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Human Development and Family Studies
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Core Coursework

All students complete a common core of coursework in their first year, covering the broad substantive themes of the department: individual development, family studies, prevention and intervention, and developmental methodology. All students will also develop strong skills in research methods through the completion of a four-course methodology sequence over the first two years. Students consult with their advisor to develop a customized course sequence to fulfill the remaining course credit requirements.

Course Requirements   icon-olus-circle

All students take a core series of courses in the first two years. This ensures a common foundation of breadth for all students pursuing a degree in HDFS.

  • Three substantive classes (lifespan development, family studies, and intervention research
  • Four foundational methods classes in research methods and statistics
  • Two professional development classes
  • 18 additional credits (at least six credits in methods electives and at least six in non-methods electives)

Substitutions or transferring courses can be approved on a case-by-case basis by submitting a copy of the syllabus to the graduate professor-in-charge for consideration. Refer to the Graduate Handbook for more information.

Methodology Requirement icon-olus-circle

HDFS is widely regarded for the sophisticated methodological training students receive. In addition to the four required core courses, students take a minimum of two additional electives. Some students select HDFS for the opportunity to study with world renowned researchers on the cutting edge of statistical modeling of change and complex behavioral dynamics. Other students feel more apprehensive about the statistical coursework at the outset. Regardless, all students come to view their methodological training as invaluable in preparing them to conduct innovative research and highly sought after on the job market.

Research Requirement icon-olus-circle

All students in the program are required to participate in research activities. Students are expected to present research at professional meetings and take advantage of workshops, colloquium series, and symposia held at Penn State every year.

Communications Requirement icon-olus-circle

In line with the Penn State Graduate School requirements, all students must demonstrate high quality written and oral communication skills in English, reflective of the advanced degree they are pursuing. Evaluations of communication skills take place throughout the student's first two years in the program.

Teaching Requirement icon-olus-circle

Instructional development is an important component of graduate education in HDFS. Our program is designed to provide a broad and flexible approach to students’ development in this domain. The department provides graduate coursework on teaching, supervised teaching experiences, and teaching assistantship opportunities. Students are also encouraged to pursue additional resources for professional development in this domain available through the Penn State Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

Program Milestones

In addition to the core coursework, all Ph.D. candidates follow a defined set of milestones to earn their doctoral degree in HDFS.

Master's Thesis icon-olus-circle

HDFS does not admit students into the program pursuing a terminal master's degree. However, all doctoral students must complete a master's thesis before holding their qualifying exam. Students who enter the program with a master's degree (in any area) that fulfills the empirical requirement are not required to complete a second master's degree. Students who enter the program with a master’s degree that did not include a thesis with empirical data will need to complete a first-year empirical project or empirical thesis. Students who do not enter with a master's degree will be required to complete this degree during their studies.

Qualifying Exams icon-olus-circle

Students are admitted to graduate study, but are not admitted to doctoral candidacy until after they have demonstrated sufficient ability and appropriate compatibility with the HDFS program. Students’ suitability for doctoral study will be determined through the doctoral qualifying exam. Students will be evaluated by their qualifying committee, which is charged with evaluating whether the student’s professional goals are achievable in the HDFS program and whether the student has the skills and foundational knowledge, as well as the engagement and dedication, needed to achieve those goals. This committee further serves to provide the student with feedback on their time in the program, as well as structured guidance on how best to utilize the remaining time in the program to maximally prepare them for success in their future.

Comprehensive Exam icon-olus-circle

The goal of the comprehensive exam in HDFS is for students to develop and demonstrate content mastery and intellectual independence in preparation for completing the dissertation. The comprehensive exam product should involve integrating research and theory in the student's field of interest, broadly conceived, prior to a more direct focus on a specialized depth area of doctoral research. The content should be broader than the specific focus of the dissertation research, but sufficiently focused that a comprehensive (non-superficial) knowledge of the area can emerge and be evaluated in the context of the comprehensive exam process. The committee will evaluate the student’s critical thinking with regard to theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues in the field of HDFS, as well as the student’s ability to clearly present thoughts in writing and orally. In order to ensure that the final product represents the student’s independent skills and knowledge, all work must be completed independently. Advisers are not permitted to read or respond to preliminary drafts, and cannot engage in discussions guiding student’s thinking on the exam response. The comprehensive exam must cover two areas of the department’s four research areas (individual development, family students, prevention and intervention, and developmental methods). If the student is pursuing a dual-title or a minor, the exam focus must also fulfill any requirements for those programs with regard to content and committee composition.

Dissertation icon-olus-circle

In final fulfillment of the doctoral degree, students are required to complete a written dissertation and successfully defend the dissertation orally. The doctoral dissertation should constitute independent scholarly work, and have the potential to make a significant contribution to the field. The evaluation process for the dissertation integrates departmental and Graduate School policies and procedures. The dissertation represents the culmination of students’ formal doctoral education in HDFS, and the faculty expects that students who reach the point of preparing a dissertation proposal will have the methodological and conceptual sophistication necessary to undertake an independent research project. Nonetheless, consultation with, and involvement by, the doctoral committee throughout the dissertation process is an important element of students’ continued scholarly development. Students in HDFS are, therefore, required to hold an in-person dissertation proposal defense meeting. The proposal meeting should be scheduled prior to the execution of the dissertation product in order to ensure that students engage in the appropriate activities.

Student Development and Evaluation

To ensure that all students receive high quality mentoring and supervision, faculty are required to work with students annually to identify specific goals, establish timelines, identify strategies for completing goals, and discuss progress. In addition to the supervision provided by the student's adviser or co-advisers, the full faculty convene annually to discuss student progress and identify any concerns. This process ensures that students in need of additional support or guidance are identified early, and is a critical component ensuring all students' success.