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Harvard University: Department of Biostatistics

Located on the Harvard Medical Campus, the Department of Biostatistics was one of the first departments in the newly formed Harvard School of Public Health in 1922. Called the Department of Vital Statistics until 1946, it was a result of the work of Lemuel Shattuck in the last century. Shattuck founded the American Statistical Association in 1839, the oldest professional society in America; his name is preserved on a street that runs through the campus. The departmental location is central to its mission: to facilitate collaborations between the members of the Department and other medical scientists.

Now in its 91st year, the Department is comprised of approximately 90 students, 65 faculty members, and 100 research scientists, research associates, and fellows. Our size contributes to our ability to address a broad spectrum of biostatistical and public health issues.

We offer both the PhD (through the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) and the Master of Science (through the Harvard School of Public Health) degrees in Biostatistics. Biostatistics students can also select an area of interest in Bioinformatics at either the PhD or Master’s level.

We work hard to ensure that our programs of study provide an outstanding opportunity for graduate training. A central tenet that underlies our programs is the importance of combining solid training in statistical theory, methods, and computing with exposure to important applications in public health, the biological sciences, medicine, and computational biology. This belief is reflected in all of our courses, as well as in the research topics selected for doctoral dissertations. Our location in the heart of Boston’s Longwood Medical Area – home to many world-class hospitals – makes collaboration with eminent clinical researchers both convenient and a natural extension of the educational experience.

For a detailed description of our degree programs and requirements, please refer to our Graduate Student Handbook. You can also direct questions about our degree programs to our Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. David Wypij, or about the application process to our Manager of Academic Services, Ms. Jelena Follweiler.

We believe our students’ graduate experience is enriched and enhanced by a diverse student body. The Harvard School of Public Health and our Department are committed to diversity at all levels, and we welcome applications from underrepresented minorities, women, disabled, and economically disadvantaged students. Our Department draws students from all parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Eastern and Western Europe. We particularly encourage applications from international students in the developing world and invite them to apply for the Vasilios Stavros Lagakos Scholarship.

We believe the extensive resources of our Department, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard University create an ideal environment for the study of biostatistics and bioinformatics. We hope that you will consider our Department for your graduate education.


Programs offered

Doctor of Philosophy Degree

The PhD program is designed for those who have demonstrated both interest and ability in scholarly research. The department's program is designed to prepare students for careers in the theory and practice of biostatistics and bioinformatics, and includes training in the development of methodology, consulting, teaching, and collaboration on a broad spectrum of problems related to human health, genomics, and basic biology.

The Ph.D. program in Biostatistics prepares students in the following five specific competencies:

  1. Applying innovative probabilistic and statistical theory and computing methods to the development of new biostatistical or bioinformatics methodology, publishing of original methodological research, and the solution of public health problems.
  2. Providing scientific and biostatistical or bioinformatics leadership in the design, conduct, and analysis of collaborative research studies in medicine and public health.
  3. Applying modern statistical and computational methods to effectively analyze complex medical and public health data, including the development of new software for non-standard problems and simulation methods.
  4. Collaborating and communicating effectively with research scientists in related disciplines.
  5. Teaching biostatistics or bioinformatics effectively to health professionals, research scientists, and graduate students.

Application Information: Doctoral Degree

Applications for admission to the Ph.D. program are available online at the Admissions Office website. For information on general requirements for admission, see the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website or contact the Admissions Office by phone (617/496-6100). Qualified applicants may apply to this program without a prior advanced degree.


All candidates for admission to the Ph.D. and Master’s programs should have successfully completed calculus through multivariable integration and one semester of linear algebra. Knowledge of a programming language is also required. Evidence that these requirements have been fulfilled should form part of the application. In addition, all applicants are strongly encouraged to have completed courses in probability, statistics, advanced calculus or real analysis, and numerical analysis. Students with interests in bioinformatics are also encouraged to have completed courses in biology, computational biology, and genetics. Practical knowledge of a statistical computing package such as SAS, Splus, R, Stata, or SPSS is also desirable. Students interested in bioinformatics should also have knowledge of a scripting language such as Python or Perl and some familiarity with relational databases. From time to time the Department will admit students to our programs without this level of preparation with the understanding that the student will promptly make up any deficiencies, usually by taking additional courses prior to entering the program.

In addition, the Department Summer Program, which is held in August, is designed to review basic concepts of probability, statistics, and computing prior to the first semester in the Ph.D. program.

Master of Science Degree

The Master of Science programs in Biostatistics train students in the basics of statistical theory, biostatistical and bioinformatics methods in planning studies, conducting analyses, and writing reports, the interpretation of numeric data for scientific inference in studies in medicine and public health, and the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with scientists in related disciplines. Application areas include observational studies, clinical trials, computational biology, and quantitative genomics, statistical genetics, and medical and public health research, among other areas.

The Department of Biostatistics offers several Master of Science programs, with the appropriate program depending on the student’s background and interests. The two-year Master of Science (SM2) degree provides training in statistical theory and a variety of statistical, computational, and bioinformatics methods for application in medicine and public health. Two areas of interest are offered: Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. The SM2 program is appropriate for students considering doctoral-level work or Master’s level medical research positions upon completion. The one-year Master of Science (SM1) degree is designed for students with a mathematical and statistical background sufficient to achieve a level of proficiency after one year of study comparable to that obtained in the SM2 program. The 60-credit Master of Science (SM60) degree has an applied emphasis and is designed for students seeking medical research positions in biostatistics upon completion.

All Master of Science programs in Biostatistics prepare students in four specific competencies:

  1. Designing research studies in medicine and public health, including study design and population selection, sample size justification, data analysis plans, methods of data acquisition and organization, data management methods, data analysis plans, and protocol development.
  2. Analyzing and interpreting quantitative data for scientific inference, including graphical and tabular displays, descriptive statistics, statistical inference, and choice of appropriate statistical software for the data analysis.
  3. Using modern computational methods to effectively analyze complex medical and public health data, including regression methods, survival data analysis, bioinformatics, and statistical genetics.
  4. Collaborating and communicating effectively with research scientists in related disciplines.

The SM1 and SM2 programs in Biostatistics have a fifth specific competency:

Using probabilistic and statistical reasoning and theory to effectively analyze non-standard problems arising in medicine and public health and assist biostatistical researchers in the conduct of methodologic research.

The SM60 program in Biostatistics also has a fifth specific competency:

Disseminating new knowledge in a research discipline through the preparation of written reports of biostatistical analyses, comparison of different statistical methodologies, and oral presentation of results.

Application Information: Master’s Degree

Application for admission to the SM program is available online on the Admissions Office website. For information on general requirements for admission, see the Harvard School of Public Health Catalog or contact the Admissions Office by phone (617-432-1031) or through their website.

For more details about all our programs, please see our department graduate student handbook (PDF).

Students who have a Master’s degree in one of the mathematical sciences or a doctorate in a quantitative field may be qualified for a one-year SM program. To be admitted, applicants must have a mathematical and statistical background sufficient to achieve a level of proficiency after one year of study comparable to that achieved by the two-year program.

Student body profile

The Harvard School of Public Health is committed to increasing the number of underrepresented minorities at the student, faculty, staff, and senior administrative levels. We also invite applications from women, disabled, and economically disadvantaged applicants.

In addition to fully-funding all of our doctoral students, the Department of Biostatistics hosts an annual Summer Program in Quantitative Sciences, which is designed to attract mathematically talented undergraduate students from underrepresented minority groups to consider graduate school and careers in biostatistics and public health. Since its inception in 1994, 153 students have participated in the program, and 22 have enrolled at HSPH in a variety of graduate programs, including the doctoral program in biostatistics.

Funding opportunities

All doctoral students in good standing receive full financial support (tuition, fees, and stipend) for 4 to 5 years. This support comes from a variety of sources, including NIH training and research grants, teaching fellowships, and competitive HSPH scholarships. We also encourage doctoral students to apply for external funding such as NSF and NDSEG fellowships, which often award stipends larger than those provided by the Department. Applicants to the doctoral program should identify their specific field of interest, if any, in their personal essay. International applicants from developing countries are encouraged to apply for the Vasilios Stavros Lagakos Scholarship.

Funding for Master’s students is more limited, and all applicants are encouraged to apply for outside scholarships. The Director of Graduate Studies will also try to match applicants with competitive Harvard scholarships in the area of their research interest.

More information

Our website

Contact for more information:

Marcello Pagano