Program Requirements & Curriculum

The Health Behavior Research (HBR) graduate program is a four- to five-year program leading to a Ph.D. in Population and Public Health Sciences / Health Behavior Research. The program prepares students for research positions in the areas of preventive medicine, public health, population health science, health psychology, and health policy research. Below is a brief overview of the recommended time frame for completing the major requirements, followed by a detailed description of each component of the program.

Years 1-2
The first two years include core and elective coursework, directed research activity, and seminar participation. Students also work as Research Assistants (RAs) or Teaching Assistants (TAs).

Years 3
During the third year, students should finish any remaining coursework and complete the Qualifying Exam (described below). Passing that exam qualifies the student to begin the dissertation study. Year 3 is a good time to apply for a predoctoral fellowship (e.g., NIH F31).

Years 4 and 5
In years 4 and 5, students move into more independent research activities and perform dissertation research. Unless they have independent funding, students are still involved in RA or TA responsibilities. Students who have not yet obtained dissertation funding or a predoctoral fellowship should apply or resubmit unsuccessful applications. Students should aim to complete and formally defend the dissertation research by the end of the fifth year.

A total of 60 units of graduate study are required for the Ph.D. in health behavior research. Students are required to complete 9 core courses (plus the interdepartmental ethics course INTD 500), 12 units of research, a minimum of 7 units of elective coursework and 4 dissertation units. Students may take additional classes according to their unique research interests.

Required Courses:

PM 500Foundations of Health Behavior4
PM 511aLData Analysis-SAS (Prerequisite, 510L, Principles of Biostatistics)4
PM 511bLData Analysis-Regression4
PM 515Multivariate Statistics in Health Behavior Research
(Prerequisite, PM 512, Intro to Epi Methods)
PM 530Biological Basis of Disease4
PM 601Basic Theory and Strategies of Prevention4
PM 604Health Behavior Research Methods4
PM 615Intervention Research Grant Proposal Development4
PM 756Research Seminar in Health Behavior – 1 unit each, 5 required5
INTD 500Ethics and Accountability in Biomedical Research1

Students who enter the program with a strong statistical background may substitute higher-level statistics classes for PM 510L, PM511aL and PM 511bL after consulting with their advisor.

Research Units:
PM 590 (Directed Research) – 4 units
PM 690 (Directed Research in Health Behavior) – 4 units
PM 790 (Research) – 4 units

Qualifying Units:
GRSC 800a (Qualifying exam) – 0 units
GRSC 800b (Qualifying exam) – 0 units

Dissertation Units:
PM 794a (Doctoral Dissertation) – 2 units
PM 794b (Doctoral Dissertation) – 2 units

Elective Coursework:
Two elective PM courses – 7 units

Students may take additional electives in PM or other departments, as long as they can justify that the course is related to their degree.

Students will be expected to attend at least 10 seminar sessions during each semester they are enrolled in PM 756. These sessions can be from any reputable seminar series held at USC or outside USC focusing on research. Seminars should be research-focused and related to the student’s degree and research interests. In some cases, students may wish to attend a conference and count conference sessions toward the attendance total of 10 sessions required for PM 756 (one paper session or symposium equals one seminar). During COVID-19, all seminars may be online. When we are back on campus, students should attempt to attend the majority of the seminars in person to facilitate networking and interaction.

At the end of the semester, students should submit a 1-2-page paper listing the seminars that they attended and describing what they learned. Examples might include theories, intervention approaches, research methods, new ideas about predictors of health behavior, or novel approaches to intervention translated from basic science research.

Students must enroll in a minimum of 12 units of directed research (4 units of PM 590, 4 units of PM 690, and 4 units of PM 790; credit/no credit). Students typically begin taking directed research units during their first year. Directed research activity is designed in consultation with your faculty advisor or with another faculty member with whom you may be working. (We strongly encourage you to take directed research units with a variety of faculty members, because you will need to assemble a committee of 5 faculty members who are familiar with your work.) The student and advisor should plan a set of activities that will promote the student’s knowledge in a particular area. This activity is distinct from TA and RA responsibilities. Examples of directed research activities include development and pilot testing of health education curricula, observational studies, design and pilot testing of assessment instruments, data collection efforts (e.g., telephone surveys or face-to-face interviews), data analysis, and literature reviews. As a general rule, 1 unit of research is equivalent to 2 hours of work per week.

Annual reviews of graduate students occur at the end of each spring semester. The review is a constructive process in which students receive feedback on their progress in the program and plan for the upcoming year. Career goals and avenues of development are discussed. Each student schedules the review, which typically lasts 30-60 minutes. The student asks at least two faculty members familiar with his/her coursework or research activities to attend the review. In addition, the Ph.D. Program Director should be invited and will attend the review if her schedule allows.

At the time of the review, the student submits the following information to the review committee:

  • CV
  • Written statement of activities and accomplishments during the past year
  • Written statement of goals for upcoming year
  • List of courses completed and grades received

Second year students also give a brief presentation about a current research project or paper (like a conference presentation), including the research question(s), methods, findings, and conclusions. This presentation counts as the second-year screening exam.

Students serving as RAs or TAs receive a monthly stipend for each of the nine months of the academic year. Most RA and TA positions are 50% time and include 12 units of paid tuition in the fall and spring semesters, as well as 12 units of paid tuition in the summer. RAs and TAs are expected to work no more than 20 hours per week on research- or teaching-related activities assigned by the Principal Investigator, faculty advisor, or class instructor to whom the student reports.

RAs may be asked to perform a range of activities that support the funded research project in which they participate. Activities will vary with the stage of the research project. TAs assist faculty with grading, review sessions, and communications with students.

RA activities (with stipend) generally extend through the summer months. Faculty attempt to find RA summer positions for students who served as TA’s during the academic year. There are also a few summer TA positions. Continued financial support is based on quality of performance and demonstrated responsibility in performing one’s duties.

Some students receive one-year Keck/Graduate School fellowships that can be used in for any two semesters semester. Advanced students can apply for a limited number of fellowships from the Graduate School, aimed at those who are nearing or completing their dissertation. These fellowships are typically for one year and provide a monthly stipend and tuition remission. Students on any USC fellowships are not required to work as research assistants, but they are strongly encouraged to volunteer on faculty research projects to gain valuable research experience.

All students are required to apply for dissertation funding. In most cases, this will involve submitting a shorter version of the dissertation proposal to a funding agency. F31 fellowships from the National Institutes of Health are specifically designed for this purpose and are recommended. Several agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, AHCPR, TRDRP, private foundations) offer these types of awards, which typically provide a stipend, tuition, and money for materials and supplies. Several of our past and current students have been successful in winning these awards. When you begin to prepare your dissertation proposal, you should begin thinking about converting that proposal into a dissertation grant application. It may take several months for your grant application to be reviewed and money awarded, so you will need to plan accordingly. Your advisor should be able to help you locate grant announcements and application websites.

Before the qualifying exam, students assemble a Guidance Committee (also known as the Qualifying Exam Committee) consisting of 5 faculty members:

Member titleHome DepartmentMust be tenured or tenure track?Must remain on the final dissertation committee?
Outside MemberAny USC department except PM(can have an adjunct appointment in PM, but primary appointment must be in a different department)No
Member 3PMNoYes
Member 4PMNoNo
Member 5PM or another USC departmentNoNo
External member (optional)Outside USCNoNo

*The Chair should be tenured or tenure track but exceptions can be made.

The committee must be approved by Keck. In general, all members who fit the requirements above will be approved. Members with unique circumstances (e.g., emeritus, faculty moving to or from USC, clinical faculty who don’t do research) might not be approved. Occasionally committee members will need to submit additional information about their scholarship to be approved.

The Guidance Committee is responsible for conducting the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. Each member of a qualifying exam or dissertation committee is asked to certify that the process has been conducted fairly and in keeping with USC’s academic and ethical standards. Upon successful completion of that exam, the Guidance Committee becomes the Dissertation Committee. The student may retain all of the original committee members or may reduce the size of the committee to three or four persons. The chair and the outside person must remain. The Dissertation Committee is responsible for evaluating the completed dissertation study and the student’s defense of it.

The student submits a dossier to each member of the Guidance Committee as part of the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. The Dossier should contain the following:
  1. Short letter from the Committee Chairperson that explains the components/process of the Qualifying Examination and the schedule.
    The empirical paper is a research article, of publishable quality, that reports findings from statistical analyses conducted by the student. The student formulates hypotheses and tests those hypotheses using datasets available in the department. Other methods of testing the hypotheses may also be available (e.g., students may be given permission to design questionnaire items that are included in an ongoing study). The student usually works closely with his/her faculty advisor in conducting the statistical analyses and preparing the manuscript. However, the student is expected to make a significant independent contribution that would justify being either the first or second author of the paper.
  2. CV
  3. List of all graduate courses taken and grades received
  4. Empirical paper
    The empirical paper is a research article, of publishable quality, that reports findings from statistical analyses conducted by the student. The student formulates hypotheses and tests those hypotheses using datasets available in the department. Other methods of testing the hypotheses may also be available (e.g., students may be given permission to design questionnaire items that are included in an ongoing study). The student usually works closely with his/her faculty advisor in conducting the statistical analyses and preparing the manuscript. However, the student is expected to make a significant independent contribution that would justify being either the first or second author of the paper.
  5. Dissertation proposal
    In general, the dissertation proposal will include an Introduction section that provides a comprehensive review of the literature relevant to the proposed study. In that section, you should strive to show clearly the relationship between existing research and the proposed study, and how the new study contributes to the body of knowledge. The proposal should also include a well-developed Methods section in which the planned research methodology and statistical analyses are described in detail. If you submitted (or plan to submit) a short proposal such as an F31, you should also have a longer version with a detailed description of your dissertation plan. This does not have to be final, but it should be detailed enough for the committee to give feedback and agree on a final plan during the oral examination.
  6. Publications in print
  7. Manuscripts of articles in press and under review
These materials should be organized in PDF or binder. Please check with your committee members and give them the dossier in their preferred format (paper binder or PDF).

The Qualifying Examination generally occurs at the end of the third year. You must pass this exam before you are considered a Ph.D. candidate and before you enroll in doctoral dissertation units (PM 794ab). The Qualifying Exam has both written and oral components.

Written component. For the written component of the exam, each of the 5 Guidance Committee members formulates no more than 2 questions based on either the Empirical Paper or Dissertation Proposal. These questions may pertain to conceptual or methodological issues and are offered in the spirit of constructive engagement of the student. The Chair will assemble the questions from the members into a written exam, clarifying questions or eliminating redundancy when necessary. Students have 5 full days to answer the set of questions independently, from any location. You may use resource materials, cite references when appropriate, and include a reference bibliography. Answers should be typed double-spaced with the question stated at the top of the page before your typed answer. The student must work independently; you may not confer with anyone. Violation of this rule is grounds for immediate failure of the exam.

Oral component. All 5 members of the Guidance Committee must be present in person or virtually for the oral exam, which generally lasts about 2 hours. Committee members may ask you questions about your written answers, your proposed dissertation research, and other related research concepts. The student makes a Powerpoint presentation (about 30 minutes) of the dissertation study. During and after the presentation, committee members ask questions about the conceptual, methodological, and statistical issues related to your proposed study. You will be asked to leave the room while the committee members discuss your performance and vote on whether you have passed. Four out of the 5 committee members must vote pass. Students who fail the Qualifying Exam may retake it once.

General procedure and timeline for the Qualifying Exam process.

  1. Distribute dossier to Guidance Committee members.
  2. Give members 10-14 days to formulate questions and e-mail them to your chair.
  3. Chair emails the 10 questions to the student who then has 5 full days to provide written answers.
  4. Student emails the answers directly to the chair.
  5. Chair then distributes the full set of questions/answers to each committee member.
  6. Committee members have about 7 days to review the answers.
  7. The Oral portion can occur any time after this 7-day period.

The dissertation should be a single document that conforms to USC’s formatting requirements (available at Some students elect to write each chapter of the dissertation as a separate publishable paper, to facilitate submitting the papers for publication soon after the defense. For example, a popular format is the following:

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Study 1 (complete publishable paper)
Chapter 3: Study 2 (complete publishable paper)
Chapter 4: Study 3 (complete publishable paper)
Chapter 5: Overall conclusions and discussion

Alternatively, the student can elect to use a more traditional dissertation format such as the following:

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Methods
Chapter 3: Results
Chapter 4: Discussion
The format will depend on the preferences of the student and committee, as well as the structure of the research proposed (e.g., whether it is one big study or several smaller studies).



After completing your written dissertation, you are required to defend your research in a meeting with your Dissertation Committee. The defense generally lasts about 2 hours. For this meeting, you should prepare a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation of your dissertation study/results. Be prepared to be questioned about all aspects of the study, including conceptualization, methodology, statistical analysis, conclusions, and implications.

After the defense, the student is responsible for submitting the final version of the dissertation and all necessary forms to the Graduate School. The requirements are described at