Master’s Degree Program

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If you are  pursuing the 5-year MS to PhD degree program, use that section for information on your master’s degree requirements.  There are different deadlines, requirements, and forms.

A master’s degree in Geography is one stage in a process of lifelong learning. As a stage beyond the baccalaureate degree, the master’s degree allows students to explore and specialize in the domain of geography. The mode of instruction (e.g., seminars and independent studies), the process of learning (e.g., the exercise of critical and independent judgment), and the responsibility for learning (e.g., self-motivated exercise of responsibility with the guidance of an adviser) reflect a qualitative change from the undergraduate experience. There are multiple outcomes of the master’s degree including, but not restricted to: (1) continued graduate studies leading to a doctoral degree; or (2) professional service or employment with the possibility of continued graduate studies later.

The key characteristics of the Penn State master’s degree in Geography are proficiency in the knowledge base of geography and a capacity to undertake independent, scholarly research.

The knowledge base comprises:

  1. perspectives on the history and philosophy of modern geography;
  2. an area of specialization selected by the student, and
  3. quantitative and/or qualitative research methods appropriate to the student’s area of specialization.

We expect students to develop and demonstrate expert knowledge in their chosen area of specialization. This expert knowledge must include an understanding of the connections to cognate fields beyond geography and an understanding of how the specialization relates to the domain of geography as a whole. The key is therefore depth within breadth. Exposure to the breadth of geography—its history, methods, concepts, and theories—is important, but the focus of the master’s program is on the successful completion of a program of scholarly research. Breadth and depth are therefore necessary to the student’s program but neither is sufficient by itself.

Depth within context underpins the research process that leads to either a master’s thesis or two scholarly research papers. The student must be familiar with all stages of the research process from problem formulation through research design to analysis and writing. The resulting thesis or papers should be of a standard that could be published in a refereed journal (but not necessarily in geography itself).

Throughout the program, students are expected to participate in multiple activities that will broaden and deepen their understanding of geography. Through Graduate Teaching Assistantships, students are exposed to the fundamentals of teaching and the coordination of group and individual learning. Through Graduate Research Assistantships, they are exposed to all facets of the professional research process. Through Geography 500 and 502, students will gain an understanding of modern geography, including the role of Penn State faculty within the discipline at large. Through presentations in Coffee Hour and other forums, they are exposed to current ideas in geography and in intellectual life more generally. As a consequence of completing the master’s degree program, students are expected to: (1) have a clear area of professional focus within geography, thus allowing them to identify research questions, to select relevant methodologies and research designs, and to employ appropriate modes for the presentation of results; (2) set their specialization within the larger context of the domain of geography; (3) have experience in independent, scholarly research; and (4) have developed skills for continuous learning and professional development. The entry committee and master’s program committee will facilitate this process.

Master’s Program Committee

Students must select a master’s adviser (use the GeogGradForm1SelectAdviser ) by the Friday before Thanksgiving.

The student then completes the master’s program committee (GeogGradForm3MSCommittee) by selecting two additional faculty members during the spring semester. Two members of the M.S. committee must be tenure-line faculty in Geography. The third committee member may be a faculty member from outside geography or a special outside reader (i.e., a non-Penn Stater approved by Graduate School).

The master’s program committee consists of an adviser, a second reader, and a third committee member. The student will work with this committee throughout the master’s program, and the committee will guide and monitor performance. The master’s program committee will be appointed by the Graduate Program Officer with approval of a formal written statement, prepared jointly by the student and adviser, that outlines (a) the nature of the program of work and study, and (b) the expected role of the committee members throughout the program (form follows). Changes to the master’s program committee can be made subject to the approval of the Graduate Program Officer, who will consult with existing committee members before making the requested changes. Requests to change committee membership must be made in writing to the Graduate Program Officer.

Throughout the remainder of the student’s program, the master’s program committee is charged with meeting with the student and with advising and evaluating the research proposal. The Adviser and second reader evaluate the final thesis or research paper.

The master’s program committee will meet formally with the student at least two times.

The purpose of the first meeting is to defend the master’s proposal and to confirm that the student has met breadth and communications skills requirements. This meeting should take place near the end of the student’s first spring semester.

The purpose of the second meeting is to go over the research accomplished by the student during the summer and to chart the course for the remainder of the student’s program; it should take place during the second year, ideally in the third semester. (GeogGradForm5Report2ndYRMTG)

Credits and Coursework

A student whose goal is an MS degree in geography may elect—with approval of his or her adviser—to take one of two options:

(1) The MS thesis option, which requires completion of at least 30 graduate credits and the completion of a thesis

(2) The MS one-paper option, which requires completion of 35 graduate credits and one research paper. The master’s research paper is usually an expanded and refined version of a course or seminar paper that is of sufficiently high quality to be submitted to scholarly journals

Students who enter the MS program without a background in geography or with deficiencies in several systematic fields should expect to accumulate more than the minimum credit requirements. The Graduate School requires all MS programs to include at least:

  • 12 credits of course work at 400- and 500-levels
  • 18 credits of 500-, 600-, and/or 800-level work
  • 6 credits of 600/610

No more than 6 credits of the 600/610-level work can be assigned a letter grade.
Any remaining 600/610 credits are graded on a “research” (R) credit basis. Almost all full-time students accumulate additional R-grade 600 credits. For accounting purposes, please register in increments of 3 credits for GEOG 600/610. For example, a single semester’s transcript may look like:

Course                    Credits                    Grade
GEOG 600                     3                              A
GEOG 600                     3                              R
GEOG 600                     3                              R

In addition to these general requirements of the Graduate School, the Department of Geography requires all incoming master’s students to take GEOG 500 (3 credits), GEOG 502 (3 credits), and GEOG 590 (1 credit in fall and 1 credit in spring) in their first year. Master’s candidates also are required to register and complete work in at least one graduate-level seminar (500-level) among those offered by the Department of Geography. The seminar should carry at least three credits and result in a substantive paper. GEOG 500 and 502 do not meet this requirement. This seminar requirement should be satisfied during the first four semesters of residence. See the Core Courses subsection in PROGRAM REQUIREMENTS FOR ALL DEGREES for more information.

Master’s Proposal

Students must defend a written proposal to their master’s committee by May 15 of Year 1

The written proposal should meet normal scholarly standards for presentation and should not exceed 20 pages. The proposal is evaluated in a formal, private defense. Committee members must have adequate time to evaluate the proposal before the defense date (typically 2 weeks). The committee will assess the feasibility of the proposed research and the student’s preparation to undertake the necessary work. The committee will approve the proposal and/or recommend changes to the topic itself or request additional preparation. If necessary, the committee can request that the student resubmit the research proposal, for editorial changes, content changes, or both. The committee can also request an additional defense of the revised proposal. At the time of the proposal defense, the adviser will confirm progress on (1) remedial work specified at the entry interview and (2) communication requirements. The adviser submits a written report (GeogGradForm4ReportProposalDefense) to the Graduate Staff Assistant within one week of the proposal defense along with a copy of the proposal accepted by the committee for the student’s file.

Completing a Master’s Thesis

The subject, content, and organization of the thesis are matters to be settled between the student and his or her adviser and master’s committee. The aim of the thesis should be to solve a meaningful geographic problem or group of problems.

The completed thesis must be approved by:

  1. the student’s Adviser;
  2. a pre-selected second reader drawn from the master’s committee;
  3. the Department Head; and
  4. the Graduate School.

The Department Head will review and sign the thesis only after the other two signatures have been obtained. Give the Department Head at least two weeks to review and sign the thesis; consult with the Department Head well in advance of submitting the thesis to him/her.

Before preparing the thesis in its final form, consult the Graduate School’s Thesis Guide (available at, which provides detailed information on the PDF option and how material is to be printed and bound. Do not use a previous thesis as a model for format.

A bound copy of the finished work must be filed with the department. This copy does not need to be printed on cotton paper (though it is appreciated).

Continuing students will not be allowed to enter the PhD program without having submitted a thesis copy to the Geography Department.

The absolute deadline for completing the master’s is the first day of the semester of entry to the PhD program, i.e., one week before classes begin in mid-August. The final thesis copy, signed by the adviser and second reader, must be given to the Department Head for approval two weeks before this date.

Completing the Master’s Research Paper

Select a target journal in consultation with your adviser and use the journal’s format requirement in preparing the paper. The two readers will assess the paper with direct reference to the proposal and that proposal’s evaluation by the committee. When the paper has been assessed, the adviser should prepare a frontpiece to be included with the papers to the department head that includes:

  1. a brief summary statement of student performance;
  2. committee membership for each paper;
  3. selected journal and confirmation that format met journal requirements; and
  4. a brief statement of the roles of the student and each committee member for each paper (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 master’s paper must be read and approved by the Department Head, who will inform the Graduate School that the work is acceptable.

The Department Head must receive the paper after both readers have approved it and no less than two weeks before the deadline for final approval.

One finished, a bound copy of the paper is given to the department. The bound copy must be submitted to the Geography Department before the student is allowed to progress toward the PhD, following the same deadlines cited above for the master’s thesis.


Presentation of Master’s Research

At the end of the spring semester of their second year, all master’s students are required to present their research in poster format at the Department’s annual awards reception.

Students will be notified about specific format requirements, but in general this event will be similar to an AAG poster session where presenters stay by their posters and respond to questions by faculty, grads, and guests.

Registration Requirements: When All Degree Requirements Are Met Except Completion of the Thesis or Papers

Resident Students Only
For MS students in residence who have met all degree requirements except completion of the thesis or papers (e.g., required courses, minimum credits, proposal defense), the department requires registration for a minimum of one credit of on-campus research and writing (GEOG 600) each semester. Students who have registered for one or more credits during summer session need not enroll in the succeeding fall semester. However, if students do not complete the degree by the end of the fall semester, they will have to apply to resume studies in the spring semester. The Graduate Staff Assistant will assist in submitting this form to the Graduate School.

Non-Resident Students Only
For MS students not in residence who have met the degree requirements except for completion of the thesis or papers, the department requires registration for a minimum of one credit per semester in off-campus thesis research (GEOG 610) for each semester after completion of the minimum credits for graduation, including the final semester in which the thesis is presented and approved. If the student graduates at the end of the semester directly following approval (i.e., does not meet the Graduate School deadlines for the current semester but does complete the thesis before semester’s end), no additional registration will be required. If the student fails to register each semester as required, he or she will be expected to register for the total number of credits due (one per semester) during the semester of final thesis preparation and submission. Exceptions will only be permitted by a written petition to the faculty.

Graduate School Time Limit

The Graduate School allows eight years for completion of the master’s degree. We hope you will finish much sooner!

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

Example Program for a Two-year Master’s Thesis Student with Half-time TA/RA Funding


Fall Semester
[_] Attend Geography orientation the entire week before classes start; TAs attend TA workshop [_] Attend entry interview with entry committee on last day of orientation;
[_] Forms Due: Student’s Summary and Adviser’s Report
[_] Register for GEOG 500, GEOG 590, and additional credits before first day of classes
[_] Select Adviser by Friday before Thanksgiving
[_] Form Due: GeogGradForm1SelectAdviser

Spring Semester
[_] Register for GEOG 502, 590, and additional credits before classes begin
[_] Complete annual progress report by January 31
[_] Select two additional faculty members to complete master’s program committee
[_]  Form Due: GeogGradForm3MSCommittee
[_] Meet with committee to defend thesis proposal and confirm that breadth and communications skills requirements are met by May 15
[_]  Form Due: GeogGradForm4ReportProposalDefense

Summer Sessions
[_] Conduct thesis research


Fall Semester
[_] Register for 9 to 12 credits before classes begin; most or all of these credits can be GEOG 600/610
[_] Meet with committee in Year 2, discuss summer’s research, and plan crucial dates for thesis completion
[_]  Form Due: GeogGradForm5Report2ndYRMTG

Confirm Graduate School deadlines at:

Spring Semester
[_] Register for 9 to 12 credits; most or all of these credits can be GEOG 600/610
[_] Complete annual progress report by January 31
[_] Activate intent to graduate in late January
[_] Submit draft of thesis to Adviser and to Graduate School for format review by early March
[_] Adviser and second reader read and sign final thesis; submit signed thesis to Department Head to read and sign by end of March/start of April (two weeks before Grad School deadline).
[_] Submit final thesis to Grad School in middle of April
[_] Present MS research to department at poster session
[_] Submit bound copy of thesis to department
[_] Attend Graduate School commencement in early May