Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ for Future Students


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Which degree should I consider

I am interested in obtaining an advanced degree in population health research, epidemiology or clinical research. Which degree in your department should I pursue?

Master of Science in Population Health — This academic graduate degree aims to provide students with the knowledge and skills to understand health, diseases, and their determinants across the lifespan; test interventions to improve health; and develop methodological approaches for population health research. This foundation in research provides preparation for either further graduate work or employment in a variety of research settings (including clinical). This interdisciplinary training program builds on the core disciplines of epidemiology, health services research/health determinants, and quantitative research methods. With a background in these core areas, students are then given the opportunity to pursue one or more of the following concentrations: epidemiology, health services research/health determinants, social and behavioral health, or clinical research. Students are prepared in a holistic way about the various aspects of population health – which in turn helps them develop a complete understanding of various public health issues and how to initiate quality research. An essential part of this degree is a research thesis.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health — This academic graduate degree has the same focus as the Master of Science in Population Health but explores it at a deeper level. There is a heavy focus on research methods and experience in the conduct of research studies. PhD graduates tend to gravitate toward academic positions in colleges and universities, research firms, and government agencies like the National Institutes of Health. An essential part of this degree is a research dissertation which is defended after passing a qualifying written exam and one of two preliminary oral exam(s).

Master of Science and Doctorate in Philosophy in Epidemiology — Epidemiology is one of the core methodological disciplines under the umbrellas of population health research and public health. If you want to conduct research focusing on the distribution and determinants of disease in the population, have a strong foundation in mathematics and biology or human health, then the program in epidemiology may be the best fit. Consult some of the faculty research profiles on the website to see if your goals align with any of their interests.

What is the difference between population health and epidemiology?

Population health is the body of scientific disciplines interested in the study of the distribution and determinants of health and disease states in the population. It is an approach to health that seeks to step beyond the individual-level focus of traditional clinical and preventive medicine by addressing a broad range of factors that impact health on a population-level. For example, it can focus on ways to reduce health inequities among population groups by exploring factors such as the environment, social structures, resource distribution, etc.

Epidemiology is the scientific discipline primarily concerned with identifying the distribution and causes of disease in populations, and as such encompasses a rich methodology including observational and experimental study designs, statistical methods, an understanding of pathogens, environmental and behavioral risk factors, and human biology. Epidemiological methods have evolved to meet threats of global infectious diseases and the complex health challenges presented by an aging population, as well as to capitalize on the expanding understanding of human genetics. As the fundamental discipline of public health, epidemiology provides essential knowledge to design, implement, and assess approaches to effectively prevent disease and improve quality of life in the population.

What are typical career paths with each degree?

There are several possible career paths for each degree. Thus, the following listing is not exhaustive of all the possible opportunities/options:

Master of Science in Population Health – This degree prepares graduates to become public health staff/entry level researchers, analysts, consultants, administrators, and policy-makers. Graduates will often seek further education (MD or PhD) or positions in health departments, government/regulatory agencies, hospitals, HMOs, industry, foundations, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations, research institutes, etc.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health – This degree prepares graduates to become professors and public health independent/senior level researchers, analysts, consultants, administrators, and policy-makers. Graduates will often seek post-doctoral positions or positions in academia (faculty positions), government/regulatory agencies (NIH, CDC, EPA, etc), industry, foundations, research institutes, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations, etc.

Master of Science in Epidemiology – Master’s graduate will find a demand for research assistants, analysts, program coordinators, and public health workers in academia, government, and the private sector.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Epidemiology – Graduates with a doctorate in Epidemiology find career opportunities in academic research, government research and practice positions, or in the private sector working for corporate employers and consulting groups.

What types of research have students pursued in each degree program?

Master of Science in Population Health and Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health) are academic graduate degrees and require a thesis for the master’s degree or a dissertation for the doctorate degree. The following listing is not exhaustive of all the possible opportunities/options:

Master of Science in Population Health – Here is a sampling of past thesis topics:

  • Marital Status, Marital Quality and Health and Well-Being in Cancer Survivors: A Proposal for a Master’s Thesis Project
  • Determination of optimal cut points for anthropometric indexes of obesity to identify individuals at high risk of coronary heart disease in a sample of Latin American populations.
  • Physician Self -Assessment of Medical Error: Variation In and Predictors of Future Error in Primary Care
  • Evaluating Disparities in the Clinical Trial Participation of Adult Cancer Patients
  • Estimating the Risk of Alcohol Exposed Pregnancy in 18-44 year old women
  • Effect of Vitamin D and Vitamin D Processing Genes with Blood Pressure in Hispanic and African Americans: the IRAS Family Study
  • Condom Use in Heavy-Drinking College Students
  • Estimating the frequency and distribution of child disability in developing countries: data from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, Round 3 (MICS3)
  • Modeling Probability of Falls in Nursing Home Residents
  • Predictors of Early Hospital Readmission after Colon Cancer Surgery

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health – Here is a sampling of past dissertation topics:

  • A Framework for Conceptualizing and Measuring Health Inequality Sensitive to Relative Moral and Quantitative Concerns
  • Out-of-pocket Price, Prescription Medications, and Seniors
  • The Economic Burden of HPV-Related Disease in U.S. Health Plans
  • Quantifying the Benefits and Risks of Mammography for Women, Researchers and Policy Makers
  • Access to level I or II trauma center and traffic related injury outcomes
  • Epidemiology of Bone Mineral Density in Pre-menopausal Women with Type I Diabetes: The Wisconsin Women and Diabetes Study
  • Acculturation and Risk of Alcohol and Tobacco Use among Pregnant Latina-American Women
  • Psychopharmacological demand curve analysis: methods and applications to alcohol use in college students
  • Public Awareness and Perceptions of Health Disparities
  • Nutrition, Mental Health, and Quality of Life of Palestinian Preschoolers: Resilience and Vulnerability

Master of Science in Epidemiology – Here is a sampling of past dissertation topics:

  • Tumor marker influence on Prognostic Pathologic factors for ductal carcinoma in situ of the the breast.
  • Predictors of Carotid Artery Intima-Media Thickness and Carotid Plaque Score Progression over a decade: The Multiethnic Study of Artheroscleosis.
  • Prevalence and Incidence of Candida Colonization and Co-Colonization.
  • Does including HIV screening on an annual resident chart review increase screening rates among internal medicine trainees in a low prevalence, outpatient setting?

Doctorate in Philosophy in Epidemiology – Here is a sampling of past dissertation topics:

  • Climate Change Impacts on Population Health: Modeling Exposures to Heat and Air Pollution.
  • Hypertension: Drug side effect, treatment adherence, and treatment effects on arterial stiffness.

MS and PhD Degrees

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What do students say about the program?

“I chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Population Health Sciences due to the breadth of expertise among the departmental and program faculty, and the opportunities for collaborative research with various programs campus-wide. The environment here is ideal for training to be an independent researcher. The students are supportive of each other and the faculty are very approachable and committed to helping each student succeed. I am confident that the interdisciplinary training and the methodological skills I have received as a graduate student in this department have adequately prepared me for a career as an independent researcher.” ~Abiola Keller, 2012 PhD Graduate

“Being a student in this department has been an amazing experience, both professionally and personally. The interdisciplinary focus of the curriculum allowed me to explore diverse areas of research and provided me with the skills to address my research questions with a well-rounded perspective. The faculty are incredible mentors, going above and beyond just being fantastic instructors, providing students with amazing opportunities to engage in exciting new research and apply what we learn in class to real world situations. The administrative staff is so friendly and helpful, and without them, traversing the logistics of graduate school would have been much more challenging. But the best part about this program is that everyone in the department is truly your advocate; they want you to succeed in graduate school and as a future independent researcher, and they are willing to help in whatever way they can to make sure that you get the most out of this program.” ~ ~Lauren Wisk, 2013 PhD Graduate

“I strongly believe that joining the MS program was the best decision I made professionally, and I am confident that the hard work of the last two years and the high-quality education that I received will lead to future great achievements. As a clinician, I believe that the knowledge I acquired during these two years is critical to my overall ability to take care of my patients; I believe that as a result of this amazing and rigorous program, I am a more skilled physician and a more critical reader of the literature. I also have a much deeper as well as a broader appreciation of health care and its determinants at the population level than I ever had previously. This appreciation will certainly shape my future research.”
~Wael Saber, MD, MS, 2008

“The Population Health program is a graduate program unlike any other I’ve been a part of. The faculty are an amazing mix of talent, energy, persistence, and compassion. They always make the time to meet or read over a draft, to discuss a problem or to just talk about what’s going on. The students are first-rate, always supportive of one another, and even when being critical, knowing that that is what it really takes to strive for perfection. Becoming a part of this group of learners and scholars was exactly what I needed to develop into a bona fide researcher.”
~Marlon Mundt, PhD, 2007

I came to the PHS Department 5 years ago as a Master’s student with the intention of completing my Ph.D. elsewhere. However, the quality of the faculty and staff, the warm work environment, and the incredible research opportunities made staying an obvious choice. During my time here, I have been able to work in a variety of health topics, with multiple job descriptions, and with many different people. I have gained knowledge and experience that many receive only following graduation and I am excited to take my skills into the real world.”
~M. Gabriel Detjen, MS 2005, PhD 2008

What type of degree or academic background do I need to enter the program?

Applications are welcome from students with diverse academic backgrounds. Students who have strong academic preparation in the biological/medical sciences, quantitative analysis, or population health related social sciences are strongly encouraged to apply. Historically, many applicants who have succeeded in our program have come to us with backgrounds in fields as diverse as microbiology, genetics, nutritional sciences, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, environmental sciences, political sciences, business, sociology, education, engineering, psychology, economics, and actuarial science, to name just a few.

Is a master’s degree required before applying to the Ph.D. program?

Students with bachelor’s degrees may apply for admission to the master’s or doctoral degree programs.

I can’t decide whether to apply to the MS or the PhD program. Can I apply to one and be considered for both? Or, if I start as a MS student can I later join the PhD program?

Yes, you may apply to our PhD program and be automatically considered for both our MS and PhD programs. If you start as a MS student, you can always apply later for admission to the PhD program and not hinder any progress since any MS courses you take can be applied to the PhD degree. We have had several students begin the PhD program in this manner.

I am already a current graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and want to change to or add your degree as my major. Are the application materials required different for me?

Yes. You do not need to complete the online Graduate School application or pay the online application fee. Instead, you are required to complete the items listed as explained below. You still are required to submit the other application materials, but you may be able to recycle your transcripts and GRE/TOEFL scores from your previous application.

The application checklist for the Population Health or Epidemiology Programs is available here.

What funding options are available to graduate students?

Students admitted to our degree programs are automatically considered for any available scholarships, traineeships, or graduate assistant positions in the department. However, students are also encouraged to explore their own funding opportunities. Unlike many departments, we do not have a policy of admitting only students for whom we have initial funding. We do our best to help students finance their education and are most successful with providing funding to PhD admits. Potential funding opportunities are considered during the admissions review process but funding decisions continue to be made throughout the spring and summer. Please refer to the Admissions and Aid page for further information.