2017 Master of Science in Public Health Sciences (MS PHS) Handbook

This handbook serves as an aid to graduate students in the Master of Science (MS) in Public Health Sciences (PHS) Graduate Program in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine. Information and degree requirements for the MS PHS program and a timeline for completing the program are provided.

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

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General Information

Degree Program Expand answer

One of four degree programs offered in Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine is the MS degree. The objective of the program is to educate and train students to demonstrate excellence in scholarship and scientific understanding in the disciplines of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Health Services and Behavioral Research. The MS PHS degree can lead to careers in a wide variety of fields and settings, including but not limited to academic health centers; the health insurance industry; health services networks; local, state and federal government agencies; and the pharmaceutical industry. The degree requires submission of a master’s thesis and one oral presentation of the original thesis research.

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 (1) design, conduct, and analysis of population-based biomedical research, (2) support of basic science and clinical research, and (3) education of future generations of health professionals. The mission of the MSPHS Program in PHS is to fulfill the third arm of the departmental mission.

Completion of the degree indicates that the student will have (1) in the disciplines of biostatistics, epidemiology and Health Services (and Behavioral) Research that is necessary to perform in a professional, academic or corporate setting, (2) demonstrated ability to read, write and evaluate scientific literature, and (3) demonstrated a work ethic that supports scholarship and promotes the highest standards of academic integrity.

Scientific Research Interests Expand answer

Prospective students are asked to indicate a scientific research interest in order to complete the application for admission into the graduate program. However, students in the program experience a broad scientific research environment where specific interests can be developed.

Transfer Credits Expand answer

Students are allowed to transfer up to 10 credits from an external graduate program to fulfill the 24 credit course requirements for the MS PHS program. Instructors must review the syllabus for equivalent courses to determine their eligibility for transfer.

Students are allowed to transfer up to 15 Penn State graduate credits obtained while in non-degree status and within the specific coursework guidelines specified in the PHS curriculum.

Students who wish to transfer from the MPH degree to the MS degree (or vice versa), or change from non-degree status must complete the “Change of Degree/Change of Major” application and be reviewed as a new applicant to the new program. Up to 15 credits can be transferred from one Public Health Sciences degree or non-degree to the new program.

Advisors and Mentors

Faculty Academic Advisors Expand answer

Each student in the MS PHS Program is assigned an academic advisor upon admission to the program according to the specific interest that the student indicated on the application form. The role of the academic advisor is as a point of contact for the student as regards course selection and to help the student with any academic questions or concerns that might arise. Both the student and the advisor are invited to consult with the Graduate Program Director about any issues related to the student’s graduate education experience. Students are also encouraged to talk with their course instructors about areas of research interest.

After the student has identified an area of interest for a thesis topic, a thesis advisor can be identified to replace the academic advisor as the primary point of contact and to provide academic guidance for the student in regards to completion of the required thesis experience. The academic advisor may become the thesis advisor if so desired. The thesis advisor must be identified prior to the student filing the intent to graduate at the beginning of the final semester, but a student who plans to graduate in the spring semester of the second year is strongly encouraged to have a thesis advisor in place by the end of the spring semester of the first year.
Students and advisors are required to meet in person at least once at the beginning of the first semester and decide on a schedule of regular meetings during the first year.
Students and advisors may meet or communicate informally by email at any time. At the end of the first year of study (no later than the beginning of the second fall semester), a progress report must be submitted to the program administrator.

The MS PHS program is designed to be completed in two years, beginning in the fall semester and concluding at the end of the spring semester of the second academic year. The typical course sequence is outlined below. Milestones for identifying an area of interest, finding the thesis advisor, and completing the master’s thesis can be determined by referring to the timeline document elsewhere in this guide.

Students planning to graduate in the spring (May) must electronically file their intent to graduate with the Graduate School during January. The master’s thesis must be written and submitted according to the deadlines outlined by the graduate school. The Graduate School, the University Libraries, and the graduate faculty of Penn State have established format standards that a thesis must meet before receiving final approval as fulfillment of a graduate requirement. The Thesis Office is the unit of the Graduate School responsible for certifying that the thesis has been prepared in accordance with these established regulations.

A committee of three or more PHS graduate faculty members must be selected for a master’s committee whose primary responsibility is a review of the master’s thesis.

The representative timeline for students entering the MS PHS Program and expecting to complete the degree in two years is as follows:

First Year

  • Meet with the academic advisor early in the fall semester to become oriented to the program and establish expectations for coursework during the first year; first year coursework is sequential and does not include electives.
  • Meet with the academic advisor early in the spring semester to review academic performance during the fall semester and discuss emerging areas of research interest.
  • Meet with the academic advisor at the end of the spring semester to review academic performance during the first year and discuss developing areas of research interest.
    • If the student has not yet determined a general area of research interest by the end of the spring semester, then the student and advisor should develop a strategy for identifying an area of research interest during the summer prior to the fall semester of the second year. Either the advisor or the student may wish to invite the Program Director to facilitate the process. The academic advisor is not expected to identify the specific research topic for the student.
    • If the student has determined a specific research topic, then the advisor and student should work together to identify the thesis advisor as soon as possible so that the student can begin to develop the research project during the summer.
    • If the student has determined a general area of interest, but not a specific topic, then the academic advisor should facilitate the student meeting with other PHS faculty members having similar research interests.
    • Identify a thesis advisor.
  • Complete the Graduate Student Progress Report for year one.

Second Year

  • Meet with the thesis advisor after he/she has been identified, prior to the beginning of the fall semester to choose elective courses for the second year.
  • From this point forward the student and thesis advisor should stay in close contact,perhaps meeting on a regular bi-weekly or monthly basis, until the research project is completed.
  • Meet with the thesis advisor no later than the end of September to establish a timeline for mapping out the research project with the goal of presenting the project proposal by early December and completing the project by the end of March.

If no area of research interest has been identified prior to the end of the spring semester of the first year, then the student should schedule a meeting with the academic advisor and Program Director to establish a plan for identifying a research project and selecting a thesis advisor. If no thesis advisor and research project has been identified by the start of the fall semester of the second year, the situation will be addressed by the academic advisor in cooperation with the MS Program Committee (MSPC) with the goal of finding a remedy. If necessary, the MSPC may advise the student to withdraw or take a leave of absence from the program to contemplate his/her academic and professional goals.

If a student enters the PHS Program intending to complete the degree in more than two years, then the above timeline should be followed working backward from the intended graduation date.

If a student enters the program with more than six credits already completed and desires to graduate in less than two years, and if the thesis advisor has not already been identified, then the academic advisor should begin working with the student immediately to identify a specific research topic and thesis advisor.

Thesis Advisors and Committees Expand answer

By the end of the first semester of study, the MS PHS student must select a thesis advisor from among the department faculty. This person can be the individual who served as your academic advisor or it can be another faculty member. You should contact the faculty member directly to ask if he/she is willing to act as your thesis advisor. Also, by the end of the first semester, you should decide on your research interest and field of concentration.

In your second semester of study, it is time to establish your MS thesis committee. This is a three-person (minimum) committee consisting of your thesis advisor, one additional faculty member selected in consultation with your thesis advisor, and the chair of the PHS department or MS Program Director. You should contact the additional faculty member directly to ask if he/she is willing to serve on your committee. During your time as a student, you should consult with your advisors and committee on a regular basis regarding your program of study and completion of the master’s thesis.

Thesis Advisors

The role of the thesis advisor is to provide academic guidance for the student in regards to completion of the required master’s thesis. Either the thesis advisor or the student may request involvement of the Program Director at any time if there are concerns about the progress of the research project. The thesis advisor must attend the final project presentation.

The relationship between the student and the thesis advisor is intended to be one of mentorship. Although it is generally permissible for the student’s thesis to entail some particular aspect of the advisor’s research program, the student is not expected to act as the advisor’s research assistant.

Thesis Committee

The thesis committee consists of three or more members of the Graduate Faculty of Penn State University and includes at least two members from the Graduate Faculty in PHS. The Chair of the committee must be a member of the Graduate Faculty in PHS, and represent the same field of research.

The responsibilities of the thesis committee are to provide general guidance for the student and to ensure successful completion of the thesis research. Students will prepare a thesis proposal for their committee’s review prior to beginning research (ideally spring semester of the first year or early fall semester of the second year).

The committee will meet again at the beginning of the spring semester of the second year to assess the progress of the research and, ultimately, approve the final master’s thesis.

MS Program Committee Expand answer

The MS PHS program is governed by the MS Program Committee (MSPC). The MSPC will consist of the Graduate Program Director and four other faculty members with primary or joint appointments in the Department of PHS.

Members other than the Director will serve two year terms and may be reappointed or replaced by the PHS Chair at any time.

The MSPC will include at least one faculty representative from each of the PHS divisions, Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Health Services (and Behavioral) Research.

Academic Requirements

Requirements for Master's Degree Expand answer

Students in the MS PHS program are expected to acquire breadth of knowledge in the disciplines of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Health Services (and Behavioral) Research, and skills in the areas of experimental design, data collection and quantitative analysis. Each student must complete at least 30 credits, including six thesis research credits and 24 credits of formal coursework at the 500 level.

Each student must submit an original master’s thesis according to the guidelines outlined by the Graduate School.

Courses Expand answer

The 24 credits of required formal coursework include 19 credits of 500-level required courses, and at least five credits of 500-level electives. Additionally, a total of six thesis research credits must also be obtained. The total of PHS 594 Research Topics, PHS 596 Individual Study and PHS 600 Thesis Research cannot exceed six credits maximum.

Required Courses

  • Biostatistics (7):
    • PHS 520 – Principles of Biostatistics (3 credits)
    • PHS 521 – Applied Biostatistics (3 credits)
    • PHS 529 – Biostatistical Computing for Public Health (1 credit)
  • Epidemiology (6):
    • PHS 550 – Principles of Epidemiology (3 credits)
    • PHS 551 – Advanced Epidemiology (3 credits)
  • Health Services (and Behavioral) Research (5):
    • PHS 530 – Principles of Health Services (and Behavioral) Research (2 credits)
    • PHS 536 – Health Survey Research Methods (3 credits)
  • PHS 500 – Research Ethics (1 credit)
  • PHS 600 – Thesis Research (6 credits)

Elective Courses

  • Biostatistics:
    • PHS 522 – Multivariate Biostatistics (3 credits)
    • PHS 580 – Clinical Trials (3 credits)
  • Epidemiology:
    • PHS 552 – Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Disease (3 credits)
    • PHS 553 – Infectious Disease Epidemiology (3 credits)
  • Health Services (and Behavioral) Research:
    • PHS 535 – Quality of Care Measurement (3 credits)
    • PHS 540 – Decision Analysis (1 credit)
    • PHS 570 – Health Economics and Economic Evaluation (3 credits)
  • Clinical Research:
    • PHS 518 – Scientific Communication (2 credits)

Courses in Health Policy and Administration (HPA) and Statistics (STAT) may be taken as elective courses and will be considered on an individual basis in consultation with the student’s academic advisor.

Representative example of courses (credits) for both years are seen here.

Year 1

  • Fall (8)
    • PHS 520 (3) Principles of Biostatistics (required)
    • PHS 550 (3) Principles of Epidemiology (required)
    • PHS 529 (1) Biostatistical Computing for Public Health (required)
    • PHS 530 (2) Principles of Health Services and Behavioral Research (required)
  • Spring (7)
    • PHS 521 (3) Applied Biostatistics (required)
    • PHS 551 (3) Advanced Epidemiology Methods (required)
    • PHS 500 (1) Research Ethics (required)
    • PHS 540 (1) Decision Analysis

Research Ethics (PHS 500) must be taken in spring semester of the first academic year. Additionally, Penn State College of Medicine graduate students are required to complete an online training course about Human Subjects Protection provided by CITI (Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative).

Each student must complete the CITI course and provide the program administrator with a copy of the completion certificate before the end of the spring semester. CITI training is completed as a requirement of the Research Ethics course.

Students may apply these 15 credits for a Graduate Certificate in Clinical Research or Translational Science or go on to Year 2.

  • Summer (optional) (1-5)
    • PHS 522 (3) Multivariate Biostatistics

Year 2

  • Fall (6-9)
    • PHS 518 (2) Scientific Communication
    • PHS 536 (3) Health Survey Methods (required)
    • PHS 552 (3) Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Disease
    • PHS 570 (3) Health Economics
    • PHS 580 (3) Clinical Trials
    • PHS 600 (3) Thesis Research (required)
  • Spring (6-9)
    • PHS 600 (3) Thesis Research (required)
    • PHS 535 (3) Quality of Care Measurement

Thesis Research can be taken in two three-credit increments during the final two semesters, or six credits in the final semester.

Course schedules and availability are subject to change. Please check LionPATH for current information.

Course and Instructor Evaluations Expand answer

At the end of every semester you will receive an announcement via email requesting that you complete instructor and course evaluations. The evaluations are anonymous and it is very important to complete the assigned evaluations to provide input on courses which are already good or need improvement.

Master's Thesis Expand answer

An original master’s thesis is required for completion of the MS PHS degree. See University details about the master’s thesis requirements here.

In addition to the written component, students are expected to give one oral presentation of their research. The presentation should occur at the conclusion of the research project and must be scheduled between the two thesis office deadlines (format review and final submission). If the oral presentation cannot be completed before the end of the intended graduation semester, the process must begin again in the next semester. There is no penalty for not submitting a thesis but the student’s name is removed from the “intent to graduate this semester” category. All PHS faculty and students are encouraged to attend these presentations. The presentation will not be formally evaluated but should include visual aids, such as a PowerPoint presentation, and be 20 to 25 minutes in length. Students should determine the scheduling of these presentations in cooperation with their thesis advisor. At least one member of the student’s thesis committee must be present for the oral presentation.

Every thesis must be reviewed for format according to the thesis office schedule for the semester.
When a thesis is submitted to the Thesis Office, it must meet the formatting and deadline requirements set forth in the latest edition of the Thesis Guide. All master’s theses and supporting documents must be submitted electronically. For more information on electronic thesis (eTDs) submissions, visit the eTD Website.

You must also send your final thesis and supporting documents by email to the program administrator.

Thesis Prospectus Expand answer

Before registering for PHS 600 Thesis Research, a thesis prospectus and signature page is required.

Prospectus Overview

The purpose of the master’s thesis prospectus is to describe briefly the study that you plan to conduct.

This can be done in 2-4 pages (not including references), as follows:

  • 1. Title of Your Thesis: A good title should orient the readers to the topic of your study and indicate the type of study that you plan to conduct.
  • 2. Problem, hypothesis, or research question: It’s important that you are able to describe your thesis in the form of a hypothesis or clear research question. Please be specific.
  • 3. Brief review of relevant scientific literature: Although research aims to be original, innovative and important, its foundation and rationale always derives from previous studies.
  • 4. Importance of research: You need to justify what you are doing and explain why this study is worth doing and why the world needs or will benefit from the information that your study will produce. For example, what will we learn from your study that we do not already know? What misconceptions will your study correct? What original insight will your study provide?
  • 5. Data collection plans or source of data: If you are conducting an original data collection study or using an existing data set, please explain where your participants (or data) will come from, how you will collect your data (or how it has been collected), the sampling plan if pertinent and data collection instruments or tools used.
  • 6. Independent, dependent and control variables: It’s important that you be able to explain your study in terms of which variables are your independent, dependent and control variables.
  • 7. Analyses planned Describe how you plan to approach data analysis in terms of univariate, bivariate and multivariate analyses.
  • 8. Possible outcomes of research and importance of each outcome: It is useful to be able to anticipate the possible outcomes of your research to help you make sure that you plan to measure variables that can help you to explain unexpected outcomes.
  • 9. Timeline of project: Your timeline will serve as your guide as to when you need to have each component of the thesis completed.
  • 10. References
Grades Expand answer

Grades will be assigned to individual students on the basis of the instructor’s judgment of the student’s scholastic achievement.

The instructor should provide written (paper or electronic form) notification of the basis for grades to students on or before the first class meeting. Any changes in that basis should likewise be presented to students in writing.

Grades for graduate students are reported by the following letters: A, A-, B, B+, B-, C+, C, D, or F.

The grades of A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, D, and F indicate a gradation in quality from Excellent to Failure and are assigned the following grade-point equivalents:

  • 4.00 – A
  • 3.67 – A-
  • 3.33 – B+
  • 3.00 – B
  • 2.67 – B-
  • 2.33 – C+
  • 2.00 – C
  • 1.00 – D
  • 0 – F

When a student officially drops a course within the course drop period, no symbol or grade of any kind is reported.

When a student officially drops a course after the course drop period, a symbol of WN is reported.

When a student registers for a course but ceases to attend class without officially dropping the course, the student is given a grade of F in the course.

When a student officially withdraws from the University, the symbol W will be reported for each course, unless an accusation of academic dishonesty has been made against the withdrawing student.

A symbol of W will be recorded for unsatisfactory attendance in an audited course.

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 symbol DF appears on the student’s transcript until the course has been completed. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested by the student before the beginning of the final examination period. In an emergency situation, an instructor can approve a deferred grade after the final exam period has started. Under emergency conditions during which the instructor is unavailable, authorization is required from the dean of the college.

In certain courses where normal work of the course extends beyond the scheduled period, deferment may be granted routinely for all students in the course if prior approval of the Senate Committee on Curricular Affairs has been obtained.

The period during which a grade may be deferred will not extend beyond 12 weeks following the end date of the course (as it appears in the schedule of courses). A deferred grade that is not changed to a quality grade by the instructor before the end of this period automatically becomes an F. A deferred grade that is automatically converted to an F can later be corrected in accordance with Senate Policy 48-30.

Students with DF on their transcripts will not be allowed to graduate.

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).

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 is detailed in the current Graduate Council policy on deferred and missing grades. A deferred grade that is not changed to a passing grade by the instructor during the specific period automatically becomes an F.