Occupational and Environmental Health (OEH) is recognized as one of the major, integral fields of study in public health. Its focus is on the physical environment, both natural and built, as a determinant of health. The term “occupational and environmental health” recognizes the unique and overlapping aspects of the workplace and community environments as health determinants. Occupational health research and environmental health research are intertwined, and many research methodologies developed for occupational health have been successfully applied in environmental health and vice-versa.
Historically, the main research focus in occupational health was on exposures to material agents, such as chemicals, physical and biological materials that resulted in adverse effects on the health of workers. The reduction of exposures to many of these harmful substances in the workplace has been a success story that involved the application of research findings to policy and practice in the field. Partly as a result of this success, research in occupational health now addresses an even wider range of workplace hazards including shift-work, ergonomics, and psychological stress.
Environmental health research has grown rapidly in the last two decades. New research methods, increasing availability of high-quality exposure data sets, and access to large administrative data sets on health outcomes have resulted in new insights into the sometimes subtle but important effects that exposures to naturally-occurring and anthropogenic substances in the environment can have on mortality and the incidence of chronic disease at the population level (e.g., urban air pollution, microbial agents, indoor chemicals, etc.). The use of biomarkers and the concept of exposome as the environmental analogue to the genome provides fertile ground for cutting edge research in this area.
The PhD field in OEH provides research intensive doctoral level training in occupational and environmental health topics with the principal emphasis on the role of the physical environment as a determinant of health. Progress against doctoral degree level learning expectations will be assessed throughout the student’s program in relation to 3 general categories of student performance:
- Course work – Each course will have specific, defined learning expectations and specific methods for assessing student performance. This may include: examinations, papers, oral presentations, participation in class discussion, etc. All students will be evaluated in accordance to the University of Toronto graduate grading practices and will be assessed at multiple points during the courses.
- Qualifying examination – The qualifying examination will allow for an assessment of a student’s grasp of the substantive area of research, including the critical interpretation of relevant literature, the structuring of rigorous research questions, the development of research methodology appropriate to the research questions, and the formulation of concise and coherent scholarly writing and oral communication. The subsequent oral examination will allow for supplementary assessment in these areas, together with assessment of a student’s ability to grasp questions and to respond clearly and effectively. The examination will be administered by a three member committee, and the responses of the candidate will be subject to the time limitations of a two-hour examination. A maximum of two attempts to successfully complete the examination will be permitted.
- Independent research – The student will prepare a detailed research plan which will be assessed by the advisory committee for its academic rigor and its suitability. The written thesis and its oral defense will provide an ultimate, comprehensive opportunity to assess the student’s ability to engage in original research and scholarly discourse through the evaluation of a written thesis and the SGS Final Oral Examination by appropriately qualified scholars.
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- Applicants are admitted under the General Regulations of the School of Graduate Studies and are generally expected to hold a master’s degree in a public health science-related discipline from a recognized university.
- Applicants should have demonstrated educational and/or professional experience that indicates a capacity to undertake research-oriented doctoral studies in an area appropriate to OEH and to the proposed area of study.
- Applicants must prepare a statement of research interest in they indicate how their coursework and research preparation is relevant to the proposed topic. For example, a student wishing to study the cardiopulmonary effects of air pollution would be expected to have research and course work background in the relevant underpinnings including exposure assessment, cardiovascular physiology and statistics.
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Additional Admission Requirement for the PhD
PhD students must be supervised by a faculty member who has an appointment with DLSPH and Full School of Graduate Studies (SGS) status. Successful applicants will have research interests congruent with those of one or more members of faculty, and may have identified a possible primary or co-supervisor, prior to admission. Admission may otherwise be conditional upon identifying a supervisor. Thus, applicants are strongly encouraged to seek out potential supervisors, and discuss with them the possibilities, prior to applying to the degree program. Applicants should note that identifying a potential supervisor does not guarantee admission.
The PhD Field in Occupational & Environmental Health (OEH) consists of 4 elements: 1) coursework 2) a qualifying exam 3) research proposal and thesis, and 4) public presentation of research findings. These elements are intended to give students depth and breadth in the theoretical, methodological and practical foundations of Occupational and Environmental Health. It is expected that full-time PhD students complete the program within 4-5 years of enrollment. The requirements are briefly summarized below.
- 3.5 FCE required courses consisting of the following:
- 1.5 FCE – Introduction to Public Health Research (CHL5005H) (0.5 FCE); one (0.5 FCE) of either an OH or EH graduate course (or equivalent if taken previously); and one OEH doctoral seminar course (0.5 FCE, under development);
- 1.0 FCE – courses relevant to area of study including appropriate advanced research methodology including one in biostatistics, as relevant to the area of study;
- 1.0 FCE – courses expanding on the substantive area of study;
- Apart from CHL5005H, all courses require the prior approval of the student’s committee and the PhD Field Lead.
Example: a student wishing to study cardiopulmonary effects of air pollution might pursue the following set of courses: CHL5005H Introduction to Public Health Research; CHL5903H Environmental Health; OEH PhD seminar course (0.5 FCE – under development); CHL5201H Biostatistics for Epidemiologists I; CHL5202H Biostatistics for Epidemiologists II (or, more advanced biostatistics courses, depending upon background); CHE2504H Environmental Pollution Prevention; CHM1401H Transport and Fate of Chemical Species in the Environment.
- Qualifying exam consisting of the following elements:
- Preparation of a document including a critical, in-depth literature review and analysis on the proposed topic, and a set of proposed research questions and methodologies.
- Presentation and oral exam on above, including its relevance to OEH and public health.
- Research proposal and thesis
- Development of detailed research plan – the research plan will include a concise review of the literature, justification of the research questions, objectives, hypotheses, design, data collection or data sources, proposed analysis strategies, timetable, approvals (ethics, animal use, biosafety), and potential problems or issues, concluding with references.
- Approval of the research plan – the student will present the research plan to their advisory committee and two additional faculty reviewers for discussion and ultimate approval.
- Research activities in support of the student’s thesis questions.
- Thesis prepared in a format agreed upon by the student’s committee, either in the format of a traditional thesis/ monograph or as a cohesive assemblage of multiple manuscripts.
- Public presentation of research findings
- Following provisional approval of the thesis by the committee, the student undertakes a preparatory, departmental defense examination. This will include a public presentation in the School on the research, immediately followed by a closed committee meeting of the student, the thesis committee and two additional faculty members from the department, identified by the program to act as examiners. Typically this preparatory examination will take place 6–8 weeks prior to SGS Final Oral Examination.
All PhD students and their supervisors are required to complete an annual progress review and an annual funding agreement. They should review and comply with the SGS Graduate Supervision Guidelines for Students, Faculty and Administrators.