Ph.D. in Population, Health and Place

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A Public Health Degree that Combines Geography/GIS and Sociology

Apply now to start the Population, Health and Place Ph.D. program in 2021-2022.

The deadline to apply is Tuesday, December 1, 2020.

In our 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 for careers in research, teaching and applied work in sociology and demography (population), preventive medicine (health), and the spatial sciences (place). This Ph.D. program is ideal for scholars interested in the intersections of public health, urban and global health, social and cultural geography, remote sensing, epidemiology and demography.

Read a sample of USC faculty research from our our interdisciplinary Population, Health, and Place Ph.D. program. 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. Doug Richardson, executive director of the American Association of Geographers, also advocates for "The New Imperative: Spatializing Health Research and Practice."


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.

Interdisciplinary students engage in a graduate program in public health that combines a variety of studies in order to tackle real world problems. 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.


Aviva Wolf-Jacobs
Kayla Saadeh
Han Shen
Avery Everhart
Bita Minaravesh
Lois Park
Emily Serman
Mengya Xu
Douglas Fleming
Johanna Avelar Portillo
Yingyi Lin
Kate Vavra-Musser
Leo Lerner
Li Yi
Michelle Livings
Rachel Wilkie
Sarah Van Norden
Shea Ellen Gilliam
Yan Xu
Xin Yu

Apply now to start the Population, Health and Place Ph.D. program in 2021-2022. The deadline to apply is Tuesday, December 1, 2020.

Due to circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, the requirement to provide a GRE score as part of applications for 2021 admissions has been temporarily suspended.  

A virtual admissions information session was held on Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 5-6 pm PT. View the session recording.

For more information, please email Ken Watson, Spatial Sciences Institute Academic Programs Director.

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 the students of doctoral programs 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 for our doctoral programs.

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 programs 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 of the doctoral programs 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 programs, 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 during the doctoral programs, 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.
  • Construct and apply qualitative and quantitative approaches for mapping and modeling how genetics, the environment, and human behaviors influence human well-being.
  • Construct and evaluate integrated applications that combine geospatial data and applications for processing that data.
  • Apply appropriate and relevant spatial analysis techniques to address spatial health problems.
  • Critically evaluate the types of models that will be required in the future to effectively manage land, water, air and biotic resources, assess environmental risks, and promote human health and well-being.
  • Execute research, communicate and analyze research findings in social demography and the value of demographic perspectives for the analysis of population change and human well-being.
  • Select, apply and evaluate statistical methods in clinical, public health, epidemiological, and experimental research.
  • Produce a publishable-quality manuscript(s) on research findings that includes stating a problem and research question, identifying relevant literature, detailing a methodology, reporting results and reaching conclusions.


Dr. John P. Wilson, founding director of the USC SSI and professor, gave the address “Places, Social Determinants of Health, and Electronic Health Records” at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Saban Research Institute Annual Symposium on “Big Data – Big Impact” on February 12, 2019. He also gave the keynote address at the National Cancer Institute’s conference on “Geospatial Approaches to Cancer Control” on September 12, 2016, on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.


Consult the USC Schedule of Classes for course listings of all graduate programs in public health including our PhD in Population, Health, and Place.

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. 


Paul S. AdlerHarold Quinton Chair of Business Policy and Professor of Management and Organization, Sociology and Environmental Studies: sociology of complex organizations; comparative political-economy; environmental sociology
Jennifer A. Ailshire, Associate Professor of Gerontology and Spatial Sciences: social stratification; urban sociology; health & aging; neighborhood environment & health
Edward Lawrence Avol, Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine; Division Chief, Environmental Health: 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
Tracy (Theresa) Bastain, Assistant Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: air pollution exposures and respiratory outcomes; environmental health; prenatal exposures and outcomes; obesity
Timothy Biblarz, Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies:
family sociology; stratification & social mobility; gender & sexuality; demography; statistics
Ricky N. Bluthenthal, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Associate Dean for Social Justice: drug use epidemiology; health inequities; harm reduction; health promotion and disease prevention; community-based participatory research
Carrie Breton, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine: epidemiologic methods; environmental health & epigenetics
Lynne Casper, Professor of Sociology:
family sociology; family demography; work, family & health; gender, work, & family; family change & variation; social demography; quantitative methods
Yao-Yi Chiang, Associate Professor (Research) of Spatial Sciences:
geospatial data integration; spatial computing; digital map processing; graphics recognition; pattern recognition; image processing
Myles G. Cockburn, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Spatial Sciences:
health GIS; cancer epidemiology; environmental epidemiology; melanoma; prostate cancer
Juan De Lara, Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity: environmental justice and political ecology; race, power and data; Latinx geographies; social movements; urban political economy
Genevieve Dunton, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine:
health behaviors; physical activity; stress; obesity; built environment; GPS; real-time data capture; 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
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
Brian Finch, Professor (Research) of Sociology and Spatial Sciences:
social demography; social epidemiology; social stratification & inequality; social statistics
Steven D. Fleming, Professor of the Practice of Spatial Sciences:
physical geography; remote sensing; geospatial intelligence
Meredith Franklin, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine:
spatial and environmental statistics; atmospheric science; epidemiological assessment of environmental exposures
W. James Gauderman, Professor of Preventive Medicine:
biostatistics; cancer epidemiology; environmental & genetic epidemiology
Frank D. Gilliland, Professor of Preventive Medicine:
respiratory health & cancer epidemiology; adverse respiratory effects of air pollution & tobacco smoke exposures; determinants of environmental & occupational lung disease & 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
Jennifer Hook, Associate Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences:
gender inequality; family demography; work-family; social policy; comparative sociology
Lihua Liu, Associate Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: demography; medical sociology; cancer surveillance; spatial distribution
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
Rob S. McConnell, Professor of Preventive Medicine:
health effects of environmental exposures, including cardiorespiratory, metabolic & neurological outcomes in children; air pollution
Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies: sex and gender; gender and sports; gender-based violence
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
Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity: economic, environmental, & social conditions facing low-income urban communities; social movements; regional equity; social justice

Ann Owens, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences:
spatial analysis; quantitative analysis; urban sociology; social stratification; social policy
Maryann Pentz, Professor of Preventive Medicine:
community & policy approaches to tobacco, alcohol, & drug abuse prevention in youth; health promotion; disease prevention; cancer control
Darren M. Ruddell, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences:
geospatial technologies; climate and society; human-environment Interactions; geodesign; urban sustainability
Stephen G. Sanko, Assistant Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine and Spatial Sciences: emergency medicine; cardiovascular disease; emergency medicine services and dispatch
Josh Seim, Assistant Professor of Sociology: governance of poverty and suffering; medical sociology; sociology of punishment; urban sociology; sociology of labor; ethnography
Emily Smith-Greenaway, Associate Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: infant & child mortality; demography; African studies; health services
Jennifer Swift, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: web and mobile GIS; data modeling; geodesign
Jennifer Unger, Profesor of Preventive Medicine: health disparities; psychosocial and cultural predictors of adolescent health-risk and health-protective behaviors
Robert O. Vos, Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Spatial Sciences: environmental justice; industrial ecology; environmental policy; spatially-explicit life cycle assessment
John P. Wilson, Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences: GIS; spatial analysis; environmental modeling; exposure assessment; geodesign
Melissa Withers, Associate Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine: qualitative research; community-based participatory research; gender-based violence; global sexual and reproductive health
An-Min Wu, Lecturer of Spatial Sciences: spatial analysis; soil science; remote sensing; environmental GIS


Phd in Population, Public Health and Place doctoral students are encouraged to apply for external funding and receive support to prepare competitive applications.