Doctoral Programs

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


In this innovative interdisciplinary doctoral program, you have the unique opportunity to train with world-class faculty from the USC Dornsife Department of Sociology, the Department of Preventive Medicine of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and the USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute provide training for careers in research, teaching and applied work in sociology (population), preventive medicine (health), and the spatial sciences (place). This is the ideal program for scholars interested in the fields of Urban and Global Health, Social and Cultural Geography, and the intersection of Epidemiology and Demography.

Read a sample of USC faculty research in population, health, and place, and learn about the “Spatial Turn in Health Research” in this Science article by Douglas B. Richardson, Nora D. Volkow, Mei-Po Kwan, Robert M. Kaplan, Michael F. Goodchild, and Robert T. Croyle.


John P. Wilson
Myles G. Cockburn
Ann Owens
Sofia Gruskin
Manuel Pastor

L-R, Johanna Avelar Portillo, M.A. Geography, CSULB; Yan Xu, M.A. Geography and Graduate Certificate in GIST, USC; Douglas Fleming, M.P.H., University of Georgia.

L-R, Johanna Avelar Portillo, M.A. Geography, CSULB; Yan Xu, M.A. Geography and Graduate Certificate in GIST, USC; Douglas Fleming, M.P.H., University of Georgia.


Avery Everhart
Yan Xu
Douglas Fleming
Xiaozhe Yin
Johanna Avelar Portillo
Lois Park
Emily Serman
Li Yi
Kate Vavra-Musser
Shea Gilliam
Bita Minaravesh
Sarah Van Norden


Applications for the Fall 2019 cohort are now available through the USC Graduate Admissions page and are due December 1, 2018.

View the application information session which was held on Friday, September 28, 2018. For more information, please email Ken Watson, Spatial Sciences Institute Academic Programs Director, or call him at (213) 740-8298. 

Those interested in:

  • conducting research and creating policies and programs needed to promote human well-being and sustainability in the academic, public, private, and not-for-profit sectors;
  • developing versatility with large data sets and varied modeling and computation approaches and applying them to population and health problems in meaningful and predictive contexts;
  • becoming faculty in research universities; or
  • working as researchers and policy officials in social- and health-related government agencies and NGOs.
This program at the University of Southern California offers doctoral students a highly competitive five-year support package that provides an annual stipend, tuition, health and dental insurance, and various university fees.

The first and fifth year are funded by fellowships, with the second, third, and fourth years funded by research assistantships and/or teaching assistantships. The benefit of this approach is that you are relieved of research and/or teaching responsibilities in your first year to concentrate on your coursework and on developing your dissertation topic, and in your fifth and final year to concentrate on completing your dissertation.

Each student must take at least 44 substantive units in sociology (population), preventive medicine (health), and the spatial sciences (place) at USC during the first three years. During the first and second year, students work on either a refereed journal article, book chapter or a research report of comparable scope and quality.

After students complete the two core courses, SSCI 600: The Geography of Life and Death and SSCI 601ab: Population, Health and Place Research Practicum, students have a wide choice of courses from which they can satisfy the remainder of their course work.  Choices include courses in preventive medicine, sociology, and spatial sciences, as well as other schools and departments throughout USC which offer graduate courses.

Students complete two research rotations as well as courses in biostatistics, demography, epidemiology, and spatial sciences, with additional course work required according to specialty area and/or dissertation topic.

The screening takes place in the second year and is based on an evaluation of the student’s performance in courses and on an evaluation of the student’s research competence as reflected in the first- and second-year research project, from which either a referred journal article, a book chapter, or a research report of comparable scope and quality is expected to emerge.  The screening committee is comprised of the student’s primary adviser and two other members of the faculty.
In preparation for the qualifying examination, each student assembles a five-person guidance committee to direct the student’s program of studies and evaluate research competence at least one semester before the student takes the qualifying examination.  The committee must include at least one member from the list of eligible faculty in Demography, Preventive Medicine, and Spatial Sciences.

The qualifying examination evaluates the student’s ability to conduct independent scholarship and research.  The student is evaluated based on oral and written presentation of: (1) a written review paper or written exam, and (2) the dissertation proposal.  The qualifying examination is planned, administered, and evaluated by the student’s guidance committee.  It should be taken no later than during the spring semester in the second year of the program.

A student needs to present his or her dissertation proposal at his or her qualifying examination.  It is recommended that students decide their dissertation topics by no later than the end of fall semester in the second year of the program.
This is a new program that aims to cross-train students in the fundamentals of the population sciences, public health (exposure science, epidemiology, biostatistics, etc.), and the spatial sciences.  The best dissertation topics will draw on and use concepts and methodologies from all three of these contributing disciplines and look to advance our knowledge of some aspect of human health and well-being.

Many of the faculty with the Population, Health and Place doctoral program have research interests and needs that would benefit from students working at the intersection of population science, public health, and the spatial sciences.  One of the first goals for students admitted to the program will be to gather information so they can assess whether or not there are opportunities which match or align with their goals and aspirations.

We also anticipate that some students will propose their own topics and come with the goal that they will build support among one or more faculty to join them in their work while they pursue their doctoral studies, and we support such an approach.

Applicants are encouraged to specify as a part of their application one or more faculty with whom they would want to work, as this information may help us clarify the faculty’s availability at the beginning of a student’s doctoral studies.  Students admitted to the program should work with the director of the program and the graduate advisor from the three participating departments to identify a list of possible advisors early in their first year of study, with the goal to choose a major advisor by the start of the fall semester in the second year of the program.


Dr. John P. Wilson, founding director of the USC SSI and professor, will keynote at the National Cancer Institute’s conference on “Geospatial Approaches to Cancer Control” on Monday, September 12, 2016, on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.


The terms indicated are expected but are not guaranteed. For the courses offered during any given term, consult the USC Schedule of Classes.

Meaning and significance of place and role of social, natural, and built environments in disease occurrence in different places and populations. Syllabus
Utilizes one or more projects to examine the connections between population, health and place and how geospatial approaches to analyzing and visualizing spatial data may advance our understanding of disease systems. Prerequisite: SSCI 600. Graded CR/NC.
The role of spatial computing in understanding the world, in knowing and communicating our relationships to specific places, and for navigating through those places.
The theoretical foundations and techniques of spatial analysis and the ways in which they have been used to identify spatial processes and patterns. Syllabus
An introduction to spatial models identifying the key issues influencing the success of these models in simulating key social and environmental processes and health exposures. Prerequisite: SSCI 680
Research leading to the doctorate. Maximum units which may be applied to the degree to be determined by the department. Graded CR/NC.
Credit on acceptance of dissertation. Graded IP/CR/NC.
Concepts of biostatistics; appropriate uses and common misuses of health statistics; practice in the application of statistical procedures; introduction to statistical software including EXCEL, SPSS, nQuery. Laboratory.
Terminology/uses of epidemiology and demography; sources/ uses of population data; types of epidemiological studies; risk assessment; common sources of bias in population studies; principles of screening. Recommended preparation: algebra. Syllabus
An overview of environmental health, identifying issues in assessing effects of exposure on health and potential interventions for reducing adverse health risks. Prerequisites: PM 510L, PM 512.
Casual modeling and the inter-relationships among social phenomena: covers the basic elements of casual inference and generalizability, linear regression analysis, and categorical data analysis. Prerequisite: SOCI 521. Syllabus
An overview of social science perspectives on fertility, nuptiality (marriage and cohabitation), union dissolution, family and household composition, population distribution and migration.
Concepts and methods of demographic analysis, including the use of regression techniques for identifying the processes that shape population size, structure and dynamics and the broader relevance of demographic analysis to the study of any population or place. Prerequisite: SOCI 680. 



Jennifer A. Ailshire, Assistant Professor of Gerontology and Spatial Sciences: social stratification; urban sociology; health & aging; neighborhood environment & health

Timothy Biblarz, Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies: family sociology; stratification & social mobility; gender & sexuality; demography; statistics

Lynne Casper, Professor of Sociology: family sociology; family demography; work, family & health; gender, work, & family; family change & variation; social demography; quantitative methods

Brian Finch, Professor (Research) of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: social demography; social epidemiology; social stratification & inequality; social statistics

Jennifer Hook, Associate Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: gender inequality; family demography; work-family; social policy; comparative sociology

Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity: economic, environmental, & social conditions facing low-income urban communities; social movements; regional equity; social justice

Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies: sex and gender; gender and sport; gender-based violence

Ann Owens, Associate Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: spatial analysis; quantitative analysis; urban sociology; social stratification; social policy

Daniel Schrage, Assistant Professor of Sociology: environmental justice; racial inequality; labor-market inequality; organizations; economic sociology; statistical and computational methods

Emily Smith-Greenaway, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: infant & child mortality; demography; African studies; health services


Edward Lawrence Avol, Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: air pollution exposure assessment; acute/chronic respiratory and cardiovascular effects of airborne pollutants

Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, Professor of Preventive Medicine: cultural and lifestyle risk factors for cancer and tobacco control at the community level; gender and ethnic minority health; health promotion and disease prevention; community engagement

Kiros Berhane, Professor of Preventive Medicine: preventive medicine; epi/biostatistics; environmental exposures; childhood obesity; health effects of air pollution

Carrie Breton, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine: epidemiologic methods; environmental health and epigenetics

Myles G. Cockburn, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Spatial Sciences: health GIS; cancer epidemiology; environmental epidemiology; melanoma; prostate cancer

Michael R. Cousineau, Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: health care reform; access to care; health services utilization and quality of care; cost control; public hospitals and other safety net providers; vulnerable populations, including the homeless and immigrant children

Genevieve Dunton, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine: health behaviors; physical activity; stress; obesity; built environment; GPS; real-time data capture

Laura Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine: health system and health services; human rights and health outcomes; sub-Saharan Africa issues including HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, and child health

Meredith Franklin, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine: spatial and environmental statistics; atmospheric science

W. James Gauderman, Professor of Preventive Medicine: biostatistics; cancer epidemiology; environmental and genetic epidemiology

Frank D. Gilliland, Professor of Preventive Medicine: respiratory health and cancer epidemiology; adverse respiratory effects of air pollution and tobacco smoke exposures; determinants of environmental, occupational lung disease and cancer

Sofia Gruskin, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Law: global health; health and human rights; HIV/AIDS; sexual and reproductive health; child and adolescent health; gender-based violence and health systems

Rima Habre, Assistant Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: air pollution exposures and respiratory outcomes; use of mHealth technologies

Jill Johnston, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine: environmental health and justice in disadvantaged urban and rural neighborhoods; community engagement with exposure and epidemiology; industrial activities and assessing exposure pathways to pollutants

Rob S. McConnell, Professor of Preventive Medicine: health effects of environmental exposures, including cardiorespiratory, metabolic and neurological outcomes in children; air pollution

Joshua Millstein, Assistant Professor of Research Preventive Medicine: statistical methods for causal inference; permutation-based false discovery rates; methods for identifying genes involved in epistatic interactions

Maryann Pentz, Professor of Preventive Medicine: community and policy approaches to tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse prevention in youth; health promotion; disease prevention; cancer control

Stephen G. Sanko, Assistant Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine: emergency medicine; cardiovascular disease; emergency medicine services and dispatch

Jennifer Unger, Professor of Preventive Medicine: health disparities; psychosocial and cultural predictors of adolescent health-risk and health-protective behaviors

Spatial Sciences

Yao-Yi Chiang, Associate Professor (Research) of Spatial Sciences: geospatial data integration; digital map processing; graphics recognition; pattern recognition; image processing

Steven D. Fleming, Professor of the Practice of Spatial Sciences: GIS, human geography; remote sensing

Karen K. Kemp, Professor of the Practice of Spatial Sciences: GIS for the humanities, spatial analysis; environmental modeling

Su Jin Lee, Lecturer of Spatial Sciences: GIS; remote sensing; human and environmental interaction; solar radiation modeling; terrain analysis; LULC changes

Travis Longcore, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Spatial Sciences and Biological Sciences: urban bioresource management; conservation planning; ecological light pollution; endangered species

Laura C. Loyola, Lecturer of Spatial Sciences: GIS; human and evolutionary biology; anthropology; remote sensing

Andrew J. Marx, Associate Professor of the Practice of Spatial Sciences: remote sensing; spatial-temporal analysis; spatial computing

Katsuhiko Oda, Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: spatial thinking; GIS education; GIS; walkability; spatial cognition

Darren M. Ruddell, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: geospatial technologies; climate and society; human-environment interactions; geodesign; urban sustainability

Jennifer Swift, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: web and mobile GIS; data modeling; geodesign

Robert O. Vos, Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: industrial ecology; GIS assessment of carbon footprinting; environmental politics and policy

John P. Wilson, Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: GIS; spatial analysis; environmental modeling; geodesign; public health

An-Min Wu, Lecturer of Spatial Sciences: spatial analysis; soil science; geospatial technology; remote sensing; environmental GIS


Population, Health and Place doctoral students are encouraged to apply for external funding and receive support to prepare competitive applications. Some of the available external funding sources include:

In this 12-unit program, USC doctoral students learn essential spatial analytical principles, rapidly evolving cloud- and Internet-based geospatial technologies, online geospatial data sources, and advances in analytical techniques and modeling tools applied to their research interests.



Concepts and methods of spatial analysis, including point pattern analysis, surface analysis and spatial regression, and how these advanced analytical techniques can be used to identify spatial processes and patterns.
An introduction to GIS-based environmental models, identifying the issues influencing the use of these models and the accompanying geospatial datasets for modeling environmental processes and health exposures. Prerequisite: SSCI 680
An introduction to the concepts and technologies that will help to transform our lives by understanding the physical world, knowing and communicating our relation to places in that world, and navigating through those places.