UMC Utrecht - UCSF Doctoral Program In Health Professions Education PhD Candidate Guide

doctoral candidates presenting theses in Utrecht

Program Overview

In 2010, UCSF joined in collaboration with Utrecht University Medical Center (UMC Utrecht) to offer the Doctoral Program in Health Professions Education. This collaboration makes possible a rigorous program for scholarly advancement for medical education researchers. Successful candidates graduate with a PhD in Health Professions Education from UMC Utrecht. Well-regarded health professions education researchers serve as mentors.  

The UMC Utrecht includes the Medical Faculty of Utrecht University. UMC Utrecht is a strong biomedical research oriented institution, with interest in health professions education research. One of Utrecht University's Research Focus Areas is called Education for Learning Societies.  Health Professions Education research of UMC Utrecht takes part in this Focus Area.

UCSF is a health sciences campus dedicated to post-graduate professional education in dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and with a graduate division granting academic degrees in biological, biomedical, pharmaceutical, nursing social and behavioral sciences. The School of Medicine offers a program in Health Professions Education and the Office of Medical Education has a focus on educational research with dedicated faculty to this area.

Program Websites

Program Faculty and Areas of Research
  • Patricia O’Sullivan, EdD, UCSF Program Director
  • Olle ten Cate, PhD, UMC Utrecht Program Director
  • Marieke van der Schaaf, PhD (UMC Utrecht)
  • Christy Boscardin, PhD (UCSF)
  • David Irby, PhD (UCSF, emeritus – not available to supervise new candidates)
  • Bridget O’Brien, PhD (UCSF)
  • Arianne Teherani, PhD (UCSF)

Individuals eligible for the doctoral program:

  • Are a health professional with preparation in education OR
  • Are a health professions educator with a master’s degree in social or biomedical sciences.
  • UCSF or UCSF-affiliated faculty; or staff involved in health professions education; exceptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis
  • Are scholarly in health professions education, e.g., they have completed the UCSF Teaching Scholars Program or equivalent
  • Are proposed for the program by a program faculty member agreeing to act as the primary supervisor (promoter), based on CV, interview and research plan.
  • Publications in education research are highly desirable.
Application and Enrollment Process

Steps in the application process are spaced over the first year:

  1. Request an informational meeting with a doctoral program faculty member. Send your CV to CFE and brief description of your research interest that aligns with the program.
  2. Successfully meet the criteria for the doctoral program.
    Criteria include:
    1. demonstrated capacity for conceptual thinking,
    2. strong desire to conduct research,
    3. adequate content expertise in an area for research
    4. adequate educational background and experience
  3. Receive an invitation for a formal interview and present your research interests describing alignment with the expertise of doctoral program faculty.
  4. With faculty approval, register in the Utrecht University research documentation system MyPhD.
  5. Complete a first draft of Training and Supervision Agreement (TSA) with guidance from assigned faculty mentors from UCSF and Utrecht during the first in-residence week of the program. Typically the TSA will be signed within the first year of the program, indicating that  the candidate has made sufficient progress.  A failure to have a signed TSA by the 4th in-residence week will preclude further participation in the program.
  6. There are a total of three tuition payments.
Training and Supervision Agreement (TSA) for PhD Candidates

Time Commitment and Program Requirements

The maximum length of a part-time PhD track is six years, with an expected minimum time investment of two days per week devoted to any element of the training.

Thesis, Seminars and other Training Activities
To complete the program, candidates must complete a thesis and the equivalent of 20 EC credits of education (EC is the European Credit system; a year full time study has 60 EC; 1 EC = about 28 hours effort on courses/workshops/conferences + preparation). The effort to complete the thesis should be at least 75% of the overall time spent on the PhD track.

Required training activities include:

  • Participation in all doctoral seminars for the first three years of the program, optional in year four and beyond
  • Participation in all Works in Progress sessions (WIPs)
  • Supplemental coursework to provide more in depth training in areas relevant to the thesis OR more general areas not covered in depth in the seminars. Coursework typically focuses on research methods and/or theory. Taking specific courses in research methods tailored to your own research is encouraged and counts toward the 20 EC
  • Participation in monthly journal club
  • Participation in at least 2 ESCape sessions per month (weekly works in progress session offered to UCSF community of educators) – if unable to attend, provide feedback to presenters at least twice per month
  • Participation in monthly Table of Contents (TOC) Review sessions (optional, but encouraged)
  • Deliver at least one Medical Educational Grand Rounds
  • Present at least one educational conference per year – including one international conference before the end of the program (e.g., AERA, AAMC – RIME program, AMEE, Ottawa conference, ICRE, APMEC) You are encouraged to submit work to these conferences. They are an excellent opportunity for candidates to network with others in the field.
  • Participate in a mock defense in preparation for the actual thesis defense

Regular Meetings
The supervisory model for PhD training requires a team with two 'promotors' (academic faculty holding rank of full professor): one employed at Utrecht University (the primary promotor), one employed at UCSF (the secondary promotor). The team may also include one or two co-promotors, (academic faculty holding the rank of associate professor).

Face-to-face time with team is the core of this program. Monthly, the cohort and all promoters meet at the UCSF campus with the help of video-conferencing technology to discuss the work toward program objectives, based on the Training and Supervision Agreement. Twice per year, the Utrecht-based program director is in-residence in San Francisco for the annual progress interview. Candidates are required to be available for the entire residency week. The candidate meets at least once every two weeks with their UCSF promotor or co-promotor (“daily supervisor”), at least monthly with the UCSF committee members, and every other month with the entire committee, including the Utrecht Promoter.

Thesis Completion and Defense
Both promotors and the co-promotor (if applicable) must approve the complete thesis (see below). After approval, an independent thesis examination committee is established by Utrecht University and this committee determines approval of the thesis. The PhD ceremony and defense of thesis will take place in the Netherlands and is mandatory.

Expected profile of a PhD graduate in HPE from UMCU-UCSF

Examination Committees of PhD candidates examine the quality of the PhD thesis. However, a PhD graduate is more than the writer of a thesis. This section explains the ambitions PhD students should strive to achieve through their educational plan, even if these qualities are not formally assessed. For a more detailed description, see:

  • ten Cate O, Derese A, Durning SJ, O’Sullivan P. Excellence in PhD dissertations in health professions education: Toward standards and expectations. Med Teach. 2017;39(9):926–30.

General profile: becoming a researcher
The PhD degree provides skills necessary to develop in the scientific community. PhD graduates should have a passion for research, be constantly puzzled by observations, be critical about assumptions and theories and challenge validity, and should have a wish and an ability to move the boundaries of what we know about medical education and/or health professions education.

General knowledge level of health professions education
The PhD candidate should be knowledgeable about important aspects of current health professions education on a level that allows a reasonable discussion with colleagues and shows awareness of the key authors and seminal publications in these areas. Learning should include studying topics like: educational theories, expertise development, curriculum structures and educational management, instructional design, assessment, program evaluation, both in their broad context and as applied to health professions education.

Specific expertise in your own field of interest
By the end of the PhD track, the relationship with the supervisor(s) is ideally reversed in the domain of interest: the PhD candidate becomes the expert in that domain rather than the supervisor. PhD graduate should be known nationally and internationally for his or her expertise.

Sufficient mastery of research methodology
By the end of the course of study, the PhD candidate should be able to independently carry out educational research in the health care field. This includes the ability to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Identifying and formulating research questions
  • Designing research studies, both qualitative and quantitative
  • Systematically searching the literature
  • Collecting and organizing research data
  • Independently carrying out the most common statistical procedures using SPSS or similar programs and as appropriate, seeking consultation on statistics beyond their scope of expertise, but able to explain results from such analyses.
  • Writing a clear and concise scientific report, review and viewpoint paper

Mastery of research methodology also includes organizing and conducting a research study. Critical aspects of this work are the ability to:

  • Write a research protocol; ideally a grant application for funding
  • Develop a research budget for a study
  • Apply for research ethics and manage requirements for ethical conduct of research
  • Manage study procedures, including communication with study participants, data management, and data security
  • Work with collaborators who are part of the research team.
  • Hire research personnel and/or services where needed
  • Seek peer review and consultation on writing

Language proficiency
If English is not a native language, the graduate should have mastered the English language well in writing and orally, including the technical terminology of health professions education in general, and research methodology and the particular domain of interest specifically. Ideally, the PhD candidate should eventually have the ability to submit a journal paper without the need to have it reviewed by a native English speaker.

Research presentation and teaching qualities
The PhD candidate should be able to deliver clear and convincing presentations at conferences. This includes:

  • efficiently and clearly presenting a conference paper using appropriate media
  • leading a discussion about the research, and
  • conducting a workshop on the topic of research.

Candidates are expected to practice these skills prior to formal presentation using peers or other audiences. While a researcher is not by definition also a teacher, working in an academic community very often combines both. Research and working with students can mutually stimulate each other.

Participation in Professional Organizations
The PhD candidate should be engaged in education professional organizations as a way of personal and professional development. This includes:

  • Regular attendance at regional/national and/or international meetings
  • Service to the organization as a reviewer, chair, discussant, committee member and/or leader.

Journal paper reviewer qualities
The PhD candidate should have experience in critically and systematically reviewing a journal article or manuscript. This can be achieved by acting as a reviewer for a health professions education journal. Participating in and hosting a session at a journal club, and chairing conference paper sessions and acting as a discussant provides good practice.

Experience of working in multiple institutions, countries and settings
PhD candidates are strongly encouraged to spend some time (several weeks) in a different institution and country. This widens their scope, stimulates awareness of the relativity of their own domestic conditions, rules and habits. It also enables research collaborations that can extend beyond the period of thesis preparation and helps to build a network of international colleagues.

Supervising junior researchers
A PhD graduate may be ready to co-supervise junior researchers, e.g. those who are within a PhD track. Supervision qualities can be built by guiding senior students/residents (including masters level) or junior faculty who are involved in your research.

Leadership roles in the academic community
Many who hold responsible positions in the academic community have a PhD degree. While PhD training is not specifically focused on leadership development, it should be expected that a PhD graduate has some experience with this. It can be obtained by organizing conferences, being a member or chair of a significant committee, coordinating a teaching module, managing a team or other leadership roles.

Standards for a PhD thesis1 in the UMCU-UCSF HPE doctoral program

This section aims to help PhD students shape their thesis. If you can meet these conditions, it should be no problem to receive approval from the external examination committee that will be established when you have completed the manuscript.

1Thesis (plural:Theses), PhD Thesis, and Dissertation are or can be used interchangeably

The final version of your thesis should be printed as a bound booklet, produced by printing firm of your choice, and should also be available in electronic format.

General structure

The thesis should contain the following sections

  1. A first title page (not part of the manuscript to be evaluated)
  2. An introductory chapter (chapter 1, 5-20 pgs)
  3. A series of numbered chapters unfolding separate investigations. Minimum is four; five or six is preferred, more is possible but unusual.
  4. A discussion chapter at the end (numbered, 10-12 pgs)
  5. A summary in English (usually not numbered, 4-10 pgs)
  6. A summary in Dutch (usually not numbered, 4-10 pgs) The Dutch promotor will assist in accomplishing this
  7. Optionally:  series of appendices to illustrate specific operationalizations of research variables if they are not included in the chapters (usually not numbered)
  8. A chapter including acknowledgements, thanks and personal notes (usually not numbered, often 2-5 pages, not part of the manuscript to be evaluated)
  9. A brief personal CV (not numbered, often 1 page, not part of the manuscript to be evaluated) listing (selected) publications

The thesis is printed as a book. The cover can be of personal design. Some keep it very simple, some hire a designer to make something very symbolic or sophisticated. This is up to you.

The first page sounds trivial but is not. This page must be signed by the promotor and submitted prior to the graduation ceremony. See Utrecht University website ( and other UU theses to see what it should look like.

The body, i.e. the chapters with research studies (4-6). These chapters are preferably published articles in peer reviewed international journals. Almost invariably some chapters have not (yet) appeared in print. On the first page of each chapter, the candidate should include the journal reference if it has appeared in print OR the journal’s name if it is accepted for publication. If the chapter has been submitted but awaits decision, the journal’s name should not be included. At least three papers should be accepted for publication at time of submission. For the UMCU-UCSF candidates, each paper is expected to have the promotor from UMC Utrecht and at least one UCSF education faculty member as an author on the paper. To meet this expectation, these faculty members must participate in the scholarly work to the level required to qualify as an author based on the current ethical standards related to authorship. We realize that there may be situations where this expectation may not be met due to the way the study evolved or the publication opportunity became available.  To make sure that the supervising faculty are aware and have an opportunity to participate if they wish and are making appropriate contributions, each PhD student needs to inform all committee members of studies that they are conducting or manuscript opportunities that they would like to take to see how and if UCSF and UMC Utrecht faculty should be involved.

The reason to publish prior to graduation is twofold: there is already recognized scientific output – this adds to your credibility, and it also shows how you are entering the scientific community, as it allows other researchers to become acquainted with your work and helps you build a scientific network.

Sometimes theses have both published and unpublished chapters. For example, a research project that was rigorously designed and conducted, but suffers from a low response rate, which appears under-powered and does not yield significant results that are publishable, can still be a valid chapter in a PhD thesis. It can very well show how the researcher has adequately carried out all aspects of the study and adds credibility to a PhD degree.

Most theses are 100 -200 pages in the printed format.


The thesis should of course be your own intellectual work. Having said this, it is unavoidable that others have contributed. Published chapters must include intellectual contributions of co-authors to warrant co-authorship. Evaluators of your work cannot be fully sure how independent your work has been. This is not a problem, as supervisors are to guide you, often in detail, often in text writing. However, the introductory and final chapters should be fully your own work. They need approval and often advice of supervisors, but they must show your independent thinking and writing and must illustrate how you have mastered the domain of interest.

Introductory and discussion chapters
What should the introductory and discussion chapters look like? Some PhD students find these difficult. The general advice is to think of these as the similar sections of a journal article.
The introductory chapter should show an overview of the research domain of choice. What is known, what are the big questions, what are choices for investigation in subsequent chapters and why, resulting in a research agenda and a prelude to the next chapters. A very nice approach in this chapter is composing a model that encompasses the different, significant elements of the domain. Usually the literature is discussed in this chapter. It sometimes happens that the introductory chapter is publishable in itself. In that case the actual introduction can be shorter, and the next (published) chapter introduces the reader more in detail to the domain.

The discussion chapter pulls the research and findings together. It often refers back to the introductory chapter and reflects on the accomplishments of the program of research, given the big research questions posed. It states the limitations of the projects, tries to relate the different findings, formulates new questions that may have arisen in the course of the studies. Rationally, the introductory chapter could be written in the beginning of the PhD track. Usually however, it is finished at the end of the period. Many PhD student collect ideas along the way that are nice to include, but were not part of a published study. Those can often be incorporated in the introductory or discussion chapters.

Literature review
The thesis should show how you have mastered the pertinent literature of your topic. A systematic review is of course an excellent way to show this. If you have not included such chapter, the intro and discussion chapters can cover this.

Empirical studies
The thesis must contain results of at least two, preferably 3 or more, empirical studies. Data must have been collected. Use of multiple methods and approaches is encouraged, but selecting methods appropriate to the research question is most important for a quality thesis.

General coherence
The chapters in a PhD thesis should relate logically to each other and belong to one coherent topic.  It often happens that over the course of years new ideas arise and the research focus can tend to shift. This is no problem if it is not too much. Remember that the justification must be explained in the introductory chapter.

Language quality
The thesis should show good quality English language proficiency. Journal articles may be reviewed by a native speaker or by an editorial service bureau before submission. By the end of the PhD track, the candidate must show reasonable mastery of English independently.

The PhD candidate should be first author on all or most chapters, at least four of the studies in the thesis. If the candidate has provided a significant contribution to additional studies that fit the thesis topic but the candidate was not first author, the addition of such chapters is possible but is not included in the count of the minimum number of 4 studies.  Similarly, book chapters can be included but are not counted as a study for the purpose of the thesis.

For questions about information in the PhD Candidate Guide, please contact Bridget O'Brien, PhD at