Program 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.


Students 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 here.

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, seven-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.

Clinical Studies

Effective translational research requires familiarity with both basic science and clinical applications. To develop this understanding, Graduate School students may have the opportunity to attend clinical rounds or meetings at area hospitals.

The Graduate School is proud to offer a joint M.D./Ph.D. program in collaboration with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Learn more here.