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whybanana

Chemistry Supervisor in Biology PhD program?

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Is it possible for a biology PhD student to have a supervisor from a chemistry department? My academic background is in biology/biochemistry, but most of my research has been in chemistry/biophysics. I don't plan on pursuing a PhD in chemistry, but the institution I'll likely do my PhD at doesn't have a formal biochemistry track (just biology or chem), and the PI I'd like to work with is a hardcore chem person. 

Does anyone have experience working with other departments during their PhD? I'm mostly worried about how funding would work or if it's even possible. 

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My guess is not possible. You'd need to be interdisciplinary or in the CHEM department to have them as your advisor. You might be able to set up a co-advisor situation or have them on your committee, however. 

To add, I'm assuming US schools here. If I recall you were interested in UK programs at some point? They operate very differently. 

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It's a US program. The supervisor already reached out to me and was hoping I'd join his lab as a PhD student. I've published with their lab before. The idea was for me to work on the molecular biology/biophysics side of things while the rest of the lab does the complimentary hardcore chem stuff. I thought that it was weird for him to make that offer knowing that I'm primarily a biology person, but he's a department head so I assumed he could make it work. Now I'm not too sure. 

Would it be possible for me to have him as a co-supervisor along with another biology PI? There's already an ongoing collaboration between their labs.

 

 

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If they reached out to you, then there's a good chance they know if it will work or not. As with the vast majority of questions asked and answered on this forum, the most accurate answer is always "it depends, you should ask the school". 

If you've been talking to this PI, why not just ask them straight up how it would work, and if you'd need a co-supervisor or if the school would let them supervise you?

The one thing I'd be careful of is having a PI that doesn't know your program's requirements. This person may know them, or they may not know the Bio program requirements very well. It can still work fine, you just need to be the one to keep an eye on specific requirements, deadlines, etc. that might differ from your advisor's home program. 

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I agree with @Eigen: talk to the school for each specific case. It might be more likely if the PI is cross-appointed in both departments. Also, if the PI already has biology students in the lab, then they might know some of the rules, but I would certainly seek permission from my own department, just in case. So, talk to your own dept grad coordinator to find out the rules of your program.

At my PhD school, biology and chemistry people work in the other department all the time. There, technically the Biochemistry program was housed in the Chemistry department, so people who wanted to "Biochemistry" on their degree applied to the chemistry program, however, many of them would work with biology faculty members. The reverse also happened: those who were in biology could also work in biochem labs with Chemistry faculty. And of course, many of them are cross-appointed. However, I don't know if my PhD school was the norm or not, since one of the major selling points of the PhD programs there was that the "borders" between departments in terms of research are very thin and multi-disciplinary approaches are highly encouraged. Many research groups have students from 2 or more departments and you can generally take classes in any department on campus (as long as you meet the requirements of your own program of course). So, it's worth checking, since every place can be different.

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Schools can be strange. Where I did my PhD, there were multiple non-overlapping and very similar fields. 

You could do Molecular and Cellular Biology at the medical school, you could do Cellular and Molecular Biology in the biology department, you could do Biochemistry at the Medical School, or Biochemistry in the Chemistry department. All of these departments had wildly different requirements with respect to number of classes, what type of exams acted as qualifiers, etc. It would have been really hard to cross them and keep everyone happy.

 People crossed over with collaborations and work between all of the above, but had to have an advisor in their home department, or where they were actually enrolled and getting their degree. 

 

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Thanks for all the advice @Eigen and @TakeruK! I guess I'll just ask the PI about the feasibility/requirements of working in a chem lab as a biology PhD student. I was just worried that he made me the offer without really thinking the logistics through, which would screw me since working in that lab is a major reason for me considering that institution. Hope it works out. 

 

 

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2 hours ago, whybanana said:

Thanks for all the advice @Eigen and @TakeruK! I guess I'll just ask the PI about the feasibility/requirements of working in a chem lab as a biology PhD student. I was just worried that he made me the offer without really thinking the logistics through, which would screw me since working in that lab is a major reason for me considering that institution. Hope it works out.

Just in case I wasn't clear, make sure you ask the people responsible for graduate student degree requirements in your biology department too. The chem prof may not be in the biology dept and may not be familiar with biology department policies. In addition, even if he has had biology students in the past, there may be new rules starting this fall. So be sure to clear it with whoever it is in the biology dept that will eventually sign off on your degree milestones.

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Have you applied or been formally admitted to the program yet? I can't quite tell from your post.

I've you've not applied yet, the PI might be assuming you are going to apply to the Chem PhD program and then carry out biophysics-esque research in their lab. If you're applying/accepted to the Biology PhD program then as others have said you need to check if the faculty has a dual appointment, etc. 

There should be a graduate handbook and course listings online for both the Chem & Biology programs (you can also look on the Chem Dept website to see if your prospective PI is listed as affiliated faculty there). I suspect if your background is in Bio then the course requirements for a Chem degree could be challenging (or an unnecessary time sink), but there are often options to take classes in other departments that could count towards your degree (this is something you'd need to talk about with a graduate advisor/administrator).

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