So you want to be an Epidemiologist…

Last week, my Gradifying co-author Amanda highlighted how her degree is structured. Today, I’ll be talking about the degrees offered by the Department of Public Health Sciences.

There are six factors that differentiate programs: the degree structure, courses, comps, research project requirements, teaching and timelines.

 

The degree itself

In my program, research projects are wildly different in terms of substantive research area, and students come in with very different backgrounds. My lab buddy in my Masters had a degree in engineering, I had a background in Psychology, another colleague had a degree in political science. With these different interests comes different theses. I’ve seen students do molecular projects that are most similar to biochem/bio projects, students who have either obtained or are in the process of obtaining their MD that are clinical in scope (note: clinical research projects are also performed by non-clinicians), and then there are projects like mine that draw heavily from psychology and sociology. The intricacies are driven by the interests of the student and the supervisor. There is also the Master’s of Public Health program that is a course-based, professional degree offered within the Department of Public Health Sciences.

 

Courses requirements

For the MSc in Epidemiology program, students have to take 4 core courses, and 3 elective courses. Usually, students will complete all but one elective in their first year, and will take one elective in their second year. Core courses include biostatistics and research methods, both of which become vital to your career as an epidemiologist. In addition to this, they are expected to complete a Masters Research Thesis.

The Masters of Public Health program is structured as a professional program where students get a broad background in public health. Students in this program take seven core courses and three electives, as well as a skills class (that I have guest lectured). Finally, they complete a 16 week practicum over the summer after their first year.

The PhD is completely different. We have one full-year seminar course, and one advanced biostatistics course. The course requirement is relatively light in that regard – if you want further, specific, training, you can seek that out yourself.

 

Comps

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of comps, I will fear no evil …

In the PhD Epi program, comps are scheduled to occur in the summer of your first year. They consist of a 4 hour open-book written exam that covers basic epidemiology principles. Following this, you are given a paper in your substantive area, and given two weeks to prepare two presentations. This forms the oral exam portion of the comps process, and is given to three professors in the department. For the first, the candidate is expected to present a 20 minute presentation where they summarize and critically evaluate the paper. Following this, they are asked questions about the paper and how the authors evaluated core epidemiology concepts. The second part of the exam requires the student to design and present an appropriate follow up study, addressing the shortcomings of the previous paper. The process takes between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours.

Typically, comps occur in late-June to early-July. The cohort of PhD students will typically study together from around April onwards, and there’s a certain solidarity that develops from going through this process together.

 

Research Project Requirements

For the MSc Epidemiology program, students are required to submit a 2 page outline of their project. Upon approval of the outline, they then prepare and submit a 20 page proposal. The proposal forms the basis of an open oral defence, where peers can ask questions. There is also a designated faculty member who acts as a reviewer for the project. Once the student passes their oral proposal defence, they can then continue with their project. Finally, they have a Masters thesis defence, where they present their work to an examining committee, consisting of 1) a professor external to the department, 2) one internal to the department, and 3) the department head (or someone in their stead).

The PhD in Epidemiology follows a very similar process, except everything is bigger. Students submit a 5-6 page outline, followed by a 20 page proposal of the project. Again, the proposal is followed by an oral exam, with two faculty members acting as reviewers as opposed to one in the Masters program. Once approval has been granted, the candidate now proceeds with their project, culminating in a PhD dissertation. This is defended to a committee consisting of a professor external to Queen’s in addition to the members of the Masters defence committee.

At both the outline and proposal stage, students are given feedback that they can consider with their supervisors as they move forward. Due to the variability in projects, there are no expectations around the number of manuscripts that you should produce, although I’ve seen Masters students produce 1-2 from their thesis work, and more if they did RA work. Doctoral candidates aim for 3-4 core manuscripts, and again, produce more if they work as an RA. These can be written while in the program, which results in a “manuscript-style” thesis (see mine here), or a “traditional” thesis, where, after defending, the student will prepare manuscripts for publication. My Masters was a manuscript based thesis, and my PhD will be as well, but this really varies on the project and whether this is feasible for you. My PhD fits nicely into four self-contained projects, and so publishing as I go was the best way to approach my PhD (you can read more about the first study from my PhD here, and the Queen’s press release here).

 

Teaching and Supervising

There’s no undergraduate program in epidemiology, and so teaching opportunities are limited. That being said, there are lots of opportunities to be a TA for graduate courses, and there are undergraduate courses that are offered. Many of the TA positions include opportunities to lecture and lead small group tutorials, which makes them a lot of fun and rewarding. Perhaps the most fun is the ability to really tailor your tutorials and classes to your own style and interests – I’ve taught several classes using data from the NHL to illustrate basic statistical concepts (what are the average number of goals scored, what’s the modal number of goals scored, why are they different).

 

Timelines

This is really left up to the student and supervisor – the department asks for progress reports by semester, but the onus is on the student and the supervisor to stick to the timelines set out in the proposal. I meet with my supervisors as required, and so we have gone 2-3 months without meeting in person if I’ve been working on a specific aspect of the project, and more often if I need feedback from them as I’m working through something. However, we touch base by email often, and this works well for us. Your mileage may vary – other students and supervisors work best with regularly scheduled meetings.

 

So while this is my experience in graduate school, I would suggest meeting with the department and potential supervisors if you are interested in joining the Department of Public Health Sciences. These are some of the core requirements and expectations, but these do change over time, and so if you’re finding this a year or more from now, be sure to check what the current requirements are.

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Posted in General, New Students, Student Perspective, Thesis
5 comments on “So you want to be an Epidemiologist…
  1. Amanda says:

    This is super interesting, Atif! I love hearing about all of the graduate programs at Queen’s. SO different!

    • Atif Atif says:

      It always surprises me just how different programs and expectations are. Even the same program at different universities vary so drastically in degree requirements – there really isn’t any consistency.

  2. Kelly says:

    This is a great post Atif! I can’t wait to start my M.Sc. at Queens in September.

  3. Colette says:

    Thanks for this Atif. I like hearing about the different aspects of programs once you are in them.

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  1. [...] I think that’s an excellent choice! (ahem, I may be somewhat biased here). Following up on Atif and Amanda’s posts,  here’s the third post in this series. I’ve tried to cover [...]

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