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University of Pittsburgh    
2019-2020 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog 
  Sep 17, 2021
2019-2020 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog [Archived Catalog]

Biostatistics, PhD

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The PhD in Biostatistics degree program is for students with a background in mathematics and a strong interest in biology and public health. The program emphasizes statistical theory and methods so that students are prepared to be effective statistical collaborators in interdisciplinary studies; lead the design and execution of studies; and develop biostatistics methodology.

Program Objectives

Students successfully completing the PhD Program in Biostatistics will be able to:

  • Quantitatively address a novel or complex health problem by developing an innovative statistical methodology or adapting existing methods to a new problem
  • Demonstrate mastery of advanced statistical theory and applications
  • Understand and implement innovative statistical approaches emerging in the literature to biomedical and public health issues
  • Communicate the results of biostatistical analyses to individuals with varying degrees of statistical knowledge
  • Recognize strengths and weaknesses of proposed approaches, including alternative designs, data sources, and analytic methods
  • Determine the data best suited to address public health issues, program planning, and program evaluation
  • Contribute to the body of knowledge in the field of biostatistics by submitting an article for publication in peer-reviewed journal, or preparing a book chapter or book for publication

General Requirements for Doctoral Degrees

For an overview of University-wide regulations for doctoral students, see Regulations Pertaining to Doctoral Degrees .  



A minimum total of 72 credits are required.

PhD candidates normally complete graduation requirements in four to five years.


In situations where a student’s special interests or needs indicate an alternative course is more appropriate it may be substituted with the permission of the student’s academic advisor and department chair.

Dissertation Research Credits

Students must complete three credits of BIOST 3010  or one term of FTDR 3999 . Please see guidelines for both courses below.

Independent Study (BIOST 2021/3010) Guidelines

It is recommended that students should give priority to completing core and elective coursework before registering for independent study (BIOST 2021 /BIOST 3010 ). Specifically, no more than 3 credits of independent study ( BIOST 2021 /BIOST 3010 ) should be taken in terms when core and elective courses are offered that a student needs take to complete coursework requirements.

Before passing the dissertation overview and comprehensive examination, a doctoral student can register for BIOST 2021  for his/her independent PhD level research. After passing the dissertation overview and comprehensive examination, a student is permitted to take BIOST 3010  which can fulfill the dissertation research credit requirement while providing credits toward the 72 credit requirement for the PhD degree.

In situations where a student’s special interests or needs indicate more credits of independent study ( BIOST 2021 /BIOST 3010 ) appropriate approval must be obtained from the student’s academic advisor and department chair.

FTDR 3999 Guidelines

Upon enrollment in 72 credits and successful completion of all required coursework, PhD students are required to register for Full-time Dissertation Study (FTDR 3999 ). FTDR 3999  carries no credits or letter grade, but provides students with fulltime status. Students enrolled in FTDR 3999  are assessed a special tuition fee.

Preliminary (Qualifying) Examination

The preliminary examination is designed to assess the breadth of the student’s knowledge of the discipline, the student’s achievement during the first year(s) of graduate study, and the potential to apply research methods independently. The preliminary examination is used to identify those students who may be expected to complete the doctoral program successfully and also to reveal areas for improvement in the student’s preparation.

The Biostatistics PhD preliminary examination is typically offered annually in June. The examination consists of three separate components: applications, theory, and public health based on epidemiology. In order to pass the preliminary examination, students must receive passing scores for all three components of the examination. Eligible students are permitted to retake the portions of the examination they did not pass when the examination is offered again the following year. Students who do not pass the examination on the second attempt will be released from the PhD Program in accordance with the Pitt Public Health Probation and Dismissal Guidelines.

Once a student passes the preliminary examination, the student may begin working on his/her dissertation. Students should not begin dissertation work before they pass the preliminary examination.


A student is eligible to take the preliminary examination if the student:

  • is enrolled in the Department of Biostatistics PhD Program with good standing (3.00 QPA or greater)
  • did not fail the preliminary examination more than once; and
  • completed the required courses (listed below) with a B or better, or equivalent coursework which the student has obtained transfer credits or exemption for

Required Coursework

Doctoral Dissertation

Students must write a dissertation that presents the results of a research project carried out by the student. An appropriate research project involves a substantive piece of original and independent research grounded in an appropriate body of literature. The PhD dissertation should consist of material sufficient for at least two publications in peer-reviewed journals. At least one of the manuscripts, based on the dissertation and first authored by the student, must be submitted before the PhD dissertation defense.  For PhD students matriculated prior to fall 2015, it is recommended that at least one of the manuscripts be submitted before the PhD dissertation defense.  It is the responsibility of the student’s dissertation committee to evaluate the dissertation in these terms and to recommend the awarding of the doctoral degree only if the dissertation is judged to demonstrate these qualities. 

Before the student’s dissertation overview and comprehensive examination, the student’s dissertation advisor proposes for the approval of the Department Chair and Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, a doctoral dissertation committee.

Dissertation Overview & Comprehensive Examination

Doctoral students must prepare and present a dissertation proposal. The dissertation proposal consists of two parts: (i) a presentation of a dissertation overview to members of the student’s doctoral committee and all interested members of the Department of Biostatistics and (ii) a comprehensive examination attended only by the student and his/her doctoral committee. The purposes of the overview and the comprehensive exam are for a student to demonstrate that he/she is prepared to complete a dissertation by showing a general breadth of biostatistical knowledge and deep understanding of particular area(s) of biostatistics, demonstrating the ability to use biostatistical research methods and presenting a carefully formulated plan of novel dissertation research.  An announcement advertising the time and location of the dissertation overview should be disseminated to the Department at least one week prior to the presentation. The doctoral committee must unanimously approve the dissertation topic and research plan before the student is admitted to candidacy for the doctoral degree.  Approval of the overview does not imply either the acceptance of a dissertation prepared in accord with the overview or the restriction of the dissertation to its original overview. The dissertation overview and comprehensive examination should be passed at least one academic term before scheduling the dissertation defense.

Admission to Candidacy

Admission to candidacy for a doctoral degree constitutes a promotion of the student to the most advanced stage of graduate study and provides formal approval to devote essentially exclusive attention to the research and the writing of the dissertation.


To qualify for admission to candidacy a student must:

  1. be in full graduate status
  2. have satisfied the requirement of preliminary examination
  3. have completed all required coursework with a minimum quality point average (QPA) of 3.00
  4. shown proficiency in a research or investigative tool
  5. have received approval of the proposed dissertation subject and plan following successful completion of the dissertation overview and comprehensive examination requirements

Students are informed of admission to candidacy by written notification from the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs.

Admission to candidacy should occur at least one academic term before the defense of the dissertation in order to provide an opportunity for the dissertation committee members to review, criticize, and monitor the proposed research.

Meetings of the dissertation committee and student must occur at least annually from the time the student gains admission to doctoral candidacy. During these meetings, the dissertation committee should assess the student’s progress toward the completion of degree requirements and discuss objectives for the following year and a timetable for completing degree requirements.

Doctoral Dissertation Defense

The final oral examination in defense of the doctoral dissertation is conducted by the student’s dissertation committee. One copy of the dissertation must be submitted to each member of the dissertation committee at least two weeks before the scheduled doctoral defense. The defense may not be scheduled earlier than two weeks following submission of the dissertation, but must be held at least two weeks before the degree is conferred.

At least one month before the scheduled defense, the student must provide the department registrar with the defense time, date, place, dissertation title and abstract for school-wide advertisement. The student must also provide these details to the University Times and Pitt Chronicle for advertisement at least one month before the scheduled defense.

The final copy of the dissertation must be prepared and submitted according to University Guidelines for Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD). Detailed dissertation rules can be found in the Pitt Public Health Handbook.


All PhD students must register for at least one credit or FTDR 3999  during the term in which they intend to graduate.

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