Doctoral Program

One Degree. Endless Possibilities.

Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology is a research-intensive, interdisciplinary program that prepares students for successful careers as independent investigators. Students receive in-depth training in the latest techniques across fields and disease areas, including epigenetics, genetics, cancer, neuroscience, metabolism, immunology, structural biology, bone biology and more. The Graduate School uses an innovative, problem-based learning approach that trains students to conduct high-caliber, rigorous science and to translate basic biological findings into clinical applications, blending discovery with invention and insight with application. Students also undergo extensive professional development in areas such as leadership, ethics, responsible and effective conduct of research, public speaking, and grant and technical writing. By the end of their time at the Graduate School, students are prepared to tackle science’s most pressing questions.

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Program Components

Our Ph.D. program comprises a hands-on, scientifically rigorous and well-rounded problem-based approach.

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Curriculum

See a year-by-year view of Graduate School coursework.

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Course Catalog

Our courses are designed to transform the graduate students of today into the biomedical research leaders of tomorrow.

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M.D./Ph.D. Programs

We partner with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine to offer dual M.D./Ph.D. programs.

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Doctoral Components

Designed to prepare students to be successful independent investigators, Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s Ph.D. program comprises a hands-on, scientifically rigorous and well-rounded problem-based approach.

Coursework

Students complete modules in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, genetics and epigenetics, bioinformatics, and pathophysiology before selecting the laboratory in which they will complete their dissertation research. This approach allows students to acquire the requisite knowledge to address complex research questions along with the skills to locate and evaluate the concepts, models and evidence that already exist in scientific literature.

For specific course descriptions, please view our Academic Catalog.

Ph.D. degree course requirements

The Graduate School’s curriculum is designed to train students to think like scientists through a problem-based approach. Most courses are completed in the first two years of study, followed by a heavily research-focused approach during years three through five. For a sample year-by-year schedule, please visit the Curriculum guide.

  • Research Rotations

    New students complete three, four-week rotations in Van Andel Institute laboratories prior to selecting a thesis adviser. These rotations give students in-depth insight into the different types of research underway at the Institute and help identify students’ particular area of interest.

    For more information on the Institute’s labs, please visit our Faculty Directory.

  • Comprehensive Examination

    The comprehensive examination is completed in the second year of the Graduate School’s program. Students write a proposal outlining the background, preliminary results and experimental plan for their thesis research. Students also draft a second proposal to explore an additional, non-thesis research question. During an oral examination, faculty members test the student’s knowledge of concepts and methods in their field of study as well as the student’s critical analysis skills.

  • Thesis Research

    The completion of an original and creative research project resulting in the compilation of a doctoral dissertation is the capstone to the Graduate School’s doctoral degree program. The dissertation demonstrates that the student has the knowledge, skill and scientific maturity to design and conduct independent research of a quality consistent with reports published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A Graduate School faculty member serves as the principal thesis adviser for this research. Other faculty serve on the student’s thesis advisory committee, which meets at least twice annually to review and evaluate progress and plans for dissertation work.

  • Seminars, Journal Clubs and Research Reports

    Graduate School students meet weekly for a seminar that alternates between research in progress reports and presentations on new papers in scientific literature. Students are expected to attend each week and to present at this seminar at least once each year.

    Van Andel Institute also convenes a separate weekly seminar on research underway in its labs. These internal presentations are supplemented by the VAI Seminar Series and the Jay Van Andel Seminar Series, which bring outstanding scientists from around the world to the Institute to give scientific talks. Students are encouraged to attend these seminars and to meet with the visiting scientists to discuss their research and their scientific career path.

  • Professional Development

    The Graduate School’s curriculum is bolstered by workshops and training sessions to facilitate the transition from graduate student to professional scientist. These events include guidance and training in writing and reviewing grants and manuscripts, oral presentation skills, financial and personnel management, conflict resolution, and leadership and team-building skills. Additionally, each Graduate School student is allowed up to $2,000 annually to attend national or international meetings relevant to their field of study.

  • Teaching Experience

    Given that many scientists serve as faculty at institutions of higher education, training in the teaching of science at the college level is available depending on student interest. Teaching experiences are coordinated with local colleges and universities that offer appropriate courses in which the student can serve as a teaching assistant, with instruction and supervision by experienced faculty.

Curriculum

All Van Andel Institute Graduate School students follow a similar curriculum schedule, with most courses being completed during the student’s first and second years. Years three through five are heavily focused on the student’s dissertation work as well as professional development.

Students complete eight, four-week modules in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, genetics and epigenetics, bioinformatics and pathophysiology before selecting the laboratory in which they will complete their dissertation research. Through this approach, students acquire the requisite knowledge to address complex research questions and the skills to locate and evaluate the concepts, models and evidence that already exist in scientific literature.

For a full description of the Graduate School’s offerings, please view our Course Catalog here.

Sample Year-by-Year Schedule

fall semester (16 weeks)

Credits

  • Strategic Approaches to Biomedical Research (SABR) Modules (3)

    6

  • Historical Perspectives in Molecular Biology

    2

  • Laboratory Rotation (1)
    *Students select a research adviser after completing these rotations.

    2

  • Experimental Design and Biostatistics (Professional Development)

    2

  • Experimental Skills 1 (Professional Development)

    2

  • Scientific Communication 1 (Professional Development)

    2

Winter semester (17 weeeks including exam)

Credits

  • Strategic Approaches to Biomedical Research (SABR) Modules (2, plus exam)

    5

  • Responsible and Effective Conduct of Research (Professional Development)

    2

  • Laboratory Rotation (2 credits each)
    *Students select a research adviser after completing these rotations.

    4 total (2 credits each)

  • Data Analysis and Bioinformatics (Professional Development)

    2

  • Experimental Skills 2 (Professional Development)

    1

  • Scientific Communication 2 (Professional Development)

    2

Summer semester (14 weeks) course

Credits

  • Precandidacy research

    6

Credits

  • Thesis Research (Precandidacy and Doctoral Candidate)

    Up to 6/semester

  • Professional Development

    1 or 2 each

  • Special Topics

    1 or 2 each

Credits

  • Doctoral Candidate Thesis Research

    Up to 6/semester

  • Teaching Opportunity (if desired)

  • Professional Development

    1 or 2 each

  • Special Topics

    1 or 2 each

Credits

  • Doctoral Candidate Thesis Research

    Up to 6/semester

  • Final Thesis Advisory Committee Meetings(s)

  • Dissertation Preparation

  • Dissertation Defense

Course Descriptions

  • VAI 8010-8051

    Strategic Approaches to Biomedical Research (SABR)

    Fall and Winter Semesters, 11 Credits

    In a progressive series of four-week modules, students develop research plans to address current hypotheses, questions or problems relevant to human disease. In the course of developing these plans, students learn foundational concepts in biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, bioinformatics, and pathobiology. This “problem-based learning” approach best simulates how professional scientists attack new research problems. Students emerge with a strong foundation in core concepts in the relevant disciplines, an understanding of experimental design principles, and experience in crafting research plans. Across the Fall and Winter semesters of the first year, students undertake a total of five two-credit SABR modules and a one-credit, cumulative final examination.

  • VAI 8210

    Historical Perspectives in Molecular Biology

    Fall Semester, 2 Credits

    This course examines the historical context of current molecular and cell biology research. Students study classic papers in biomedical research and discuss how the work represented in those papers changed the models or paradigms that prevailed at the time the research was done. Topics include foundations of modern biology, mechanisms of genetic change, analysis of biological macromolecules, gene splicing and rearrangement, disease mechanisms, tumor suppressor genes, and organisms used as important experimental models.

  • VAI 8230

    Responsible and Effective Conduct of Research

    Winter Semester, 2 Credits

    This course addresses effective laboratory management practices including protection of human and animal subjects, scientific integrity, conflicts of interest, collaboration, authorship, peer review, data management, mentoring, communication, societal impacts, human resource management, grants and contracts, and fiscal responsibility. The course provides training and direction on how to recognize, address and prevent ethical dilemmas that arise during the course of conducting scientific research.

  • VAI 8240

    Experimental Design and Biostatistics

    Fall Semester, 2 Credits

    An increasing emphasis on rigor and reproducibility has highlighted the fundamental roles of experimental design and statistics in modern biological research. This course focuses on basic principles of experimental design and fundamental statistical concepts for modern data-intensive biological research. The material draws upon methods and applications from concurrent subject-specific modules. Topics include probability, random variables, sampling, estimation, hypothesis testing, linear regression, diagnostics for fit, model selection, and ANOVA. Students will develop skills in R with RStudio.

  • VAI 8245

    Data Analysis and Bioinformatics

    Winter Semester, 2 Credits

    Many research projects in modern molecular and cell biology require the analysis of very large datasets such as those generated in genomics, epigenetics, metabolomics, proteomics, and structural biology. Almost all aspects of modern biology incorporate large-scale data analysis to some extent. The efficient and accurate analysis and interpretation of these datasets are fundamentally important activities in biomedical research. This course delves into the algorithms and tools used in the application of bioinformatics to high-dimension datasets. Students will expand upon the R skills developed in the Biostatistics course and apply the skills to genomic, epigenomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic datasets, as well as downstream and integrative analysis.

  • VAI 8260 – 8261

    Scientific Communication 1 and 2

    Fall and Winter Semesters, 2 Credits Each

    This course is intended to help students become more effective communicators in their scientific work. The scientific research process relies heavily on effective communication of concepts, plans, results, and conclusions. For that reason, scientists must be skilled in spoken and written communication. The course will provide foundational principles and iterative practice in communication as listeners, speakers, readers, and writers, in multiple formats and with various audiences. The formats for listening and speaking will include formal scientific presentations, chalk talks, lab meetings, talks for lay audiences, and posters. The written formats will include grant proposals, scientific papers, review articles, and lay summaries. Course content and activities will align with concurrent courses and with laboratory rotation experiences.

  • VAI 8250 – 8251

    Experimental Skills 1 and 2

    Fall Semester, 2 Credits; Winter Semester, 1 Credit

    This course will provide a focused introduction to well-established and cutting edge technologies, instrumentation, and methods important for addressing the scientific problems explored in Strategic Approaches to Biomedical Research (SABR), with an emphasis on technologies available in the Van Andel Institute's Technologies and Services. The goal is for students to develop the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to effectively incorporate these well-established and cutting-edge technologies, instrumentation, and methods into their own research.

  • VAI 9309

    Technical Writing and Grantsmanship I

    Fall Semester, 1 Credit

    This course is intended to help students become more effective writers in scientific disciplines. The entire research process depends upon the communication of concepts, results and plans. For that reason, scientists must be skilled in communicating through presentation and in writing. The course addresses the characteristics of clarity, organization, and style in technical writing and especially in scientific proposals. A major theme of the course is the process of writing, involving composition, editing, and revising with feedback. Students participate in multiple exercises with opportunities for review and iterative development of a draft proposal.

  • VAI 9301-9313

    Professional Development Courses

    1–2 Credits Per Course

    These courses build student skills in communication, laboratory management, and organization. Courses complement the External and Internal Seminar Reporting. Recent offerings include Grantsmanship, Lab Leadership, and Origins of Cancer Scientific Conference Organization.

  • VAI 9001- 9024

    Special Topics Courses

    1–2 credits Per Course

    These courses provide advanced study on focused topics in basic biomedical research, and are typically taken in the second, third, and fourth years. Each course engages students in the study and discussion of the current scientific literature and concepts of the topic selected. Specific content varies with each semester. Special topics courses in various fields are offered on a rotating basis. Additional courses may also be offered depending on student and faculty interest.

  • Laboratory Rotations

    Minimum 3 Rotations, 6 Credits

    Laboratory rotations in the first year provide early research experiences that are important in the development of students. These laboratory rotations assist students in their choice of a thesis adviser, laboratory, and dissertation project. Students will complete at least three rotations. The activities of the rotation should be planned to give the student a rich and deep understanding of the questions being addressed, the approaches and experimental methods employed, the mentoring and leadership style of the laboratory head, and the relationships with other members of the laboratory team. Students should expect to spend as much time in the laboratory as their course work will allow (typically 30 hours per week).

  • Independent Study

    Credits Vary Depending on Effort

    Students request Van Andel Institute Gradate School academic credit for a course or workshop taken at another institution (whether in-person or online), or for learning experiences at Van Andel Institute that are not part of existing courses. Requests are evaluated on a case by case basis.

Overview

M.D./Ph.D. Dual-Degree Programs

Van Andel Institute Graduate School partners with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine to offer training in both clinical medicine and biomedical research, resulting in both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. These programs typically span eight years, with four years of Ph.D. research training flanked on each side by two years of medical and clinical education.

Van Andel Institute Graduate School and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

This M.D./Ph.D. program is a joint effort between Van Andel Institute Graduate School and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Students admitted to the program will pursue an M.D. degree through Michigan State while simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D. through Van Andel Institute Graduate School.

Students enrolled in this combined program receive their preclinical education and training through the College of Human Medicine and their biomedical research education, including coursework, laboratory research, and dissertation research through Van Andel Institute Graduate School. They are considered students of both institutions for the duration of their participation in the program. Students receive priority placement at the College of Human Medicine’s Grand Rapids campus for the preclinical and clinical training years.

Students spend years one and two completing their College of Human Medicine preclinical coursework and taking the USMLE Step 1 Exam. Beginning in year three, students attend Van Andel Institute Graduate School to complete the Ph.D. portion of the program. Students will be able to apply their Ph.D. research as two College of Human Medicine research electives toward their clerkship requirements during the fourth year, decreasing the duration of medical school by eight weeks. Students are expected to complete the Ph.D. portion of the degree by the end of year five and prior to beginning their clinical clerkships.

Van Andel Institute Graduate School will award the Ph.D. degree when the student completes all of the degree requirements. The student will then return to the College of Human Medicine to complete the final two years of clinical training necessary for the M.D. degree.

Financial support

During the preclinical and clinical medical school years, students will pay regular Michigan State University M.D. program tuition. They may apply for competitive fellowships and scholarships both internal and external to the College of Human Medicine.

During the graduate school years, students will receive a package of financial assistance administered through Van Andel Institute Graduate School. This support, typically directed through a graduate fellowship, which includes a stipend; health, dental, vision and life insurance; a full waiver of tuition to the Graduate School; and $2,000 a year for travel to scientific conferences. Students will be expected to apply for external predoctoral fellowships, which will be submitted and administered through the Graduate School and relevant Van Andel Institute offices. During the graduate school years, no tuition will be directed or paid to MSU.

External training grants to support physician-scientist training programs are or may become available from federal, state or private sources. Applications for such training grants will be administered through Michigan State College of Human Medicine. Van Andel Institute Graduate School will be a cooperating institution on such training grants. Funds supporting students (stipends, benefits, tuition relief, etc.) during their medical school years will be directed to Michigan State, and funds supporting students during their graduate school years will be directed to Van Andel Institute Graduate School.

Application Process

Application and Eligibility

An applicant must apply for admission to MSU College of Human Medicine through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) as a Combined Medical Degree/Ph.D. applicant. Applicants do not need to fill out a separate Van Andel Institute Graduate School application; however, to apply to the joint M.D./Ph.D. program, applicants must check the appropriate box on the AMCAS application.

If the applicant is deemed eligible for acceptance by both the College of Human Medicine and Van Andel Institute Graduate School, the applicant will be reviewed by the joint M.D./Ph.D. Selection Committee for a final decision. If accepted by the M.D./Ph.D. Selection Committee, the applicant will be offered a position in the M.D./Ph.D. program.

Acceptance to the College of Human Medicine M.D. Program is contingent upon acceptance by the M.D./Ph.D. Program Selection Committee.

Interested applicants should:

  • Apply to the College of Human Medicine through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) as a Combined Medical Degree/Ph.D. type applicant.
  • Take (or retake, if necessary) the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) by the given deadlines.
  • For optimal consideration, application materials including the AMCAS application, MCAT and letters of evaluation should be completed early.

Fees

Applicants must pay the AMCAS application fee and the College of Human Medicine Secondary Application Fee. The College of Human Medicine Secondary Application Fee will be waived if the applicant holds an AMCAS fee waiver.

Letters of evaluation

All applicants to the joint M.D./Ph.D. program are expected to submit a minimum of four letters to MSU College of Human Medicine through the AMCAS letters service. Applicants should request three letters of recommendation for the M.D./Ph.D. program component from individuals who can attest to the applicant’s qualifications for the M.D./Ph.D. program, as well as their motivation and ability to conduct research. To address the M.D. component more specifically, applicants should submit at least one letter that reflects their medical/clinical interest and experience and can address personal characteristics consistent with an excellent physician.

Interviews

The goal of the joint M.D./Ph.D. program is to interview all applicants by the end of October. Applicants are interviewed separately for each program by members of the respective interview panels. The College of Human Medicine Office of Admissions schedules the M.D. interview. Van Andel Institute Graduate School interviews are scheduled through its admissions office. Every effort will be made to schedule the interviews for each program on back-to-back days.

During the College of Human Medicine interview, the applicant will be interviewed by one faculty member and one College of Human Medicine student, tour the medical school and have an opportunity to meet with appropriate faculty and current students.

During the Van Andel Institute Graduate School interview, the applicant will be interviewed by the Graduate School admissions committee, take a tour of the research facilities and be given the opportunity to meet with appropriate faculty and current M.D./Ph.D. students.

Notification

Applicants will be notified of acceptance decisions as soon as possible. Admission to the College of Human Medicine M.D. program is contingent upon acceptance by the joint M.D./Ph.D. Program Selection Committee.

Van Andel Institute Graduate School and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine

Western Michigan Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine (WMed) and Van Andel Institute Graduate School offer an eight-year program leading to both an M.D. and a Ph.D. degree in molecular and cellular biology.

Prerequisite requirements

Applicants for the M.D./Ph.D. dual-degree program must meet all admission requirements and standards of both the Medical School for the M.D. degree and the Graduate School for the Ph.D. degree. Applicants must take the MCAT; the GRE is not necessary.

Application

Applicants for the M.D./Ph.D. dual-degree program should begin with the AMCAS application for medical school admission and should select the M.D./Ph.D. option. They should also contact the medical school’s Director of Admissions to discuss their interest and coordinate the additional application steps. Select applicants will be asked to interview with both WMed and Van Andel Institute Graduate School on contiguous days.

Program and courses

Dual-degree students will:

  • Complete years one and two of medical school
  • Complete the Ph.D. degree, which takes four years (depending on successful completion of the doctoral dissertation)
  • Return to WMed for years three and four of medical school

Students in the M.D./Ph.D dual-degree program complete all courses and clerkships required for the M.D. degree and also complete the biomedical research education including coursework, laboratory rotations and dissertation research within Van Andel Institute Graduate School.

Cost

Students are responsible for tuition and fees for the M.D. program and are eligible for scholarship assistance. Van Andel Institute Graduate School provides financial assistance through a graduate fellowship during the Ph.D. degree that includes a stipend for living expenses; health, dental, vision and life insurance; a full waiver of tuition for the degree; and $2,000 a year for travel to scientific conferences.

Graduation

Students who successfully complete all of the requirements for the M.D. and Ph.D. degrees participate in graduation ceremonies at the Medical School for the M.D. degree and at the Graduate School for the Ph.D. degree.

Fellowship-PH.D. Program and Medical Internship Program

The Graduate School offers a fellowship-Ph.D. option for applicants who already have earned their medical degree as well as a specially tailored summer internship program for medical students.

Fellowship-Ph.D. programs

Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Fellowship-Ph.D. program (with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital)

This program links subspecialty training in pediatric hematology and oncology with research training in molecular and cellular biology. The training program for each participant will include all components of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral program, including courses and dissertation research, although the timelines may be adjusted to meet clinical responsibilities of the clinical fellowship. Clinical training and research experience may be intertwined during portions of the training period. Details of the programs combining the Graduate School Ph.D. with medical school or the clinical fellowship and residency training are articulated in memoranda of understanding with the partner organizations. These memoranda are available upon request.

For more information or to apply, please call the Graduate School at 616.234.5722 or email registrar@vai.org.

Medical Student Summer Research Internship Program

The Medical Student Summer Research Internship Program offered through Van Andel Institute Graduate School provides opportunities for medical school students (between their first and second year) to engage in biomedical research projects in the Institute’s laboratories. Applications for this paid internship program are typically due in early February for the following summer. For more information, please email undergrad@vai.org.