PBSG PhD Program

PhD in Clinical & Translational Science – Psychiatric, Behavioral, & Statistical Genetics Concentration (PhD-CTS-PBSG) – The doctoral degree in Clinical and Translational Sciences with the Psychiatric, Behavioral and Statistical Genetics concentration (CTS-PBSG) was designed by faculty at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics (VIPBG). The Program is a part of the education core of the VCU Clinical and Translational Science Program. VIPBG is an interdisciplinary institute that brings together faculty with a wide range of scientific backgrounds ranging from statistical and molecular genetics to epidemiology, psychology, and psychiatry, all with the joint focus of understanding how genetic and environmental factors impact the development of psychiatric and substance use disorders and related behavioral outcomes. Faculty members work across twin and family studies, gene identification projects, and genetically-informative longitudinal, community based samples. Faculty are also involved in statistical methods development for the aforementioned projects. Students in the PhD-CTS-PBSG track obtain interdisciplinary training, with coursework in psychology/psychiatry, epidemiology, biostatistics, and human and molecular genetics. Students can tailor their training and research experience to their particular career goals by selecting electives in their focused area of interest.

  • Psychiatric, substance use and behavioral outcomes are very complex, as they are influenced by many genes and environmental factors, acting together over time and across developmental stages. The study of these outcomes requires researchers with varied backgrounds and integrative training. The CTS-PBSG is one of the few truly interdisciplinary training programs of its sort in the world, housed in an interdisciplinary institute, and consisting of a curriculum that cuts across traditional departmental boundaries. For more than a decade, VIPBG has pioneered transdisciplinary research and training in genetic epidemiology of psychiatric and substance use disorders. The CTS-PBSG training program is a natural extension of VIPBG.

    The shared focus of the training program is on psychiatric and substance use disorders, as well as related behavioral outcomes. In the US in any given year, one in four adults over the age of 18 suffers from one or more psychiatric or substance use disorders. Nicotine and alcohol dependence are amongst the most common preventable causes of mortality and morbidity. In 2020, major depression will exceed cardiovascular illness as the leading biomedical source of world-wide morbidity. Collectively, psychiatric and substance use disorders are very costly US public health concerns, in both human and financial terms. The magnitude of these adverse health effects underscores the need to develop research scientists who can advance our understanding of the causes of these disorders in order to provide more effective approaches to both primary and secondary prevention in addition to treatment.

    Psychiatric and substance use disorders are challenging research areas in biomedicine, making transdisciplinary research particularly critical. Genetic influences play an important role in the development of these disorders; however, many genes are involved, with individual genes having only small effects. Environmental risk factors also play major roles, impacting at the individual, family, social context and culture levels. Furthermore, the inter-relationship between genetic and environmental risk factors is likely to be subtle, dynamic and non-additive. Thus, understanding the etiology and development of these disorders requires integrative research.

    Despite considerable interest in these integrative research questions, few scientists are well-equipped to address this cutting-edge research need. Most scientists continue to be trained in a specialty area, obtaining degrees in a basic laboratory science such as genetics or molecular biology, or a population-based field, such as psychology or epidemiology. Thus, much of the research on these outcomes has been directed toward trying to understand either genetic influences or environmental influences/basic epidemiology. Scientists are needed who can interface knowledgeably across these levels of complexity. This necessitates broad-based training that cuts across traditional training programs and departmental divisions. Studying these disorders requires a strong foundation in human genetics, epidemiology, psychological assessment and phenotyping, and biostatistics/statistical genetics. Training of students at the interface of statistical/molecular genetics and behavioral epidemiology is critical to develop young scientists optimally positioned to address the cutting-edge research questions that so drastically impact the nation’s health.

  • Training Program Objectives – The CTS-PBSG PhD program is intended to set the tone for a career and life-long learning in psychiatric, behavioral and statistical genetics by developing the student’s knowledge of the field and skills in critical thinking and writing, study design, interpretation and integration of knowledge from multiple disciplines while fostering the student’s development as an independent researcher, laboratory director or teacher. These programs also seek to provide students with a core foundation of knowledge which will equip them to carry out translational research.

    PhD Program – The Ph.D. degree requires at least three years of study for students entering with a B.S. or B.A. degree. Students working toward the Ph.D. degree in CTS-PBSG pass through two stages of graduate study. The first stage consists primarily of course work recommended by the PBSG program and the student’s Graduate Committee; the second of original research leading to the doctoral dissertation. The first stage of the doctoral program is intended to set the tone of a research career by developing the student’s knowledge of the field, and skills in critical thinking, study design, literature research, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, written and oral communication and review and integration of knowledge from multiple disciplines. The focus then shifts to the student’s development as an independent researcher with emphasis on the development and execution of an original research project leading to the doctoral dissertation. A Ph.D. is awarded as the ultimate recognition of a student’s achievement of independent, creative and publishable research. Science requires a full time commitment and it should not be assumed that work of doctoral quality could be accomplished within the constraints of a 40 hour workweek. Students are expected to develop their knowledge and critical research skills within their chosen areas of inquiry to such a level that they are able to transcend the scholarship of any one of their advisers.

  • Admissions Criteria – All applicants must have earned a baccalaureate degree or its equivalent at the time of enrollment. Applicants holding an undergraduate degree from recognized foreign institutions must display an acceptable level of English proficiency by achieving a score of 100 on the TOEFL examination. Because the CTS-PBSG is an interdisciplinary training program we encourage students from a variety of backgrounds to apply. Our current trainees have undergraduate degrees in many different majors. There are no requirements with respect to undergraduate course content. Students with background in biology, genetics, statistics, psychology, or other relevant biological/social science and/or math courses are preferred. However, extensive background across all of these areas is not necessary. The training program curriculum is flexible to allow students to take heavier course content in areas in which they need additional training to achieve an interdisciplinary foundation. We place emphasis on finding students with strong academic records and interests that match the training goals and research areas of the VIPBG.

    Application MaterialsAll applicants must provide the following:

    1. Official transcripts of all prior undergraduate/graduate work. Applicants must have attained a minimum GPA of 3.0 in undergraduate study to be considered.
    2. A statement of purpose for application to the program. The document should be single-spaced with one-inch margins, in a font height no smaller than 11 points. The statement of purpose should cover the below issues in 1-2 pages:
      1. why the applicant wishes to pursue a PhD in the CTS-PBSG program
      2. background experience relevant to pursuing a PhD in the CTS-PBSG program
      3. research interests and potential faculty mentors
      4. description of the applicant’s career goals
    3. Three current letters of recommendation
    4. Scores from the Graduate Record Examination [GRE]. Applicants must score at the 75% percentile or above in all sections of the GRE.
    5. International applicants must also provide, to the VCU Office of International Education: Scores from a Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL] or an [IELTS]: International English Language Testing System

    Application Process Applications for graduate study in the area of CTS-PBSG can be obtained at the VCU Graduate School Web site. Applications should be initiated online from the Graduate School admissions page. Under the “planned course of study” drop-down menu, please select: Clin & Trans Sci/Psych, Behav, & Stat Gen-PHD (Select Conc). Please note that there is no separate application for the CTS-PBSG program. Although there is not a hard deadline for admissions, applications received by January 10 will receive priority consideration. For additional information or questions, please contact Nathan Gillespie at nathan.gillespie@vcuhealth.org or 804-828-3761.

    Funding Typically, funding for the first two years comes from the Center for Clinical and Translational Research and the VCU Graduate School. Graduate students in the CTS-PBSG program are funded through a variety of sources, including University Graduate School Fellowships, NIH grants held by individual VIPBG faculty, and two VIPBG training grants (R25DA026119: Research Education in Statistical Genetics of Substance Abuse and T32MH020030: Research Training: Psychiatric and Statistical Genetics; PI Dr. Michael Neale). Funding includes tuition and a stipend. Graduate student stipends for the CTS-PBSG program generally meet or exceed NIH levels. Current NIH stipend levels can be found at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-10-047.html.

  • The courses taken by all PhD students during the first two years of study are listed below:

    General

    • PBSG Seminar CCTR 690 [1]
    • Directed Research CCTR 697 [variable]
    • Scientific Integrity OVPR 601 [1]
    • Grant Writing PSYC 700/GRAD 614 [3]

    Psychiatry/Psychology

    • Concepts and Controversies in Behavioral Genetics HGEN 691 [1]
    • Epidemiology of Psychiatric & Substance Use Disorders^ EPID 646 [3]
    • Principles of Human Behavioral Genetics HGEN 620 [3]
    • Topics in Assessment of Psychopathology^ CCTR 691 [1]

    Statistics

    • Intro to R HGEN 517 [1]
    • Statistics for Genetic Studies CCTR 702 [3]
    • Statistics for Genetic Studies II CCTR 703 [3]
    • Quantitative Genetics* HGEN 619 [3]

    Genetics

    • Human Genetics^ HGEN 501 [3]
    • Advanced Human Genetics HGEN 502 [3]
    • Mathematical and Statistical Genetics* HGEN 603 [3]
    • Molecular Genetics* HGEN 617 [3]

    * two two out of three, one out of three for MD/PhD
    ^ waived for MD/PhD students

    Core Course Descriptions

    HGEN 691 Special Topics in Genetics: Concepts and Controversies in Behavior Genetics. Course Director: Lindon Eaves. Reading and discussion of seminal papers that helped shape the field of modern human behavioral genetics.

    EPID 646 Epidemiology of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders. Course director: Briana Mezuk. Introduction of descriptive and analytic epidemiology for major mental disorders of childhood, adulthood, and late adult life. Examine issues of classification and nosology of psychiatric disorders as well as operational case definitions and measurement techniques for field surveys and risk factor research. Course sessions will entail a combination of lectures, group discussions, lab activities, and student presentations based on course projects.

    HGEN 620 Principles of Human Behavioral Genetics. Course Director: Judy Silberg. The theory of genetic and non-genetic transmission considered in relation to design, analysis, and interpretation of studies to identify the principal genetic and environmental causes of behavioral variation. Included will be analysis of intelligence, personality, social attitudes, and psychiatric and substance use disorders, and brain imaging.

    HGEN 517 Introduction to Statistical Programming in R. Course Director: Timothy York. Introduction to statistical programming in R. Fundamentals for efficient handling and exploration of common data set structures in biomedical sciences with examples focused on use of genetic data. Hands-on and problem driven lecture sessions. No computer programming experience required. Undergraduate course in basic statistical concepts encouraged.

    CCTR 702 Statistics for Genetic Studies I. Course Director: Michael Neale. Introduction to common statistical theory and basic methods common in quantitative and statistical genetics. Review of mathematical components underlying statistical analysis and intro to probability theory and linear models such as linear regression and analysis of variance. This course will be offered as the first course in the PBSG PhD methods sequence.

    CCTR 703 Statistics for Genetic Studies II. Course Director: Michael Neale. Topics include issues and extensions of regression models, factor analysis and structural equation modeling. This course will be offered as the second course in the PBSG PhD methods sequence.

    HGEN 619 Quantitative Genetics. Course Director: Hermine Maes. Introduction to structural equation modeling applied to genetically informative data using the R package OpenMx.

    HGEN 501 Human Genetics. Course Director: Joyce Lloyd. Comprehensive examination of fundamentals of human genetics. Topics include modes of inheritance (Mendelian and non-Mendelian inheritance), pedigree analysis, cytogenetics, molecular genetics (gene structure and function, epigenetics, gene expression), biochemical genetics, diagnostic testing and genetic counseling.

    HGEN 502 Advanced Human Genetics. Course Director: Brien Riley. Comprehensive study of principles of specific areas in human genetics. Explores topics including quantitative genetics, genetic epidemiology, gene mapping, model organisms, characterization of Mendelian and complex disease genes, and bioinformatics.

    HGEN 603 Mathematical and Statistical Genetics. Course Director: Timothy York. Introduction to theoretical and applied population genetics. Focus on statistical methods for analyzing genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and genome sequence data.

    CCTR 690-001 PBSG Seminar. This is a 1-credit course, offered each semester. Students will be enrolled each semester they are in the program but course credit will only be required for three semesters for PhD students and two semesters for MD/PhD students. The course will include presentation and discussion of research topics and published papers of current interest within the field of biomedical and biobehavioral sciences, focusing on interdisciplinary and systems-related research. Students will be required to make an oral presentation on their research the final time they enroll in the course for credit. The course will keep students current on new findings in life sciences and, through their presentations and the constructive critiques of course participants, will develop students’ verbal communication skills specific to research.

    CCTR 697 Directed Research. Students in the PhD program may register for 1-4 credits per semester with a required minimum of 2 credits and a maximum of 6 credits. The focus of this course will be to provide the student with real world research experience under the direction of a VCU faculty member and to facilitate their independent design and plan for the conduct of an interdisciplinary research project.

    CCTR 898 Dissertation Research. During the Fall and Spring, students must register for 6-9 credits per semester. During Summer, students should register for 3-6 credits. Students will be required to complete a minimum of 15 credits of research under this course number directed towards completion of their dissertation. Through this course the student will demonstrate that they are able to integrate and utilize the core competencies of the PhD program as evidenced by their ability to design, conduct, analyze the data from and defend the findings of their thesis research project / plan. The research will have a strong interdisciplinary focus, as facilitated by the composition of the Research Advisory Committee.

    OVPR 610 Scientific Integrity. A survey of contemporary issues relating to responsible conduct in research. Topics include academic integrity, mentoring, authorship and peer review, use of humans and animals in biomedical research, ownership of data, intellectual property, conflict of interest, scientific record keeping, collaborative research, research misconduct and genetic technology.

    PSYC 700 Grant Writing. Students are expected to enter course with a pre-approved topic identified and substantial background reading completed. Focuses on preparing an NIH grant application, using F31-F32 mechanism (predoctoral or postdoctoral National Research Service Award) as a model. Course covers elements of a grant application, details of the grant review process, and key features of successful applications. Students prepare a research plan for their own application based upon their current work.

    GRAD 614 Introduction to Grant Writing. Topics include basic components of a grant application, writing the proposal, identifying funding sources, understanding proposal guidelines and the grant proposal review process.