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Biostatistics involves the theory and application of statistical science to address questions in public health and clinical medicine and to advance biomedical research. The faculty includes leaders in the development of statistical methods for observational studies and clinical trials, 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 Harvard Griffin GSAS and the Master of Science through Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Current departmental research areas include Bayesian inference, big data, 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, personalized medicine, 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
In their first year, each student is assigned an academic advisor from among the faculty in the department by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). The role of an academic advisor is to assist the student in course selection and other academic issues until the student has established a dissertation advisor. In addition to overseeing student advising, the DGS, together with the Biostatistics PhD Program Committee, oversees student orientation, funding concerns, teaching and research assistantships, and other related matters.
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 DGS 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 DGS are forwarded to the Biostatistics PhD Program Committee for final approval.
Advising of students comes from faculty advisors, course instructors, the Biostatistics PhD Program Committee, and the DGS. 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.
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 coursework 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 sufficient prior statistical training may qualify for the AM degree with two terms of coursework. 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 T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
A critical component of graduate training in the biostatistics program is the accrual of meaningful teaching experience. All PhD students participate as teaching fellows in courses offered by the department. Requirements for serving as a teaching fellow are described in greater detail in the Biostatistics Graduate Student Handbook.
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 required to take one or more courses in statistical computing as part of their program.
Written Qualifying Examinations
Each student must take and pass a written qualification examination, administered in August of the summer following their first year.
The written qualifying examination assesses the student’s background in probability and statistical theory and in applications, and their ability to synthesize material from the four core first-year courses. It is administered annually by the biostatistics qualifying examination committee, which also supervises the writing and grading of the exam. Students will be allowed to retake the examination at most once. A student who has not passed the written qualifying examination after two attempts is withdrawn from the program.
Students must acquire experience in planning and conducting studies in biomedical science or public health. Requirements for completing this requirement are described in greater detail in the Biostatistics Graduate Student Handbook.
Students identify their dissertation advisors following their successful completion of the written qualifying examination. Students may elect to have a single dissertation advisor, or two co-advisors; the advisor or at least one co-advisor must be a member of the faculty of the Department of Biostatistics. The dissertation advisor(s) will take over the duties of academic advising from the student’s faculty advisor. A student’s selection of dissertation advisor(s) must be approved by the DGS.
After a student has passed the written qualifying examination, the student, in consultation with the dissertation advisor(s), nominates a dissertation committee to oversee the student’s progress. The dissertation committee ordinarily consists of the dissertation advisor(s), who serves as the chairperson, and two or more faculty members. At least one of the latter must be a member of the faculty of the Department of Biostatistics. The membership of the dissertation committee must be approved by the DGS.
The dissertation committee will provide timely and considered advising to the student. The dissertation 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. Students are required to meet with their dissertation committee at least once every six months, and more frequent meetings may be advisable for students in their final year. The student and their dissertation advisor will prepare a written progress report twice per year.
Oral Qualifying Examinations
The oral qualifying examination assesses the student’s potential to perform research in a chosen field and examines the student’s knowledge of their fields of study. The oral examination is administered by their dissertation committee and should be completed within four terms of passing the written examination. The oral exam must be scheduled at least three weeks in advance. The student will prepare a written report summarizing the topic and reviewing the relevant literature. Details on the format for this proposal are provided in the Biostatistics Graduate Student Handbook. This written report must be given to the dissertation committee at least three weeks prior to the examination. Successful completion of the written qualifying examination is a prerequisite for taking the oral qualifying examination.
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. Dissertation information is available on the Harvard Griffin GSAS website, 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. Generally, the dissertation consists of three papers each containing publishable content, but there is no requirement that the papers be published prior to the defense.
Acceptance of the dissertation is the responsibility of the student’s dissertation committee, the department, and Harvard Griffin GSAS. When the dissertation is complete, the student defends it to the dissertation 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 dissertation committee at least two weeks before the defense.