Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts
Ph.D. Program

Ph.D. Program

As a matter of principle, the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences adapts each program of study to the needs of our graduate students. Beyond a few specific requirements, graduate students work with their graduate committees to determine the program of study that will best prepare them for their scholarly and professional careers.

With few exceptions, the requirements of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences for the Ph.D. degree are identical to those of the Graduate School. Each graduate student is responsible for ensuring that he or she meets all Graduate School requirements.

Requirements for the Degree

  • A total of at least 36 course credits beyond the M.A. If credits were earned beyond the 30 credits required for the M.A. degree, they may be counted toward the Ph.D.
    • At least 3 credits of research methods relevant to the student’s research area (appropriate coursework to be designated by the student’s committee)
    • At least 9 of these 36 total credits should be taken outside of the Communication Arts and Sciences Department. Credits earned with a member of the approved graduate faculty who resides in a different department may be counted as “internal” or “external” credits at the discretion of an adviser and committee.
  • A minimum of 21 credits in Communication Arts and Sciences beyond the M.A. degree.
    • A maximum of 6 credits of CAS 596 (Individual Studies) may count toward the 21-credit minimum
  • A qualifying examination in the student’s second or third semester
  • A written and oral comprehensive examination
  • A dissertation
  • An oral examination in defense of the dissertation
  • Satisfactory academic progress as defined by Graduate School policy GCAC-404.

In addition to the above requirements, all graduate students at Penn State are required to complete an instructional sequence relating to scholarship and research integrity, or SARI. In the fall semester following matriculation, Ph.D. students are required to complete two non-credit online courses offered by the Graduate School, one on human subjects research and the other on the responsible conduct of research. Students receive information concerning enrollment and the content of the two courses, and the required date of completion, before the beginning of the Fall semester.

Students also take part in five additional hours of instruction concerning the responsible conduct of research and research integrity, with one hour completed outside the department and offered by the Graduate School. The department complements and facilitates completion of this requirement through a 1-hour discussion during orientation as well as two 1.5-hour discussion sessions focused on topics related to scholarship and research integrity.

Ph.D. Completion Timeline

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 entire program, including 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 professional 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.

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. 

Once all the above steps are complete, students will need to take the SARI training as described above with the degree requirements.

Following your acceptance as a doctoral candidate, the department expects that you will take such coursework 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 coursework 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 ensure 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 sessions 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.

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 the proper final form.

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.