Biological and Health Psychology Program Student Handbook

Health psychology is a rapidly emerging field of basic and applied research. In broad terms, health psychology seeks to elucidate the role that behavior and its physiologic concomitants play in the etiology, treatment and prevention of disease. Behavioral influences on physical health encompass environmental, psychosocial and sociocultural factors, as well as individual behavioral attributes (e.g., personality). Health-related phenomena studied by scientists in this field range from preventative, diagnostic and therapeutic interventions to disease pathogenesis at the levels of system and cellular physiology.

A few specific topics figuring prominently in health psychology include: the behavioral epidemiology and pathophysiology of cardiovascular disease; psychoneuroimmunology and behavioral influences on infectious disease susceptibility; psychosocial factors in oncology; the physiology and management of chronic pain; disorders of weight regulation; behavioral pharmacology and the treatment of addictive disorders; and the neurobehavioral sequelae of surgical and pharmaceutical interventions.

In 1996, graduate training in health psychology was established as a primary academic program of the Psychology Department. The program's training objective is to produce research scientists whose academic careers will advance the study of behavior, health and disease. This program superseded an earlier departmental graduate program in Psychobiology and accommodates health psychology students who have clinical interests within a joint Health Psychology-Clinical Psychology program.

In 2002, the Program in Health Psychology was re-titled the Graduate Program in Biological and Health Psychology, to better reflect the prominence of biological research in our program and to convey the representation of psychobiological science in our Department. It is our philosophy that training in health psychology requires acquisition of knowledge and skills in four generic areas: (1) research methods and quantitative analytic techniques; (2) principles of behavior (and in clinical contexts, behavior change); (3) mammalian physiology and psychophysiology; and (4) the pathobiology of disease and disease-related conditions.

Depending on students' particular interests, specific content of the graduate curriculum at the more advanced levels will naturally vary somewhat among individuals (e.g., research methods in epidemiology are less relevant to students pursuing experimental research; students focusing on cardiovascular research may study different areas of disease pathogenesis than those having a primary interest in psychoneuroimmunology).

In overview, students are exposed to a core curriculum covering research methods in health psychology, statistics, systems physiology (human physiology and behavioral neuroscience), and area-specific courses within five program concentrations: (1) Psychoneuroimmunology and Behavioral Oncology; (2) Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine; (3) Addiction and Psychopharmacology; (4) Lifestyle and Health Behaviors; and (5) Health Neuroscience and Neurobehavioral Genetics. The number and timing of specific courses varies somewhat between students enrolled in the joint Health Psychology-Clinical track and in Biological and Health Psychology alone, and all students' programs of study are monitored and approved by a two-member advisory committee composed of Program faculty.

As in all Department programs, students complete a masters thesis or thesis equivalent, a specialty examination, and a dissertation while in residence. Because of the significant curriculum and practicum demands of the Clinical Program, it is expected that students participating in the joint Clinical-Health track will typically require additional time to complete the doctoral requirements.

Rules and regulations governing the Biological and Health Psychology program are detailed under topical headings below. Students are also referred to the Graduate Student Handbook for additional information about department policies 

Admissions

Students with a BA or BS degree in Psychology, Biology or related majors will be admitted on the basis of: (1) achievement in their undergraduate courses; (2) performance on the Graduate Record Examination; (3) three letters of recommendation; (4) prior research experience; (5) a written essay detailing their professional goals and interests; (6) a personal interview, whenever possible; and (7) the match between student research interests and faculty expertise. Students may apply for co-admission to any other program of the Department or to the Joint Health Psychology-Clinical Psychology program. In such cases, the applicant must be admitted to both programs. As another options, non-Clinical students with bridging interests may design and formalize a program of cross-training with a second program area following admission to the Health program. See section on “Cross-program training” in the Department Graduate Student Handbook

Graduate students of other programs in the Psychology Department may apply to transfer into Biological and Health Psychology. Requests for transfer are handled on a case-by-case basis, with applicants required to follow the same formal admissions procedure as new applicants.

Advisors

As noted above, incoming students are selected on the basis of academic qualifications and research interests. Whenever possible, students are therefore assigned a faculty research advisor on the basis of correlated research interests. In addition, each student is assigned a program co-advisor from among core Health faculty on entrance into the program. Program co-advisors are selected by the chair based on the student's background and interests and in consultation with the student's major advisor. The major advisor and the program co-advisor constitute the student’s advising committee, which is designed a) to help the student formulate his/her course curriculum, b) to track student progress during training and to help address problems and barriers as they arise.

First year students should schedule a fall or a mid-year meeting with their advising committee to provide them with some early feedback on their progress, and to address any initial difficulties that may arise before they become too serious.  In the first year and all years thereafter, all students should also schedule an annual end-of-year meeting with the faculty advisor, the program co-advisor, and any other faculty supervisors (if relevant) early each summer term. These  end-of-year meetings will be chaired by the student’s program co-advisor and will typically be held in conjunction with the program’s annual evaluation of students. The major focus of the meeting should be on student advising needs in conjunction with progress and plans with respect to department and university milestones. In cases where there appears to be an imbalance between emphasis on the advisor’s own demands or expectations for the student and the expectations of the department with respect to student progress and performance, this should be explicitly addressed during the meeting by the student’s program co-advisor and/or other faculty member(s) who are present. Department expectations should be reviewed and clarified, and a plan should be made for achieving a satisfactory balance. The co-advisor should take minutes of this meeting and communicate to the program chair that the meeting has taken place. Students will be asked to indicate on their annual self-evaluation when the meeting has occurred. The program chair should ascertain that these meetings occur annually. Additional meetings of the advising committee may be initiated upon student or faculty request.

Students are encouraged to contact the department's student ombudsman or the program chair if there are problems with advising or other related matters that cannot be resolved in the context of the two-person advising committee.

During the first year in residence, students are expected to become involved in their advisor's research program and to spend from 10-20 hours per week contributing to some aspect of an ongoing project. This preliminary involvement should lead to a thesis proposal (by the beginning of the second year). As a function of divergent interests or stylistic differences, some students may not wish to pursue a thesis project with the initial advisor. Such students will be encouraged to change advisors, with the approval of the Program faculty, in order to establish a more productive relationship.

Curriculum

1. All students must fulfill coursework in: (1) a Health Fundamentals seminar (Psy 2502) which covers basic concepts and methods associated with the field; (2) research methods in health psychology (e.g., Psy 2200 Clinical Psych Research Methods); (3) statistical analysis (e.g., Psy 2005 and Psy 2010); and (4) two courses in systems physiology (human physiology and neuroscience) (e.g., Psy 2576 Topics: Human Physiology and Psy 2475, Behavioral Neuroscience). These requirements may be satisfied by various course options, based on recommendations of the student's two person advising committee and approval by the Program faculty.

Occasionally, exceptions to these requirements may be made based on students' particular needs or prior coursework. A student having research interests in addictive behavior and psychopharmacology, for instance, may be advised to take a graduate course in pharmacology; if that student also has a sufficient background in physiology, as judged by his/her advisory committee, it may be possible to substitute pharmacology for systems physiology.

2. For the Ph.D., students must also complete at least 14 elective course credits (approximately 5 courses; for clinical/health students, at least 8 credits or approximately 3 courses) relating to the program’s several fields of research concentration. Examples of such courses (several of which overlap multiple concentrations) include: Human Cardiovascular Psychophysiology, Psychoneuroimmunology, Behavioral Medicine Interventions, and Alcoholism. A number of elective courses are offered by the program, but courses outside of the program (for example, Cardiovascular Epidemiology) can also count toward this elective requirement.

Selection of elective course options should be discussed with the two person advising committee, and approved by the program chair.  Decisions about how to fulfill this elective course requirement should take into consideration a) the development of proficiency in the student’s area of program concentration (for example, Psychoneuroimmunology);  b)  the development of a broad understanding of the models and mechanisms relevant to the fields of Biological and Health Psychology: Students are strongly encouraged to take program-relevant courses outside of their area of concentration; and c) the development of a broader knowledge base outside of the program but relevant to one’s career trajectory:  For example, advanced statistics courses can also count toward program elective course credit.  Students whose specialty areas involve other programs in the department, such as Pediatric Health Psychology, can satisfy their elective course requirement using relevant courses from other Psychology programs (Developmental Psychology in this example) with this criterion in mind.  With counsel from the two person advising committee, students may, on occasion, opt to exceed the minimal required number of elective courses in pursuit of these three goals.

3. For the duration of their training, all students are expected to enroll and participate in the Program Research Seminar, which is scheduled in both the Fall and Spring academic terms. This seminar serves to bring together graduate students, faculty and postdoctoral fellows to provide a forum for discussion of conceptual and methodological issues bridging the various specialty areas of biological and health psychology.

Exemptions and Grades

Students with adequate background in areas covered by the core curriculum may wish to request exemption from certain required coursework. Such requests should be directed to the student's two person advising committee, accompanied by documentation of prior courses, syllabi, grades, etc. The committee will decide whether or not to recommend a waiver of the particular core requirement, and if recommending the waiver, will communicate this in writing to the Program Chair. The Chair will then either approve the request or bring the matter to the Program faculty for review and decision.

It is expected that students will maintain at least a B average in all graded coursework; in addition, students must earn a grade of B or better in all core courses and B- or better in all electives. Students who fail to meet the minimum requirement for graded performance on a specific course will need to retake the course; in the case of electives, students receiving an unacceptable grade may either retake the course or substitute an additional course in satisfaction of their electives requirement.

Annual Student Feedback

In fulfillment of the degree requirements, students will complete a Masters Thesis, a Specialty Examination, and a Doctoral Dissertation in addition to their courses (see below). Each of these milestone requirements must be completed in a timely fashion. In 2011, the department adopted a set of policies regarding the timely completion of each of these department milestones. Students and their advisors should refer to these policies (see “Satisfactory and Timely Degree Progress” in the Graduate Student Handbook) in making decisions about how to prioritize training efforts in the course of pursuing the doctoral degree.  

At the beginning of each summer, students will be asked to provide a report describing their accomplishments during the year.  About the same time, students will meet with their two- person advising committees to review progress, and an annual program faculty meeting will be held to update the program on each student.

Also at the beginning of each summer, and in conjunction with these events, students will be sent a standardized letter by the Director of Graduate Studies documenting progress through the program milestones, with recommended milestone goals for the coming year.  Shortly thereafter, students will receive a more extensive annual letter of evaluation from the Program Chair, recognizing specific accomplishments of the student, identifying any potential problems, and recommending goals and/or potential remedies, if relevant,  for the following year. This annual letter of evaluation is based upon the student’s annual report, in conjunction with issues identified in student discussions with the two-person advising committee and in the program faculty meeting described above. Together, these two letters are designed to provide clear feedback to students, to facilitate communication between students, their advisors, and the program, to identify problems early so that they can be remedied, and to assist with successful and timely completion of each student’s training and professional goals. 

Masters Thesis

Students are required to complete a Masters Thesis or an equivalent piece of research. The thesis work is overseen by a committee of three faculty members (selected by the student based on their expertise in the topic area). It is preferred that at least two members be from the Program in Biological and Health Psychology, with at least one of these having his or her primary (i.e., tenured or tenure-stream) appointment in the Psychology Department. Students should receive approval of their proposed thesis committee from the Program Chair before scheduling their first meeting with the group. The research plan is approved at a proposal meeting, after which the student conducts the proposed research and data analysis. On completion of the thesis document, the student presents and defends the thesis at an oral examination.

Students are expected to complete the thesis (or equivalent) by the end of their second year in residence or at least by the end of the first term in their third year (see section “Satisfactory and Timely Degree Progress” in the Department Graduate Student Handbook).

Students who completed a thesis at another institution may request exemption from the thesis requirement. Exemptions will be granted by the Program faculty upon determination that the completed thesis is equivalent to our requirements (i.e., a formally prepared document describing an empirical study that reflects meritorious science). To seek exemption, the student should first present copies of the thesis to his or her two person advising committee for review; in turn, the advising committee will make a recommendation to the program faculty to approve or disapprove the request.

For students enrolled in the Joint  Clinical Health program, all of the above regulations apply, as well as any guidelines unique to the Clinical Program. In the case of exemptions, the student must receive approval from both the Biological and Health Psychology and Clinical Psychology program faculties.

Format: The master's thesis proposal should be no longer than 25 pages double-spaced (excluding references, tables and figures; 1” margins, 12-point font).  The proposal should include the following sections: Specific Aims (no more than 2 double-spaced pages), Background and Significance, Research Design and Methods, Expected Outcomes and Implications, and Future Directions. The final masters thesis should be in journal article format (APA guidelines) and should be no more than 35 pages (excluding references

REQUIRED COURSES FOR M.S. IN PSYCHOLOGY
CREDITS
 
 
Health Fundamentals PSY 2502
3
Research Methods in biological and health psychology PSY 2200 Clinical Research Methods
3
Statistical Analysis PSY 2005 & 2010
6
Part 1 of two-course sequence in systems physiology PSY 2576 Human Physiology (or approved alternate)
3
Part 2 of two-course sequence in systems physiology PSY 2475 Behavioral Neuroscience (or approved alternate)
3
*Additional credit hours as required for M.S. and defined below
12
 
Total: 30

 

*Additional credit hours can be fulfilled by the following: graduate courses (including credits attained through cross-registration at other universities and from other schools at the University of Pittsburgh, e.g., Education), no more than 12 credits of upper level undergraduate courses (designated course number > 1000), Master’s thesis (maximum 6 credits), and directed study.  Please note: independent study and undergraduate courses with designated course number < 1000 do not count towards the minimum requirement for an M.S. degree.

Preliminary Academic Evaluation

While the Psychology Department does not admit students into a distinct Masters Degree program, students are not automatically eligible to pursue the PhD degree following completion of the Masters. Rather, the Biological and Health Psychology Program will conduct a formal Preliminary Evaluation of each student after completion of the Masters Thesis, with the aim of determining whether or not the student should be allowed to continue his/her studies toward the PhD. Successful completion of earlier requirements does not guarantee that the student will be permitted to continue, as the faculty will consider other factors as well (such as grades, successful and timely completion of milestones, positive annual evaluations, and demonstrated ability to function in a manner that is consistent with ethical and professional expectations) in making a determination.

The Preliminary Evaluation is conducted by the program chair and faculty after the successful defense of a Masters Thesis, but before the student is permitted to take the Specialty Examination. If the faculty concludes that the student is not eligible for further study, he/she will be terminated from the program at that point. If the decision is positive, the student will be permitted to take the Specialty Examination.

For students enrolled in cross-disciplinary training programs, this evaluation is conducted separately by each program. If the student is passed by the Biological and Health Psychology Program faculty, but not by faculty of the other program, a decision will be made as to whether he/she may continue on towards the doctorate in the Biological and Health Psychology Program alone. However, if a student is not passed in the Biological and Health Psychology Program's preliminary evaluation, he/she will be terminated from the Cross-disciplinary training program.

Specialty Examination

The Specialty Examination has two major purposes: One is to enable the faculty to evaluate the student's mastery of a specialized topic and preparedness for the dissertation. Students will have acquired a general knowledge of various health psychology subjects through the prior program of core courses and research seminars. However, they also need to demonstrate their mastery of a specific set of topics within the general domain of health psychology. That mastery implies an in-depth knowledge of a particular research literature and the problems associated with it. Thus, passing the Specialty Examination demonstrates that the student knows the theories and research methods that have developed around a set of related problems and can articulate the issues that are central to these problems.

The second major purpose of the Specialty Examination is to provide the student with a special training experience. Students need experiences that exemplify the kind of sustained, elective, problem-oriented scholarship that is consistent with their professional development goals. Writing a paper that critically reviews the research on a particular topic can serve this purpose (as well as provide background for the dissertation). Thus, the basic format for the Specialty Examination is a scholarly paper written on the student's specialty interests. The paper may be envisioned as a review article of the kind published in the Psychological Bulletin or as a grant proposal that would be submitted to a funding agency.

In either case, the paper should contain a critical review of an area of research, where such review does not currently exist in the published literature. In reviewing that research, the paper should aim to be integrative (more than just a description of a field) and should comment on the unsolved problems and methodological issues that have characterized work within the area. Furthermore, the paper should propose various modes of approach in studying those problems (as in a Psychological Bulletin paper) or a particular program of research, e.g., a set of experiments that can solve those problems (as in a grant proposal).

Proposal: The proposal for the Specialty Paper should be developed in consultation with and approved by a student’s faculty advisor. The proposal can be no longer than 8 double-spaced pages including references and should include as part of the text the central question of the paper and the review and integrative strategy that will be used to address it. The proposal should be structured to include text (2-3 pages), an outline (2-3 pages), and a brief, selected reference list (1 page). Proposals over the page limit will be returned to the student.

Committee: The specialty paper committee is composed of at least four faculty members and is chaired by the student’s academic advisor. At least two members of the specialty paper committee must be formally affiliated with the Biological and Health Psychology program, and at least two must have their primary appointment in the Department of Psychology. Exceptions require permission of the Program. Committee membership must be approved by the Biological and Health Psychology chair.

Procedure: After identifying potential committee members in consultation with his/her advisor, the student sends a list of the proposed committee members to the Biological and Health program chair for approval. After receiving approval of the program, a proposal meeting should be scheduled as soon as possible. After being approved by the advisor, the written proposal should be circulated to the committee members at least one week prior to the proposal meeting. Specialty paper proposal and defense meetings are typically scheduled for 2 hours. It is customary for the student to present a brief overview (approximately 15 minutes) of his/her proposal or defense prior to responding to questions.

Following approval by the committee of the proposal, students should work independently on the paper. Discussion with faculty advisors about the Specialty Paper is encouraged, but written drafts should not by exchanged. Substantial deviations from the original approved outline based on a more complete literature review should be discussed with the faculty advisor and committee (e.g., by email). Discussion with other students is also encouraged, but written drafts should not be circulated. The page limit for the Specialty Paper is 40 pages of text (double-spaced, 1 in. margins, 12 pt font), excluding references and tables. The completed Specialty Paper must be distributed to all members of the specialty paper committee at least one week prior to the oral defense.

The oral defense meeting should be attended by all committee members. Based on both the written paper and the oral defense, the specialty paper committee will decide among three grade options: fail, pass, or pass with honors. Students will have two chances to pass the requirement. If the defense is not passed initially, the committee may recommend changes and, if necessary, schedule a second meeting to be held within two months. After successful completion of the requirement (including any revisions), the specialty paper committee will sign the “Report of Examinations for the Doctoral Degree” card and forward it to the Department graduate office. Following any needed revisions, a copy of the final specialty paper (both a hard copy and a pdf computer file) should be provided to the Biological and Health Psychology program secretary for archiving. If the specialty paper committee does not approve the second defense, the program faculty will make the final decision, based on the Specialty Examination and other performance, concerning the student’s status in the program.

Timeline: The student is given six months to complete the paper after the topic is approved. See section on “Satisfactory and Timely Degree Progress” in the Department Graduate Student Handbook.

The Specialty Examination in other programs in the Department serve much the same goals of scholarship, but may differ in their procedural details. Students are responsible for ensuring that they are meeting the requirements of each of the programs in which they are enrolled, or that any compromises necessitated by fulfilling requirements of more than one program are appropriately approved prior to the examination defense.

Doctoral Candidacy

Upon passing the Specialty Exam, the student can proceed to assemble a dissertation committee. The committee consists of five faculty: the student's major advisor, at least two members of the Biological and Health Psychology faculty (one may be the advisor and committee chair), and at least one member of the Graduate Faculty from another department. The committee chair or co-chair must be a member of the Biological and Health Psychology Program faculty, and at least one of the two Program faculty serving on the committee must have primary (i.e., tenured or tenure-stream) academic appointments in the Psychology Department. Formal admission to doctoral candidacy does not actually occur until the student has had a successful dissertation proposal meeting. Upon approving the proposal, the committee recommends to the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies that the student be admitted to candidacy.

Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation is meant to be a scholarly document reporting on an empirical contribution to the knowledge base in the student's area of expertise. It should be of publishable quality. As noted above, the dissertation proposal must be presented for approval to the student's dissertation committee before he/she begins to conduct the research. A proposal may be approved, disapproved, or major or minor revision may be requested. In the case of major revision, a second meeting may be necessary before approval is granted. If a proposal is not approved, the student will be permitted to write and defend a new proposal.

At the discretion of the dissertation committee, a second meeting should be held following data collection and at the time of analysis to review the student's progress. On completion of the final write-up, the dissertation must be defended at an oral examination. Again, major or minor revisions may be requested by the committee, or the dissertation may be approved, or in rare cases, disapproved. In most cases, at least minor revisions will be required before the degree is granted.

The doctoral dissertation is meant to be a scholarly document reporting on an empirical contribution to the knowledge base in a student's area of expertise. It should be of publishable quality. For the dissertation, students are expected a) to play a significant role in the development of an important question or set of questions in their selected area of research; b) to be actively involved in the process of designing a study, collecting data, and/or developing measurement/analytic procedures to address the question(s). Under most circumstances, data collection will be designed specifically for the dissertation project, but it is understood that time and monetary constraints frequently do not permit students to plan dissertations of a scope that could meaningfully address questions that are at the cutting edge of the student's field of interest. In such cases, use of pre-existing data from large scale or longitudinal studies may be appropriate. When students use data from a pre-existing data set, they are still expected to play an independent role in formulating the questions (e.g., the hypotheses drawn from the advisor's grant application do not constitute an appropriate dissertation topic), and in designing or facilitating new measurement or analytic procedures appropriate to the topic (e.g., the project must involve more than a simple data analysis involving existing variables). Dissertation candidates have an added responsibility in undertaking a study involving existing data, as they must demonstrate to the committee that their ability to address the question of interest is not substantially compromised by the use of available data, as opposed to using a de novo data collection.

Because candidates for research positions will be evaluated in terms of their projected ability to develop a laboratory and to design new projects, it behooves them to move beyond involvement with pre-existing data sets at some point in their graduate career:

Faculty mentors are expected to counsel students on the importance of developing a diverse range of laboratory and research skills to prepare them for future employment, and to create opportunities for trainees to design and carry out new studies during their graduate training (if not during the dissertation) as well as working with existing data sets. In some cases, this may involve collaboration with other faculty and research laboratories affiliated with the program.

All students are expected to be involved in all stages of one or more research projects from start to finish, including original data collection, at some point in their graduate training. As part of all research experiences during graduate training, of course, students are also expected to present and to publish their work.

Research Experience/Professionalization

The major goal of the Program in Biological and Health Psychology is to train research scientists. To this end, students will be expected to enter the laboratory of a participating faculty member at the beginning of their first year and become involved in an ongoing research project. Continued growth and development into an independent scientist will be the primary basis of evaluation in the Program.

Since the Program is highly interdisciplinary and collaborative in its orientation and makeup, students are expected to develop these perspectives, once a firm foundation in basic research methodology and an area of specialization have been established. Because successful research careers require more than laboratory skills, students are expected to give frequent program presentations (e.g., brown bags of their research progress, journal club presentations), and are encouraged to submit papers to academic journals, to attend (and present at) professional meetings, and to submit fellowship applications as ways of developing communication and professional socialization skills.