Degree Programs

Biostatistics

Biostatistics involves the theory and application of statistical science to analyze public health problems and to further biomedical research. The faculty includes leaders in the development of statistical methods for clinical trials and observational studies, studies on the environment, and genomics/genetics. The department’s research in statistical methods and bioinformatics and its interdisciplinary collaborations provide many opportunities for student participation. The Department of Biostatistics offers the PhD through GSAS and the Master of Science through Harvard School of Public Health.

Current departmental research areas include Bayesian inference, bioinformatics, causal inference, computationally-intensive methods, decision sciences, design and analysis of clinical trials, experimental design, high dimensional data analysis, machine learning, measurement error, missing data, multivariate and longitudinal studies, network analysis, quantitative genomics, semiparametric methods, sequential methods, spatial statistics, statistical computing, statistical genetics, stochastic processes, surveillance methods, and survival analysis, among other areas. Areas of application include biology, cancer, clinical research, computational biology, the environment, epidemiology, genetics, health disparities, health policy, HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, neurology, and psychiatry, among other areas. Collaborative research activities include coordination of national and international clinical trials, participation in studies of potential environmental hazards, collaboration on novel genetic and genomic studies, evaluation of health interventions and medical technologies, consultation with federal, state, and local agencies, and working with biomedical scientists in other Harvard-affiliated institutions.

The PhD program in Biostatistics trains students in the areas of probabilistic and statistical theory, biostatistical and bioinformatics methods, statistical computation and algorithm development, the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with scientists in related disciplines, and the ability to teach biostatistics and bioinformatics effectively to general or specialized audiences. The PhD program includes training in the development of methodology, consulting, teaching, and collaboration on a broad spectrum of health-related problems.

The Department offers the PhD in Biostatistics with two areas of interest: Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. Students select the area of interest most appropriate to their background and interests, and satisfy the specific degree program requirements for their area of interest.

The First Two Years

Advising and Course Selection

Each first-year student is assigned a faculty advisor by the Biostatistics Student Advising Committee. The faculty advisor will assist the student in course selection and other academic issues until the student has selected a dissertation advisor. The Student Advising Committee oversees student advising and orientation, funding concerns, teaching and research assistantships, and other related matters.

The particular courses a student is required to take may vary based upon his or her academic background. The specific requirements for the PhD in Biostatistics are outlined in the Biostatistics Graduate Student Handbook, including requirements for the areas of interest in Biostatistics or Bioinformatics. The director of graduate studies is responsible for reviewing the student’s program of study and has the authority to consider exceptions to the rules and regulations established by the department. The recommendations of the director of graduate studies are forwarded to the department chair for final approval.

Advising of students comes from faculty advisors, course instructors, the Biostatistics Student Advising Committee, the director of graduate studies, the department chair, other faculty, and GSAS. All students are monitored by the Committee on Academic Standing. Third-and higher-year students are also monitored by their dissertation advisor and their research committee.

Credit for Work Done Elsewhere

The program may excuse a student from some of the program course requirements in consideration of courses taken elsewhere. Only graduate courses taken after the bachelor’s degree may be given official GSAS credit toward the PhD degree. The maximum allowable credit for courses taken elsewhere is eight half-courses (a half-course is equivalent to a five-unit Harvard School of Public Health course). Students petitioning for credit for work done elsewhere should seek the approval of the director of graduate studies. The recommendations of the director of graduate studies are forwarded to the department chair for final approval.

Master of Arts (AM)

No one is admitted as a candidate for the AM, only for the PhD. Nevertheless, the requirements for the master’s degree must be satisfied by all students as they move toward the PhD and are expected to be completed by the end of the fourth term. The AM degree may be granted when these requirements are fulfilled. In addition, the department may confer a terminal AM on students who will not be completing the requirements for the PhD.

For the AM degree, four terms of course work with a minimum average grade of B is ordinarily required. With the department’s approval, students with a previous graduate degree in a medical, scientific, or statistical field and with prior sufficient prior statistical training may qualify for the AM degree with two terms of course work. The specific requirements for the AM in Biostatistics are outlined in the Biostatistics Graduate Student Handbook. Upon fulfilling the AM requirements, students should submit an application for the master’s degree.

Applicants interested in the Master of Science program in Biostatistics should apply through Harvard School of Public Health.

Teaching

The Biostatistics program encourages its students to gain meaningful teaching experience as part of their graduate training. All PhD students participate as a teaching assistant in courses offered by the department.

Computing

Students entering the PhD program in Biostatistics are expected to have experience with a programming language and one or more statistical packages. Given the increasing reliance of statistical practice on computing technology, students are recommended to take one or more courses in statistical computing as part of their program.

Qualifying Examinations

Each student must take and pass two qualifying examinations: a written qualifying examination and, later, an oral examination.

The written qualifying examination assesses the student’s background in probability and statistical theory and in applications. It is administered annually by the Biostatistics Qualifying Examination Committee.

The written examination is typically given just prior to the spring term of the second academic year. The Biostatistics Qualifying Examination Committee supervises the writing and grading of the examination. Students may be allowed to retake the examination at most once, with Departmental approval. A student who has not passed the written qualifying examination after two attempts will be asked to leave the program.

The oral qualifying examination assesses the student’s potential to perform research in a chosen field, and examines the student’s knowledge of his or her fields of study. The oral examination should be scheduled within three terms of passing the written examination. The student nominates an oral qualifying examination committee of at least three faculty members who will give this examination. The membership of the oral qualifying examination committee must be approved by the director of graduate studies. Successful completion of the written qualifying examination is a prerequisite for taking the oral qualifying examination.

Dissertation Advisor Selection

Students select their dissertation advisors following their successful completion of the written qualifying examination. The dissertation advisor will take over the duties of academic advising from the student’s faculty advisor. A student’s selection of dissertation advisor must be approved by the director of graduate studies.

Research Committee

After a student has passed the oral qualifying examination, the student, in consultation with the dissertation advisor, nominates a research committee to oversee the student’s progress. The research committee ordinarily consists of the dissertation advisor, who serves as the chairperson, and two or more faculty members. The membership of the research committee must be approved by the director of graduate studies.

The research committee will provide timely and considered advising to the student. The research committee helps set logical goals for the completion of the dissertation and monitors progress toward completion of degree requirements.

The student is responsible for arranging periodic meetings with the research committee. The student and his or her dissertation advisor will prepare a written report twice per year.

Preparation for the Dissertation Defense

The FAS Registrar specifies deadlines by which the dissertation must be submitted and the dissertation examination passed to receive the PhD diploma in November, March, or May of each academic year. A dissertation information packet is available from the Registrar’s office or from the biostatistics administration office specifying the steps to be taken when the student is ready to apply for the PhD degree and the various forms that need to be submitted.

The dissertation should be an original contribution to scientific knowledge. It can contribute to a subject matter field through innovative application of existing methodology, can produce an original methodological contribution, or be a combination of the two.

Acceptance of the dissertation is the responsibility of the student’s research committee, the department, and GSAS. When the dissertation is complete, the student defends it to the research committee at a public presentation. The defense must be scheduled at least three weeks in advance. Copies of the dissertation should be given to members of the research committee and the department chair at least two weeks before the defense.

Faculty

Biostatistics faculty work in a wide variety of research and application areas and collaborate with faculty in FAS, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Harvard-affiliated hospitals, and with many external groups. More information about our faculty can be found on the department’s website.