The doctoral program is for students with a master’s degree in public health (or equivalent field) who want to advance understanding of health-related behaviors and their determinants at all social levels. Doctoral students gain skills and knowledge in the theoretical foundations of the health behavior field as well as research methods, intervention development and evaluation, and professional development topics. Graduates apply their training to research focused on domestic and global issues.

Program manuals and guidelines are available on the Health Behavior Degrees page.
Meet our current Health Behavior doctoral students here.

Competencies Guiding Doctoral Training

Doctoral students are expected to gain and demonstrate competency in theoretical foundations of the field, quantitative research methods, interventions, and in professional development topics. These competencies represent minimum objectives that form the foundation of doctoral training. All students have additional learning objectives and develop specialized and in-depth competencies in areas of interest.

Theoretical foundations

1) Know, critically evaluate, and assess the empirical evidence for contemporary and emerging behavioral and social science theories relevant to understanding psychological, social, and environmental determinants of health and health behaviors.

2) Know, critically evaluate, and assess the empirical evidence for contemporary and emerging conceptual paradigms that have motivated the discipline of health behavior within the field of public health.

3) Use empirical evidence, theories, and conceptual paradigms when developing research questions; posit research questions that address topics of significance to the public’s health.

4) Apply theories, conceptual paradigms, and evidence to understand disparities, inequities, and inequalities in health and health behavior.

5) Demonstrate an understanding of how social determinants (e.g., disproportionate distribution of resources by race and class, characteristics of where we work and live, policies) impact general patterns of health and health behaviors.

6) Understand the health and health behavior implications of global development, globalization processes, and migration.

Quantitative research methods

7) Demonstrate advanced understanding of quantitative research methods relevant to health behavior.

8) Understand a range of methods for analyzing data and their applications.

9) Critically analyze research from the literature in terms of the appropriateness of the study design, sample, measures, data analysis, results, and interpretation.

10) Select and apply appropriate methods for answering research questions that address topics of significance to the public’s health.


11) Know and critically evaluate historical and contemporary advances in health behavior interventions that target public health problems.

12) Use theories, conceptual paradigms, and evidence to inform the planning, implementation, evaluation, and dissemination of US and internationally-based interventions, including programs and policies.

13) Demonstrate skills in process and outcome evaluations of interventions.

Professional development

14) Develop information competencies, including knowledge about information resources, skills to conduct a search strategy, and ability to create and maintain a bibliographic database.

15) Demonstrate the ability to review and synthesize a body of research literature.

16) Develop competencies related to research funding information, including knowledge of, and ability to use, online funding resources and databases.

17) Demonstrate the ability to develop a fundable research proposal.

18) Communicate research findings and conclusions in a clear and concise manner and at the appropriate level for the intended audience.

19) Demonstrate the ability to write manuscripts of publishable quality for peer-reviewed scientific journals.

20) Demonstrate the ability to explain complex concepts in public health and health behavior.

21) Uphold the highest ethical standards in planning, conducting, and analyzing research involving human subjects.


A fundamental assumption of the practicum requirements is that, with proper mentorship, practical experience can enhance knowledge and skills. Students complete a primary practicum in research and a secondary practicum in teaching, research, or some other experience that enhances professional skills (e.g., an internship in a congressional office, government agency, or non-profit organization). More time is devoted to the primary practicum (480 hours) than to the secondary practicum (240 hours). Practica are often, but are not required to be, paid learning experiences. Each practicum is individually designed by and for the student. A practicum can occur within the department or elsewhere. The mentor is usually a department or adjunct faculty member, but that is not required. Regardless of where the practicum takes place and the affiliation of the mentor, the student’s academic adviser is responsible for assuring that the student has a worthwhile and appropriately mentored practicum.

Doctoral Written Comprehensive Exam

The written comprehensive examination tests competency in the core areas: (a) theoretical foundations of health behavior, (b) research methods, and (c) interventions. The exam is designed for students to demonstrate critical thinking,  the ability to integrate knowledge and understanding across competency areas, and readiness to undertake the dissertation. The format of the exam is determined on a periodic basis.
Students must be registered with the Graduate School when the comprehensive examination is taken.

Doctoral Dissertation

Each doctoral student is required to propose, write and defend a dissertation based on original research of a high scholarly standard. The major purposes of the dissertation are to provide the student with an educational experience that results in a significant contribution to the field of health behavior and knowledge and skills to make continuing, important contributions to the field. In the dissertation, students pose specific research questions to be examined, the argument supporting the research questions, and the scholarly gap to be addressed.

Recent dissertations list (pdf) with links to abstracts.

After Graduating

Graduates of the health behavior doctoral program hold faculty and research positions at leading universities and organizations in North Carolina, throughout the United States and abroad. They are on the faculty of many distinguished universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, Emory University and John Hopkins University. Alumni are also employed by major research organizations, such as FHI 360, RTI International and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, as well as federal health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Contact your Academic Coordinator.
Who is my Academic Coordinator?

Assistant to Chair: Wendi Seiler
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MPH@UNC (MPH Online) Only:
Program Coordinator, John Sugg

135 Dauer Drive
302 Rosenau Hall, CB #7440
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7440
(919) 966-3761