Frequently Asked Questions about Admission to the PhD program

What is the typical student timeline?

Our students typically complete two years of coursework, including two rotations with active faculty research teams at UCSF or elsewhere in the Bay Area. At the conclusion of coursework, students take a qualifying exam to advance to “doctoral candidacy,” at which point they launch their dissertation research. Completing dissertation research usually takes 1–3 years, depending on the student and the project. 

What is the selection process?

Here are the criteria for evaluating applications:

    • Academic background and potential for rigorous scientific work (based on undergraduate and master’s training, including institution, major and minor fields, and GPA, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation)
    • Prior research experience (publications, involvement in research activities, letters of recommendation from leading researchers or public health professionals)
    • Clarity of scientific goals and thinking, based on the applicant’s essays
    • Commitment to pursuing a career within the umbrella of epidemiology & translational science
    • Common interests with program faculty members.  Because of the great importance of close faculty mentorship in a successful PhD training experience, we accept only students with interests that match strengths of UCSF faculty. Even highly qualified students whose interests are not a “fit” will not be accepted into the program. 

Initial reviews occur in January, and applications ranked in the top tier are then circulated to relevant UCSF faculty members and potential mentors, who provide additional reviews of the applicant’s portfolio. Highly competitive applicants are selected for interviews, usually by one or two faculty and a current student or alumnus. Applicants will have the opportunity to ask questions about the program during these interviews. At a second admissions committee meeting (which typically occurs by early February), the qualifications of applicants are discussed, as are the available sources of funding support and faculty mentoring. The number of students admitted depends on how many can be supported from available funding and training resources. Most admissions decisions will be finalized by late February or early March. In recent years, incoming classes have included four to five PhD students.  When there are more competitive applicants than available slots for incoming students, a small number of applicants may be wait-listed with admissions decisions deferred until March or April.

Statistics on admissions, enrollment, student demographics, and time to degree and completion rates can be found here. The ETS PhD program is a highly competitive program with an admissions profile similar to other UCSF PhD programs

Admissions Statistics for Fall 2016

Total Number of Applications 63
Number of Applicants who were Offered Admissions 9
Percentage of Applicants who were Offered Admissions 14.3%
Number of Accepted Applicants who Enrolled 5
Percentage Enrolled among Accepted Applicants 55.6%
Percentage Enrolled among All Applicants 7.9%









What are the topics of students' dissertation research projects?

Our students pursue diverse research topics in epidemiology and the translation of knowledge into useful applications. Some recent dissertation topics include:

    • Diabetes as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline in elderly populations
    • The effects of air pollution on asthma in Latino and African American children
    • Substance and alcohol use among key populations at risk for HIV: Novel approaches in intervention development
    • Physical education policies and implementation in San Francisco public schools


What kind of student are you looking for?

The PhD program in Epidemiology and Translational Science is a 3–5 year course of study for individuals who wish to pursue independent research careers in epidemiology and translational science and who have completed training at the Master’s level in epidemiology, public health or related fields. We seek applicants who have a commitment to public health research and a passion to use rigorous scientific tools to improve health for all people. Our admissions process prioritizes candidates with a strong background and interest in pursuing research in the broad range of epidemiology and translational science including epidemiologic and biostatistical methods, genetic, social, and clinical epidemiology, and disease-specific training in cancer, infectious, neurologic (Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias), cardiovascular or stroke, musculoskeletal and other diseases. We also value evidence of a strong quantitative background, for example in statistics or computation, linked to a commitment to health research. Because of the importance of a close mentoring relationship between faculty advisors and PhD students, we particularly invite applications from candidates whose interest mesh closely with the areas of expertise of our faculty.

My background is different. Would I be competitive for admission?

We won't know unless you apply! Public health research is challenging, and we need people with diverse perspectives and skill sets to most effectively address these challenges. What is important in the application process is that you articulate how your experiences have prepared you to excel in the training program and to emerge with the skills and insights to lead high impact projects. We will have information sessions for potential applicants in the fall (visit our website for specific dates). You are invited to join us with any specific questions.

How can I submit a competitive application?

When writing your application, emphasize both why you are prepared to excel in the program and why this program fits your goals.  Choose recommenders who know you well and have the professional standing to write a compelling letter of support for you.  If your GRE scores were disappointing, consider retaking the exam.  Research experience is valued, because it shows us that you can succeed in a research-intensive environment.  Focus on articulating clear and compelling scientific goals in your essays.  If there are specific weaknesses in your application, it is fine to provide an explanation you would like the review committee to consider (for example, if you were recovering from malaria when you took the GREs, you can mention that).  Because of the flexible nature of the program, we expect that the students who will succeed here are highly, independently motivated, and arrive with fairly coherent research ideas.  If you have already identified potential research mentors, please mention them in your application; it will be helpful to us to see why UCSF could be a particularly strong training environment for you. 

What are some examples of career outcomes for the ETS PhD Program?

The PhD program will welcome its eighth cohort in 2017-18. To date, our graduates have had excellent professional outcomes, including post-doctoral and faculty research positions at UCSF, Berkeley, the CDC, and the San Francisco Department of Health. Our graduates are prepared to seek research and leadership positions in the public/private sector in public health, pharmaceutical research, and other related health industries.

When can I apply?

Online applications will be available for the 2018–19 entering class starting in late September 2017 via the Graduate Division online application system. The application deadline for entering Fall 2018 is December 1, 2017.

Can I receive an application fee waiver?

Certain applicants may qualify to have their application fee waived if they participate in specific programs or can demonstrate financial need. To request the Application Fee Waiver, select the Application Fee Waiver option in the Payment Area of the online application. Please see to check your eligibility for this exemption.

What percentage of applicants do you accept?

We select approximately 30% of applicants to interview and offer admission to about 15% of the total applicant pool. We anticipate the 2018–19 entering cohort to be 4–5 students.

Can I defer my admission?

We do not defer admission. If you decide not to join our program after accepting our offer, you will have to reapply and pay the fee; we cannot guarantee admission on the next round. If you reapply within one year, you will not have to resend your transcripts, resume, statement of purpose or reference letters unless significant changes have occurred.

Important Contacts:

Program Director: Maria Glymour, SD 

Program Coordinator: Victoria Mansour 

Program Contact:

Graduate Division Office

Director of Student Financial SupportWendy Winkler-Sawyer 

Admissions and Student Academic Progression: Ellen Levitan 

UCSF Graduate Division website