PhD Program: Cellular & Molecular Biology
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Cellular & Molecular Biology

Fostering highly collaborative interactions


Program Overview

Initiated more than 50 years ago, the Cellular and Molecular Biology (CMB) Program fosters interactions among students and faculty, helping to broaden the students’ appreciation of diverse research opportunities and to encourage interdisciplinary thinking in a highly collaborative atmosphere. The CMB Program has been an integrative force that aims to tie together the various disciplines of genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, cell biology and others. The goal of CMB is to train our students to examine scientific problems from many perspectives through individualized, flexible programs of coursework and research.

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Program Details

Current research initiatives range from single molecule analysis and structural biology, to the many important model systems of cell and developmental biology (yeast, Drosophila, C. elegans, Xenopus, zebrafish, mouse), to cellular and translational approaches to complex diseases such as cancer, diabetes, neurodegeneration, cardiac, autoimmune and genetic diseases to animal-modeling approaches that aim to understand cellular mechanisms in integrative biological and physiologic contexts. Other interdisciplinary research interests of the CMB faculty and students include:

  • Cell biology of organelles, cytoskeleton, cell cycle
  • Molecular biology of gene expression, RNA and genome maintenance
  • Systems and integrative physiology
  • Biochemistry, structural biology
  • Microbial pathogenesis
  • Development, aging, and neuroscience
  • Molecular mechanisms of disease


CMB requires coursework in the areas of biochemistry, cell biology and molecular genetics. Appropriate coursework in each of these three areas can be selected from courses offered throughout the University to complement each student’s prior background and research interests. Elective courses provide further intensive preparation in various areas according to each student’s research interests. Students also fulfill a quantitative course requirement, and take a grant writing course that prepares them both to submit a future grant application, and to take the preliminary exams.

The CMB Monday noon seminar, attended by students throughout their time in the program, brings students and faculty together on a weekly basis, provides a forum for scientific exchange and fosters a sense of community. Students give mentored talks on the literature and on their research.

The interdisciplinary aspect of CMB is also highlighted in a series of "short courses" on high-profile topics of current interest selected by students. In addition to frequent personal discussions, students meet and familiarize themselves with the diverse faculty and their research during the annual CMB Fall Symposium and Poster Session, and at the CMB Spring Symposium (see Student Interests below). Students also fulfill a quantitative course requirement, and take a grant writing course that prepares them both to submit a future grant application, and to take the preliminary exams.

Preliminary Examination

After satisfactorily completing coursework, students are eligible to take the preliminary exam by writing and orally defending a proposal based on their own research. This exam is typically completed by March in the second year. By spring, students advance to candidacy and form the dissertation committee, chaired by their faculty mentor, that will guide their Ph.D. research.

Teaching Requirement

CMB students teach for at least one semester, usually during the first year after candidacy. Students are encouraged to select a course to teach based on their background and interests. There are positions available across the university at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate. CMB faculty and staff assist students in securing teaching positions. CMB students are often recognized for their teaching talents with awards such as the prestigious University-wide Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award, and Medical School Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Expected Length of Program

Students can expect to spend four to six years working toward their PhD in CMB, with 5.6 years as the average length of time to complete the program.

CMB has now grown to include over 70 students and greater than 190 faculty representing over 20 basic and clinical science departments. Approximately 16 new students per year join our program. Our students have received numerous recognitions and awards including the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, a national award that recognizes outstanding achievement during graduate studies in the biological sciences, and the University of Michigan Distinguished Dissertation Award, the highest honor the University confers to recognize graduate student accomplishments. Our faculty include Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators, as well as the directors of the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute and Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Our students are involved in a variety of activities and organizations while they are in our program:

The CMB Retreat and Annual Symposium occur every fall and spring, respectively. They feature a lecture delivered by a prominent scientist and a dynamic poster session that provides opportunity for students and faculty to share their research progress. Other events include career panels that often include CMB alumni and activities to help students and faculty become better acquainted.

CMB has a student-driven Career Committee that invites alumni & other professional speakers to present workshops on diverse career topics. Workshops are held throughout the year & are intended to assist students in individual career planning.

The CMB DEI Task Force is a student committee that works to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and community through events and initiatives for the the CMB program throughout the year. The CMB DEI Task Force sponsors “Students Mentoring Students”, an informal mechanism for senior students to mentor students entering CMB from PIBS or MSTP. In addition, 1st & 2nd year PhD students meet frequently with the Director for advising sessions and students in the 3rd - 5th year are assigned one of three Associate Directors with whom they meet annually.

CMB students are actively involved student groups such as the Association of Multicultural Scientists, the Biomedical Graduate Student Government and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. CMB students are active in many science education outreach activities and a social committee, which sponsors a fall picnic, holiday party, and other social events throughout the year.

Over 350 CMB alumni have gone on to establish successful and productive careers in academia, biotechnology, and science advising to the government and public, among other areas. These are the same industries you could expect to find a career as a graduate.

Creating an Impact
Cellular & Molecular Biology

Learn more about the Department of Cellular & Molecular Biology.

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