PhD Program: Cancer Biology
Person working in a lab with a petri dish

Cancer Biology

Training the next generation of cancer researchers


Program Overview

The Cancer Biology program spans many disciplines, including cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, pathology, epidemiology, bioinformatics, and immunology, to name a few. It represents a unique set of training and educational activities that, taken collectively, expose the student to the full breadth of cancer biology while allowing immersion in a specific dissertation topic of the student’s choice.

Faculty in the Program are interested in a number of topic areas, including: Cancer genetics; Cancer epigenetics; Tumor immunology; Cell biology; Epidemiology; Pathology; Tumor metabolism; Bioinformatics; Cancer drug discovery.

Projects range from fundamental studies of basic biological processes to translational research aiming to move basic findings into the clinic.


Apply through our PIBS application

Program Details


Students in the Cancer Biology program are required to take core courses in Cancer Biology and Bioinformatics. PIBS core courses should be taken to fill gaps in knowledge or together with other electives, to strengthen a student’s knowledge base in an area of interest. Students are also required to participate in the Cancer Biology Seminar Series for the duration of their time in the program. The Cancer Biology Seminar Series course provides not only continued exposure to the breadth of cancer research but also experience in honing seminar presentation skills.

Preliminary Examination

The preliminary exam consists of two checkpoints. The first is a didactic exam that evaluates students’ understanding of the fundamentals of cancer biology. This exam will take place in May at the end of the first year in order to advance to PhD candidacy. The second checkpoint takes place in the winter semester of the second year and is comprised of two steps, the writing of a written research proposal (NIH format) and the oral presentation of the proposal to the preliminary exam committee.

Teaching Requirement

There are no formal requirements for teaching in the Cancer Biology program. However, opportunities exist for senior students to serve as teaching assistants for one term of the introductory cancer biology class. In addition, students with an interest in teaching are encouraged to pursue the U-M Graduate Teaching Certificate as a way to prepare themselves for careers that will involve college-level teaching.


Students help organize the annual Cancer Biology retreat, including selecting the keynote speaker. This fun and informal setting gives students, postdocs, and faculty the opportunity to present their research, generate collaborations, and receive feedback. Trainees and faculty give oral presentations and all members of our cancer research community are invited to deliver poster presentations. The retreat is a great opportunity for first year PIBS and MSTP students to explore the research and meet students and faculty in the Cancer Biology program.

Research Seminar/Journal Club

The Cancer Biology Graduate Program sponsors a weekly seminar program that runs through the academic year. Students are encouraged to nominate and host external cancer researchers whose work they find exciting and cutting edge. Senior students participate by giving oral presentations on their research progress and second year students give journal clubs highlighting the research of invited speakers.

Social Events

During the summer, students get together for a picnic and canoe trip that includes the summer undergraduate research students. At the beginning of the academic year, the program director hosts an orientation dinner for all to welcome the new students. There is an annual year-end holiday party along with monthly happy hours for students to relax in an informal setting.


Students are involved in a variety of activities outside of lab. Many students give back to the community through educational and community outreach programs. Cancer Biology students have fun by attending sporting events, participating in outdoor activities, club sports, and arts/crafts events, and enjoying food/drink and museums – all which Ann Arbor offers.

The impact of cancer on all our lives emphasizes the need to continue training individuals to pursue research into its cure and prevention. The ongoing investment of the National Cancer Institute and non-governmental funding organizations including the American Cancer Society, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and others, means that research at universities and research institutes will remain a high priority, thereby providing jobs for cancer researchers with doctoral degrees. The complexity of cancer leads to the unfortunate realization that it will take many years to unlock all of its mysteries, resulting in a long-term need for persons trained in the field.

Besides the tremendous investment in basic cancer research at universities and non-profit organizations, the development of new therapeutic modalities for cancer represents a large percentage of pharmaceutical company expenditures. According to IMS Health, the global oncology market was growing at 6.8% overall in 2011, double that number in the pharmaceutical sector. In 2013, the worth of the market was approximately $75 billion just in the US. Given this huge investment in cancer research, the job market for individuals with doctoral degrees in cancer biology is very large and growing.

Creating an impact
Cancer Biology

Learn more about the Department of Cancer Biology.

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