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Research Requirements


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The Ph.D. is a research degree, and thus research training and experience are central to the educational mission of the graduate program in Psychology.  All students are expected to be engaged in research over the course of their graduate careers, regardless of the major area of study. 

In order to prevent narrowness of research training, graduate students are required to do research with more than one member of the faculty for at least two semesters, preferably consecutive, and in two separate areas of psychology. What constitutes "separate" areas?  In this case, separate areas need not require distinctions along departmental program area lines (Clinical, Cognitive, Developmental, I/O, and Social), but the intent of the requirement is that the specific areas chosen be distinctly different in content.  Students may choose to work with two different faculty within the same program area (e.g. Social), whose research interests are sufficiently divergent that the student is exposed to differing research content and methods. If questions arise as to the appropriateness of the selected areas, these should be addressed with the student's advisor and the Director of Graduate Training.

Students are not restricted in any way to working only with faculty from the Psychology Department to satisfy the research requirement.  Students with interests in areas outside the boundaries of Psychology Department faculty interests are encouraged to pursue their research interests with appropriate faculty from other departments and colleges. This is frequently done by Psychology graduate students, and many excellent research opportunities exist with faculty from other departments.  Also, with the approval of the student's doctoral committee, research completed for a minor outside the department may be used to satisfy part of this research requirement.

There are many options for how this research requirement can be met.  For example, experience as a research assistant can be substituted for research credit, and credits earned while working on the master's and doctoral thesis count towards this requirement as well. This research requirement can be met at any time during the student's graduate career, but must be met before the Ph.D. degree is granted.

Protection of Human Subjects Requirements

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All research conducted at Penn State that involves the use of human subjects must be reviewed and approved by the University's Human Subjects Review Committee.  Any graduate student conducting research with human subjects must submit an application for human subject's approval. Forms and information on University human subjects policy are available on the Web at: All research conducted by graduate students requires a faculty sponsor, and completed forms must be reviewed and signed by the faculty sponsor.  The Head of Psychology must also sign completed applications before being sent to the Office for Regulatory Compliance.  Please fill in the Department Head’s name, address, and phone number on the sheets so that only a signature is required.  Submit the completed form to staff member Elaine Prestia ( to obtain the Head’s signature.  Note that for theses and dissertations, the approval memo from the Human Subjects Review Committee must be included as an appendix in the final draft submitted to the Graduate School.

In addition, Penn State's Office of Research Protections (ORP) requires successful completion of a web-based basic training program for the use of human participants involved in any University research project. This electronic basic training course has been mandated by Federal regulations and is required before approval can be granted for the use of human participants in any University research project (see  In the web pages provided at the IRB site (see the URL in the preceding paragraph), there is information about topics such as laws and regulations, guidelines, responsibilities, and resources on which the training evaluation is based.

Finally, in addition to approval from the Human Subjects Review Committee, all research that uses the Psychology Department Human Subject Pool, must register with the department.  Registration involves filing the names of those people who will be in contact with the subjects (e.g., primary investigators and research assistants) a means of contacting the experimenter(s), and copies of the informed consent, debriefing, and the description of the experiment that will be used for recruiting subjects from the pool.  Forms for registering with the department can be obtained in room 111 Moore. Credit for participation in research cannot be issued to subjects unless the research has been registered with the department and an official “Experiment Number” has been assigned. See information at the following webpage:

Master’s Degree

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Although the department does not, in general, admit students for the purpose of earning only the Master's degree, the department does require that each graduate student complete a Master's degree or its equivalent to be admitted to Candidacy.  The "equivalent" option again reflects the department's commitment to flexibility in each student's program.  There is not, however, a specifically defined set of criteria that establishes what an "equivalent" must be.  As a rule, an empirically‑based published journal article (in a reputable journal in the field) on which the student is first author is often taken as an adequate equivalent.

Although a Master's degree is not required if an equivalent project is accepted by the Director of Graduate Training in concert with the student's major advisor, the vast majority of students who enter the program without having previously earned a Master's degree do complete one as part of their program.  Given that each student must do a research project regardless, it simply makes good sense that a Master's degree be obtained in the process.

Guidelines for Meeting the Master's Degree (or research equivalent) Requirements

  1. Each student is required to select three (3) faculty members from the Department of Psychology for a Master's degree committee that will be responsible for overseeing and evaluating the quality of this research project.  The three faculty members chosen for this committee must include two from the student's major area andone from an area outside the major but within the department.  There is NO exception to the rule that three members of the committee must all be from the Psychology department faculty. The committee must be chaired by a faculty member holding a tenured or tenure-track appointment in the Department of Psychology. Faculty members not holding such an appointment may serve as co-chair. Additional members may be included from other areas or departments, but these would be in addition to the required three departmental members. 

  2. In consultation with the chair and the other committee members, each student must develop a specific research proposal that is distributed to all committee members (a minimum of two weeks in advance of the proposal meeting).  A proposal meeting of the student and the committee must be held, and the proposal approved prior to the conduct of the project. Prior to the proposal meeting, students must pick up an M.S. proposal form from the Graduate Staff Assistant and take it to the proposal meeting.  The deadline for an accepted proposal for the Master's (or research equivalent) will be April 1 in the student's second year. This deadline is before the traditional Spring evaluation of graduate students.  In most cases, the proposal meeting should be held well before this deadline. Failure to meet this proposal deadline will result in the inability to register for graduate courses/credit until the proposal is accepted, and loss of priority for funding.  Formal petitions for exceptions must be approved by the student's area and the Director of Graduate Training.

  3. In general, the Master's project (or the research equivalent) should be completed by the end of the second year in the program. Failing to complete and defend the Master’s thesis by the end of the Spring semester of the third year in the program constitutes seriously unacceptable progress toward degree.  Students in this position will not be allowed to register for credits other than Master's research credits, and will receive automatic review of their progress in the graduate program at the Spring graduate evaluation faculty meeting. The Master's thesis is considered completed only when it has been delivered to the Graduate School and accepted.

  4. The completed Master's thesis or research equivalent must be evaluated during a meeting of the student and his/her committee. This meeting will constitute a "Master's Defense," similar in nature to a doctoral dissertation defense. Prior to the defense, students must pick up an M.S. defense form from the Graduate Staff Assistant and take it to the defense.  The student is responsible for ensuring that each committee member, as well as the Department Head, receives a final draft of the thesis at least two weeks prior to the defense.  

  5. The faculty committee is charged with evaluating the student's research project (in regard to its appropriateness as a Master's thesis or its equivalent in Psychology from this Department) as well as the student's performance in pursuit of this goal.  The faculty committee will then vote to (a) accept or reject the thesis as meeting the requirements for a Master's degree in Psychology, and (b) recommend or not recommend that the student continue in graduate study toward the Ph.D.  This latter recommendation would involve three possibilities:
    1. Clear recommendation that the student should be advanced to candidacy for doctoral study.
    2. Clear recommendation that student should not be advanced to candidacy, and move for a terminal Master's degree.
    3. Recommend comprehensive review by a student's major area to aid in decision for advancement to candidacy.

Any committee vote that is not unanimous in support of the student's advancement to candidacy for doctoral study in this department should be regarded as a call for a comprehensive review by the student's major area.  Advancement to candidacy for the doctoral degree would then depend upon the recommendation of the faculty in the student's major area as well as the recommendation of the Master's committee.  Final disposition will be made by the entire faculty at the Graduate Student Evaluation meeting in either the Fall or Spring semester as appropriate.

Graduate School Requirements for the Master’s ThesisSeveral Graduate School requirements for the Master's degree are worth noting.  The Graduate School specifies that a minimum of 30 graduate credits must have been earned, 20 of which must have been earned at Penn State.  Also, at least 18 credits must be in the 500 and 600 level series.  Finally, Psychology 600 or 610 must have been taken for 6 credits.  Plan carefully to ensure that these requirements are met.

Master's Thesis Structure.

The structure and content of the thesis is usually a joint student-committee decision.  Typically, the thesis is experimental in nature with sections and content much the same as a published empirical paper. The thesis, however, must be written in accordance with the graduate school's requirements which are detailed in the Thesis Guide available online at the Graduate School website ( Do access this Guide and become familiar with it before writing your thesis.  It will save you a fair amount of grief.  It is a departmental policy that the Human Subjects Approval memo is to be included as an appendix in all Master's theses.  Please be sure that this memo is included in the final copy of the thesis that will be read by your advisor and reader and subsequently turned in to the Graduate School.

Advancement to Candidacy

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Upon admittance by the Graduate School and acceptance by the Department of Psychology, students may begin working toward the doctoral degree.  However, graduate students have no official status as doctoral students or assurance of acceptance as doctoral candidates until the student is admitted to Candidacy.  The graduate faculty in the Department of Psychology is responsible for the decision regarding Advancement to Candidacy.

There are essentially two sets of requirements which must be satisfied before the student may be considered by the faculty for Advancement to Candidacy.  First, students must complete the Master's degree or equivalent, the requirements for which have been described previously.  The second requirement involves the selection of the doctoral comprehensive examination and dissertation committee.  Requirements for the selection of the doctoral committee are straightforward.  First, the committee must number at least four (4) members (more than four is certainly acceptable).  Second, one (1) member must be from a department other than Psychology. This member may be chosen by the student, often in consultation with the committee chair or advisor. Third, the committee members must all be members of the graduate faculty.  Finally, the committee must be chaired by a faculty member holding a tenured or tenure-track appointment in the Department of Psychology.  Any Psychology faculty member may serve as chair. Graduate faculty members not holding such an appointment may serve as co-chair with a Psychology faculty member.

To apply for Advancement to Candidacy, students must submit to the Graduate Staff Assistant a copy of their completed Degree Checklist and a letter requesting Advancement to Candidacy. The Degree Checklist should be turned in to and initialed by the student’s advisor, verifying that the student had demonstrated that all of the necessary requirements had been met. The letter requesting Advancement to Candidacy must include the exact date on which the Master's thesis was delivered to the graduate school, the title of the thesis, and the thesis advisor's name. Following the thesis information, a list of proposed doctoral committee members and a statement of the student's educational goals must be included.  Accompanying each proposed committee member's name should be a brief but clear justification provided by the student, noting the reasons for selecting that particular person as a committee member.  Also, the College and Departmental affiliation of that faculty member must be specified.  Before listing any faculty member as part of a doctoral committee, the student must obtain that faculty member's approval and agreement to serve.  The preparation of the document requesting Candidacy should involve consultation with the student's advisor.  As such, the student and all members of the student's committee must sign the document before it is submitted to the Graduate Staff Assistant.  The written request for Advancement to Candidacy should be a well‑reasoned, well‑written defense.  The hope is that the effort will result in careful thought about long‑term goals and orientations.  Because of the highly individualized nature of the information required, there is no specific form provided for the Advancement to Candidacy procedure.

The Director of Graduate Training may ask to meet with the student to discuss committee composition. The faculty at large may also seek clarification of committee choices.  When the procedures described above are followed carefully, however, there is rarely any question regarding student's choices for committee membership.

Advancement to Candidacy is generally done twice each academic year, coinciding with the faculty's graduate student evaluation meetings that are held once each semester.  Typically, these meetings occur around the second week in November for the Fall semester and the second week in April for the Spring.  For most students, these occasions provide satisfactory opportunity for advancement.  There may be students, however, who have compelling reasons to be advanced at different times than these meetings would accommodate.  In such cases, students must seek prior approval from the Director of Graduate Training to be advanced.  Whether applying for advancement during the regularly scheduled meetings or at a special time, students must notify the Graduate Staff Assistant (or the main office in the absence of the Graduate Staff Assistant) of their desire to be advanced to Candidacy no fewer than 10 days prior to the date on which advancement is to be proposed.

Residence Requirement

The Graduate School requires that over the course of some 12 month period, students spend two semesters as a registered full‑time student engaged in academic work at the University Park campus.  Residence requirements can be met from the time of entry into the graduate program (1st year, 1st semester), which should make this an easy requirement to satisfy.

Time Limits

After Advancement to Candidacy, the Graduate School allows you a total of 8 years to complete the Ph.D. requirements.  However, we do not expect you to take that long.  Note that if you do not complete the final oral dissertation exam within 6 years from the time you passed your comprehensive exam, you must take a second comprehensive exam some time prior to the final oral defense.

Doctoral Comprehensive Examination

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Following Advancement to Candidacy and the completion of coursework requirements, students are given a comprehensive examination in their field.  This exam is both given and evaluated by the student's doctoral committee, with the intent of judging the student's breadth of knowledge within and scholarly understanding of their major area.

The Department of Psychology has no formal structure or procedure for the comprehensive exam.  A general policy exists which specifies that students must take the comprehensive exam by the time the student has completed 70 graduate credits or prior to the fourth year of graduate study.  Students entering with a Master's degree will be considered as having completed 30 credits and one year of graduate study.  In recent years, this policy has been somewhat inconsistently applied, and students can be given extensions when warranted by special circumstances.  Extensions should be granted by the student's doctoral committee and the Director of Graduate Training.  Students who have not taken their comprehensive exams by the end of the fourth year are severely behind any acceptable schedule.

The nature and requirements of the comprehensive exam are determined by the student and the student's doctoral committee.  In most cases, the comprehensive exam involves an extensive written component as well as an oral exam attended by the student and each of the committee members.  The written exam often involves providing empirically-based responses to broadly important conceptual and methodological issues central to the student's major field of study.  The oral exam often involves further exploration and clarification of issues raised in the written portion of the exam, and may include a discussion of dissertation plans as well.  While the above scenario may be typical, it is neither mandatory nor departmental policy for the conduct of the exam.  Again, the specifics of the exam are set by the student’s doctoral committee.

There are, however, a number of departmental and Graduate School requirements and policies that should be noted.  The Graduate School requires that the student be registered as a full-time or part-time student for the semester in which the comprehensive exam is taken.  Three weeks notice is required by the Graduate School for scheduling the exam.  In relation to departmental requirements, the written portion of the exam does not require Graduate School notification (unless only a written exam is taken), but does require that two weeks notice be given to the Graduate Staff Assistant.  The oral exam is the part that requires notification to the Graduate School, and therefore the department's Graduate Staff Assistant needs to be notified in sufficient time to provide the Graduate School its three week prior notification. 

Continuous Registration Requirement

Beginning the semester after the student has passed the comprehensive exam and met the two semester residence requirement, the Graduate School requires that the student register continuously for each Fall and Spring semester, until the Ph.D. dissertation has been accepted by the doctoral committee.  (Note this means you cannot register for 601 in the same semester that you pass comps.  It must wait until the following semester.)  Students either register in the usual way to continue taking courses (if desired), or students may register for Psychology 601 or 611.  The 601 and 611 courses are special non‑credit thesis preparation courses that apply to those students whose sole academic activity is completion of research and writing the dissertation.  The 601 designation is for full‑time students while 611 designates part‑time students, and either involves payment of the special thesis preparation fee rather than regular tuition.  More complete information in regard to this requirement may be found in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin.

Changes in Doctoral Committee Membership

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Once the student forms a doctoral committee and it is approved by the Graduate School, it is expected that the committee will maintain continuity from doctoral examination through the dissertation defense. On occasion, a situation (after the proposal was approved) may arise when a change in the doctoral committee needs to be made.  If this occurs, the student must submit a letter to the Director of Graduate Training (through the Graduate Staff Assistant) noting the changes to be made to the committee and the reasons for those changes.  The student must obtain signatures from all committee members (both old and new) indicating their approval of both a change in committee members as well as their approval of the proposal as “originally” voted upon.  No difficulties need be anticipated if joint approval by all parties is obtained, as is to be expected.  In the case of disagreement among new or old committee members, normal university procedures exist for resolving the matter. 

This issue is of sufficient importance that the specific courses of action required by faculty and students is summarized here:


If a faculty member is to be deleted from the committee for any reason, he or she must submit a written note to the Graduate Staff Assistant indicating approval/disapproval.  It need not be a formal memo, but it must be in writing.


Write up a brief memo, circulate it to all members of your committee, new and old alike, reminding them of their responsibility and stating clearly changes in the composition of the committee intended.  Please note that faculty in other departments will not know of our requirement, and thus they need to be informed of it.  Give a copy of this memo to the Graduate Staff Assistant.

Faculty and Students

There are clearly some instances in which faculty cannot provide a written memo, or for which it is impractical to expect them to do so (e.g., when a committee member is on sabbatical or has left the university).  If this is the case, students are to provide the Graduate Staff Assistant with a written note to this effect, which will generally be sufficient.

Doctoral Dissertation and Final Oral Examination

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The dissertation is often a major stumbling block for many graduate students, but need not be so.  Maintaining a strong working relationship with your committee members (and the chairperson in particular) will help, as will applying yourself to a consistent schedule of work toward its completion.

As you might guess by now, there is no specific departmental policy or criterion which defines an acceptable dissertation.  Again, this is a matter to be decided between the student and his or her doctoral committee.  In consultation with the committee chair, the student must develop an independent research proposal outlining the dissertation topic.  As a rule, the dissertation should be an original empirical and/or conceptual contribution within a substantive area in Psychology. 

The dissertation proposal meeting must be held between the student and the doctoral committee members. The written dissertation proposal must be distributed to each member and to the Department Head at least two weeks in advance of the proposal meeting.  At the proposal meeting, the student should present the proposal and field questions from the committee members.  A proposal form should be obtained  from the Graduate Staff Assistant and taken to the meeting, by the student. At that time, the student’s committee will indicate either approval or disapproval of the proposal.  The student will then begin the dissertation research or make appropriate changes, as necessary. Ongoing contact with each committee member is strongly encouraged.

Traditionally, students work closely with their committee chair in accomplishing their research and writing their dissertation.  Often, the chairperson can provide suggestions, help solve problems as they arise, and be a source of encouragement.  Further, numerous drafts of the dissertation are often necessary, and the chair can provide valuable input in the early phases of preparation.  The chair will also try to keep the student on a reasonable schedule to ensure timely completion of the dissertation.  The length of time it will take to complete the dissertation depends upon the nature of the research undertaken, and the motivation of the student.  Nevertheless, there are few instances in which the entire dissertation process should extend beyond two years.

In the past, doctoral theses final oral examinations have been scheduled and completed with theses in varying degrees of completion.  This procedure is now clearly unacceptable. The present departmental policy has established that theses must be complete before the examination and  delivered to all committee members at least two weeks prior to the final oral.

Graduate School policy has generally established that both the thesis director and the student are responsible for assuring the completion of a draft of the thesis and for adequate consultation with members of the thesis committee well in advance of the oral examination.  Again, it is critical to stay in touch with your committee members and let them know of your progress or difficulties.  Major revisions to the thesis should be completed before the final oral examination.  The dissertation should be in its final draft, with appropriate notes, bibliography, tables, and so forth at the time of the oral examination.  The content and style should be correct (i.e., meeting Graduate School standards) and polished by the time that the final draft of the thesis is delivered to the committee. As is the case with the Master's degree thesis, the department requires that the Human Subjects Approval memo be appended to the final dissertation copy.  Please be sure that this form is included in the final draft read by the Doctoral Committee, as well as the final product delivered to the Graduate School.  Again, there should be an adequate period of time (at least two weeks) between the delivery of the final draft of the thesis to committee members and the scheduled oral examination.  Please note:  The head of the department must read and approve the thesis as well.  Thus, at the same time the thesis is delivered to committee members, it should be delivered to the department head.  The date of the examination should be given to the Graduate Staff Assistant at least three weeks prior to the oral exam.  Although a final and polished draft is to be delivered to the committee members before the defense, changes in the thesis may still be requested by committee members on the basis of the final oral examination.

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