Doctoral Program Overview and Common Requirements

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The PhD is a different kind of degree than the master’s degree. A doctoral candidate in geography must be capable of making original contributions to knowledge and scholarship. It is unlikely that a person will make such contributions unless he or she concentrates on a narrow and clearly defined field of study. We require, however, that doctoral candidates know more of geography than their particular specialties; thus, any aspirant for a doctorate must obtain master’s training or its equivalent before being admitted to doctoral candidacy. In short, admission to doctoral candidacy is official recognition that a student’s general foundation in the breadth of geography is satisfactory. Students then devote their attention to developing depth in chosen specialties.

The general requirements for a doctoral degree in geography are more rigorous than those for a master’s degree. At the same time the greater flexibility of the doctoral program allows advanced students to pursue programs of study tailored to their special interests and needs.

All students admitted to the doctoral program will have an entry interview, including students who have a Penn State Geography master’s degree. Students will formally select their permanent Adviser by the Friday before Thanksgiving of their first semester.

Two paths for PhD students

1. 5-year Ph.D. 

Enter program as a five-year PhD, which is available to students who enter Penn State Geography’s graduate program without a master’s degree. These students earn an MS along the way to the PhD. Students can opt out of the five-year PhD at any time and choose to finish the MS only. This pathway receives five years of departmental support.

2. Conventional

Option A. Enter program as a four-year PhD, which is available to those students who have already received a master’s degree in another program either at Penn State or at another university. This pathway receives four years of departmental support.

Option B. Enter program as a three-year Ph.D., which is available to Penn State Geography MS students who continue into the PhD program after having graduated with the MS. This pathway receives a total of three years of departmental support.

The doctoral section of this handbook diverges into two paths:

  • The Five-year PhD covers entry into the program as a provisional doctoral candidate and specific MS degree requirements and deadlines for obtaining the MS degree.
  • The conventional Ph.D. covers entry into the program for those who already have a masters degree from Penn State or elsewhere (either option A or B above)

Make sure you are using the section that applies to your program path.

Once a student is ready for the doctoral qualifying exam (formerly the doctoral candidacy exam), the paths generally converge and follow the common requirements outlined in this section.

Graduate School Requirements

The Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin of the Graduate School is an important source of information. Please read it thoroughly:

Language and Communication Skills Requirements

The method of satisfying the communication skills requirement of the Department and the Graduate School will be jointly determined by the doctoral committee and the candidate as soon as possible after passing the candidacy examination. Progress on these requirements will be evaluated at the proposal meeting for those students who defend the proposal before taking the comprehensive examination. For those students who elect to take the examination first, the doctoral committee must convene a special meeting to make sure the student has met the Graduate School’s Language and Communication Skills requirement before the student takes the comprehensive examination.

Doctoral Qualifying Examination (formerly Candidacy Exam)

Function of the qualifying exam

The qualifying exam is a requirement of the Graduate School, and the unit administering the exam determines its function, format, and timing. In the Geography Department, PhD students must demonstrate the intellectual capacity to think analytically and critically in their field of expertise and to understand and apply ideas from other fields of geography to their research domain. The format of the exam and the composition of the examining committee both assist students in demonstrating this intellectual capacity and enable the examining committee to assess this capacity.

Format of the examining committee and qualifying exam

A committee of three, formally approved by the Graduate Program Officer, will administer the doctoral qualifying exam to students admitted to the PhD program. Two members of the qualifying committee must be tenure-line faculty in Geography. Organizing the qualifying exam involves a four-step process.

Step 1. Write the Research Statement
The student will write a research statement of no more than two pages. The research statement describes the student’s intended doctoral research path and its relationship to the broad research fields in geography that will be addressed: human geography, physical geography, nature-society geography, and geographic information science. The research statement can also include discussion of a place or region in which students have interest, but place or region cannot substitute for a substantive research focus.

Step 2. Assemble the Qualifying Exam Committee
The student will assemble the qualifying exam committee, which will consist of the adviser and faculty members from two other broad research fields of geography (at least two committee members must be tenure-line faculty in Geography). For example, if the adviser is a human geographer, then the other committee members must be from two of the other three broad fields of geography practiced in the Department (in this case, physical geography, environment and society geography, and geographic information science). The student must meet with potential candidacy committee members, share the research statement, and identify a theme around which all three examiners will direct their questions. Exam themes can vary considerably, but should reflect student interests described in the statement and yet accommodate the expertise (for instance, biogeography or cartography) of the faculty members serving on the qualifying exam committee.

Please note: it is possible, but unlikely that the three members of the master’s committee can serve as the three members of the qualifying exam committee because they must be from three distinct fields of geography. One object of the qualifying exam is to assess the student’s breadth of knowledge across the discipline; master’s committees tend to be focused more on assessing the student’s mastery of research skills and therefore to have members who are more likely to be in just one field of geography.

Step 3. Submit the Doctoral Qualifying Exam Committee Form
Students will prepare the form, “Appointment of Doctoral Qualifying Exam Committee,” (GeogGradForms9doctoralcommitteepg12-22d8atx and present it to the Graduate Program Officer at least one month before the candidacy examination date. This is to accommodate scheduling the exam with the Graduate School (step 4 below). The form includes the 1-2 page research statement, the names of the three committee members, and a description of the theme in six words or less. Once the Graduate Program Officer confirms and signs off on the committee, a period of one month must elapse before the student takes the exam. During that time, students will visit with their committee members to discuss the exam theme and likely directions of questioning.

Step 4. Submit the Doctoral Qualifying Examination Form
No less than three weeks before the candidacy exam, students must file the  form, “Schedule Doctoral Qualifying Examination”  (GeogGradFormsInteractivePDF10docexam-1lpiesn) with the Graduate Staff Assistant. Please note that this is a Graduate School requirement with no flexibility. Failure to submit this form to the Graduate Staff Assistant will result in the delay of the examination.

The qualifying exam is an oral, closed examination. Questions and answers do not require memorization of facts, but instead require students to think analytically and critically by understanding and articulating responses to the questions asked by the committee. The exam has six possible outcomes, as shown on the Graduate School form, “Adviser’s Report on Doctoral Qualifying Exam.”  (GeogGradFormsInteractivePDF11adviserreport-11q7nb6) Students must provide this form to their Adviser no later than the time of the examination.

Timing of the qualifying exam

For 5-Year Ph.D. students, the doctoral qualifying exam must take place after the MS thesis or paper defense, but as soon after that defense as possible. The reason for this requirement is that students must complete their master’s degree before they can take the qualifying exam. For 5-year PhD students, the exam must be completed by 15 October of the third year in the program.

For conventional PhD students, the doctoral qualifying exam can take place any time during the first year of the PhD program, but students typically take the exam during spring semester. Students should establish the qualifying exam committee before the end of fall semester. Conventional PhD students must complete the exam by May 15 of the first year in the program.

Doctoral Committee

Each 5-Year Ph.D. doctoral committee should be established after the student has passed the quaifying exam and no later than the end of the fifth semester of residence (Fall semester of Year 3), unless the student has taken but not passed his or her candidacy examination by that time.

Each conventional PhD student’s doctoral committee should be established after the student has passed the quailfying exam and no later than the end of the third semester of residence, unless the student has taken but not passed his or her candidacy examination by that time.

For all students, In the case the student has taken but not passed the qualifying exam, the doctoral committee is to be appointed no later than the end of the semester in which the qualifying examination is passed and three weeks before the proposal defense or comprehensive examination, whichever comes first. It is unwise to wait that late to appoint the doctoral committee.

The doctoral committee consists of at least four members from Penn State, with one (typically known as the “outside member” or the “external member”) from another unit that has no budgetary affiliation with Geography. Two of the four members must be tenure-line faculty in Geography. The dissertation adviser must be a member of the doctoral committee. The dissertation adviser usually serves as the chair, but this not required. If the candidate is also pursuing a dual-title field of study, a co-chair representing the dual-title field must be appointed. In the cases where the dissertation adviser is a member of the Graduate Faculty in both the major and dual-title fields, they may serve as the sole chair.

It is possible to have additional special committee members from outside Penn State. Members of the doctoral committee are formally appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School on the recommendation of the Graduate Program Officer. All committee members must be members of the Graduate Faculty at Penn State, except for special committee members from outside the university.

The doctoral committee is responsible for all facets of the doctoral program (i.e., the plan of study, the timing of exams and the proposal, and the timing of the dissertation). The committee evaluates performance on examinations, evaluates the dissertation proposal, and supervises the dissertation. Each student’s doctoral program should be formulated in consultation with his or her doctoral committee. The committee should meet no later than six months after passage of the candidacy examination to approve the student’s doctoral program. The program may be modified as necessary, providing the committee approves.

Students must complete the Selection of Doctoral Committee form (GeogGradForm12changedoccommittee) and return it to the Graduate Staff Assistant immediately after the first meeting with the committee and well before scheduling the comprehensive exam or proposal defense.

Once the form has been completed, the Graduate Staff Assistant will create the Committee Appointment Signature Form. The student is required to sign this form and will have each of the committee members sign the form. Do not wait to get this resolved as it can slow your progress with the degree. Once all the signatures have been obtained, it is returned to the Graduate Staff Assistant who will obtain the Graduate Program Officer’s signature and then forward it to the Graduate School. This form needs to be forwarded to the Graduate School well before the student schedules the Comprehensive Exam because the Graduate School checks whether committee members are authorized to serve in their roles.

The Graduate School requires all doctoral committees to meet at least once per year.

Order of the Dissertation Proposal and Comprehensive Examination

The order of the dissertation proposal and comprehensive examination is to be determined by the graduate candidate and her/his adviser.

The comprehensive examination cannot be scheduled until the student has met the Graduate School’s Language and Communication Skills requirement.

When the dissertation proposal precedes the comprehensive examination, the doctoral committee determines whether this requirement has been met at the proposal meeting and the adviser documents the committee’s agreement on the proposal meeting report form (GeogGradForm13dissertationproposal). At that meeting, the committee can also determine the dates of the written and oral portions of the comprehensive exam and confirms the order of questioning.

When the comprehensive examination precedes the proposal meeting, then the doctoral committee must hold a special meeting to make sure the student has met the Graduate School’s Language and Communication Skills requirement. At that meeting, the committee also determines the dates of the written and oral portions of the comprehensive exam and confirms the order of questioning.

The Department recommends that the dissertation proposal and comprehensive examination closely coincide in time to support moving through these milestones 

In those cases in which the dissertation proposal precedes the comprehensive examination, however, there should be no less than two weeks between acceptance of the proposal and beginning of the written portion of the exam.

Dissertation Proposal

Before dissertation work can begin, the candidate for the degree must write a dissertation proposal in consultation with the adviser and members of the doctoral committee. The proposal will be discussed at a dedicated proposal meeting. This meeting is not a formal defense mandated by the Graduate School, but it is formal in the sense that the Department requires a meticulous proposal and rigorous analysis of the theory, methods, research plan, and significance that form the basis of the proposal. The doctoral committee can require multiple revisions and additional meetings until they accept the dissertation proposal.

A proposal should include a statement of the research question, the methods to be used in the research, an analysis plan, and a statement of the significance of the work. The Adviser writes a brief report on the proposal meeting for the candidate’s file and attaches a copy of the accepted proposal to the report (GeogGradForm13dissertationproposal).

If there is a change in dissertation topic or if there is a major revision of the original proposal (e.g., a change from a quantitative to qualitative research design), another formal meeting of the dissertation committee must be held to approve such changes. Consult with the Graduate Program Officer if in doubt about the need for additional committee meetings to revise the proposal.

Comprehensive Examination

As mandated by the Graduate School, this exam must be formally scheduled (GeogGradForm14compexam).

Scheduling can take place when a doctoral candidate has met the Graduate School’s Language and Communication Skills requirement.

The comprehensive examination must be completed by May 15 of the student’s second year (conventional Ph.D.) and before the start of year 4 for the 5-year Ph.D. A student’s eligibility for continued financial support is dependent upon successful completion of the comprehensive exam.

The exam is officially scheduled by the Dean of the Graduate School upon recommendation of the student’s doctoral committee through the Graduate Program Officer. The departmental Graduate Staff Assistant will assist in submitting the form for requesting Graduate School scheduling of this exam (GeogGradForm14compexam). The Graduate School requires three weeks notice for scheduling the oral portion of the exam; the Graduate School does not make exceptions except in extraordinary circumstances.

To give the Graduate Staff Assistant time to file the necessary paperwork, the Schedule Doctoral Comprehensive Examination form is due four weeks before the oral exam date. Failure to meet this deadline might result in delay of the exam.

Questions on the comprehensive exam are given by at least four faculty members and address at least two substantive areas of study. Each student should meet individually with members of his or her doctoral committee to discuss the general question areas and identify specific preparation at least one semester before planning to take the comprehensive exam. In general, for five-year PhD students, these individual meetings should take place soon after the candidacy exam and the identification of the doctoral committee members.

The examination is administered in two parts, written and oral. The written examination period lasts four days, with each day allotted to a question or questions from an individual committee member (i.e., a four-member committee produces a four-day exam). Each day tends to average 8 hours of writing. The student and committee can organize the written examination for Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday (i.e., four consecutive days); for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday (i.e., two days on, one day off, and two days on); or Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday (i.e., two days on, the weekend off, and two days on). Following the writing period—usually about a week to ten days later—the candidate meets with the entire committee for an oral examination, which lasts about three hours and is closed.

A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the doctoral committee is required for passing the comprehensive exam. If a candidate fails the exam, the committee can fail the student outright or can choose to give the student the opportunity to take the exam again.

If the committee allows the student to retake the exam, the committee must determine (1) if the student needs to retake portions of the exam or the entire exam, and (2) how long the student has to prepare for re-examination.

A candidate who passes and who has already had the doctoral proposal accepted by the committee may devote full time to the dissertation from that point forward; a candidate who has not had the dissertation proposal meeting must meet with the committee and gain acceptance of the proposal.

Students are encouraged not to take further course work except for GEOG 601/611, thesis research, and required courses. Any courses taken after the comprehensive exam require formal permission of the Graduate Program Officer. Students who take other courses without seeking this permission will be responsible for paying the roughly $700 fee charged by the University.

Residency Requirements

There is no minimum number of required credits or semesters of study, but over some twelve-month period during the interval between admission to the PhD program and completion of the PhD program, the candidate must spend at least two semesters (which may include the semester in which the candidacy exam is taken) as a registered full-time student. Note that summer session is not normally counted as a semester. For example, students who take their candidacy exam in the fall semester can complete the residence requirement by registering for nine credits in the fall semester and for nine credits in the following spring semester. The Graduate School requires that continuous fall/spring registrations be kept current until graduation and not be paid in arrears at some later date. See the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin for more detail.

Graduate School Time Limit

The Graduate School allows eight years for completion of the doctoral degree, from the time of candidacy (i.e., passing the candidacy exam) to conclusion of the doctoral defense, with six years allowed between passing the comprehensive exam and the doctoral defense. If more than six years elapse between the comprehensive and doctoral defense exams, a second comprehensive exam must be administered (see Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin).

Doctoral Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation must represent a significant contribution to knowledge. It must be presented in a scholarly manner, reveal an ability by the candidate to do independent research of high quality, and indicate considerable experience in using a variety of research techniques. It should also demonstrate the candidate’s ability to express her- or himself precisely, concisely, and in an interesting manner.

The content and mode of presentation of a dissertation are decided by the candidate in consultation with the adviser and the doctoral committee. As noted previously, the candidate will present a formal dissertation proposal to his or her committee for approval before initiating research on the proposed topic.

The Graduate School enforces a variety of detailed regulations about the format of finished dissertations. To avoid last minute frustrations, candidates must familiarize themselves with the regulations in the Thesis Guide, available at the Graduate School office in Kern Building. Do not use a previous dissertation as a model format.

Doctoral Defense––The Final Oral Examination

This examination is conducted by the candidate’s doctoral committee. It is officially scheduled and announced by the Dean of the Graduate School.

Two weeks’ notice is required by the Graduate School to schedule this exam. To give the Graduate Staff Assistant time to file this paperwork, the Schedule Doctoral Defense Examination form (GeogGradForm17scheduledocdefense) is due three weeks before the date of the exam.

This examination is largely concerned with the doctoral dissertation itself, but questions may range over the candidate’s entire field of specialization and study.

The dissertation must be presented to the committee in final form (complete with figures, tables, appendices, etc.) at least two weeks before the examination.

The first part of the doctoral defense is open to the public and candidates are responsible for distributing an announcement of the time, place, and title by e-mail to the department community at least one week prior to the exam. The second part of the exam is closed to the public and consists of the candidate and doctoral committee.

The examination is graded on a pass-fail basis. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the doctoral committee is required for passing. If a candidate fails, it is the committee’s responsibility to determine whether, and when, the student may repeat the defense. If a candidate passes, it is normal for the committee to require revisions, which can range from minor (e.g., typographical and spelling errors) to major (reworking an analysis or rewriting one or more chapters). The committee typically will sign the signature page at the defense when requiring only minor revisions, but usually will not sign until satisfied by major revisions. If major revisions are required, the committee will determine at the dissertation defense whether they will meet again with the student.

When the dissertation has been approved the advisor should prepare a frontpiece to be included with the dissertation to the Department Head that includes:

  1. a brief summary statement of student performance,
  2. a brief statement of the roles of the student and each committee member if written as co-authored individual papers, or in the dissertation as a whole if not in paper format. (i.e. aaa and bbb designed the study, bbb provided data, ccc provided new analytical tools, aaa analyzed the data, aaa and bbb wrote that paper).

The dissertation must be in final form with a signature page signed by the entire committee before submitting it for the Department Head’s approval no less than two weeks before the deadline for final submission.

A PDF version of the complete dissertation must be filed in the Graduate School office by the announced deadline before the Commencement at which the candidate expects to receive the degree. The adviser accompanies the PhD student on stage at commencement, so schedule coordination is essential. One bound copy of the dissertation must be filed with the department.