Another friend in who studied biophysics is now an assistant professor in a physics department at a state university. I can't remember the specifcs of his PhD. He was the captain of our departmental flag football team.

    Another friend who did biophysics modeling the electric field around various proteints ended up leaving physics for a government job. If I recall, he gave up a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship as well, so he had the opportunity to continue on in the field, but decided he wanted to do something else.
  13. May 18, 2015 #12


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    In my experience those who look down on other sub-fields are usually ignorant of what goes on in the sub-field. Most successful physicists I have encountered do not hold such opinions.
  14. May 18, 2015 #13


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    No, I'm talking about the PhD and the courses requirement by the department. I have friends doing biophysics in physic, applied physics, and biophysics programs. They all did physics as undergrads. One of them cited the course requirements by his PhD program as a reason he entered a biophysics program rather than a program contained in a physics department. If you look at the course requirements for Harvard biophysics versus Harvard physics you will see that they are quite different.
  15. May 18, 2015 #14
    Just goes to show that they shouldn't mix up education and research. But again, I don't understand why you mention stuff that is covered in undergrad chem courses as something exclusive to 'pure' physics advanced grad school courses. Though I am sure the extent and rigor is different.

    If you want to cover certain grad courses that aren't mandatory, I assume that is not a problem. If so, then this system is really flawed.
  16. May 18, 2015 #15
    I think the perception of biophysics being where all the failed physicists go arose from the fact that the huge demand for quantitative scientists to enter biology was bolstered by funding initiatives which created these interdisciplinary programs in the first place, and their newness coupled with the demand meant that the admissions requirements are not as intense as say, HET at Stanford. For instance I don't think any of the ones I looked at required the PGRE or have a comprehensive exam (they have a research qualifier, but not a comprehensive exam). Of course this makes the standards of such programs on par with, for example, engineering programs.

    I got into one of the more "prestigious" of these programs. I had no interest in physics departments for the following reasons:
    1. The biophysics done in physics departments tends to look a lot like the other physics done in physics departments, which doesn't seem like a very effective approach to biological problems. There are exceptions of course.
    2. I'm not interested in taking Jackson EM, Sakurai QM, Goldstein classical, or something like Pathria stat mech, for reasons related to 1. The courses I'm lined up to take are things like "Statistical mechanics of biomolecules" and "Scientific computing" which are much more relevant.

    I don't think there's harm necessarily in going to do biophysics at a physics department, the reasons stated above are just a reflection of my personal tastes.
  17. May 18, 2015 #16
    I'm not sure what lead you to this but I am not trying to get into cosmology/particle physics. My undergraduate degree was in Physics and I assume I would be most successful in a Physics PhD program, however, I am noticing there are also biophysics programs so I was wondering what would be the implications if I decided to do that. At this point I am interested in experimental condensed matter physics/biophysics.

    This is why I ask. It seems biophysics programs are more "applied physics" whereas the undergraduate research I did was more experimental. My idea of biophysics is that its soft condensed matter -- biological systems are used as model systems to observe new physics (for example, my undergraduate research found anomalous diffusion in cells that standard Brownian motion would not predict).
  18. May 18, 2015 #17
    Well you didn't mention where you are located or where you want to study. It is still not completely clear, but I infer that you are talking about both the grad school program AND the PhD research.

    It is applied physics, but some applied physics programs are focussed towards engineering. Engineering will be largely useless in biophysics as you won't be building anything. Like I said, it isn't one physics subject. You mentioned just one. Most physics fields have applications in biology.
  19. May 18, 2015 #18
    The concentration of most biophysics research is using physics to solve biological problems, not studying biological systems to observe new physics; however, there are definitely groups who approach biological systems from the angle that new physics can be motivated from their study (non-equilibrium statistical physics being a prime example).
  20. May 18, 2015 #19
    I find this thread title faintly nostalgic, as I recall one with a similar one a few years ago.

    My impression of people doing biophysics for the primary motivation of observing novel physics tend to be in physics departments - people who are interested in understanding the physical (and often chemical) underpinnings of biological phenomenona are all over the place (including physics departments, of course).

    The pharma and biotech sectors will hire people who they think can do the work involved, including biophysicists with suitable backgrounds. Yes, there are lots of chemists & biochemists in the pharma/biotech sector - apparently they know how to synthesize drugs and make proteins, which is kind of essential in those sectors.
  21. May 24, 2015 #20
    I would like to do biophysics research in the light driven water-splitting process of photosynthesis. I have a degree in biochemistry. Where can I apply for graduate school in this topic please? What can I do the improve my chances of getting into one of these schools?
  22. May 24, 2015 #21
    I presume you've read journal articles on this topic. You look to see where this research is being done, and you apply to those schools after investigating the possible graduate programs there. At least in the US, my understanding is that as long as you've taken a typical core set of courses (culminating a full year of physical chemistry with organic chemistry along the way), you are a possible candidate for admission to chemistry, biochemistry, and interdisciplinary graduate programs. I have no personal experience with graduate programs outside the US, so I'm not much help there.
  23. May 24, 2015 #22
    Ok thanks I only took two quarters of physical chemistry but one of them was quantum chemistry class which I did decent in. I also took some quantum physics courses which I did less well in. I hope these can make me a candidate enough though. I am looking at research papers and investigating the schools right now thank you again.
  24. May 24, 2015 #23
    Generally, as long as you had what amounts to a typical undergrad physical chemistry curriculum - involving thermodynamics, some statistical mechanics and kinetics, and an introduction to quantum chemistry - that is usually the expected preparation for a chemistry or biochemistry graduate program, or for an interdisciplinary biophysics program (or an entirely separate biophysics department as some schools have). As long as you're aiming towards those - and not for a traditional physics Ph.D. program - you should be fine, presuming your grades, research experience, & letters of recommendation are adequately suitable.

    I would of course provide my typical caution about graduate school - if you can only imagine wanting to work with one group/professor at the intended institution, think carefully about applying. Nothing wrong with having particularly strongly defined interests, but if they're too narrow can leave you in unpleasant straits if it turns out the environment where you're working is not suitable for your long-term success.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook