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2021-22 Doctor of Biostatistics Handbook

This handbook serves as an aid to faculty and graduate students in the PhD in Biostatistics program in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine. Information and degree requirements for the Penn State PhD in Biostatistics program and timeline for completing the program are provided.

Additional University requirements can be found in the Penn State Graduate Bulletin; both students and faculty are encouraged to consult the bulletin for additional information.

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General Information

Degree Program Expand answer

One of the degree programs offered by PHS at the Penn State University College of Medicine is the PhD in Biostatistics degree. The objectives of the PhD in Biostatistics program are to train students in the theory, methodology, and application of biostatistics. The PhD in Biostatistics degree can lead to careers in academic health centers, federal health research and regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and biotechnology companies.

Goals of Graduate Education in Public Health Sciences Expand answer

The mission of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine is to advance health science through:

  • the design, conduct and analysis of population-based biomedical research;
  • the support of basic science and clinical research; and
  • the education of future generations of health professionals.

The mission of the PhD in Biostatistics program in Public Health Sciences is to fulfill the third arm of the departmental mission.

Completion of the degree indicates that the student will have:

  • mastered knowledge in the discipline of biostatistics to perform in a professional, academic or corporate setting;
  • demonstrated the ability to master current biostatistical theory and practice, and to develop new biostatistical methodology; and
  • demonstrated a work ethic that supports scholarship and promotes the highest standards of academic integrity.

Advisers and Committees

General Information Expand answer

Students in the program are all supported with full tuition and 12-month stipends. As part of receiving a stipend, students are expected to work for the Department up to 20 hours per week. In the first year, however, as students are diligently preparing for the candidacy exam, the required work load is reduced to up to 10 hours per week.

Students will be regularly rotated with different faculty members to support the research and teaching missions of the department. This could, for example, include working as an research assistant in a faculty member’s lab for a few months, followed by serving as a teaching assistant for a course, followed by working on a collaborative grant. During this time, students also are encouraged to discuss areas of research interest with their various faculty mentors and course instructors.

After the student has identified an area of interest for their PhD dissertation topic, a dissertation adviser will be identified as the primary point of contact and will provide academic guidance for the student regarding completion of the dissertation. The dissertation adviser should be identified soon after the student successfully completes the candidacy examination.

The candidacy examination is administered after completion of the first year of coursework.

The program is designed to be completed in four years, though it is possible for a student to complete the program in less time. Students planning to graduate in the spring must electronically file their intent to graduate with the Graduate School in January.

The PhD dissertation must be written and submitted according to the deadlines outlined by The Graduate School. The Graduate School, University Libraries and the graduate faculty of Penn State have established format standards that a dissertation must meet prior to receiving final approval as fulfillment of a graduate requirement. The Office of Theses and Dissertations is the unit of the Graduate School responsible for certifying that the thesis has been prepared in accordance with these established regulations.

The PhD Dissertation Committee for a candidate must consist of four or more active members of the graduate faculty, including at least two faculty members in the Division of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics in the Department of Public Health Sciences. At least one regular member of the PhD Dissertation Committee must represent a field outside of Biostatistics in order to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspectives and expertise. This committee member is referred to as the “Outside Field Member.” Further information about the structure of the PhD Dissertation Committee and other doctoral requirements at Penn State is available here.

When a PhD candidate has substantially completed all course work, a comprehensive examination is given. The student must be in good academic standing and must be registered as a full-time or part-time student for the semester in which the comprehensive examination is taken. The doctoral candidate who has satisfied all other requirements for the PhD degree will be scheduled by the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services to take a final examination. Normally the final oral examination may not be scheduled until at least three months have elapsed after the comprehensive examination was passed.

Academic Requirements

Requirements for the PhD in Biostatistics Expand answer

Each student in the PhD in Biostatistics program is expected to acquire breadth of knowledge in biostatistics. Admitted students in this program already have graduate-level training in statistics/biostatistics such as a master’s degree in biostatistics or statistics.

Additional training in this program includes:

  • at least 31 graduate-level course credits as described elsewhere in this handbook; and
  • an original dissertation that involves new approaches to biostatistical design and/or analysis that is worthy of publication in peer-reviewed biostatistical journals.
Courses Expand answer

The PhD program requires 31 credits of graduate coursework, comprising of seven 3-credit required courses in biostatistics/statistics, one three-credit elective course in biostatistics/statistics, two 3-credit courses in epidemiology and/or health services & behavioral research; and a 1-credit required research ethics course.

Other courses including special topics and thesis research are made available to students as needed.

Core Curriculum/Candidacy Exam Courses (15 credits)

  • PHS 523 Multivariate Analysis (3 credits)
  • PHS 524 Longitudinal Data Analysis (3 credits)
  • PHS 526 Categorical Data Analysis (3 credits)
  • PHS 527 Survival Analysis (3 credits)
  • PHS 528 Bayesian Methods (3 credits)

Other Required Courses (7 credits)

  • PHS 500 Research Ethics for Clinical Investigation (1 credit)
  • PHS 555 Statistical Methods in Public Health II (3 credits)
  • PHS 583 Asymptotic Tools (3 credits)

Two EPI/HSR electives (6 credits), one of which should be the PHS 518

  • PHS 518 Scientific Communication (3 credits)
  • PHS 535 Quality of Care Measurement (3 credits)
  • PHS 536 Health Survey Research Methods (3 credits)
  • PHS 538 Mixed Methods (3 credits)
  • PHS 550 Principles of Epidemiology (3 credits)
  • PHS 551 Advanced Epidemiological Methods (3 credits)
  • PHS 554 Statistical Methods in Public Health I (3 credits)
  • PHS 570 Health Economics & Economic Evaluation (3 credits)

One Statistics Elective Course (selected from the following) (3 credits)

  • PHS 517 Mining Genomic Data (3 credits)
  • PHS 515 Omics and Precision Medicine (3 credits)
  • PHS 516 Statistical Genetics (3 credits)
  • PHS 554 Statistical Methods in Public Health I (3 credits)

After the completion of the first year of coursework, each candidate is required to take a candidacy examination, based on the coursework in PHS 523, PHS 524, PHS 526, PHS 527 and PHS 528. The decision to admit or not to admit a student to candidacy will be made by a committee of graduate faculty in the Biostatistics program.

  • In addition, a comprehensive examination is administered at the completion of all coursework. It is anticipated that the typical student will require two years to complete the coursework, so such a student will undergo the comprehensive examination during the third year. In planning for the comprehensive exam, the student must prepare:
  • A written document (30-plus pages) and give it to the committee one week in advance of the comprehensive exam, and
  • A 45-minute presentation of the project.

The written document and the presentation should include an introduction to the project, a literature review, and preliminary results to date.

Finally, a student will have a final oral examination in defense of the PhD dissertation, to occur at least three months after the successful completion of the comprehensive examination.

Transfer Credit Expand answer

Students are allowed to transfer up to 10 credits from an external graduate program to fulfill the 31-credit course requirements for the PhD in Biostatistics program.

However, credits earned to complete a previous master’s degree, whether at Penn State or elsewhere, may not be applied to a second master’s or doctoral degree at Penn State.

Additional details are available via The Graduate School.

English Competency Expand answer

All PhD candidates will be evaluated on their English competency during their first year by the core curriculum instructors (instructors for Bayesian, Categorical, Longitudinal, Multivariate, and Survival). At the time of grading the qualifying exam, these instructors (who constitute the Qualifying Exam Committee) will be asked to identify any potential English competency concerns based on both oral and written interactions with students. If any concerns are raised, the committee will determine subsequent steps including possibly additional testing and remediation steps. If no concerns are raised, then the student is found to have sufficient English competency per the graduate school requirement.

PhD Dissertation Expand answer

An original PhD dissertation is required for completion of the PhD in Biostatistics degree. Details about the dissertation requirements are found at the Graduate School website.

The Graduate School reviews the format of the dissertation and does not provide edits to the dissertation for spelling, grammar or punctuation. A PhD dissertation must be submitted electronically. See more information on electronic thesis (eTDs) submissions here.

Grade-Point Average/Unsatisfactory Scholarship Expand answer

A minimum grade-point average of 3.0 for all course work is required to fulfill the graduation requirements. One or more failing grades or a cumulative grade-point average below 3.0 may be considered evidence of unsatisfactory scholarship and be grounds for dismissal from the University; see the Graduate Programs Bulletin for details.

If, for reasons beyond the student’s control, a student is prevented from completing a course within the prescribed time, the grade in that course may be deferred with the concurrence of the instructor.

The period during which a grade may be deferred shall not extend, without further approval of the dean of the college, beyond the end of the sixth week of the next semester in which the University is in session. A deferred grade that is not changed to a passing grade by the instructor before the end of this period automatically becomes an F.

Academic Integrity Expand answer

Academic Integrity at Penn State is defined in Faculty Senate Policy 49-20 as “the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner.” The University’s Code of Conduct states that “all students should act with personal integrity, respect other students’ dignity, rights and property, and help create and maintain an environment in which all can succeed through the fruits of their efforts. Academic integrity includes a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation or deception. Such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the University community and compromise the worth of work completed by others.”

Academic dishonesty (including, but not limited to cheating, plagiarism, or falsification of information) will not be tolerated and can result in academic or disciplinary sanctions such as a failing (F) grade in the course.

Advisers and Doctoral Committees Expand answer

Following admittance to a degree program, the student should confer with the head of that major department or program concerning procedures and the appointment of an academic adviser. Consultation or arrangement of the details of the student’s semester-by-semester schedule is the function of the academic adviser. This person may be a member of the doctoral committee or someone else designated by the head of the major program for this specific duty. The academic adviser may be different from the dissertation adviser.

Doctoral Committee

General guidance of a doctoral candidate is the responsibility of a doctoral committee consisting of four or more active members of the Graduate Faculty, which includes at least two faculty members in the major field. The dissertation adviser must be a member of the doctoral committee. The dissertation adviser usually serves as chair, but this is not required. If the candidate is also pursuing a dual-title field of study, a co-chair representing the dual-title field must be appointed. In most cases, the same individual (e.g., dissertation adviser) is a member of the Graduate Faculty in both the major and dual-title fields, and in such cases may serve as sole chair.

At least one regular member of the doctoral committee must represent a field outside the candidate’s major field of study in order to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspectives and expertise. This committee member is referred to as the “Outside Field Member.” In cases where the candidate is also pursuing a dual-title field of study, the dual-title representative to the committee may serve as the Outside Field Member.

Additionally, at least one regular member of the doctoral committee must have a primary appointment in an administrative unit outside the primary appointment administrative home of the student’s dissertation adviser (e.g., for tenure-line faculty, the tenure home) in order to avoid the potential for conflicts of interest. This committee member is referred to as the “Outside Unit Member.” In some cases, an individual may have a primary appointment outside the administrative home of the student’s dissertation adviser and also represent a field outside the student’s major field of study; in such cases, the individual may serve as both the Outside Field Member and the Outside Unit Member.

If the candidate has a minor, that field must be represented on the committee by a “Minor Field Member.” (See also Major Program and Minor Field under DEd — Additional Specific Requirements.)

This committee is appointed by the graduate dean through the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services, upon recommendation of the head of the major program, soon after the student has passed the qualifying exam. The dean may on occasion appoint one or more members of the committee in addition to those recommended by the program chair.

A person not affiliated with Penn State who has particular expertise in the candidate’s research area may be added as a “Special Member,” upon recommendation by the head of the program and approval of the graduate dean (via the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services). A Special Member is expected to participate fully in the functions of the doctoral committee. If the Special Member is asked only to read and approve the doctoral dissertation, that person is designated a special signatory. Occasionally, special signatories may be drawn from within the Penn State faculty in particular situations.

The membership of doctoral committees should be periodically reviewed by the program chair to ensure that its members continue to qualify for service on the committee in their designated roles. For example, if appointments, employment at the University, etc., have changed since initial appointment to the committee, changes to the committee membership may be necessary. If changes are warranted, they should be made as soon as possible to prevent future problems that may delay academic progress for the student (e.g., ability to conduct the comprehensive or final examinations).


The chair or at least one co-chair must be a member of the graduate faculty of the specific doctoral program in which the candidate is enrolled. A retired or emeritus faculty member may chair a doctoral committee if they began chairing the committee prior to retirement and has the continuing approval of the department head or program chair. The primary duties of the chair are: (1) to maintain the academic standards of the doctoral program and the Graduate School and assure that all procedures are carried out fairly, (2) to ensure that the comprehensive and final examinations are conducted in a timely fashion, (3) to arrange and conduct all meetings, and (4) to ensure that requirements set forth by the committee are implemented in the final version of the thesis.


The doctoral committee is responsible for approving the broad outline of the student’s program and should review the program as soon as possible after the student passes the qualifying exam. Moreover, continuing communication among the student, the committee chair, the research supervisor, and the members of the committee is strongly recommended, to preclude misunderstandings and to develop a collegial relation between the candidate and the committee.


The (entire) committee will prepare and administer the examination, and evaluate the candidate’s performance on the examination. If a committee member is unable to attend the final oral defense, the member may sign as a special signatory. A revised committee appointment form will need to be sent to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services, 114 Kern Graduate Building, removing the faculty member as a regular committee member and if it is desired to designate that individual as a special signatory, a memo must accompany the revised committee form, requesting that the faculty member be moved to a special signatory. If there are then not enough members serving on the committee (i.e., four or more active members of the Graduate Faculty), another Penn State faculty member will need to replace that member to constitute a legitimate doctoral committee. (Substitutes are not permitted.) These changes and approvals shall occur before the actual examination takes place. The program administrator will notify the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services, providing two weeks’ notice, when the candidate is ready to schedule the comprehensive and the final oral examinations and will report the results of these examinations to that office.

The dissertation adviser, as well as the chair of the doctoral committee (if not the same individual as the dissertation adviser), along with additional members of the committee to total a minimum of three (3), must be physically present at the final oral examination. The graduate student must also be physically present at the exam. (Thus for a five-person committee, two could participate via distance.) No more than one member may participate via telephone; a second member could participate via interactive videoconferencing. The examination request and a request for exceptions must be submitted to the director of Graduate Enrollment Services for approval at least two weeks prior to the date of the exam. Special arrangements, i.e., requirements for meeting participation via distance, must be communicated to the student and the doctoral committee members well in advance of the examination.
A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the committee is required for passing a comprehensive or a final oral examination. If a candidate fails an examination, it is the responsibility of the doctoral committee to determine whether another examination may be taken.

The committee examines the dissertation, administers the final oral examination, and signs the approval page of the dissertation. At least two-thirds of the committee must approve the dissertation.