Statement of Purpose
The purpose of the Carolina Health Informatics Program’s doctoral program is to prepare graduates to contribute to the field of biomedical and health informatics studies through research, teaching and exposure to practical BMHI challenges. The doctoral program prepares scholars for careers involving research and instruction as well as leadership roles in industry. The doctoral program provides students with research experience, familiarity with BMHI concepts, theories and methods. In addition, the program allows participation in an active research community as well as exposure to the thriving BMHI industry in the RTP, NC area.
A Thriving Community of Research and Industry
UNC-Chapel Hill is located in Central North Carolina, home to top universities and industries supplying a myriad of potential employers for CHIP’s graduates. The mission of the Carolina Health Informatics Program (CHIP) at UNC-Chapel Hill is to train highly qualified leaders in the biomedical and health information technology field. CHIP leaders will evolve the biomedical and health informatics field through the advancement of cutting-edge scholarship aimed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery and access.
CHIP takes a comprehensive view of healthcare IT, with the goal to provide qualified training across the healthcare continuum. CHIP is an interdisciplinary academic program, supported by seven schools across UNC-Chapel Hill: the Gillings School of Global Public Health; the School of Information and Library Science; the School of Medicine; the School of Dentistry; the Eshelman School of Pharmacy; the School of Nursing and the Department of Computer Science.
This unique interdisciplinary partnership exposes CHIP doctoral graduates to a vast array of biomedical and health informatics applications, with a strong emphasis on human-computer interaction, data analytics, and visualization.
Founded in 2010, CHIP was created to be an interdisciplinary BMHI program that would train the next generation of biomedical and health information technology leaders. CHIP’s approach of providing training across the healthcare continuum is unique among BMHI training programs. The broad focus of this program supplies CHIP graduates with the skills, resources and qualifications required to be successful in both industry and academia.
CHIP’s PhD program was established in 2017, building upon the success of CHIP’s graduate level certificate and Master’s Degree programs.
CHIP’s PhD program attracts students with diverse backgrounds in public health, pharmacy, dentistry, IT (information systems or computing), and clinical practices (MD or RN) who are seeking advanced training for a broad range of research and leadership roles in academic, corporate, non-profit and government settings. The main career paths envisioned for graduates with a PhD in Health Informatics include: academic research and scholarship; research scientist in non-academic setting; and leadership positions, including CIO/CRO or similar in public and private health care organizations and key health policy development roles in government agencies.
Applicants should have a GPA of 3.0 or greater for all academic pursuits, GRE scores above the 50th percentile on all sections of the test and, if applicable, a minimum TOEFL score of 90.
An international student is a student who is attending UNC-Chapel Hill without U.S. Citizenship or is not a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States.
There are many resources on campus to help guide international students through the complexities that may accompany their transition to the United States. UNC Global International Student and Scholar Services is an excellent resource for international students to seek guidance with issues including arrival planning and visas.
Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree and should have a strong interest in biomedical and health informatics. Previous research experience or a master’s degree pertaining to BMHI is strongly encouraged.
A student’s adviser, committee and the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate School will determine if a student is in good standing. The following criteria are established to evaluate whether or not a student is in good standing at any point during their studies. Student must maintain a GPA of 3.0 or greater at all times and have 36 hours of coursework completed, preferably by the end of their second year.
In accordance with UNC-Chapel Hill’s grading policy, course grades will be given on the H, P, L, F scale. If a student receives an F grade in any course, or nine credits hours of an L grade, will immediately become academically illegible.
The following timeline a suggestion for full-time doctoral students. Some graduates students aim to graduate in as little as four years, while others who are pursuing part-time studies may take longer than 5 ½ years. We do suggest that any grad student considering getting their PhD in Health Informatics, do so as a full-time student.
Year 1: An adviser should ideally be chosen during the first semester of graduate studies. Students are encouraged to meet with several potential advisers before determining which faculty most closely matches their interests and needs. Taking courses taught by core CHIP faculty is also a good way to select advisers. Grad students should note that the adviser’s permission must be sought and that some faculty may decide not to advise a grad student due to extenuating circumstances. Committee members should be chosen together by the student and their adviser.
With the aid of their adviser, the graduate student will develop an individualized course structure that incorporates the required classes from the five pillars of CHIP curriculum.
Years 1-2: Maintain GPA greater than or equal to 3.0. Full-time doctoral students should have the pillar courses and elective courses completed by the end the second year.
Year 3: Fall of year 3, doctoral students will begin working with their advisers to develop a rigorous literature survey pertaining to the research topic for their Comprehensive Examination. (see Comprehensive Examination).
Graduate students should begin assembling their Comprehensive Examination committees. A committee of five members, including the doctoral student’s adviser is required. A majority of the doctoral committee must be regular member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate Faculty from the CHIP program. (See Committee Structure).
Doctoral students will present their comprehensive research for review to their doctoral committees. Once the written research review passes the committee, graduate students will defend the written review through an oral examination given by the doctoral committee.
PhD Candidacy is awarded after the doctoral student passes both their written research review and their oral examination.
Using the comprehensive research collected to produce the written research review, graduate students will develop a dissertation proposal with their adviser. Doctoral students must then defend their dissertation proposal through a verbal defense to their doctoral committee.
During the spring semester of the third year, with guidance from their advisers, graduate students will begin to research their dissertation project. Using this research, graduate students will also begin writing their dissertation drafts.
Year 4: Doctoral students should continue researching and writing their draft dissertations through the summer and fall, continuing into the fourth year.
All committee members must review the draft dissertation and provide guiding feedback. Once all committee members have approved the draft dissertation, graduate students will begin finalizing their dissertation projects for full committee review and defense.
Year 5: Doctoral students will present and orally defend their completed dissertation to their committees. Once the committee has passed the dissertation, the dissertation can be submitted to the University for Publication.
Absent extenuating circumstances, students who fail to meet these criteria risk losing the opportunity to obtain funding and, in some cases, completing the degree. Graduate students should have an adviser and a full doctoral committee as soon as possible. Doctoral students should consult both their adviser and committee members throughout their graduate career.
CHIP PhD Program Requirements
The CHIP PhD program is diverse through its interdisciplinary course work and research driven projects. With the guidance of their advisers, graduate students will develop a course structure that will meet the following requirements for the PhD program:
- 55 hours of coursework
- 22.5 credit hours of Pillar course work
- 12 – 15 credit hours of electives
- 15 – 20 credit hours for comprehensive
Coursework can be transferred in from previous degrees. CHIP limits transfer credit to 15 - 18 credit hours into the doctoral degree program. The recommendation to grant transfer credit will be made on a case by case basis and will require the approval of the graduate school.
- Authoring of a qualifying literature review
- Completion of a qualifying written examination
- Completion of a qualifying oral examination based on the written examination
- Admission to candidacy
- Completion and defense of a dissertation proposal
- Completion and defense of a dissertation.
Each of the above requirement is explained in a dedicated section elsewhere in this handbook.
NOTE: students are required to consult and keep current with the rules and policies of the Graduate School of UNC-CH with respect to doctoral study, candidacy, dissertation defense and other topics.
The coursework for the PhD program is customizable and can be designed to fit each student’s interests and level of experience in various areas. The core of the doctoral coursework will be taken for five different “pillars” which form the structure of CHIP’s curriculum:
Core & Frontier Pillar
Core and Frontier courses will expose students to the foundational concepts in informatics. This pillar will also allow students to gain a firm understanding of where research challenges lie and the nature of these challenges. Courses in this pillar will cover: advanced data modeling, data management and warehousing; data integration and networking; data presentation and visualization principles; data governance and data ethics.
6 credit hours are required.
Tools & Infrastructure Pillar
Tools and Infrastructure courses will go beyond the basic concepts and principles covered in core topics. This pillar will offer opportunities for students to gain experience in manipulating wide varieties of data occurring in diverse health care contexts. It will also train students to build new tools and methods for extracting insights from health data. The courses in this pillar will cover: advanced training in statistical analysis; data mining; system analysis and design; data interpretation and data quality.
6 credit hours are required.
Research Methods Pillar
Research Methods courses will focus on constructing sound research studies concentrated on various aspects of health care. The courses in this pillar will cover: gathering research data; analysis of research data; drawing conclusions from research data; presenting research data; and identifying limitations based on gaps present in research data.
3 credit hours are required.
Project Management & Leadership Pillar
Project Management and Leadership courses examine current techniques and methods on leading and sustaining research projects. Emphasis will be placed on project management skills in the context of developing and maintaining research projects that span a several year period.
3 credit hours are required.
Implementation Science & Research Translation Pillar
Implementation Science and Research Translation courses emphasize developing research projects with an eye toward the conversion of key outcomes that will have a direct impact on the health care of individuals or a community. Coursework in this pillar will cover: understanding intellectual property rights; collaboration with stakeholders such as government, for-profit and non-profit organizations; dissemination of research; and ensuring long-term sustainability of outcomes/solution.
3 credit hours are required.
Sample curriculum can be viewed at http://chip.unc.edu/phd-in-hi-courses/
Upon acceptance into the doctoral program, graduate students will begin seeking an advisor. The doctoral student should select their advisor during the first semester of their studies if possible. The student’s advisor will act as the committee chair. The remainder of the committee should be in place by the second year of the student’s program, before their coursework is completed. The committee will consist of five faculty members, including the doctoral student’s advisor. A majority of the doctoral committee must be regular member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate Faculty from the CHIP program.
Before a doctoral student committee can be finalized for the Comprehensive Examination, students must fill out and submit the Report of Comprehensive Exam Committee form to the CHIP PhD Program Coordinator.
Comprehensive Written Examination
The purpose of the written examination is to create a manuscript that will evaluate the core topic of the doctoral student’s research focus through a broad lens. The manuscript will be a distinct scholarly product, not a dissertation proposal. The written exam will make a comprehensive and in-depth argument for why the core topic chosen by the doctoral student deserves a new study. The scope of the comprehensive paper will be seen as an in-depth review of the literature around the core topic.
To encourage the development of the doctoral student's research focus, the written comprehensive exam can been viewed as the first iteration, as to what will later be, the literature review in the dissertation. (View Literature Review Example here)
The structure of the exam should include past findings, limitations, and potential new research proposals. Key facets that should be covered in the written exam are:
- What are the critical informatics dimensions associated with the core topic of the paper?
- What are the critical health / wellness dimensions associated with the core topic?
- What are the measures and methods used in the past to determine the association between the informatics dimensions and the health dimensions associated with the core topic?
- What were the major findings and observations?
- What were the major limitations associated with past studies associated with the core topic (both methodological and outcome/result level limitations should be discussed)
Doctoral Students may begin working on their comprehensive exam during the semester in which they complete the course work for their pillar requirements. Doctoral students will not be allowed to register for course credit to work on their comprehensive exam until they have met with the Program Coordinator to verify that they have completed or are in the last semester of courses to complete the pillar requirements.
Comprehensive exam coursework will be taken under the guidance of the doctoral student’s advisor.
There are no official requirements for the length or number of articles included in the comprehensive exam. The length and scope of the exam will vary depending on a number factors, including if and when the last literature review of the core topic was conducted and the very nature of the topic itself. Doctoral students are expected to produce a review that adequately covers all of the facets provided above.
Examples of rigorous literature surveys that we consider are standards for CHIP students are provided below:
- Brandon M Welch, Kensaku Kawamoto; Clinical decision support for genetically guided personalized medicine: a systematic review, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, Volume 20, Issue 2, 1 March 2013, Pages 388–400, https://doi.org/10.1136/amiajnl-2012-000892
- K Ann McKibbon, Cynthia Lokker, Steven M Handler, Lisa R Dolovich, Anne M Holbrook, Daria O'Reilly, Robyn Tamblyn, Brian J Hemens, Runki Basu, Sue Troyan, Pavel S Roshanov; The effectiveness of integrated health information technologies across the phases of medication management: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, Volume 19, Issue 1, 1 January 2012, Pages 22–30, https://doi.org/10.1136/amiajnl-2011-000304
The comprehensive exam should not been seen as a systematic review. But as rigorous literature survey of the research topic. The research and analysis begun in the comprehensive exam will direct the literature review in the student's dissertation.
The core topic of the written exam must be approved by the doctoral student’s advisor. The doctoral student’s committee should be notified about the core topic but approval is not required. Approval from the director of the program is not necessary.
Role of the Doctoral Student’s Primary Supervisor (Advisor)
The written exam must be produced solely and completely by the doctoral student. The doctoral student’s primary supervisor will be involved by supporting the screening of the literature using a priori defined inclusion and exclusion criteria. The screening of the literature will be conducted as rigorously as possible, using a well-established literature review methodology, and with the goal of producing a publishable quality review of the core topic. However, it is not required that the written examination manuscript be published.
Only the supervisor will assist with the article screening process.
While preparing the written exam, committee members are allow to provide feedback and suggestions.
Each draft of the written exam will be reviewed by the primary supervisor so that guidance may be provided accordingly.
Comprehensive Examination Committee
A doctoral student’s comprehensive examination committee will be made up of the student’s primary supervisor and 4 other faculty members (5 total committee members). Three or more of committee members must be from CHIP partner schools and units (See Core Faculty and Associated Faculty & Scholars). For more information see the Graduate School regulations on committee members.
Doctoral students are encouraged to engage past professors of courses they have taken, based on the professors’ background and overlap with the core topic.
It is suggested that doctoral students prepare a 1 page abstract of their core topic. This can be a useful tool when approaching prospective committee members about participating on the doctoral student’s committee.
Once doctoral students have confirmed all committee members, CHIP PhD Program Coordinator must be notified with the names and titles of each committee member through the Report of Comprehensive Exam Committee form. Failure to inform the Program Coordinator may jeopardize the comprehensive exam process.
 Dissertation Proposal- a written proposal focused on a single problem. A dissertation proposal is structured with an introduction, motivation, problem, literature review (in a focused and brief form), hypotheses, and method. The dissertation proposal can also include early pilot results.
Comprehensive Oral Examination
The primary purpose of the comprehensive exam is to evaluate whether the student has processed the major points discussed in the comprehensive exam paper and request any clarifying questions over points in the comprehensive exam paper.
The supervisor must ensure that all committee members are satisfied with the state of the comprehensive written exam before scheduling the oral exam. Doctoral students will keep committee members up-to date with the developments of their comprehensive exam so that the committee will be prepared to address the core topic during the oral exam.
Format for the Comprehensive Oral Examination
The length of the oral defense should typically be 1 to 1.5 hrs. At the beginning, the student should provide a brief, 15 to 20 min., presentation touching on the key areas covered in the comprehensive exam. The floor will then be opened for the committee members to ask follow-up questions on the scope, key observations, related research, and gaps in past research identified by the student.
The goal here is NOT TO TEST the MEMORIZATION ability of the student in terms of being able to regurgitate content verbatim from the comprehensive exam paper. Rather, the goal is to assess if the student grasped the core issues, past research findings, some of the major methods, and gaps in research discussed in the comprehensive exam paper.
A related goal is to ask clarifying questions and to ensure all the committee members accurately understand what the student attempted to express in the comprehensive paper.
The Q&A portion of the oral exam may last 45 min to an hour. After the Q&A period, the committee chair will request the student to leave the room temporarily and seek feedback from all the committee members. If all the members reach a decision (pass or fail, see below), then the student will be requested to re-enter the room and the decision will be conveyed to the student.
The final decision must be unanimous
Note - on certain rare occasions, a committee member may insist that the comprehensive paper be revised based on findings revealed during the oral exam, before agreeing on a pass. In such a case the committee chair will request the student to make the change and upon revision, evaluate the change in consultation with the committee member who raised the issue. If the requesting committee member is satisfied by the change, the committee member will be requested to sign-off. A repeat of the oral defense is usually not required to evaluate such revision requests.
It is permissible for the committee chair to request questions from the committee prior to the oral exam and pass on the questions to the student. It is up to committee members to voluntarily offer these questions. Committee members may come up with new or additional questions during the oral exam.
Doctoral students who fail to pass the oral examination will be allowed a single re-take within one academic year time frame. The re-take may or may not require revisions to the submitted exam. Students who do not pass the comprehensive examination on their second attempt will not be allowed to continue in the program. Graduate students successfully passing both the written and oral portions of the examination will advance to candidacy status.
Academic programs determine the order of doctoral written and oral examinations. In general, it is desirable that only a short interval separates the two examinations. If the second doctoral examination involves the examination of the dissertation prospectus, the Report of Doctoral Committee Composition Form must be submitted to and approved by The Graduate School before the examination. This form may be submitted any time prior to the second doctoral examination.
Immediately after each examination has been given, results should be sent to The Graduate School on the Doctoral Exam Report Form. If the report of the first doctoral oral shows that the dissertation prospectus has not been examined or that it has been considered but not accepted, a separate report must be filed with The Graduate School as soon as the prospectus is approved.
Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation
Dissertation Research Project
Upon successful completion of comprehensive exam and proposal defense, students will engage on a research project supervised by their adviser. The subject of the graduate student’s dissertation should ideally develop out of the research review done for the written comprehensive examination.
After successfully passing the comprehensive exam, the student will be required to submit a proposal which, beyond the rigorous literature survey previously completed, should include a methods section, a discussion on potential findings, and a section which anticipates limitations and ethical challenges. The proposal is not a literature review but the submission of a research question that will be the focus of the doctoral student’s dissertation. The proposal will focus on the student’s chosen methodology to address the research question. The proposal must also include thorough justification for the methodology. Ideally, the dissertation proposal and research question will develop out of the research conducted during the comprehensive exam.
The proposal will be reviewed by the doctoral student’s dissertation committee. If the committee agrees with the student’s proposal, they will determine a suitable oral defense date for the student. The written portion and the oral defense of the proposal must be completed within one year after the student reaches candidacy (successfully completes their comprehensive exams).
When students successfully complete their proposal, they will then be allowed to proceed to the dissertation research project stage. If for any reason, the committee determines oral defense to be unsatisfactory, students will be given one additional opportunity to successfully defend the proposal; however, the second defense must be held within three months after the initial proposal defense is held.
The following is the suggested outline for the dissertation proposal:
Chapter I: Introduction (Overview of the Dissertation)
Purpose of the Study
Experimental Design Associated with Hypotheses
Chapter II: Background and Related Work*
Review of Theories Related to the Topic
*The Background section should be exclusively focused on very closely related past research papers that directly intersect with the research question/s or the methodology discussed in the proposal (i.e., a small subset of the papers discussed in the comprehensive paper).
Chapter III: Methodology (Details of Dissertation)
Preliminary Studies (Optional)
Experimental Design Applied (e.g. data sources, data collection, analysis, evaluation, etc.)
Chapter IV: Timeline
Chapter V: Bibliography
-Columbia University, Department of Biomedical Informatics. "Dissertation Proposal Defense & Dissertation Defense." www.dbmi.columbia.edu/dissertation-defense (accessed March 21, 2019)
At the discretion and approval of the doctoral student's advisor, the dissertation proposal should consist of 12 - 30 single-spaced pages with half-inch margins and will be done in Times New Romans, 12 point font.
Example: This dissertation proposal from The Department of Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Buffalo, SUNY is a good example covering the important sections for the dissertation proposal. In addition, it includes a section on prior research (which is optional but important to note in the case that the candidate has completed highly related preliminary work. i.e., pilot research). It is important to note that this example has a narrow scope of the prior work covered in the proposal itself (as compared to a comprehensive exam paper). In this example, the prior work or background research is covered in SECTION 3, Titled: Prior Investigations. Please note the two important dimensions of this background literature section: 1) the length is short and focused and 2) the main topic is discussing the research problem the candidate is attempting to address and very closely related past research to the problem. Another item to note is that the methods information is covered in SECTION 5, Titled: Proposed Work. UNC CHIP Dissertation Proposal should follow a similar structure with the scope and content focused on the research question/s, prior work supporting the question/s, optionally, preliminary work, the proposed method.
Entrance Into Candidacy
Doctoral students who had their dissertation proposals accepted by their dissertation committee will enter into PhD candidacy. Admission to candidacy recognizes the achievement of a significant milestone in the career of a doctoral student and signifies that the only outstanding requirement for the degree is the dissertation. The student is then designated ABD—all but dissertation. Students may apply for admission to candidacy by filling out the Application for Admission to Candidacy after they have passed both the doctoral written and oral examinations, have submitted an acceptable dissertation prospectus, have completed all courses required by the major and minor programs, and have satisfied any foreign language or language substitute requirements. Academic programs should submit approved Application for Admission to Candidacy forms to The Graduate School only after the above requirements have been satisfied. Corresponding documentation must be on file in The Graduate School before the Application will be approved.
After completion of the dissertation project the student will prepare a dissertation document according to the Graduate School guidelines. At a point deemed acceptable by the adviser and members of committee, a public oral dissertation defense will be scheduled. Successful dissertation defense completes the fulfillment of all degree requirements.
In order to better understand the dissertation writing process and what type of document should result from it, graduate students may want to consult resources such as the UNC Graduate School Thesis and Dissertation Guide: http://gradschool.unc.edu/academics/thesis-diss/guide/
Preparation & Scheduling
The Graduate School will accept dissertations produced according to the standards in The Graduate School's Thesis and Dissertation Guide. Documents must be prepared in a form consistent with approved methods of scholarly writing and research. On matters of form, the student should also consult published manuals of style. Sample draft pages of the document may be pre-approved by Graduate School staff before the submission deadline, but final approvals will occur only after the student has submitted the final document.
The document is expected to be written in English. In special cases, languages other than English may be used; the substitution is not permitted for the student's convenience but may be allowed when the student has sufficient skill at composition and has a topic that is, in the adviser's judgment, especially suited to treatment in the second language. Approval to use a language other than English must be obtained in advance from The Graduate School, and a title page must be submitted in English.
Following the Defense
Doctoral students must be registered for a minimum of three credit hours of dissertation during the semester in which the dissertation prospectus/proposal is approved and the semester in which the dissertation is defended. Once students successfully defend their dissertation, no further research enrollments are necessary or permissible, and graduation should not be delayed.
Submission of Dissertation
Dissertations must be submitted to The Graduate School according to the schedule in the University Registrar's Calendar in final form designed to meet the standards defined in The Graduate School's Thesis and Dissertation Guide. Documents submitted electronically will not require front page signatures.
It is strongly suggested that every document be submitted well before the deadline to ensure ample time for format revisions.
Publications & Presentations
There is no official requirement for PhD students to submit to peer-reviewed journals or other scholarly publications. However, students will be expected to actively participate in scholarly writing and dissemination of research through presentations and publications. Likely venues to be targeted will include national conferences such as the AMIA and IEEE meeting and high impact journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.