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University of Southern California
University of Southern California
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Doctor of Philosophy in Occupational Science (PhD)

The PhD in Occupational Science degree program prepares you to become a career scientist engaged in the 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 and orchestrate occupations and enact adaptive behaviors to enhance engagement and participation in daily life.

Occupational scientists examine function, structure, and the interrelationships among a complex array of occupations and their impact on individuals and communities. The focus on occupation distinguishes this program from related disciplines. We emphasize the development of research skills, and encourage you to organize and synthesize knowledge to contribute to occupational 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, your tuition as a PhD student is offset through university support.

Diversity, Access, and Equity

USC Chan recognizes that the composition of faculty in occupational therapy and occupational science departments nationwide is not sufficiently representative of the diversity of the healthcare consumers whom the profession serves. Consequently, we strive to recruit superior applicants for our PhD program from culturally, linguistically and economically diverse populations and to provide financial packages that will make it possible for our PhD colleagues to recommend promising students from underserved populations. Read more about diversity, access, and equity at USC Chan and our Minority Mentorship Program.

A Global Community

Our PhD program has had a significant impact in building an international community of occupational scientists. Of the more than 75 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.


To produce strong career scientists, we believe that it takes full commitment on the part of all involved—the mentor, you as the doctoral student and the interdisciplinary research teams in which you are immersed; thus, USC Chan allocates funds to provide significant financial support for you. The Division-sponsored fellowship program ensures that your basic financial needs will be offset through university support.

At USC, tuition for every PhD student is currently covered by the university. This means that if you are admitted and enroll, you will receive full tuition support while completing your coursework. Further, our Division awards a stipend of $40,000 per year to each student as part of a 12-month appointment as a Graduate Research Assistant. Annual stipends are typically available for up to four to five years if you make exceptional progress in your program. Supporting you as a PhD student at this level is intended to free you from the need to supplement your income through outside employment, allowing you to devote yourself full-time to your PhD studies. In addition to Division-sponsored fellowship program, select applicants are nominated for prestigious fellowships awarded by the Graduate School (see Graduate School website for a description of the Provost PhD Fellowship Program). Finally, as a PhD student, you will receive funding to attend national and/or international scientific meetings related to your area of focus.

Interdisciplinary Partnerships

USC Chan, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2017, has forged numerous interdisciplinary partnerships that can be tapped to strengthen your 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), the cutting-edge Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (directed by Arthur Toga), the Institute for Creative Technologies (directed by Albert “Skip” Rizzo), the Davis School of Gerontology, the Childhood Obesity Research Center, the Institute of Preventive Medicine, and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Students also collaborate in research with extramural interdisciplinary teams at other sites, including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, and many other local, regional, and national partners.

In addition to direct research experiences, USC Chan has access to a vast infrastructure that supports scientific enterprise at the university. For example, through our interdisciplinary partnerships, you are able to perform studies using cutting-edge MRI and attend university seminars offered on topics related to career trajectories or teaching excellence. You 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.

NIH and other Federally Funded Research Portfolios and Immersion in Research

The signature element of our PhD program is the student immersion in USC Chan’s externally-funded research programs. Throughout the program, you spend a minimum of 20 hours per week (for which a stipend or course credit is awarded) participating as a member of a research team. Becoming a career scientist requires conducting research alongside experienced mentors. In the immersion experience, you 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 a scientist.

This work is not done in isolation or in class-based simulations; rather, you contribute actively to the productivity of investigative teams. Our faculty have received over $16.5 million in federal funding for active research projects and we have one of the finest funding track records among departments and divisions of occupational therapy and occupational science worldwide. 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 over 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, you 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.

A Day in the Life of a Doctor of Philosophy in Occupational Science Student

Contact Us
For more information about the Doctor of Philosophy in Occupational Science (PhD) degree from USC, contact the USC Chan Admissions Team.