The PhD in Sociomedical Sciences

The Sociomedical Sciences PhD program is full-time interdisciplinary, with study divided between the Mailman School of Public Health and one of several departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (AnthropologyHistory, or Sociology). The PhD is designed for individuals who wish to combine training in a social or behavioral science discipline with training focused on questions significant to public health and medicine. Our PhD program graduates go on to do research and teach in institutions of higher education, to serve in leadership positions in public health agencies and community organizations, and to work the private sector.

Dissertation research advances knowledge in a student’s discipline while also answering questions central to public health. This includes applying social science theory and methods to the study of social factors that shape health behaviors, health disparities, and the use of health care services; exploring the social structure of healthcare delivery systems and analyzing the relationship between these systems and the populations they are designed to serve. Student profiles, as well as our students’ publications, give a rich sense of the breadth of student work. Faculty mentors are drawn from the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, as well as from other Mailman School faculty with social science training and faculty from social science departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

SMS provides the same level of funding - five years of a guaranteed stipend, plus tuition and fees - to both DrPH and PhD students. For more information on the funding packages provided to students who matriculate in our doctoral programs, see the frequently asked questions.

Disciplinary Concentrations

Sustained and intensive engagement with a specific discipline is the hallmark of SMS’s PhD program. Our PhD students complete 30 of their 60 credits of coursework in their chosen discipline and work closely with faculty in their respective disciplinary department on the Arts and Sciences campus. Additionally, many of SMS’s own faculty are historians, psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists. Our PhD students also complete requirements specific to the discipline in which they concentrate (for more information on discipline requirements, see the SMS Doctoral Handbook). 

For the PhD program, we seek applicants who can articulate what draws them to that discipline and how they see their work advancing disciplinary knowledge. When applying to the PhD program, students must indicate the discipline in which they intend to concentrate, and they are considered for admission specifically to that discipline. Students who are admitted have been reviewed both by faculty in Sociomedical Sciences and by faculty in the respective disciplinary department.

Our PhD students publish in their disciplines' top journals and secure funding from disciplinary oriented sources. Those interested in academic careers go on to positions in traditional departments, interdisciplinary centers and institutes, and schools of public health.

Course and Program Requirements for the PhD

Required Courses

  • P6104 Biostatistics
  • P6499 Epidemiology
  • P8788 Theoretical Foundations of Sociomedical Sciences
  • P8789 Contemporary Debates in Sociomedical Sciences
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Qualitative Methods

Social Science Courses

SMS doctoral students must further demonstrate competence in approaching public health and medical research from the perspective of social science disciplines other than the one in which they are concentrating. The requirement may be fulfilled by successfully completing two courses that cover a broad survey of a social science discipline’s approach to public health and medicine. The course does not have to be an SMS course, but it must be taught at a graduate level for either masters or doctoral students and should focus on a discipline other than the one in which the student is concentrating.

Public Health Electives

30 credits of coursework in the student’s discipline, primarily within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Students in each discipline also complete requirements specific to that discipline, in many instances under the supervision of faculty on the Arts and Sciences campus. More information on the course work, language proficiency, and other requirements for anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology are found in the Doctoral Student Handbook

Program Milestones

Students complete a number of milestones over the course of the program.

Towards the end of coursework, student mastery of key substantive and theoretical areas of interest, as well as of research method, is assessed through two essay exams: the theme essay and the methods essays. These are described in greater detail in the handbook. In addition to providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate readiness to undertake independent research, the theme and methods essays are also designed to help each student build a strong mentor/mentee relationship with the intended dissertation sponsor and to begin substantial preparation for dissertation research under that faculty member’s supervision.

In addition to successfully completing the required program milestones examinations, PhD students who enter the program without a master’s degree must fulfill the Master’s Essay requirement.

Students should note that there are also requirements specific to each PhD discipline (AnthropologyHistoryPsychology, or Sociology).

The Dissertation

The dissertation can be in the traditional monograph format, but (as long as this format is approved by the student’s committee) can also use the ‘publishable papers’ format, which includes a comprehensive literature review, at least two papers of publishable quality, and a final chapter that integrates and discusses the papers.

The Proposal and Dissertation Defense Committee is composed of five members: the Sponsor, who is an approved PhD sponsor, is the person who guides the student through the dissertation; the Chair, who is a tenured or senior faculty with a primary appointment in SMS; and three other members, one of whom should be an outsider from other Columbia Departments and/or schools or universities.

All students must submit an application to the Health Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB) and obtain their approval for any research involving human participants. Once the student has obtained the approval of the proposal and IRB approval, the student may begin dissertation research.

When the student, the dissertation sponsor, and a second member of the committee feel that the dissertation has been completed in a satisfactory manner, the sponsor informs the Deputy Chair of the Doctoral Program and the Academic Program Coordinator and requests that a time and date for the defense be scheduled. The student must circulate the full dissertation to the Dissertation Defense Committee at least one month prior to the defense date.


Where can I go if I want to learn more about the doctoral programs?