Graduate Training Programs in Epidemiology

8. PhD in Epidemiology Program

8.1 Overview

The mission of the PhD Program in Epidemiology is to train independent researchers in the development and application of epidemiologic methods and to prepare them for positions as scientific leaders in academia, industry, and the public sector. The PhD is a research degree; it indicates the highest attainable level of scholarship, and a commitment to a research career. The PhD does not represent merely the accumulation of course credits, but rather, the development and completion of a well-designed and conscientious program of scientific investigation that makes a unique contribution to the field of epidemiology.

 

The PhD Program in Epidemiology requires basic and advanced courses in epidemiology, statistical methods, and electives drawn from other departments and schools that serve the student’s research interests. The program also requires written qualifications and oral candidacy examinations, and the successful defense of a doctoral dissertation, in accordance with University of Pennsylvania policy. 

 

The PhD program typically requires the equivalent of at least four years of full-time study, in three defined phases: courseworkpre-candidacy, and candidacy. The coursework phase typically takes two years of full-time study and is intended to provide the student with the knowledge needed to pursue advanced, independent study and investigation in epidemiologic research. This phase culminates in the written Qualifications Examination, normally taken after the first year of the student’s coursework has been completed. The pre-candidacy phase focuses on the preparation of a scientifically unique, methodologically sound, and feasible dissertation proposal. This phase ends with passing the oral Candidacy Examination, at which time the student is recognized as a Candidate for the PhD and focuses his or her effort on performing the research for and writing the dissertation. A successful public defense of the dissertation then completes the academic requirements for the PhD.

8.2 Academic advisor

At the time of admission, each incoming student will be assigned an academic advisor who advises the student in course selection and related academic matters. A student may change advisors by request to the Program Chair. A PhD student’s dissertation advisor, once selected, normally assumes the role of academic advisor during the later years of study. At the beginning of the academic year, each student, in collaboration with his/her advisor, prepares a proposed academic program including courses to be taken, courses to be transferred, and timelines for examinations and dissertation preparation. Students who are on a training grant will have two co-advisors: 1) the Principal Investigator or other senior faculty on the training grant and 2) the Epidemiology Program advisor. This is to ensure that all academic advising meets the course and other requirements of the training grant in addition to those of the Epidemiology Program.

8.2.1 Policy on advisors

Dissertation advisors for students pursuing a PhD in epidemiology must have extensive training and experience in epidemiologic research. Generally, they will have a PhD (or equivalent) in epidemiology or related field, OR an MD and Master’s degree in epidemiology or a related field, and experience as an independent investigator, as demonstrated through receipt of funding as principal investigator and significant contributions to the epidemiologic literature. Previous experience as a PhD dissertation advisor to at least one student in epidemiology at the Master’s level or beyond, including advising through all phases from protocol development to submission of thesis or dissertation, is desirable, but not required. Faculty members who do not fulfill all of the criteria may be approved in individual cases by the Graduate Group Chair, in consultation with the Graduate Group Executive Committee. Advisors should expect to dedicate considerable time and effort to one-on-one student supervision.

Dissertation advisors not holding the PhD are strongly urged to work closely with the Program Chair and other PhD faculty throughout the student’s program in order to ensure sensitivity to the special and intensive demands of mentoring PhD students.

The student’s dissertation advisor may not be the Dissertation Committee chair, but may be the student’s academic advisor.

8.3 Course requirements

The PhD in Epidemiology typically requires the equivalent of four to six semesters of coursework plus additional semesters devoted to dissertation research. The degree can be accomplished in the equivalent of four to five years of full-time study, although depending on the student’s research program, six or even seven years may be needed to complete the program. The progress of students requiring longer than six years to complete the program will be reviewed semi-annually by the Epidemiology Program Chair and the Chair of the Examinations and Academic Review Committee. In any event, according to University policy, the program must be completed in 10 years. The current standard course sequence for PhD students consists of up to 7 core courses (see below). Four additional course units are taken in electives (advanced epidemiology and/or biostatistics courses and courses outside the department and school as needed to serve the student’s specific interests). In addition, a minimum three semesters of lab rotations (EPID 699) and one unit of dissertation research (EPID 995) are required. However, the PhD curriculum is continuously under review and these requirements may change; these changes will be reflected in a subsequent version of the Handbook, pending approval by the Graduate Group and Biomedical Graduate Studies. Students are subject to the course requirements in place at the time of admission.

 

Course descriptions are provided at: 

https://www.med.upenn.edu/ggeb/ggeb-courses.html

The core courses required for all PhD students are:

  • EPID 701: Introduction to Epidemiologic Research (1cu)
  • EPID 702: Advanced Topics in Epidemiologic Research (1cu)
  • EPID 600: Data Science for Biomedical Informatics (1cu)
  • HPR 608: Applied Regression Analysis for Health Policy Research (1cu), OR
    • BSTA 630: Statistical Methods and Data Analysis (1cu)
    • BSTA 632: Biostatistics for Epidemiologic Methods I (1cu)
  • EPID 700: Doctoral Seminar(1cu)
  • Epid 534: Qualitative Methods in the Study of Health Disease and Medical Systems 
  • Ethics course (1cu) or MSCE workshops
    Career Development workshops
8.3.1 Electives

PhD students take elective courses in order to reach the required total number of course units (12). At least two of these courses must be advanced courses in statistical applications, such as (but not limited to) EPID 621: Longitudinal and Clustered Data, EPID 622: Applied Regression Models for Categorical Data, EPID 623: Survival Data Analysis, and EPID 680: Causal Inference in Epidemiology. Students meeting additional prerequisites in biostatistics may satisfy this requirement through advanced courses in statistical methods, such as (but not limited to) BSTA 754: Advanced Survival Analysis, BSTA 656: Longitudinal Data Analysis, and BSTA 790: Causal Inference in Biomedical Research.

Elective courses include advanced courses in epidemiology and biostatistics, as well as advanced courses in related disciplines, such as biostatistics, statistics, demographics, sociology, anthropology, economics, and psychology. Students may also arrange to take independent study courses taught by members of the Graduate Group faculty or courses taught elsewhere in the University. However, it is important to select independent study courses carefully, since it is assumed that students will have completed the core at the time of the Qualifications Examination. The student and faculty member will design the activity and the form of the evaluation for the independent study course. Any such proposed independent study course must be approved in advance by the PhD Program Chair. Finally, all electives will be chosen in consultation with the trainee’s faculty advisor.

8.3.2 Research Rotation

In order to provide doctoral students with as much exposure as possible to a broad range of research activities and opportunities during their first year of study, they are required to engage in project rotations with GGEB faculty. This will assist the students in identifying their research interests and thesis topic earlier in their educational process.  In addition, students will normally identify their PhD dissertation advisor through working with them on a lab rotation, during which both the students and faculty can assess whether they are a good match for possible dissertation advisor/advisee relationships. This section describes the procedures for engaging in these rotations.

•     Each student is required to complete three rotations during the first year in the doctoral program: fall, spring, and summer.

•     Each rotation will last 12 weeks. Students can expect to spend approximately 20+ hours per week during the fall/spring semesters and full time 40+ hours during the summer.

•     Each August, the epidemiology faculty in the GGEB will be provided with a short description of each new student’s interests and background by the Graduate GroupCoordinator and will be asked to confirm their willingness to serve as a rotation preceptor.
 

•     When possible, at the beginning of each term, a chalk talks session will be organized during which GGEB faculty will present the rotation projects to the students. Alternatively, students will be informed by the Graduate Group Coordinator of the names and contacts of the faculty members who agreed to serve as rotation preceptors. Students are also welcome to reach out to GGEB members to inquire about potential projects beyond those discussed during chalk talks. The students will contact the faculty members whose research matches their interests to discuss the details of a potential rotation. Once an agreement is reached between the student and the faculty member, they will submit a short proposal describing the content and goals of the rotation for approval by the Academic Review Committee.

 

•     Laboratory rotations should focus on epidemiological research as opposed to simple data analysis or service/project work. Ideas include implementation of a method from the literature, literature review of methods, or the analysis of a complex dataset. It is recognized that, depending upon the background of the students matriculating into the program, the first lab rotation may need to be a lighter introduction to the methodological area such as focusing on literature review, study design, logistics, and data management and/or data analysis.


•     Laboratory rotations are taken for credit (0.33 unit per rotation, 1-unit total) and students receive both a written evaluation and a letter grade.


•     At the end of each rotation, the supervising faculty member will provide a brief summary of the student’s involvement in the project, including any scholarly output such as abstracts and manuscripts. In addition, the faculty member will indicate his or her desire to mentor the student, as well as willingness to take on the financial responsibilities associated with mentoring.

8.4 Course plans

All students are expected to develop and maintain a current course plan with their academic advisor. This course plan must be approved by the advisor and the Program Chair and filed with the department’s Office of Graduate Programs. The course plan will be reviewed annually in order to monitor the student’s progress and identify potential delays in completing the program. Typical course plans are shown below.

Sample course plan for entering PhD students starting Fall 2020

Year

Term

Course

c.u.

 

 

 

Year 1

 

 

Fall

EPID 701: Introduction to Epidemiologic Research

1

§BSTA 630 Statistical Methods and Data Analysis I

1

EPID 600: Data Science for Biomedical Informatics (if placed out of 526/527)

1

EPID 699: Research Rotation

0.33

Career Development Workshop

0

 

 

 

Spring

EPID 702: Advanced Topics in Epidemiologic Research

1

 HPR 608: Applied Regression Analysis for Health Policy Research 

1

§ BSTA 632: Statistical Methods for Categorical and Survival Data 

1

EPID 699: Research Rotation

0.33

Advanced Elective

1-3

Career Development Workshop

0

 

Summer

EPID 699: Research Rotation

Qualifications Examination

0.33

 

 

 

 

 

Year 2

 

 

Fall

EPID 534: Qualitative Methods in the Study of Health Disease and Medical Systems 

1

EPID 699: Research Rotation or EPID 899: Pre-Dissertation Lab Rotation (for those who have selected a dissertation advisor)

0.33-3

Ethics course or MSCE Workshops

0-1

Advanced Elective

1-3

Career Development Workshop

   0

 

 

 

Spring

Career Development Workshop

0

EPID 699: Research Rotation or EPID 899: Pre-Dissertation Research (for those who have selected a dissertation advisor)

0.33-3

EPID 700: Doctoral Seminar

1.0

Advanced Elective

1-3

 

 

 

Summer

EPID 899: Pre-Dissertation Research

Candidacy Examination

 

 

 

 

Year 3

 

Fall

Advanced Elective

1-3

EPID 899: Pre-Dissertation Research

0.33-3

 

Spring

Advanced Elective

1-3

EPID 899: Pre-Dissertation Research

0.33-3

 

 

Year 4

 

EPID 995: Dissertation Research

 

Dissertation Defense

 

 

Notes

All Epidemiology PhD students must take either HPR 608 or both BSTA 630 and BSTA 632 to fulfill their statistics core requirements.

 

§ For those desiring a more advanced statistical analysis background, BSTA 630 and BSTA 632 are recommended if you have previously completed coursework in calculus through multivariable calculus and linear algebra. The permissions of the instructors are required to take these courses.  

 HPR 608 is required for those not taking BSTA 630 and BSTA 632.  

# Any electives taken in the summer required prior authorization by the Chairs of the PhD Curriculum Committee and the Epidemiology Program.

Sample Course Plan for an Entering MD/PhD Student

 

 

MEDICAL SCHOOL

GRADUATE SCHOOL

 

Year 1

Fall

Pre-clinical MD curriculum

Indep study (or course if avail)

Spring

Pre-clinical MD curriculum

Indep study (or course if avail)

Summer

 

~8 weeks for ft research

 

 

Year 2

Fall

Pre-clinical MD curriculum

Case Studies in Translational

Research or indep study (or epid course if avail)

Spring

Clinical Clerkships

 

Summer

Clinical Clerkships and Step 1

Typically begin research mid-Aug,

slightly before grad semester starts

 

 

Year 3

Fall

 

4-5 Epidemiology course units

Epi lab rotation, Epidemiology seminar; work on selecting advisor

Spring

 

4-5 Epidemiology course units; work

Epi lab rotation, Epidemiology seminar

Summer

 

2-3 Epidemiology course units

Qualifications Examination

 

 

Year 4

Fall

Clinical Connections

2-3 Epidemiology course units

 

 

Submit F30

Spring

 

2-3 Epidemiology course units

Qualifications examination

Summer

 

Oral candidacy examination

 

Year 5

Fall

Clinical Connections

Dissertation research

Spring

 

Dissertation research

Summer

 

Dissertation research

 

Year 6

Fall

Clinical Connections

Dissertation research

Spring

 

Dissertation research

Summer

 

Dissertation defense

 

 

Year 7

Fall

Clinical courses (after defending)

 

 

 

 

Spring

Clinical courses

 

 

 

 

Summer

Clinical courses

 

 

 

 

Year 8

Fall

Clinical courses; boards 2

 

 

Clinical courses; Dean's letter OCT 1

 

 

 

 

 

Residency interviews (~Nov-Jan)

 

Spring

Clinical courses and/or research

 

 

GRADUATION

 

 

8.7 PhD Examinations

In addition to course-specific examinations, there are three PhD examinations required in order to ensure rigorous, appropriate evaluations during the phases of a student’s program. These examinations are described below.

       1.    Qualifications Examination

The goal of the Qualifications Examination is to assess the foundational knowledge of epidemiologic and biostatistical concepts and methods after completion of one year of study within our program. It serves      as a benchmark to qualify a student to proceed in the program and to advance to the next stage of independent mentored epidemiological research. 

Qualifications Examination consists of three components: 

  1. Qualifying Review
  2. Timed Written Qualifications Examination
  3. Critical Appraisal with Oral Review.

a. Qualifying Review (late April)

At the end of the first year of coursework, the Academic Advising and Examination Committee will review each student’s academic record. Students will be expected to provide these to the committee at least four weeks prior to the Written Qualifications Examination. The review will take place no sooner than two weeks prior to the Written Qualifications Examination. Students are expected to have a minimum GPA of 3.0, with no grades lower than B. Any grade lower than B (B- and below) will require that the student’s record be referred to the Academic Advising and Examination Committee and the pertinent course director(s) for remediation. Remediation could include retaking the course(s) in question or taking another course as substitution. 

Upon completing remediation, the student will have the opportunity to request a second Qualifying Review, using the same procedure as if it were the first review. If the remediation is satisfactory, the student can proceed to the Time Written Qualifications Examination. However, if the remediation is determined to be unsatisfactory by the Academic Advising and Examination Committee, the student may be dismissed from the program, as determined by the GGEB leadership and the BGS Curriculum and Academic Standards Committee, the body charged with monitoring student performance.

 

b. Timed Written Qualifications Examination (mid-May)

Upon successfully passing the Qualifying Review, the student will be eligible to sit for the Timed Written Qualifications Examination. For this examination, each student will be given a set of five questions that will require students to demonstrate their facility in epidemiologic thinking, methods, study design, and biostatistics.. Students will answer all five questions. 

          a. Preparation of the examination. The questions will be developed by the Academic Advising and Examination Committee, and will address five or more core competencies, a list of which will be provided to all first-year students entering the program. The source of these competencies will include those specified in Table 1 in of the Hlaing 2019 paper (Ann Epidemiol 2019; 36: 1-4; PMID: 31320154) as well as new competency areas as they arise. The Epidemiology Program leadership will review a draft list of the competencies, which will be vetted by the Epidemiology PhD Program faculty, then submitted for approval by the GGEB leadership, and finally circulated to each incoming cohort at the beginning of the academic year. All core course material and topics, including assigned readings are considered when the committee drafts the exam. 

          b. Conduct of the examination. All students will take the examination on the same day at the same time.  Five hours will be allowed for the examination. This will be an “open-book” examination in which students will be able to use any written materials, software, or Internet resources they may need in order to complete the examination. However, students will complete the examination in separate closed rooms on campus.  Students are not permitted to communicate with each other during the examination. Communication in this context includes text messages, Slack/Facebook messaging or any other forms of communication. Students found communicating during the examination will receive a grade of fail without the option of retaking the exam.

        c. Evaluation of the examination. Each examination question will be graded blindly by members of the Academic Advising and Examination Committee. Because the questions of the examination may vary from year to year, there are no absolute cut-offs for passing. Once grading is complete (typically two weeks after the exam), the faculty of the Epidemiology program meet to review the examination. 

        d. Confidentiality. The questions in this examination and individual answers and any associated work are to be held in the strictest confidence. For the protection of all students and faculty in the Doctoral Program in Epidemiology, students must attest that they understand that this examination is confidential and agree not to divulge the content or format of this examination to anyone, including future students. At all times students mush adhere to the University of Pennsylvania Code of Academic Integrity as defined in The Penn Book (http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/osl/pennbook.html)   
 

c.  Critical Appraisal with Oral Review (two weeks after the Written Examination)

Each student will be provided with a recent pre-print or publication in the student’s stated area of interest, selected by the committee. Students will submit a written peer-review discussing the following domains.

  • Sampling strategy 
  • Unit of analysis 
  • Outcome, exposure, and covariate measurement
  • Statistical methods
  • Missing data management 
  • Sensitivity analyses / subgroup analyses

For each domain, the student will be asked to specifically comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the design and methods that have been used, as well as alternative approaches that could be taken. The goal is to show agility in applied epidemiologic thinking. For example, if this is a cohort study, the student should elaborate on the benefits/weaknesses of alternative strategies, such as a trial, and vice versa. The written document should not exceed three pages (single spaced, 1-inch margins, size 11 text), submitted two weeks prior to the last part of this component of the Qualifications Examination, which is a one-hour examination, including a 20-minute (or less) student presentation followed by a question and answering session before the Academic Advising and Examination Committee. During this time, the committee and student will discuss specifically what was written and will be graded on the scale outlined in the handbook.

         a.  Evaluation of the Critical Appraisal and Oral Review

                   i. Each domain of the critical appraisal will be scored using the NIH system (1=Exceptional, 9=Poor). A passing score on each of the six domains is 5, for a total passing score of 30. The oral review will be scored for a maximum of 20 points. Thus, maximum obtainable score on this component of the Qualifications Examination is 50. The minimum passing score is 40. Students scoring either less than 40 total points or less than 2 on any written domain or less than 20 on the critical appraisal will be required to remediate this component.

                ii. Each committee member will independently score each domain, and the domain scores will be averaged across the committee. In addition, each member will provide specific notes about the student’s performance on each domain. Included on this evaluation form is the student’s performance on the Oral Review. The notes, in addition to the numeric scores will be used by the committee to determine the outcome of this component of the Qualifications Examination.

                iii. Failure to adhere to stated page limits and specifications and presentation times will result in failure without the option of a retake.
 

d. Qualifications Examination Outcomes

     a. Pass: Students are eligible to prepare for the Candidacy Examination.

     b. Fail: Students are required to remediate the components with less than a passing score and will retake the component(s) one time. Students who fail the retake will be excused from the program.

     c. Each student who takes the exam receives written notification of their outcome as soon as possible after the faculty grading meeting. No other information is made available before that time. The letter notifies the student of the outcome of the exam, recommendations for continued study, and the process for discussion of the exam with the Academic Advising and Examination Committee if needed. Students who do not pass any individual component of the Qualifications Examination will be required to retake the failed component(s). The failed component(s) must be retaken not later than 45 days after student has received the results of the examination. Extensions to this deadline will be granted only in exceptional circumstances, with the approval of the Epidemiology PhD Program Chair.

e.  Confidentiality. All deliberations by the committee are confidential and to be discussed with no one outside the committee. Students will receive only the final result of their examination and the scores on their written examination and the Critical Appraisal and Oral Review.

2.     Candidacy Examination

a.     The Candidacy Examination must be passed within 18 months of the Qualifications Examination.

b.     The Candidacy Examination is administered by the Dissertation Committee (seeSection8.6.2).

c.     The focus of the Candidacy Examination is on the student’s proposed dissertation research, but other material may be included as desired by the student’s committee.

d.     The Candidacy Examination will consist of two parts:

i.           Written: dissertation proposal, submitted to the student’s committee at least one month prior to oral proposal defense, and approved by the committee prior to the oral proposal defense

ii.             Oral: Oral defense of proposal (non-public) before the committee with the inclusion of additional pertinent material at the discretion of committee. All dissertation committee members should be present for the oral phase of the candidacy exmination. In emergencies, one member may participate in the defense by video remote connection, such as Bluejeans or Zoom. That member cannot be the committee chair or the student’s advisor. If one or more committee members are absent (i.e., not present or not remotely participating) from the examination, it cannot proceed and must be rescheduled. During times of global health emergebcies that result in closure of University facilities,(such as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic), the examination will be conducted entirely using a video remote connection, such as Bluejeans or Zoom.

e.     Students must pass both parts of the Candidacy Examination in order to advance to the final phase of the PhD program. Those who fail the Candidacy Examination may re-take it once, at the discretion of the committee.

3.     Dissertation Defense

a.     The final oral examination is the Dissertation Defense. The defense must be announced by public advertisement at least four weeks in advance using such venues as the GGEB website, posted announcements in Penn Medicine spaces (as allowed), and electronic mail.

b.     The defense should be scheduled when the candidate and the dissertation advisor agreethat the research is near completion and the draft dissertation is in a format suitable for distribution to the committee. As soon as a date and time are fixed, the graduate program staff reserves a room (for at least two hours) and prepares the necessary public announcements.

c.     All dissertation committee members should be present for the final defense. In emergencies, one member may participate in the defense by video remote connection, such as Bluejeans or Zoom. That member cannot be the committee chair or the student’s advisor. If one or more committee members are absent (i.e., not present or not participating by telephone) from the final defense, it cannot proceed and must be rescheduled. During times of global health emergebcies that result in closure of University facilities,(such as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic), the defense will be conducted entirely using a video remote connection, such as Bluejeans or Zoom.

d.     Format of the defense

i.           At least two weeks prior to the exam, the student should provide each committee member with a copy of the full dissertation. The committee members review the dissertation and prepare exam questions based on it. The defense consists of twoparts:

1.     Open session. The committee chair describes the process to all attendees and the dissertation advisor introduces the candidate. The candidate then presents his/her research in the style of a departmental colloquium. Typically, the candidate presents one chapter in depth, with a very brief overview of the others. This presentation should not exceed 45 minutes. At the close of the formal presentation the candidate takes questions from the audience. The committee chair has the right to terminate the open session if it goes beyond one hour.

2.     Closed session. In this part of the examination, attended only by the student and members of the committee, the student is asked specific questions pertaining to the dissertation. Because the committee members have read the entire dissertation, this is their opportunity to ask any questions about any part of it, including material not presented in the open session. Once the committee members are satisfied that the questioning is complete, the student is asked to leave the room and the committee deliberates in closed session. During this time, the committee reviews the student’s work, draws up a list of recommendations, and votes an outcome. The student is then readmitted to the room, informed of the outcome, and is provided with any recommendations. The committee chair sees that necessary forms are signed and returned to the graduate program office.

ii.             The defense will be coordinated by the dissertation committee chair. This individual will be responsible for maintaining order and the sequence and timely completion of the examination.

e.     The dissertation exam has three potential outcomes:

i.           Pass. The student has completed the dissertation requirements for a PhD in epidemiology. The student then works with the graduate program staff to ensure that all other requirements are met prior to deadlines for the proposed graduation date.

ii.             Conditional pass. The defense was satisfactory but additional requirements, usually minor, must be satisfied. Commonly, the student is asked to address specific questions raised at the defense, or to incorporate edits proposed by committee members. The dissertation advisor typically oversees these changes, but other committee members may also review changes at their discretion. Once the additional 

requirements are met, the student is considered to have completed the dissertation. The student is not required to defend the dissertation again.

ii.    Fail. The student must defend the dissertation again; only one additional attempt at the final defense is allowed.

f.      Dissertation acceptances must be unanimous, in writing, and signed by all members of the dissertation committee. Approved dissertations must be submitted to the Graduate Council of the Faculties in a format that meets the style standards established by the Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

8.8 Preparing the dissertation
8.8.1 Dissertation advisor

PhD in Epidemiology students must carry out their dissertation research under the mentorship of a faculty member of the GGEB. The dissertation advisor is the most important individual the student will interact with in the course of their graduate training. For this reason students should carefully evaluate their interests and experiences in choosing the advisor. The student’s dissertation advisor may not be the Dissertation Committee chair, but may be (and is usually) the student’s academic advisor.  See Section 5.2.1.for information about advisor qualifications.

8.8.2 Dissertation committee

Each student will organize a Dissertation Committee according to the following constituency. The committee will consist of a minimum of three members, not counting the advisor(s), of whom two must be faculty members of the GGEB, and one must be an external (non GGEB) member. A GGEB faculty member will be appointed as the Chair of the committee by the student’s advisor. The role of the Chair is to run committee meetings and to oversee the candidacy examination and final defense. For students in the Epidemiology Ph.D. program, at least one member of the Dissertation Committee must be a member of the faculty in the Division of Epidemiology and ordinarily at least one other should be a member of the faculty in the Division of Biostatistics or Division of Informatics. Committee members will be collectively responsible for administering and evaluating the oral Candidacy Examination, reading the dissertation, and evaluating the final defense. Additional content experts from within or outside the GGEB may be added to the committee as needed. The initial constituency and any changes in the membership must be approved by the Program Chair and the Graduate Group Chair. This Committee will be in place at all times during the dissertation phase. If for some reason, a student changes to a different area of research, a new Dissertation Committee must be appointed immediately and must meet within three months to discuss new plans for the dissertation research.

8.8.3 Additional biostatistics support

The biostatistics faculty member(s) on the Dissertation Committee will provide advice and collaborate on the scientific design and statistical analyses required for the dissertation research, but it is the student’s responsibility to perform such analyses. If appropriate, it may be possible to substitute the GGEB biostatistics faculty member with biostatistics faculty from another department at Penn or from outside the University, upon approval by the Program Chair and the GGEB Chair. If a student’s dissertation research area requires additional statistical expertise, appropriate biostatistics faculty should formally be added to the Dissertation Committee.

8.8.4 Computing, programming, and database support

The student is responsible for writing all parts of the dissertation, including any methodological sections, and for conducting or directing all analyses; this ordinarily includes obtaining, preparing, and maintaining data needed for the research. Depending on the student's research program, additional (non-faculty) assistance with computing, programming, and database development may be requested by the student. However, to ensure that the student gains the maximum possible experience with these critically important skills, this request must be approved by the dissertation advisor and the Program Chair. Upon approval, the student should make arrangements with the Biostatistics Analysis Center (BAC), the Clinical Research Computing Unit (CRCU), or other computing group or consultant as needed. The student and dissertation advisor are responsible for obtaining the necessary funding to defray non-faculty support costs.

8.8.5 Frequency of dissertation committee meetings

Once a student has advanced to candidacy, his/her Dissertation Committee will review goals and progress twice each year. The committee chair should complete the Dissertation Committee Meeting Report form and submit this to the Program Chair within 15 days of each committee meeting.

8.8.6 Laboratory notebook

BGS mandates that the student’s Dissertation Committee, at each of its meetings, review the student’s “lab notebook”. The PhD Program in Epidemiology interprets this to mean that the student should make available for faculty review, upon request, primary documentation of any substantial element of the dissertation. Such a review takes place at the Candidacy Exam and any subsequent meetings of the committee prior to, but not including, the dissertation defense. Examples of materials subject to review include the statement and investigation of a research question; the code and results of a simulation study; or the data, code and results of a data analysis. Prior to the meeting, the student’s advisor, in consultation with the Dissertation Committee, designates a short list of such items that the student makes available in electronic or hard-copy format. The committee chair sets aside time at the meeting for the review of this material. In keeping with the BGS policy, there is no expectation that the committee should scrutinize all such documents “in their entirety”; rather, the review should be sufficient to satisfy the committee that the student’s research records are “complete and well managed”.

8.8.7 Content and format of the dissertation

The dissertation must be a scholarly work, providing a written account of an independent investigation of an epidemiologic question or series of related epidemiologic questions. It will be in the form of a monograph, containing one or more research questions about the epidemiology of a particular health topic or disease. Within this monograph, there will be at least three separate manuscripts of publishable quality, one of which must offer a novel methodologic approach to a question in epidemiologic research. It will include the formulation of one or more hypotheses, a review of the appropriate literature, a description of the project, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, discussion of the findings, and limitations of the work. If the dissertation involves the investigation of more than one question, each question must focus on an epidemiologic or methodologic issue related to the health topic or disease under investigation. The dissertation project should demonstrate that the candidate has a command of the subject and a thorough knowledge of the research methodology used to investigate the question(s).

8.9 Non-credit requirements
8.9.1 Teaching practicum

Students in the PhD program must spend one semester providing teaching support as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for an Epidemiology or Biostatistics course. In addition to being a degree requirement for all doctoral students, the teaching experience is an opportunity to work closely with a faculty member, to review and deepen understanding of the material being taught, and to acquire and sharpen teaching skills. TAs are usually assigned to core courses in the Master of Science in Clinical Epidemiology program, but students may find teaching in one of the elective courses, or other epidemiology-related courses in other departments to be of interest as well. The Program Chair assigns TAs to courses based on course needs and student qualifications, in consultation with the course director, the student, and his/her advisor. Upon assignment, students must prepare a teaching assistance plan in writing, signed off by the course director and approved by the chair, for TA activities related to the course. This plan must be completed at least four weeks prior to the start of the course.

TA duties typically include some or all of the following:

  • Attending lectures
  • Holding office hours
  • Running lab sessions
  • Assisting in the preparation of handouts, exams and solution sets
  • Grading homework and recording the grades
  • Helping to grade exams and recording the grades
  • Coordinating access to computing facilities, online data sets, and web applications
  • Attending regular meetings with the course instructor(s).

Please note that merely serving as a grader in a course does not fulfill the TA requirement for the doctoral program. The student must make a substantive contribution to the course.

Timeliness in the completion of these duties is essential. The course instructor(s) and TA should communicate regularly to discuss duties, to share feedback from the students, and to ensure that the TA’s time is being used efficiently.

Both instructors and TAs should recognize that time pressures can vary greatly over the course of a semester. For instance, TA duties usually are light at the start of the course, heavy in the middle, and then light again toward the end (unless assistance is required grading exams).

Experience shows that grading homework and preparing and directing lab or discussion sessions are the two items that occupy most of a TA’s time, especially for first-time TAs. TAs should not hesitate to request specific direction on what to present in lab or discussion sessions. Although the success of a course is ultimately the instructor’s responsibility, students should recognize that instructors cannot be expected to solve problems that they don’t know exist. Open communication is the key to a successful teaching experience. In cases where TA duties include assisting in the grading of exams, course instructors should provide the TA with clear guidance on how to assign points. Instructors should also recognize that some students may feel awkward evaluating their peers.

The course director may provide the opportunity for the TA to prepare and deliver at least one lecture. In this case, the course director should allow the TA sufficient time to prepare the lecture and should offer any necessary guidance about what is to be covered. Whenever possible, the TA’s lecture will be videotaped and reviewed with the course director and his/her mentor in order to identify strengths and weaknesses.

To ease communication, TAs should share their e-mail addresses and mailbox locations with their students. TAs are not on call for their students; nevertheless, students should expect reasonable access to TAs, particularly in the days leading up to exams and project due dates.

8.9.2 Weekly seminar

A fundamental component of the PhD program is attendance at the weekly Center for Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics Seminar, at which faculty and researchers within and outside of Penn present their work or discuss timely issues in epidemiology. All PhD students are required to attend this seminar series weekly, unless excused due to scheduling conflicts, illness, or other reason. Excuses should be made with the Academic Coordinator, either before or as soon as possible after a missed seminar. Advanced PhD students are also welcome to present at this seminar. However, slots fill up early in the academic year, so it is best to discuss any plans to present with the advisor and the Chair of the Seminar Committee. Students are also encouraged to suggest experts from the field as potential seminar speakers to the Seminar Committee.

8.10 General program policies
8.10.1 Exemptions and modifications

Trainees may place out of the following courses if they previously attended equivalent courses: EPID 526: Biostatistics for Epidemiologic Methods I, and EPID 527: Biostatistics for Epidemiologic Methods II. The student should justify the request to place out of a course, and the request should be accompanied by reprints, abstracts from meetings, course syllabus, or other appropriate material. Such requests are made in writing as a letter to the Academic Review Committee and should be made before the end of the first semester in the program.

8.10.2 Terminal master's degree

The PhD Program in Epidemiology does not admit students for study towards a Master's degree. However, in rare cases, students who are unable to complete the PhD may apply for a terminal Master of Science degree, with the following requirements:

  • Completion of at least eight (8) course units that includes those from core courses taken in the first year of study, each with a grade of at least B-minus.
  • Passing grade on the Qualifications Examination
  • Completion of a research project that culminates in the preparation of at least one comprehensive scholarly manuscript of publishable quality. This manuscript will be evaluated by the Program Chair and two additional GGEB faculty to determine its acceptance as a Master’s thesis, consonant with the goals and requirements of the program and with the policies set forth in the Pennbook: https://catalog.upenn.edu/pennbook/academic-rules-research-masters/.
8.10.3 Student memberships

All PhD students in Epidemiology are encouraged to join one or more professional societies, but especially the American College of Epidemiology as an Associate or the Society for Epidemiologic Research as a Student Member.

8.11 Facilities
8.11.1 Program web-resource

Student-related forms, resources, and web links are available at the GGEB web site: https://www.med.upenn.edu/ggeb/

8.11.2 Student Space

The PhD program has space for students on the first floor of Blockley Hall with carrels and lockers. There is wireless connectivity throughout the University campus through AirPennNet. Administration of the carrels and locker assignments is managed by the Graduate Group Coordinator (627 Blockley Hall). In addition, dissertation advisors may provide workspace in their labs.