Dec 02, 2023  
USC Catalogue 2021-2022 
USC Catalogue 2021-2022 [ARCHIVED CATALOGUE]

Epidemiology (PhD)

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The department offers a degree leading to the PhD in epidemiology. This program may be an extension of the applied biostatistics and epidemiology MS program and is especially aimed at persons with a strong background in medicine: in particular, students enrolled in the MD program of the Keck School of Medicine who wish to interrupt their MD studies after two years to complete a PhD degree. This program is designed to produce an epidemiologist with in-depth statistical skills. The program requires a solid core of courses in methodological aspects of statistics and in statistical thinking as applied to medicine, as well as a solid grounding in epidemiological methods and in certain medical disciplines.

Summary of course requirements: 

Fourteen units of core course work are required in year 1 as preparation for the screening exam (assuming students have completed PM 510L  and PM 512  or comparable classes from MS training). Additional units of track-specific course work are required in year 2 or after. A total of 60 units are required for completion, which may be fulfilled by any approved electives, plus dissertation research units. After passing the screening exam, all students must enroll in at least two semesters of PM 610 : Graduate Seminar in Biostatistics. The first semester of PM 610 is typically taken before the Qualifying Examination and the second semester of PM 610 before the final dissertation defense.

Special Requirements: By the end of the first semester, the student should have selected a faculty mentor who will verify the student’s readiness for the screening exam (e.g., have passed the first semester’s core courses and be registered for the second semester’s courses or have equivalent prior training) and must sign the application for the screening exam. The mentor will also work with the student to identify a suitable dissertation chair and explore possible topics. Identification of the dissertation chair and formation of the student’s Qualifying Exam Committee is expected to be done by the end of the second year.  

Executive Committee: The Epidemiology Executive Education Committee will review mentors, as well as approve changes in the curriculum and qualifying exam. They will also ensure that required courses are taught, will make decisions on which electives are continued, added, or removed, and will work with the course organizers to collect and summarize course evaluations. Members of the Epidemiology Executive Education Committee are represented on the Preventive Medicine Education Committee, chaired by the Vice Chair for Education (currently Dr. Richard Watanabe), which is charged with establishing general department-wide policies.

Admissions Committee: The majority of applications first come directly to the department and are reviewed by the Epidemiology Admissions Committee. Candidates recommended for admissions and funding are then presented to the KSOM PhD Programs Committee for approval. Direct admissions to the individual faculty member’s research team are handled in the same way, must meet the same standards and be approved by the Epidemiology Admissions Committee. PIBBS students may elect to join the Epidemiology PhD program, provided they have done at least one rotation with an epidemiology faculty member who agrees to support that student and the students acceptance is approved by the Chair of the Epidemiology Admissions Committee.

Course Guidance or Advising Committee: The student will decide along with his/her mentor and dissertation committee chair which, if any, additional course work will be undertaken.

Qualifying Examination Committee: The student, in consultation with his/her mentor, will nominate five faculty members to serve on the Qualifying Examination Committee.  Three of the faculty must be from the Epidemiology Program and one from another department (the “External Member”). The Committee should reflect a diversity of expertise and typically will include one member from a different division of the Department of Preventive Medicine (e.g., one with subject-matter expertise in the proposed application portion of the dissertation). The role of the Qualifying Examination Committee is to guide the student on development of an appropriate dissertation project, both in content and time commitment, and to evaluate the student’s knowledge of the topic, epidemiological and biostatistical methodology, and readiness for completing the dissertation research.

Dissertation Committee: The Dissertation Committee is typically drawn from the membership of the Qualifying Examination Committee and includes the student’s primary mentor as chair, an external member, and at least one other member of the Epidemiology Division. All Qualifying Examination Committee members may be retained if preferred by the student. The role of the Dissertation Committee is to advise the doctoral student on the research topic and methods, and then to review the final completed dissertation for acceptance. Students are expected to meet with the dissertation committee at least once per year to discuss progress; more frequent meetings will typically be needed as the student approaches the final defense of the dissertation. Dissertation committee members are expected to read and comment on a dissertation within 2 weeks from its submission. The student and faculty will coordinate a time line for the student to present the dissertation to the committee. This time line must allow all dissertation committee members enough time to fulfill their responsibilities within the two-week deadline. 

Review of Membership in Faculty Mentorship: 

Membership should be reviewed on a three-year cycle, with one-third of the members reviewed each year. The main criteria for membership are the existence of an active research program related to epidemiologic research; evidence of outstanding past mentoring; and participation in programmatic and/or teaching activities. Members are expected to actively participate in teaching, screening exams, qualifying exams, dissertation committees and recruitment. Review of members will be conducted by the Executive Committee. Mentors whose record reflects poor academic performance, poor mentoring or poor participation will be subject to non-renewal or to a probationary period in which improvements in noted deficiencies must be demonstrated as a condition of continuing membership.


As a condition of admission, students must hold a Master’s degree in a related discipline (e.g., mathematics, statistics, epidemiology, public health) and have completed a Master’s thesis. Students entering the program with a relevant Master’s degree that does not require a thesis (e.g. Master of Public Health) will be assigned an administrative or research mentor upon entering the program who will evaluate their quantitative and writing skills before the student takes the screening exam. All students are required to pass the program screening examination before being fully admitted as a doctoral student in the program. It is preferred that all students admitted to the program have successfully completed a minimum of one class in epidemiology and one class in biostatistics before entering the doctoral program. Some students may be admitted to the program without meeting the Master’s program requirements (e.g., if they have strong research background and clear evidence of ability in the health research field or were admitted through PIBBS), but will be expected to complete PM 510L  and PM 512  and pass the screening examination prior to being considered fully admitted as a doctoral student in the program.

Screening Exam Core Courses (14 units)


Please choose one track: Cancer Epidemiology, Genetic Epidemiology, Environmental Epidemiology, Clinical Trials, or General Epidemiology and Methods

General Epidemiology and Methods

Includes students who choose to design specific class electives with their adviser, tailored to their unique research interests.

Electives (34-35 units)

In addition to the required courses, the remaining required units may be selected from any of the following courses:


Electives will be determined by the student’s needs and interests.  When appropriate, courses not listed above may be chosen from the University course offerings with approval from the student’s adviser and Program Director.  Sufficient familiarity in computer languages to operate major software packages for data management and analysis is required.

Additional Requirements

Preparation for Screening Examination

The Screening Examination will be taken at the end of the first or second year after students have completed their core classes and covers material learned in these classes and the core knowledge of epidemiologic theory and applications. Prior to the screening examnation a mentor who will serve on the qualifying exam committee must be identified. The screening examination will consist of an applied and theory component and will be conducted in class over two to three days. The written component will be drawn from the core courses. A student failing the screening examination may be given a second opportunity to retake either one or both portions. Students failing the examination for the second time will terminate with the MS degree upon satisfactory completion of 37 units and an acceptable master’s thesis.

Annual Research Appraisal (ARA)

After advancing to candidacy, progress on dissertation research is evaluated annually with an Annual Research Appraisal (ARA) by the Annual Dissertation Committee. A key element is participation in PM 610 : Graduate Seminar in Epidemiology and Biostatistics for at least two semesters after passing the Screening Exam. It is recommended that students take PM 610  to gain presentation experience and feedback before completing the qualifying examination and again before completing the final dissertation defense. Students give seminars and research updates that encompass both a global view of their area of investigation and a focus on the problem they are addressing. The oral portion of the screening examination as well as the qualifying examination and the defense examination will count as ARAs.

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