Doctor of Philosophy in Health Behavior Research


The Doctor of Philosophy in Health Behavior Research provides academic and research training for students interested in pursuing career opportunities in the field of health promotion and disease prevention research. Students receive well-rounded training encompassing theory and methods from allied fields such as communications, psychology, preventive medicine, biostatistics, public health and epidemiology. The program prepares students for research positions in the areas of preventive medicine, public health, population health science, health psychology, and health policy research.

Training is conducted via course lectures, discussions, seminars, student and faculty presentations, and field research. In addition, students gain research experience by participating in faculty projects, most often in connection with the USC Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research (IPR).

Students come away from the program with an in-depth understanding of the subject matter and the intellectual capability needed to pursue a career in health-related research. Small classes, one-on-one mentoring, and research opportunities offered by internationally recognized faculty make this program an exceptional training ground for future impact.

Application Deadlines

December 1st


Program at a glance

This program requires completing 60 units of graduate study. 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.

Timeline for completion

The Doctor of Philosophy in Health Behavior Research is typically completed in 4-5 years. Below is the recommended time frame for completing program requirements:

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).

Year 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.

Core Coursework (38 Units)

Students are required to take the following core courses. 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.

PM 500 Foundations of Health Behavior (4 units)

PM 511aL Data Analysis-SAS (4 units)

Prerequisite, 510L, Principles of Biostatistics

PM 511bL Data Analysis-Regression (4 units)

PM 515 Multivariate Statistics in Health Behavior Research (4 units)
(Prerequisite, PM 512, Intro to Epi Methods)

PM 530 Biological Basis of Disease (4 units)

PM 601 Basic Theory and Strategies of Prevention (4 units)

PM 604 Health Behavior Research Methods (4 units)

PM 615 Intervention Research Grant Proposal Development (4 units)

PM 756 Research Seminar in Health Behavior (1 unit each, 5 required)

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.

INTD 500 Ethics and Accountability in Biomedical Research (1 unit)

Electives (7 units)

Students select 2 PM elective courses. For elective offerings, visit the USC Course Catalogue.

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

Directed Research (12 units)

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.

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

Qualifying Exam and Doctoral Dissertation

Students must complete the qualifying exam and dissertation units. Before the qualifying exam, students assemble a Guidance Committee (also known as the Qualifying Exam Committee) consisting of 5 faculty members.

GRSC 800a Qualifying exam (0 units)

GRSC 800b Qualifying exam (0 units)

PM 794a Doctoral Dissertation (2 units)

PM 794b Doctoral Dissertation (2 units)

All students are required to apply for dissertation funding.

student and professor talking

Annual Reviews

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.

taking test

The Qualifying Exam

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


Dissertation and Defense

The dissertation is a single document that conforms to USC’s formatting requirements. After completing the written dissertation, students are required to defend their research before their Dissertation Committee. The defense generally lasts about 2 hours and includes a presentation and questions on all aspects of the study – including conceptualization, methodology, statistical analysis, conclusions, and implications.

woman in front of bookshelf

Jennifer Unger, PhD

Director of the Doctor of Philosophy in Health Behavior Research program

Program Director

A Message from Jennifer Unger

The PhD program in Health Behavior Research considers the complex, multilevel factors that influence health, from social determinants of health to the social and built environment to individual-level knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.  Students learn to theorize and analyze the multifactorial contributors to health and disease and to design and evaluate interventions to improve public health.

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