Social and Behavioral Sciences

Ichiro Kawachi, MD, PhD

Assistant Director of Academic Affairs
Elizabeth Solomon

Department Website

The mission of the department is to improve health through the entire human lifespan, including a special emphasis on children and adolescents. This mission is achieved through research to identify the social and behavioral determinants of health, the development and evaluation of interventions and policies leading to the improvement of population health, and the preparation of professionals and researchers who will fill leadership positions in advocacy and public service.

The department’s educational mission is to train both scholars and practitioners: scholars whose research will illuminate basic social determinants of health and who will identify and test innovative social policy and service interventions; and practitioners who are skilled in designing, implementing, and evaluating health-enhancing interventions in action settings.

The department highlights three areas of interest:

Human development  The department’s emphasis on human development across the life course results from faculty research and interest in three domains: the physical, mental, and behavioral health and well-being of children and adolescents; basic developmental processes (including physical growth, nutrition, and psychological development); and growing attention to the influence of early-life conditions on long-term health and functioning. Coursework in this area of interest includes the study of physical growth and development, principles of psychological and social development, and longitudinal research methods. Research conducted by faculty members involves longitudinal studies of both at-risk and community samples, emphasizing cumulative risk and protective influences across the lifespan and implications for prevention, early intervention, and treatment strategies.

Planned social change  This area focuses on the application of theory in the design of intervention programs, as well as on research and evaluation methodology. The area includes work on interventions using randomized clinical trial designs and quasi-experimental approaches. Attention is given to the following design steps: problem diagnosis, assessment, formative research, program design, and evaluation. The social settings for interventions may be communities, workplaces, schools and colleges, or health care facilities. Populations of interest include those who are underserved, marginalized, and in special need. Intervention strategies include educational interventions, community organizing and development, social marketing, communication, adult-learning approaches, and advocacy.

Social determinants of health  The emphasis in this area is on the analysis of the major social conditions that affect the health of populations. Research stresses socioeconomic position, social and economic inequality, discrimination, social networks and support, social capital, work conditions, and psychological states. Seminars, tutorials, and courses enable students to explore a range of the health consequences of numerous social factors by studying varied subgroups at different times and places and under diverse and changing conditions. Students examine mechanisms and processes through which social factors exert their influence; they also investigate mechanisms that mediate or moderate relationships between social factors and health outcomes.

Degree Programs in Social and Behavioral Sciences 

The department offers both 80-credit and 42.5-credit SM programs, a dual-degree master’s program for nurses, and a doctoral program leading to the SD degree. Students in all degree programs may follow an interdisciplinary concentration in maternal and child health/children, youth, and families. Within the SD and 80-credit SM programs only, students may follow optional concentrations in health communication; obesity epidemiology and prevention; public health leadership; or women, gender,
and health.

Program Requirements
All departmental degree requirements are in addition to the schoolwide degree requirements.

SM in Social and Behavioral Sciences, 80-credit program
Minimum prerequisites for entrance:
 Bachelor’s degree or non-U.S. equivalent. Solid mathematics and writing skills and successful experience with coursework requiring critical reading and writing, drawing of inferences, and rigorous analysis are crucial. Applicants should have relevant postbaccalaureate work experience. Applications are encouraged from students who have a strong background in social sciences, natural sciences, or both; public health experience; and defined public health goals.

Program requirements: Students must earn at least 20 credits in departmental courses. They are not required to declare an area of interest within the department, but are encouraged to take courses in all three areas. In addition to fulfilling departmental and practice core requirements, students are expected to delineate professional goals and and to develop an area of expertise. They often focus on a subject area (such as AIDS; addiction; cardiovascular or cancer risk reduction; the health of children, adolescents, or women; or mental health) or a skill area (such as program design and evaluation, communication, policy analysis, or marketing). Students must complete a practicum, which consists of skill development in a practice setting, a seminar, and a final paper. All students should consult the department’s Curriculum and Advising Guide for a list of required courses.

This professional SM program prepares students for a variety of positions in community, public, and private settings. These roles include the design, management, and evaluation of programs, particularly in health promotion and disease prevention; health communication; and those providing services to women, youth, and children. Other roles include work in research, public policy, and advocacy. The health communication concentration is intended especially for those who seek positions as independent researchers and scholars; public health communicators in the private sector, state and federal agencies, international agencies, and nonprofit organizations; and public health leaders who require communication skills.

Recent graduates have taken such positions as deputy commissioner in the Department of Vermont Health Access, State of Vermont; behavior scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; senior program analyst at the National Association of County and City Health Officials; senior product manager at Genzyme; project managers and directors at various philanthropic organizations and research institutes; and intern in the Presidential Management Program. Others have gone on to earn doctoral degrees.

SM in Social and Behavioral Sciences, 42.5-credit program
Minimum prerequisites for entrance:
 Doctoral degree or master’s degree, with significant professional experience in the social or behavioral sciences, health care, or a public health field. Applicants must be established practitioners or investigators.

Program requirements: At least 15 credits in departmental courses. Students should work closely with their advisers to develop a study plan to meet their particular academic and career goals.

This program prepares students for research careers in public and private agencies.

SM in Social and Behavioral Sciences (HSPH 42.5-credit program) and SM in Primary Health Care Nursing (Simmons College)
Minimum prerequisites for entrance:
 Relevant bachelor’s degree or non-U.S. equivalent and the equivalent of at least three years of relevant experience. Non-U.S. nurses must have equivalent licensure. Applicants must meet the general admission requirements of Simmons College as well as those of HSPH.

Program requirements: Students enroll in half-time study at both Simmons College and HSPH for two academic years and study at Simmons for one summer session. Students must earn 42.5 credits at HSPH, and they must maintain satisfactory academic progress at both HSPH and Simmons. See the department’s Curriculum and Advising Guide for more detailed degree requirements.

This professional, dual-degree program is designed to prepare nurse practitioners for leadership roles in public and private institutions serving children and their families. Recent graduates have taken such positions as director of clinical services for the Family Planning Association of Maine and staff director for the World Health Organization Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood Program.

SD in Social and Behavioral Sciences 
Minimum prerequisites for entrance, SD program:
 Master’s degree or non-U.S. equivalent. The department may accept a small number of students without a master’s degree who have significant relevant work experience. Most students enter the doctoral program with a strong foundation in the social, behavioral, clinical, public health, or natural sciences and with a master’s degree in a social science (such as sociology, psychology, economics, political science, public policy, and anthropology); clinical health (such as nursing and social work); public health (such as epidemiology and health education); or natural sciences (such as biology, physiology, and neurosciences).

Program requirements, SD: The doctoral program provides a common core education addressing issues of social and behavioral sciences while developing students’ expertise in one of the department’s three areas of interest (human development, planned social change, and the social determinants of health). Students must select an academic focus in one of these areas. All students should consult the department’s Curriculum and Advising Guide for a listing of required courses.

Current and recent doctoral students have undertaken dissertation research projects on the following topics: socioeconomic position, allergic disease, and cancer risk; cross-national comparisons of perinatal care technologies’ effects on neonatal survival; poverty, policy, neighborhoods, and health; effectiveness of public policies for children with disabilities; social influences on health behaviors of college students with same-sex experience; depressive symptoms in postpartum women; gender inequality and health; measurement and social and physical contexts of physical activity; and cost-effectiveness of lead-poisoning prevention programs.

Graduates are pursuing careers in academia, government, and nonprofit organizations as leading researchers, teachers, policymakers, and program developers. Recent graduates have taken such positions as epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; programme officer at the United Nations; research scientist at Harvard University; associate director of epidemiology at Pfizer; health specialist at the World Bank; project officers in philanthropic foundations; and assistant professors at schools of public health and medicine.

Note on Funding for All Programs
Limited funding is awarded on a competitive basis to qualified applicants in both master’s and doctoral programs. Two training grants from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau partially support some students in the interdisciplinary concentration in maternal and child health/children, youth, and families. A fellowship for doctoral students is available in the area of cancer prevention, and some doctoral fellowships also may be available for underrepresented minorities. A limited number of university-wide presidential fellowships are awarded on a competitive basis to underrepresented minorities and to students from developing countries who are planning on public service or academic careers. Students receive funding in other areas through their own grant applications.

Related offerings

Contact information
Elizabeth Solomon
Assistant Director for Academic Affairs and Fellowship Programs
Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-3761
Fax: 617-432-3755

For Reference
Schoolwide degree requirements

Detailed application requirements