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Earning Your Degree

Navigating the route from matriculation to graduation takes planning, motivation, and considerable effort.  Your time on this journey can be one of the most exciting, mind-opening, and fulfilling periods in your academic life.  Although graduate students in the Department have access to faculty who are committed to their roles as advisers and mentors, you can help yourself succeed by understanding the road map and milestones you’ll encounter along the way. 

How does advising work? 

During your first week on campus, the Director of Graduate Studies will help you select a member of the faculty to serve as your temporary adviser.  Your temporary adviser will assist you in selecting courses for your first semester and in answering any questions or problems you might have as you begin your graduate program.

The assignment of a temporary adviser lasts for only that first semester.  Early in the second semester, you should notify the Director of Graduate Studies as to whether you wish to continue with your temporary adviser, or whether you wish to choose a different adviser.  You will then work with your adviser to identify faculty who will serve on your advisory committee.  Typically, the committee established during your second semester of study will remain in place through the completion of your degree. The Director of Graduate Studies should be notified of any subsequent changes in the make-up of your committee.  

Your adviser will help you in planning your degree program, and your committee must formally approve a plan of study that you develop.  Your committee is also the body that formally evaluates the adequacy of your performance at major milestones, including the M.A. program of study review, the thesis proposal meeting, the thesis defense, the Ph.D. candidacy meeting, comprehensive exams, the dissertation proposal meeting, and the dissertation defense.

It is your responsibility to choose your adviser and your committee members and to discuss your program with them.  If you have any questions about choosing an adviser or your committee, see the Director of Graduate Studies.  

More information can be found in the CAS Advising and Mentoring Plan.

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How do I develop a Program of Study Proposal?

The Program of Study Proposal is an important part of the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam and the Master's Program of Study Review.The purpose of constructing a proposed program of study and having it approved is to establish early a set of courses and a possible thesis/dissertation topic that enable one to meet degree-related scholarly and professional goals.

This document, which is developed and distributed prior to the committee meetings specified above, provides the basis for a conversation among the student, the student's permanent advisor, and the assembled committee. Precisely what should appear in a student's Program of Study Proposal will differ depending on the student's background, her or his objectives, and the expectations of advisors and committees. Students should discuss the Program of Study Proposal with their advisor prior to its development.

The following is a general guide that students can use when developing the Program of Study Proposal.

  1. The document should articulate the student’s objectives for his or her graduate education.
  2. It should identify the courses that the student hopes to take to meet his or her objectives.
  3. It should provide some means for assessing the student’s capability to complete the proposed program of study--e.g., transcripts of completed courses, a CV, etc.
  4. It should provide some sense of the student's own position relative to his or her field of inquiry and the type of career she or he hopes to secure in the future.

The responsibility for constructing the program of study and arranging for its review are with the student.  The following steps constitute a set of best practices that students may follow:

  1. Find a permanent advisor who can help you identify and achieve your goals.
  2. Discuss with your advisor potential committee members and courses.
  3. Obtain sample copies of successful Program Proposals from your advisor and/or more advanced graduate students.
  4. Prepare your proposed program of study proposal and revise it according to your advisor’s recommendations.
  5. Submit the proposal to your committee at least two weeks in advance of the relevant committee meeting (Masters Program of Study Meeting or the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam.
  6. Work with the  to find an appropriate room, date, and time for the meeting.
  7. Meet with your committee at the time set and answer all questions concerning the proposed program, as well as related matters as directly as possible.
  8. Following the meeting, revise your program of study to reflect any changes required by the committee.
  9. Send a finalized copy of your program of study document to your committee and advisor.

The proposed program of study can be a relatively short document, usually no more than 5-10 pages in length. The content of programs of study varies among students and advisors; however, at minimum, it should include:

  1. A clear statement regarding your scholarly and professional goals (often including a brief history).
  2. Completed and planned courses (number, title, and semester taken or to be taken) that help you meet your goals.
  3. A discussion of the relationship of the courses to your scholarly and professional goals.
  4. A discussion of the possible thesis/dissertation topic or question you hope to pursue.

Your program of study remains a proposal until you have had a meeting with your advisory committee. If the committee approves the proposed program of study (with or without modification), you will become a candidate in the department for the degree you specified in your application. Please realize that your program of study represents a plan—it can be changed with the approval of your committee. Each of us has preferences regarding what the program of study involves. So, be sure to discuss the content of your program proposal with your advisor before setting a meeting with all committee members. Finally, be sure that the proposal, as developed, satisfies all Departmental and Graduate School requirements relating to the particular degree objective of interest.

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How do I schedule committee meetings and exams?

It is the student's responsibility to schedule all meetings with his or her committee and inform the graduate staff assistant of the time for the meetings. The graduate staff assistant will then schedule a room for the meeting, provide formal notice to the committee, and notify the Graduate School of the meeting, if necessary.  Due to the added faculty responsibilities at the beginning and near the end of semesters, no graduate student examinations may be scheduled during the first or last week of classes or during final exam week. Exams may be scheduled during the summer session with the approval of the committee chairperson and the members of the student's committee.

Specifics for Scheduling MA Exams

Program Review

  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least one week notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and notify committee members
  • Proposal must be provided to committee one week prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will prepare exam paperwork

Thesis Proposal Review

  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least one week notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and notify committee members
  • Proposal must be provided to committee one week prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will prepare exam paperwork

Thesis Defense

  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least one week notice)
  • Thesis document must be submitted to the department head with signature page
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and notify committee members
  • Thesis must be provided to committee two weeks prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will prepare exam paperwork

Specifics for Scheduling PhD Exams

Candidacy Exam

  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least one week notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and notify committee members
  • Proposal must be provided to committee one week prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will prepare exam paperwork

Comprehensive Exam

  • Consists of written and oral portions
  • Must be registered during the semester the exams are taking place (even if occurring during summer session)
  • Written portion should be scheduled with graduate staff assistant three weeks prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will collect questions from committee members
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and computer for written portion (if needed)
  • Student will pick up questions as scheduled from the graduate staff assistant and return upon completion with response
  • Graduate staff assistant will distribute all responses to all committee members
  • Student will secure day and time from committee members for oral portion
  • Student will notify graduate staff assistant of oral time (must have at least two weeks notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room, notify committee members and Graduate School
  • Graduate School will prepare exam paperwork and forward to department

Dissertation Proposal Review

  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least one week notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room and notify committee members
  • Proposal must be provided to committee one week prior
  • Graduate staff assistant will prepare exam paperwork

Dissertation Defense

  • Dissertation document must be submitted to the department head with signature page
  • Secure day and time from committee members
  • Notify graduate staff assistant (must have at least two weeks notice)
  • Graduate staff assistant will schedule room, notify committee members and Graduate School
  • Dissertation must be provided to committee two weeks prior
  • Graduate School will prepare exam paperwork and forward to department

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How does the annual review process work?

The judgments of an adviser and committee on a student's academic progress may be considered at any moment during the course of a student's program.  That said, the department has instituted an annual review process that takes place in March and April of each year.

In late February, the Department’s graduate staff assistant will send each graduate student a set of forms and an invitation to begin the annual review process.  Students are required to fill out the forms, which detail the progress that they have made over the course of the last year. Students are then required to schedule a meeting with their adviser to discuss the information on the documents and any additional issues that the student or adviser believes to be relevant to the review process.

Students and advisers are encouraged to discuss issues related to coursework, professional development, methodology training, and, especially, the milestones of each degree program. Adviser's rate each student's performance as "unsatisfactory," "satisfactory," "superior" or "not applicable" in the areas of Academic Progress, Research/Thesis/Dissertation, and Teaching.  In addition, advisers may establish goals and/or provide written feedback to students in anticipation of the coming year.

Once advisers have provided their written feedback, students review these statements, sign the necessary paperwork, and provide all documentation to the graduate staff assistant. The Director of Graduate Studies will collate this information and write a formal letter to the student that summarizes his or her status. A copy of this letter and the accompanying materials is placed in to the student's official file.

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What constitutes satisfactory academic progress?

Satisfactory academic progress is determined by three separate criteria: The considered judgments of a student's adviser and committee, regular and consistent progress toward meeting the milestones of one's degree program, and meeting the degree requirements of both the Department and Graduate School.  Expectations for timely progress toward degree are detailed in the M.A. and Ph.D. calendars.

Satisfactory academic progress is a condition of financial support as a graduate assistant, and unsatisfactory progress may lead to dismissal from the program.

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What is the Calendar of Events for completing the M.A.?

  • Your temporary adviser is appointed prior to the start of your first semester. As noted earlier, the function of the temporary adviser is to help you select courses for your first semester and to answer any questions you may have as you begin your graduate program.
  • Your attendance is required during the orientation period prior to the start of the fall semester. This program includes teaching assistant training and meetings to discuss the graduate program and departmental policies. You also will register for your first semester of classes during the orientation period.
  • Prior to, or early in your second semester, you should notify the Graduate Officer whether you plan to continue with your temporary adviser or chose a new adviser.
  • With the assistance of your adviser, you will identify a committee of at least three qualified members, and upon the recommendation of the adviser, the Head or Graduate Officer will name those individuals as the committee of record. Once the committee composition is official, you will need to schedule a meeting with the members to conduct a program review no later than your second semester, and preferably early in that semester. Changes in the composition of the committee require approval by the Head or Graduate Officer and should be requested only in such instances as departure of existing members from the faculty, significant alteration in a previously approved program of study, the need for particular expertise not possessed by extant members, and irreconcilable personal differences unrelated to the quality of the candidate’s academic performance.
  • Beginning in academic year 2009-2010, within the first year of study, all incoming graduate students at The Pennsylvania State are required to complete an instructional sequence relating to scholarship and research integrity. Entering M.A. and Ph.D. students are required to complete in their first semester two non-credit on-line courses that the Graduate School offers in the Fall semester. One course is under the heading of “Human Subjects Research,” and the other “Responsible Conduct of Research.”  Each student will receive more information concerning enrollment and the content of the two courses, and the required date of completion, before the beginning of the Fall semester. Ph.D. students will also take part in five additional hours of instruction concerning the responsible conduct of research and research integrity that the Department ordinarily provides in four seventy-five minute sessions over a two-week period. These sessions, if at all possible, will also take place during the Fall semester, but may in some circumstances continue into the Spring semester. M.A. students who advance to the Ph.D. Program be required to take this instruction in their first year as doctoral students, but will not have to retake the online courses in Human Subjects Research and the Responsible Conduct of Research.
  • During your first year of graduate study, you should have made substantial progress toward determining the kind of research you will do in completing a thesis (or original research project for the non-thesis option) and toward acquiring the special methodological competencies that kind of research requires.
  • If you plan, through attendance at two summer sessions (preceding and following appointment as a graduate assistant), to complete your degree in one year, you must have a thesis proposal completed and accepted by your committee no later than the spring semester. It is possible for full-time graduate students to complete work for the M.A. in two semesters, but those with appointments as graduate assistants should plan on at least three semesters.
  • For graduate assistants, the writing of the thesis should be completed early in the spring semester of your second year. Financial support for graduate assistants pursuing the M.A. degree is not typically continued beyond a second year of full-time study.
  • The defense draft of the thesis must be circulated to all members of the advisory committee for approval and prior to its being typed in final form a minimum of two weeks in advance of the oral defense. The defense may cover the thesis and the general field of communication. After the committee has approved the thesis, it should be typed in final thesis form. Be sure that you follow the regulations published in the Graduate School Thesis Guide. You may obtain a copy from 115A Kern Graduate Building or by visiting the Graduate School web page:

http://www.gradschool.psu.edu/current-students/etd/thesisdissertationguidepdf/

When your thesis has received final approval, you should deliver the original copy to the Graduate School , a bound copy to the departmental office for the departmental library, and—as a professional courtesy—a bound copy to your adviser.

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What is the Calendar of Events for completing the Ph.D.?

  • Prior to your acceptance as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree, you should plan to remove any deficiencies noted as a condition of admission. You should plan your total program, which includes designated areas in communication and proposed work outside the department. The subject area for the dissertation ordinarily is discussed at the time of the candidacy examination.
  • Prior to completion of 12 credit hours of graduate work beyond the M.A., and not later than your second semester of full-time study in the Ph.D. program, you will take a candidacy examination. This is an oral examination conducted by three or four members of the department's graduate faculty and a graduate faculty representative of your outside field(s). The purpose of this examination is three-fold: (a) to determine whether you have achieved a level of learning and understanding sufficient to justify formal acceptance as a doctoral candidate; (b) to discover what further study is required to bring you to the competency required for the degree you seek; and (c) to secure approval of a program of course work and independent study required to achieve the competencies you need to have to qualify you to conduct the dissertation research you are considering, as well as later in your academic and profession life. The particulars of each doctoral candidate's program of study and research are defined on the basis of the candidacy examination. You must complete all requirements for the Ph.D. degree within eight years of your acceptance as a candidate.
  • Prior to the candidacy examination, you will prepare in writing, and in consultation with your adviser, a statement concerning (a) why you seek the Ph.D. degree, (b) your background of studies including a list of relevant courses already taken and pertinent experience, (c) your proposed program of further study that includes courses you intend to take, and (d) the general area of research you propose for your dissertation. Provided that the candidacy examination leads to your acceptance as a candidate, you will prepare, in consultation with your adviser and your committee, a document outlining the form and content areas of your comprehensive exams. After your admission to candidacy and consultation with you, your adviser will recommend to the department Head or Graduate Officer the membership of your committee (See Graduate Student Committee Procedures: http://www.gradsch.psu.edu/policies/faculty/committee.html). Assuming endorsement, the department Head or Graduate Officer will then recommend that the Dean of the Graduate School appoint your committee. Changes in the composition of the committee require the concurrence of the department Head or Graduate Officer and should be requested only in such instances as departure of existing members from the faculty, significant alteration in a previously approved program of study, the need for particular expertise not possessed by extant members, and irreconcilable personal differences unrelated to the quality of the candidate’s academic performance. Since the Graduate School appoints Ph.D. committees, only it has the authority to approve changes in their membership.

NOTE: No student seeking the Ph.D. degree will be admitted to candidacy before the completion of his or her master's degree, nor is progression to the Ph.D. program automatic. M.A. candidates should not be taking course work toward the Ph.D. degree prior to completion of the M.A. degree requirements or prior to advancement to the Ph.D. program.

  • Beginning in academic year 2009-2010, within the first year of study, allincoming graduate students at The Pennsylvania State are required to complete aninstructional sequence relating to scholarship and research integrity. Entering M.A. and Ph.D. students are required to complete in their first semester two non-credit on-linecourses that the Graduate School offers in the Fall semester. One course is under theheading of “Human Subjects Research,” and the other “Responsible Conduct of Research.”  Each student will receive more information concerning enrollment and the content of thetwo courses, and the required date of completion, before the beginning of the Fallsemester. Ph.D. students will also take part in five additional hours of instructionconcerning the responsible conduct of research and research integrity that the Departmentordinarily provides in four seventy-five minute sessions over a two-week period. Thesesessions, if at all possible, will also take place during the Fall semester, but may insome circumstances continue into the Spring semester. M.A. students who advance to thePh.D. Program be required to take this instruction in their first year as doctoralstudents, but will not have to retake the online courses in Human Subjects Research and the Responsible Conduct of Research.
  • Following your acceptance as a doctoral candidate, the department expects that you will take such course work as you and your committee have agreed on, pass the courses necessary to complete the requirements appropriate to your degree program, pursue independent reading in the areas of your specialization, and familiarize yourself with the principal professional journals in communication and related fields. The department urges you to become a member of state, regional, national, and international professional organizations and will assist, as far as it can, in making it possible for you to attend the conventions of such professional associations. The department expects the period of doctoral study to be devoted not simply to formal study, but also to apprentice participation in the professional enterprises of your chosen academic field.
  • When your required course work is complete, you will, with the approval of your adviser and committee members, schedule a comprehensive examination.
  • The comprehensive examination may consist of fourteen to sixteen hours of responding to questions from your committee “in house,” or it may involve writing research papers over a specified period of time in response to questions from your committee. The character and content areas of the written portion of your comprehensive exam will be determined by your committee immediately following your admission to candidacy. Shortly after the written examinations are completed, you will be given an oral examination by the members of your committee.

In general, the comprehensive examination covers in depth the areas of your specialization and your outside field of study. The examination always includes questions designed to determine your competency to interpret theoretical postulates and research findings in your area of specialization and your preparation to do research of the sort you have proposed. Questions will also cover three or four areas related to your principal subject of study. The areas covered in the examination should reflect your overall program of study and will be specified in a document prepared by you and your committee at the time of your admission to candidacy. For example, if you specialize in public address, four hours of the comprehensive examination might be devoted to the history of public address, two or three hours to contemporary public address, two or three hours to rhetorical theory and criticism, and two hours to communication theory. From two to four hours would be devoted to questions on the outside field. It is the responsibility of the committee chair to review questions submitted by committee members in advance of the exam to insure that they conform to the plan agreed upon at the time of your admission to candidacy.

Comprehensive examinations traditionally have been written “in house,” although exceptions to this rule are now common. In-house comprehensive examinations are ordinarily scheduled during the second full week of classes in the fall semester and the first full week of April for spring semester.

You must be registered for the semester in which you take comprehensives.  This also includes summer session if you receive an exception to schedule comprehensives during that time.

Following the oral portion of your comprehensive examination, your committee will decide by majority vote whether you have passed, failed, or are to be given an opportunity to take all or part of the examination again, under specified conditions, at a specified date. Failure by two or more members of the committee constitutes a non-pass, regardless of committee size.

NOTE:In preparation for the comprehensive examination, candidates may freely examine the file of questions prepared for such examinations, which may be secured from the departmental secretary. Of course, these questions are merely examples. New questions are prepared for every examination.

  • After successful completion of the comprehensive examination, you should present to your committee a "research proposal" for the dissertation. This proposal will be evaluated, possibly edited, and then accepted, modified, or rejected following a two-hour oral examination of the proposal conducted by the committee. Upon receiving approval of one’s proposal, work on the dissertation should, of course, proceed with all deliberate speed.
  • The defense draft of your dissertation must be circulated to all members of the advisory committee and prior to its being typed in final form a minimum of two weeks in advance of the oral defense. The defense will be devoted chiefly to the dissertation but may cover any subject on which you are presumed to be competent. When the dissertation is approved by the committee, it should be put into final form. Follow the instructions in the Graduate School Thesis Guide, which is available online at:http://www.gradschool.psu.edu/index.cfm/current-students/etd/thesisdissertationguidepdf/.

When your dissertation has received official approval, you must deliver the original copy to the Graduate School , a bound copy to the departmental office for the departmental library, and—as a professional courtesy—a bound copy to your adviser. 

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What is the policy for completion of the thesis/dissertation revisions following the defense?

  • Students are expected to complete revisions to a successfully defended thesis or dissertation and have them submitted to the advisor within 60 calendar days following the defense meeting. Failure to complete revisions in this timeframe may adversely affect the student's teaching opportunities, which may include, but are not limited to, continuing education, world campus, and resident instruction.
  • The defense normally commences with queries by committee members concerning the dissertation. However, it may take any form the committee feels is most appropriate to enable it to reach a sound judgment concerning a candidate's qualifications for conferral of the Ph.D. degree.
  • Signatory Page

    A signed signatory page with the original signatures needs to be submitted to the Office of Theses and Dissertations at 115 Kern, University Park, PA 16802 and is retained by the Graduate School (see examples in Appendix A). The signatures on the signatory page indicate that the thesis/dissertation is approved as a complete and final work requiring no further alteration. This page is required for approval of the thesis/dissertation by the Office of Theses and Dissertations.

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