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June 13, 2003
HSPH Department of Biostatistics Now Offering PhD Degree

When Minhee Kang accepted her degree at HSPH’s Commencement ceremony on June 5, she made school history. Kang was the first recipient of a PhD degree from the school’s Department of Biostatistics under a recently approved agreement between HSPH and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

For the past 25 years, the Department of Biostatistics has offered the doctor of science (SD) degree. Now, after careful consideration and a formal approval process, the department will award the doctor of philosophy (PhD) to future students as the standard doctoral degree.

The PhD is the typical degree awarded by graduate programs in biostatistics in the U.S., explained James Ware, Dean for Academic Affairs and Frederick Mosteller Professor of Biostatistics at HSPH.

"This decision is part of an effort to develop a university-wide strategy for academic doctoral programs under the oversight of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences," said Ware. "The hope is to make our doctoral programs more coherent and more easily understood by prospective applicants."

The PhD and SD degrees are not substantively different in the Department of Biostatistics, said Stephen Lagakos, chair of the department. The degree requirements are the same. From that standpoint, the transition has been a relatively routine affair–and allowed Kang to graduate with a PhD this year. Differences emerge in administrative details. For example, future PhD students in the department will technically graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), despite taking the bulk, if not all, of their classes here. By entering a GSAS graduate program, students become eligible to take any course offered under the auspices of GSAS.

"Functionally, for the last two or three decades, the doctor of science degree in the Department of Biostatistics has meant the same kind of scholarly work that other departments expect for the PhD," said Lagakos. "The difference has been in the labeling of the degree."

The bridge between GSAS and the Department of Biostatistics is expected to reap an important benefit for HSPH–recruiting an even broader pool of bright applicants interested in biostatistics and public health.

"Undergraduate students in mathematics or statistics may not have heard of biostatistics," said Lagakos. "In the past, if they came to the Harvard web site, they would not have found our program easily. Now, information about the program will be more readily available."

Added Nan Laird, a professor in the Department of Biostatistics and a member of the group that created the proposal: "The program should enable us to attract more students interested in this discipline who want the PhD."

The field of statistics was formally recognized in England and in the U.S. in the 19th century, and biostatistics emerged as a discipline in its own right in the 20th century. The HSPH Department of Biostatistics is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1946. Today, the department is emphasizing multidisciplinary interests, particularly in the specialties of environmental biostatistics, statistical genetics, and bioinformatics.

While not a technical part of the agreement between HSPH and FAS, the PhD program is expected to help seed collaborations between Harvard faculties, reflecting the cross-disciplinary nature of biostatistics. Several Department of Biostatistics faculty members already teach classes at FAS. For example, Professors Jun Liu and Wing Wong, who both hold joint appointments in the Departments of Biostatistics and Statistics, taught a class in computational biology last fall through the Department of Statistics.

"This is a step toward a university-wide intellectual community," said Ware. "In addition to HSPH faculty who can participate in the program, there are colleagues in other faculties who can contribute because courses, training, and certifications are all under the auspices of a university-wide graduate studies structure."

 

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