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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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PhD in Occupational Science
Curriculum and Requirements

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

Advanced Standing

If you have earned a masters and/or doctoral degree at the time of admission, you may apply for Advanced Standing, reducing the units required for the degree from 60 units to 40 units.

Required Courses

View 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 if you have Advanced Standing) in a topic area approved by your faculty mentor is required. Examples of cognate areas include: research methodologies related to dissertation research, neuroscience, health disparities, gerontology and health promotion.

Research Practicum
You will enroll in 2 units of OT 660 Research Practicum per semester for four semesters, for a total of 8 units. You are required to begin enrolling in OT 660 in your first semester of doctoral study. In this practicum you 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 you to demonstrate skills acceptable to your 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. You gain these skills through a combination of coursework focused on methodology and immersion experience on an interdisciplinary research team.

Qualifying Exam
The qualifying examination is comprehensive in nature and requires you 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 your qualifying exam committee. Your qualifying exam committee is composed of five faculty members. Three members of the committee must be regular faculty from the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. One member must be from outside the division.

You must submit a dissertation based on your 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, you 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 you 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 Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. One member must be from outside the division.

To prepare you for anticipated roles as a faculty member, a teaching component is incorporated into the program. You work with your faculty advisor for your 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 your research lab participation and dissertation plans. If you are not assigned a full course, you 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 you with sufficient depth in a chosen area of interest. We recognize that to accomplish this goal, you 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 you enter into the program, you decide, in conjunction with the faculty, which faculty member will act as your adviser/mentor. This individual typically serves as your primary mentor and guidance committee chair throughout your graduate studies. Your chair assists you in designing the correct combination of coursework to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to accomplish your future aims as an academic. Your mentor also guides you in taking the necessary extracurricular steps that will best position you as a career scientist in your area of concentration. Such advisement may include recommending your attendance at a particular conference, suggesting contact with specific funding agencies, guiding your pursuit of external funding opportunities, aiding in your curriculum vitae and manuscript preparation, and assisting you in locating an appropriate postdoctoral fellowship or in your job search. Because the goal of our program is to position you to become an extramurally-funded researcher, 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. You will be able to develop these capacities through your program 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, you 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 your attendance at such meetings when they are of relevance to your research program, although funding is more likely to be awarded if you are presenting a paper or poster at such meetings. To maximize this possibility, you 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 this group, you gain experience in interdisciplinary research and grantsmanship that includes 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 you as a career scientist who can confidently make a valued contribution to an interdisciplinary research group. It also places you 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.