So...You’re Considering a PhD in Epidemiology?
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Written by: Zahra Clayborne and Charles Thickstun
Are you interested in getting a PhD in epidemiology? We’re here to give you the run-down on what a PhD looks like at uOttawa, the pros and cons, and how to make sure you’re well-funded and set up to succeed if you decide on pursuing a doctoral degree.
First, let’s start off with some introductions:
Hi! I’m Zahra Clayborne, a fourth year PhD candidate in Epidemiology at SEPH, working under the supervision of Dr. Ian Colman at the APEAL Lab. I’m primarily interested in psychiatric epidemiology, and in understanding the intergenerational transmission of mental disorders — so, looking at the ways in which maternal stress and poor mental health “gets under the skin” to influence children’s outcomes. I fast-tracked into the PhD program in 2017 after starting my MSc at uOttawa in the previous year.
Hello! I’m Charles Thickstun, a second year PhD candidate in Epidemiology at SEPH under the supervision of Dr. Manisha Kulkarni in the INSIGHT Lab. My research is focused on the geospatial and design factors of cluster-randomized vector control trials, but I’m interested in anything you can put on a map (which is everything)! I started the PhD program after completing my MSc in Epidemiology at uOttawa in 2019 (and was in the same MSc cohort as Zahra -- more on that later).
What does a PhD in epi look like at uOttawa?
Your first step before knowing what a PhD looks like is to figure out how to get in! Luckily, you can read our previous blog that outlines PhD admissions at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health.
The PhD program in Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa is built around what is called an Individual Study Plan (ISP). The intention of the ISP is to allow each student to work independently with their supervisor to create a unique program of study tailored to their needs. Before a student enters the program, they will need to sit down and detail their course of studies and prospective research. While this gives students some unique flexibility in their studies, there are some commonalities that all PhD students in our program share:
The PhD Seminar is a weekly seminar series where we delve into different topics in epidemiology, lead journal clubs, and even present to our peers. It’s required for all first-year students, but generally, all PhD students are welcome to attend.
The Professional Skills Course is designed to give students additional skills outside of the general academic experience at SEPH. This custom-tailored course requires students to pursue 130 hours of extracurricular training in any area deemed appropriate by the course coordinator, in addition to several compulsory workshops on important topics.
The Comprehensive Exam is a two-part examination that usually occurs at the beginning of your second year in the PhD program. The first part of the examination is a sit down exam with the express goal of testing your general knowledge of epidemiological concepts (i.e. study designs, bias, causation, biostatistics, etc.). This is followed by an oral component in which the student is provided with an epidemiological journal article relating to their specific area of studies and asked a series of questions related to the design, analysis, and interpretation of the study. Students are given ample time to prepare for both parts of the examination, and cohorts of students are encouraged to work together in their preparation.
Want more information on what the program looks like? Here’s a link that describes our Epidemiology Program at a Glance.
Why might I want to do a PhD in Epidemiology?
Traditionally, students embark on PhDs because of the doors that they open. There are a number of paths that you can take with a PhD, whether that’s in academia, government, or industry; however, a unifying thread across all of these sectors is that a PhD often gives you greater autonomy in the workplace, and the opportunity to lead your own research projects as a principal investigator. Here are a few of the reasons why we decided to do PhDs:
Zahra: I’m interested in an academic career, so a PhD is often the bare minimum! Virtually all professors in epidemiology hold a PhD, or an MD with additional training in epidemiology through an MSc or PhD. As an academic, I would be able to teach and mentor students, and run my own research program. Another pro? Academia can often be a tough road, but a PhD also opens up doors to work in areas like consulting or with government agencies. I love having options!
Charles: My plans for the future involve offering logistic and epidemiological support to organizations in developing countries. Many health-oriented development NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières are looking for very specific skills and experience for these roles, including time spent engaged in similar activities in similar settings. Because this presents a recursive experience-prerequisite experience loop, the academic setting provides an opportunity to build this experience outside of a professional capacity. I’ve worked closely with my supervisor to ensure that my thesis project meets the research needs of our partners, our research lab, and my future goals.
Why might I not want to do a PhD in Epidemiology?
PhDs are time-consuming. At the minimum, you’ll spend 3–5 years working on your degree full-time. It can be hard to maintain work-life balance and funding a PhD can be a challenge. Masters-trained epidemiologists who go on to PhDs may take pay cuts to enter a PhD program, and certain paths after a PhD, like academia, require continued training. For example, most academic jobs now expect candidates to have post-doctoral training, which often involves a few more years of training with minimal funding. Here are a few of the drawbacks to doing PhDs, in our experience:
Zahra: I will be starting a postdoctoral fellowship next year, and I expect that it will take a few years before I can find an academic job. It can be tough to balance out an academic career with other important life aspirations, and I often find myself needing to make hard choices, like figuring out if I’m willing to move to a new location for a job, since there aren’t a lot of academic jobs available. Also, funding is a big one! The cost of living in Ottawa has been increasing, making it harder to make ends meet as a PhD student.
Charles: I feel bad chiming in with funding again, but even an extremely competitive funding package from a supervisor has a hard time competing with a salaried position for an MSc in Epidemiology. If you don’t have a strong interest in your research or a clear goal for your future that includes a PhD, then you might want to consider holding off for now. Remember that taking some time away from school before starting a new degree can give you the opportunity to discover if it’s really the right path for you.
How would I fund my studies? Should I consider it an investment in later earnings?
Funding your PhD can be a challenge. While the funding situation at SEPH is improving for PhD students, taking the time out of your career to pursue doctoral studies comes at a financial cost that will likely not be made up by increased earnings later. Here is some data on what pay traditionally looks like for epidemiologists:
Not bad, but not as big of a jump as some may expect! A PhD in epidemiology may not make you rich, but it can lead you to a stable career with more responsibilities than an MSc-trained epidemiologist may take on. If that’s something that interests you, a PhD might be a great fit.
The Fast Track Option to a PhD
What is Fast Tracking?
One option available to current SEPH MSc students interested in a PhD is to Fast Track. This is a means by which students can skip the research phase of their MSc and enter the PhD in Epidemiology immediately following the successful completion of their coursework. If you’re interested in fast tracking, discuss whether or not it’s a good fit for you with your supervisor first. More information on the Fast Track option can be found here: Fast Track to PhD Instructions.
Why might I want to Fast Track?
Zahra: If you’re sure that you want a PhD in epidemiology and you’re happy with staying at SEPH and with your supervisor, a fast track can save you a lot of time. I started at SEPH in 2016, and will finish (hopefully!) in 2021 — that means that it took five years for me to start my MSc, and finish with a PhD. An MSc itself takes two years, and many people will take a gap year (or a few) before starting a PhD, which is another three to five years. I was pretty sure that I wanted an academic career (and still am mostly sure), and I like that I can move onto that “next step” at a faster pace.
Why might I want to finish my MSc first?
While the Fast Track option offers students who are sure that they want to continue their studies at the doctoral level a way to do so quickly, there are some things to consider before making the decision:
The Fast Track option requires students to stay at SEPH. While SEPH may be the best fit for some students, others might find opportunities elsewhere for their PhD that better fit their aspirations.
If your research or data collection is time sensitive, it may be more sensible to stay in the MSc program. Second-year MSc students have more time and flexibility to conduct research than their first year PhD counterparts who will both have more coursework and have to prepare for their comprehensive exams.
Students who Fast Track to the PhD program and later decide that they do not wish to continue their studies will not have a Master’s degree to fall back on.
You have to finish all your course requirements for the MSc in the first year, which often makes for a busy and hectic time.
So… I have more questions than I did before!
Charles: That’s good! The decision to start on the PhD road is a difficult one and having questions is more than okay. We’ve tried to make a very basic guide for the most common questions we could think of, but if you are considering a PhD and want to get in touch I’d be more than happy to give what advice I can offer. Email the SEPHGSA (or submit a contact form through the website) asking for Charles I will get back to you as soon as possible!
Zahra: Still having questions means that you’re: a) really keen, and b) want all the information before you make a big decision. Both are great things to have as a potential PhD student! If you’ve got any questions, especially about working in mental health epidemiology or fast-tracking into a PhD, you can also email the SEPHGSA (or submit that same contact form) and ask for Zahra — I’ll make sure to get back to you quickly!