University of Southern California
University of Southern California
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Occupational Science | Curriculum and Requirements

The USC PhD in Occupational Science degree requires 60 units of coursework beyond the baccalaureate degree. Students with an earned masters and/or doctoral degree at the time of admission may apply for Advanced Standing, reducing the units required for the degree from 60 units to 40 units.  All students must complete the required core courses and successfully complete an independent dissertation. The program is full-time and graduate students are expected to complete the coursework and pass their qualifying examination (at which their dissertation proposal must be approved) by the completion of the fifth or sixth semester. Dissertation research begins in the sixth semester, with the final submission of the dissertation expected between the end of the eighth and the eleventh semesters. In general, students are expected to graduate within 5 years of their entry date, but some students will do so as early as the end of their 4th year in the program. Students must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Required Courses

Check here for an example PhD program Course Sequence

Core Courses

  • OT 640 Conceptual Foundations of Occupational Science
  • OT 641 The Nature of Occupation
  • OT 648 Researching Occupation: Engagement, Meaning, and Society
  • OT 649 Researching Occupation: Function, Participation, and Health
  • OT 660 Research Practicum (Four Semesters)
  • OT 661 Grant Writing for Occupational Science

Cognate Courses

Completion of a minimum of 26 units (10 units for students with Advanced Standing) in a topic area approved by the student’s faculty mentor is required. Examples of cognate areas include: research methodologies related to dissertation research, neuroscience, health disparities, gerontology and health promotion.

Research Practicum

Each student will enroll in 2 units of OT 660 Research Practicum per semester for four semesters, for a total of 8 units. Students are required to begin enrolling in OT 660 in their first semester of doctoral study. In this practicum the student will develop research skills by working as part of a research team under the direction of a faculty member.

Additional Requirements

Foreign Language or Research Skills

The PhD in Occupational Science does not require demonstration of competence in a foreign language. However, the Division expects each student to demonstrate skills acceptable to his or her Guidance Committee in either quantitative or qualitative research methodologies or a mix of both as it applies to the Division’s Blueprint for Translational Research. Students gain these skills through a combination of coursework focused on methodology and immersion experiences on interdisciplinary research teams.

Qualifying Exam

The qualifying examination is comprehensive in nature and requires the student to demonstrate a grasp of content from the core courses and the cognate area. The examination is both written and oral and is set and administered by the student’s qualifying exam committee. The qualifying exam committee is composed of five faculty members. Three members of the committee must be regular faculty from the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. One member must be from outside the division.


Doctoral students must submit a dissertation based on students’ original research according to the policies and procedures of The Graduate School. It was decided that the structure and content of the proposal be tailored to whether the dissertation follows a three discrete studies model or a more traditional dissertation/book model. On the former model, the proposal should include an introduction that talks about the 3 studies and any overarching themes that tie them together. It then should include for each study a literature review and a methodology section (the completed dissertation would thus include the addition of a results and discussion sections based on the completed research). For the latter, more traditional dissertation model, the proposal should include an introductory chapter, a review of literature, and a methodology chapter.

Upon approval of the preliminary copy of the dissertation by all members of the dissertation committee, the candidate must pass an oral defense of the dissertation. Upon successful completion of the oral defense and revisions, the manuscript is approved and the committee recommends the candidate to the Graduate School for the PhD. The dissertation committee is composed of at least three faculty members. The chair of the committee and at least one additional member of the committee must be regular faculty from the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. One member must be from outside the division.


To prepare students for anticipated roles as faculty members, a teaching component is incorporated into the program. Students work with their faculty advisor for their research immersion (OT 660) experience to identify an appropriate course or courses, arrange mentoring experience, and ensure that the timing of the teaching experience complements research lab participation and dissertation plans. If students are not assigned a full course, they are required to present a minimum of four lectures or seminars.


Since our aim is to produce career scientists and highly competent faculty members for research-intensive universities, our program is tailored to provide students with sufficient depth in a chosen area of interest. We recognize that to accomplish this goal, each doctoral student must have intensive mentoring, take appropriate coursework, be involved in interdisciplinary research immersion apprenticeships, have opportunities to hone teaching skills and present at professional conferences. Therefore, we have refined the curriculum to enhance each of these elements.

Intensive Mentoring

At the time that students enter into the program, they decide in conjunction with the faculty which faculty member will act as adviser/mentor. This individual typically serves as the student’s primary mentor and guidance committee chair throughout her or his graduate studies. The chair assists students in designing the correct combination of coursework to equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to accomplish their future aims as an academic. The mentor also guides students in taking the necessary extracurricular steps that will best position them as a career scientist in their area of concentration. Such advisement may include recommending attendance at a particular conference, suggesting contact with specific funding agencies, guiding pursuit of external funding opportunities, aiding in curriculum vitae and manuscript preparation, and assisting the student in locating an appropriate postdoctoral fellowship or in his or her job search. Because the goal of our program is to position students to become extramurally funded researchers, mentors are faculty members who have conducted or currently are conducting grant supported programs. More information and a list of PhD program faculty is available on our PhD Immersion Experiences site.

Customized Coursework

Becoming a career scientist requires developing expertise in both an area of research and specific methodological approaches, possessing the knowledge to critique occupational science research and scholarship in particular core conceptual areas, demonstrating the ability to produce publishable papers, synthesizing interdisciplinary knowledge and communicating a theoretically-driven understanding of occupational science. Students will be able to develop these capacities through their programs of study, which will cover: 1) methodological approaches, 2) occupational science core content, 3) specialty emphases linked to the ongoing research programs in the Division, and 4) content addressed in the interdisciplinary cognate selected. As part of the course requirements within each occupational science class, students are mentored in the process of producing publications by the faculty member who teaches the course.

Scientific Meeting Attendance and Other Supports

Becoming a career scientist involves attending meetings and networking to learn about the latest advances in the field. The Division provides some funding for PhD student attendance at such meetings when they are of relevance to the student’s research program, although funding is more likely to be awarded if the student is presenting a paper or poster at such meetings. To maximize this possibility, PhD students are given informal support in conference proposal development. Intense tutorials in publication development and submissions are also provided, as well as support for data analysis. The Division also hosts an annual Occupational Science Symposium, attracting interdisciplinary scholars from all over the world, which is widely attended by our PhD students.

The Interdisciplinary Immersion Experience

The hallmark of our restructured PhD program is immersion for 20 hours per week in an interdisciplinary, extramurally funded research group during the first six semesters of study. Within these groups, doctoral students gain experience in interdisciplinary research and grantsmanship that include work related to publications, data collection, data analysis and theory building. An intensive immersion model can be thought of as a learner-centered research apprenticeship. We believe that the wide-ranging content of our research programs prepares our PhD students as career scientists who can confidently make a valued contribution to interdisciplinary research groups. It also places the student squarely at the center of translational research that is at the forefront of health-related research.

WASC Accreditation

USC has been accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six regional accrediting organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, since 1949. View the student learning outcomes (PDF) for our academic programs.