Doctor of Philosophy in Occupational Science (PhD)
The PhD in Occupational Science educates individuals to engage in the scientific study of human occupation, the purposeful activities that constitute our life experiences. This evolving science is chiefly concerned with the unique capacity of humans to develop adaptive skills, such as tool use and related occupational behaviors, and to choose and orchestrate daily occupations. It also seeks to understand the function, structure and interrelationship of these occupations and their impact on individuals and institutions.
The focus on occupation distinguishes this program from closely related disciplines such as psychology, sociology and anthropology. The program emphasizes the development of research skills and encourages students to organize and synthesize knowledge to contribute to occupational science theory and interdisciplinary understandings of occupation, health and social participation.
Why Pursue a PhD in Occupational Science at USC?
Founded in 1989, the USC PhD program in occupational science was the first of its kind, and USC PhD graduates are heavily recruited for academic positions. To date, more than four dozen graduates have filled faculty positions throughout the nation and the world, including appointments as chairs or directors of highly ranked graduate and undergraduate programs of occupational therapy. Beginning in 2004, the program was restructured to create a strong focus on producing scientists equipped to move on to postdoctoral fellowships and eventually to tenure-track positions in research-intensive universities. We therefore intend today’s cohorts of PhD graduates to be successful in securing external funding for the establishment of systematic research programs. The USC occupational science PhD program capitalizes on the abundance of resources at USC, including the Division’s fellowship programs in Socially Responsive Research and in Translational Research, our interdisciplinary partnerships, our robust NIH-funded research portfolio, immersion opportunities within the research infrastructure, our blueprint for translational research and the talents of our internationally recognized faculty, to produce unparalleled academic preparation. Furthermore, tuition for every PhD student is offset through university support.
The Division recognizes that the composition of faculty in occupational therapy and occupational science departments nationwide is not sufficiently representative of the diversity of the health care consumers whom the profession serves. Consequently, our Division strives to recruit superior applicants for our PhD program from culturally, linguistically and economically diverse populations. Moreover, we strive to provide financial packages that will make it possible for our PhD colleagues to recommend promising students from underserved populations.
A Global Community
Our PhD program has had a significant impact in building an international community of occupational scientists. Of the 60 students who have graduated from the PhD program, 17 have been international students who, for the most part, have gone on to establish occupational science programs at universities in their home countries and now comprise an international network of occupational scientists. We encourage all of our students to become networked in this larger global community. We are currently developing partnerships with other international academic programs to provide opportunities for our PhD students to participate in global developments in occupational science.
Division-sponsored fellowship programs in Socially Responsive Research and in Translational Research mean that the basic financial needs of doctoral students will be offset through university support. At USC, tuition for every PhD student is currently covered by the university. This means that students who are admitted and enroll will receive, on average, approximately $36,000 in tuition support while completing their coursework. Further, typically $28,000 per year is awarded for a student’s first three years, amounting to a total package exceeding $60,000 per year. For students making exceptional progress, there is potential for an additional grant in the form of a stipend of as much as 2 more years of significant funding. Because PhD students are supported at this level, they are freed from the need to supplement their income through outside employment and are able to devote themselves full-time to their PhD studies. Select applicants can also be nominated for prestigious PhD fellowships which are awarded by the Graduate School (see Graduate School website for a description of the Provost PhD Fellowship Program). The fact that we allocate so much funding for PhD students acknowledges our view that it takes full commitment on the part of all involved—the mentor, the doctoral student and the interdisciplinary research teams in which she or he is immersed—to produce a career scientist.
The Division also has access to a vast infrastructure that supports scientific enterprise at the university. For example, through our interdisciplinary partnerships, students are able to perform studies using cutting-edge MRI and attend university seminars offered on topics related to career trajectories or teaching excellence. They receive funding to attend both national and international scientific meetings related to their area of focus. They can take cognate courses in any of the university’s Schools and Divisions, including, among others, anthropology, education, gerontology, health promotion, neuroscience, public policy, rehabilitation science and sociology.
The Division, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2012, has forged numerous interdisciplinary partnerships that can be tapped to strengthen each doctoral student’s program of study. For example, our PhD students are currently participating in activities at USC’s world-class Brain and Creativity Institute and the Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center (directed by Antonio and Hanna Damasio), at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, the Childhood Obesity Research Center, the Institute of Preventive Medicine and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. They also collaborate in research with extramural interdisciplinary teams affiliated with USC.
NIH and other Federally Funded Research Portfolios and Immersion in Research
The signature element of our PhD program is the student immersion in the Division’s externally-funded research programs. Throughout the program, PhD students spend a minimum of 20 hours per week (for which a stipend or course credit is awarded) participating as members of a research team. Becoming a career scientist requires conducting research alongside experienced mentors. In the immersion experience, students are involved in the following: formatting important research questions; applying for and managing extramural funding; data collection, analysis and interpretation; disseminating results in peer-reviewed journals, attending conferences and giving presentations; participating in research lab management; and many other activities that comprise the standard work of scientists. But this work is not done in isolation or in class-based simulations; rather, students contribute actively to the productivity of investigative teams. Since 1994, the Division has attracted more than $29 million in federal grant funding; this is one of the finest track records among departments and divisions of occupational therapy and occupational science worldwide. In addition, our extramural funding portfolio has included other grants from the CDC, the NIDRR, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Occupational Therapy Foundation and others.
Our Blueprint for Translational Research
By enrolling in our PhD program, you will be immersed in cutting-edge translational research using a methodology our faculty has been refining for nearly 20 years. This blueprint was developed based on research related to well elders and persons with spinal cord injury, and it begins with studying a problem for which one eventually intends to develop an intervention. Results of the qualitative work then inform the intervention design. In the next step, efficacy and cost-effectiveness studies, employing randomized clinical trials and theory, are performed. In the final stages, the mechanisms hypothesized to mediate outcomes are tested in order to build theory using sophisticated statistical procedures. Within the USC PhD program, students can explore a rich mix of methodologies, such as measurement of biomarkers, fMRI, utilization of a digital laboratory for analysis of videotape and narrative data and large randomized trial designs.