The PhD in Sociomedical Sciences

Disciplinary Concentrations | Course and Program Requirements | Program Milestones | THE Dissertation

The Sociomedical Sciences PhD program is interdisciplinary, with study divided between the Mailman School of Public Health and one of several departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Anthropology, History, Political Science, Psychology, or Sociology). The PhD is designed for individuals who wish to combine training in history or in a social or behavioral science discipline and to study questions significant to public health and medicine. Our PhD program graduates go on to do research and teach in institutions of higher education, to serve in leadership positions in public health agencies and community organizations, and to work the private sector.

Dissertation research advances knowledge in a student’s discipline while also answering questions central to public health. This includes applying social science theory and methods to the study of social factors that shape health behaviors, health disparities, and use of health care services; exploring the social structure of healthcare delivery systems, and analyzing the relation between these systems and the populations they are designed to serve. Student profiles, as well as our students’ publications give a rich sense of the breadth of student work. Faculty mentors are drawn from the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, as well as from other Mailman School faculty with social science training, and faculty from social science departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The department awards a number of fellowships to recognize academic achievement and support future scholarly success. Research experience is considered a critical aspect of graduate training, and so most fellowships and assistantships involve some form of research apprenticeship. For more information on the funding packages provided to students who matriculate in our doctoral programs, see the frequently asked questions.

Disciplinary Concentrations

Sustained and intensive engagement with a specific discipline is the hallmark of SMS’s PhD program. Our PhD students complete 30 of their 60 credits of coursework in their chosen discipline and work closely with faculty in their respective disciplinary department on the Arts and Sciences campus, and many of SMS’s own faculty are historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or political scientists. Our PhD students also complete requirements specific to the discipline in which they concentrate (for more information on that, see the SMS Doctoral Handbook.

For the PhD program, we seek applicants who articulate what draws them to that particular discipline and how they see their work advancing knowledge in that discipline. When applying to the PhD program, students must indicate the discipline in which the intend to concentrate, and they are considered for admission specifically to that discipline. Students who are admitted have been reviewed both by faculty in Sociomedical Sciences and by faculty in the respective disciplinary department.

Our PhD students publish in their discipline’s top journals and secure funding from NSF, Wenner-Gren, APA, and other disciplinarily-oriented sources. Those interested in academic careers go on to positions in traditional departments, interdisciplinary centers and institutes, and schools of public health.

Course and Program Requirements for the PhD

P6104 Biostatistics
P6499 Epidemiology
P8788 Theoretical Foundations of Sociomedical Sciences
P8789 Contemporary Debates in Sociomedical Sciences
Quantitative Methods
Qualitative Methods

Two of the following five:

P8704 Medical Sociology
P8755 Medical Anthropology
P8767 Health Psychology
P8773 Social History of American Public Health
P6503 Introduction to Health Economics

Public Health Electives

30 credits of coursework in the student’s discipline, primarily within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Students in each discipline also complete requirements specific to that discipline, in many instances under the supervision of faculty on the Arts and Sciences campus. More information on the course work, language proficiency, and other requirements for anthropology, history, psychology, sociology and political science are found in the Doctoral Student Handbook (PDF)

Program Milestones

Students complete a number of milestones over the course of the program.

At the end of the first year, all students take a comprehensive exam, which draws on the material presented in Theoretical Foundations of Sociomedical Science and Contemporary Debates in Sociomedical Sciences.
Towards the end of coursework, student mastery of key substantive and theoretical areas of interest, as well as of research method, is assessed through two essay exams: the theme essay and the methods essays. These are described in greater detail in the handbook. In addition to providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate readiness to undertake independent research, the theme and methods essays are also designed to help each student build a strong mentor/mentee relationship with the intended dissertation sponsor and to begin substantial preparation for dissertation research under that faculty member’s supervision.

In addition to successfully completing the required program milestones examinations, PhD students who enter the program without a Master’s Degree must fulfill the Master’s Essay requirement.

Students should note that there are also requirements specific to each PhD discipline.

The Dissertation

Students formulate a dissertation project and select a sponsor for the project during the coursework period. Students are normally expected to complete and defend the dissertation proposal within six months following completion of all other program requirements, and the dissertation proposal defense is the last milestone before a student formally begins work on the dissertation. The dissertation can be in the traditional monograph format, but (as long as this format is approved by the student’s committee) can also use the ‘publishable papers’ format, which includes a comprehensive literature review, at least two papers of publishable quality, and a final chapter that integrates and discusses the papers.

The Proposal and Dissertation Defense Committee is composed of five members: the Sponsor, who is an approved PhD sponsor, is the person who guides the student through the dissertation; the Chair, who is a tenured or senior faculty with a primary appointment in SMS; and three other members, one of whom should be an outsider from other Columbia Departments and/or schools or universities.

All students must submit an application to the Health Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB) and obtain their approval for any research involving human participants. Once the student has obtained approval of the proposal and IRB approval, the student may begin dissertation research.

When the student, the dissertation sponsor, and a second member of the committee feel that the dissertation has been completed in a satisfactory manner, the sponsor informs the Deputy Chair of the Doctoral Program and the Academic Program Coordinator and requests that a time and date for the defense be scheduled. The student must circulate the full dissertation to the Dissertation Defense Committee at least one month prior to defense date.