Choosing a Program to Study Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

I work with doctoral and master’s degree students at Harvard School of Public Health through three programs.

Students wishing to understand more about the distinctions between these programs should begin by reading the information on the program websites.  I am also one of the liaisons between the Department of Epidemiology and the Harvard Medical School MD/PhD program, which formally offers an MD/PhD in Population Health Sciences (Epidemiology) as an option for its accepted students.

Essentially, the training in Epidemiology, is mainly quantitative, focusing on the design and analysis of studies in human populations on the determinants and of disease incidence and prevalence. This is true for both the SM in Epidemiology and the PhD in Population Health Sciences (Epidemiology).  Infectious Disease Epidemiology is one area of interest within the Department of Epidemiology; students who apply to the department and indicate an interest in infectious diseases on their application will have their applications reviewed by infectious disease epidemiology faculty and will, if admitted, have one of these faculty as advisors.

Special epidemiological methods are required to study transmission of infectious diseases, and the Department of Epidemiology offers coursework and research opportunities in this area; much of the research in this area is within the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, which I direct.  For all diseases, the challenge of epidemiology is to make causal inferences from observational (non-experimental) data, and the HSPH Department of Epidemiology offers excellent coursework in this area as the foundation of the doctoral program.  Doctoral research for epidemiology students is invariably quantitative, and while it may involve a laboratory component, that component will likely be to generate data on human (or pathogen) samples that is then analyzed quantitatively, rather than to undertake direct manipulative experiments.  In the Population Health Sciences (Epidemiology) PhD, the typical trajectory is 2 years of nearly full-time coursework ending in a written qualifying exam, after which the student switches to nearly full-time research (perhaps occasional coursework).    For SM students, the 2-year MS involves some or all of the same coursework as that for Epidemiology doctoral students, and a short (1 paper) thesis.  The 1-year SM, available to students already holding a doctoral degree, has no thesis and half the amount of coursework of the 2-year degree.  Admission to the Department of Epidemiology includes assignment to a defined faculty advisor, who is chosen as the one most likely to be a suitable advisor for eventual dissertation research.

The BPH program, by contrast to the Department of Epidemiology’s program, is focused on biological sciences, and most of the research of BPH students is hypothesis-driven biological experimentation, in addition to bioinformatics, molecular epidemiology, and other allied approaches.  Students are part of the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS) program and therefore formally register through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which grants the PhD.  Some BPH students include a portion of epidemiology in their theses, but the goal is to train biological scientists with unusually good understanding of public health, rather than to train epidemiologists.  Coursework plays a smaller role in BPH training; courses are required, but are completed in the first two years alongside intensive laboratory rotations.  Admission to the BPH program is not contingent on identifying an advisor for the student’s thesis research; a faculty advisor is assigned in Year 1, but it is assumed that the student will choose a dissertation lab based on rotations.

In considering these two options, a prospective student should decide whether the key expertise they wish to acquire is the quantitative and conceptual background required to study disease determinants in human populations (in my personal opinion, very much the same set of skills one uses for many social sciences, albeit here with a biological underpinning) or the transmission of infectious diseases (Epidemiology), or whether it is the experimental skill to address biological problems with a bearing on public health (BPH).

Students in either program can affiliate with the school-wide Interdisciplinarey Concentration in Infectious Disease Epidemiology, which includes seminars, a set of required and elective courses, and other activities throughout the year.

Note: Although I would like to get to know many applicants individually, I do not conduct extended exchanges by email, Skype or the like about advice for applications and my latest research topics with prospective applicants. This is for two reasons: first, because of the time it would take to do so with all interested applicants, and relatedly, second because it potentially biases admissions decisions to treat differently those with whom I have had more interaction. Once admissions decisions are made, I am happy to discuss all issues with admitted or waitlisted students. Thank you for your understanding of this policy.

Updated on: November 30, 2016