Program requirements for all degrees

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Required Actions

Throughout this handbook, pay attention to text that is bold, orange, and indented (like this). It indicates a required action with a deadline.


Graduate students who are in residence at the University must be registered during fall and spring semesters. The responsibility for being properly registered rests with the student. Students may register for coursework or research or a combination of the two. Students must register for audited courses as well as those taken for credit. Students must be registered for any semester (including summer) in which they take an exam.

Candidates for the PhD degree must register continuously for each fall and spring semester from the time they pass the comprehensive examination and meet the two-semester residence requirement until their doctoral committee accepts the dissertation. One credit per semester is sufficient to meet this requirement, although students working as Teaching or Research Assistants must carry between 9 and 12 credits.

Because the Department of Homeland Security requires international students on an F1 or J1 visa to be in residence, all international students must be registered for full-time status (fall and spring semester), unless an exception to full-time enrollment has been approved. Students who fail to register may jeopardize their visa status.

Students must complete registration during the officially designated period and must attend the first meeting of all classes.

A student who fails to complete the process of registration within the officially designated registration period will be liable for the late registration charge, regardless of when the student begins attending classes. Some people simply forget to register! Registering late will cost you time and a $250 late registration fee.


Graduate students are not required to have an adviser upon entry to the Department. Incoming students are encouraged to be proactive during the first half of the fall semester, visiting many faculty members to explore potential research topics and identify potential advisers.

Incoming students must select a permanent adviser by the Friday before Thanksgiving and submit the form to the Graduate Program Assistant.


Students who have failed to do this will be asked to meet with the Graduate Program Officer after Thanksgiving break to explain why they have not selected their adviser. Students may request a change of adviser at any time. If you change your adviser, be sure to submit the form below:


Guidelines for Master’s and Doctoral Culminating Documents

In 2019 the faculty of the Geography Department agreed upon a set of guidelines for the final documents that accompany each degree (M.S. Thesis, M.S. one-paper, Ph.D. dissertation).

Guidelines for Master’s and Doctoral Culminating Documents

It is recommended that each graduate student read these guidelines and discuss them with their adviser, and their M.S. and Ph.D. committees as needed, early and often. This is intended to ensure there is clarity around expectations for these degrees.

Entry Meeting

Each incoming graduate student is assigned to an entry committee by the Graduate Program Officer. Students will meet with their entry committee the Friday before classes start. The entry meeting takes place the entry committee, consisting of three or four faculty members who, as a group, represent the breadth of the discipline of geography. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss student goals, to evaluate the student’s breadth of knowledge of geography, to help plan a course of study, and to anticipate timing for important exams. Study plans arising from the meeting may include enrolling in or auditing formal courses, arranging directed readings or individual study with particular faculty (GEOG 596), and registering for thesis research credits (GEOG 600). It is recommended that suggestions from the entry committee be incorporated into a discussion with each student’s primary adviser.

Each student must complete a Summary form before the entry meeting and bring five copies to the meeting (one for the student and one for each of the four faculty serving on the entry committee) to aid in discussion of his/her background and plans.

After the meeting, the committee will complete the Report form (the second page of the entry interview form) that describes recommendations for the student’s course of study for their first year in the program. Copies of the committee’s Entry Meeting Report and the student’s Summary will be placed in the student’s file. The Graduate Staff Assistant will give a copy of the report to the student.

Full-Time Academic Status and Course Credits

Full-time academic status is considered to be 9 credits (which may be a combination of courses, independent study, and thesis credits).  Graduate School Policies state that for graduate assistants on half-time appointments (20 hours per week) the minimum credit load is 9 credits and the maximum credit load is 12 credits. All other students (e.g., self-supported, fellowship) should take at least 9 credits and no more than 15 credits to retain full-time status and to have a semester count towards residency for the PhD.

All courses at and above the 400-level qualify for graduate credit. In some cases, students may wish to take a lower-level course as an independent study (e.g., GEOG 496) and do extra work for graduate credit. GEOG 596 is used when registering for graduate independent studies. Concurrent independent studies with different faculty members are permitted for up to 9 credits each semester. MS students and pre-comprehensive exam PhD students may enroll in GEOG 600 credits while researching and writing their MS thesis/papers or PhD dissertation.

  • GEOG 600 is for students in residence.
  • GEOG 610  is for MS students and pre-comprehensive exam PhD students working on research while off campus.
  • GEOG 601 is for  PhD students in residence who have passed their comprehensive exams.
  • GEOG 611 is for PhD students who have passed their comprehensive exams and are working on research while off campus.

The updated Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin is available at:

Core Courses

Geography 500 and 502 are a required six-credit sequence taken over two semesters in the first year of study. Along with Geography 590 (Colloquium), they constitute the core curriculum for graduate work in geography. You can read the course descriptions below.

  • All master’s and five-year PhD students must take the full sequence of courses (GEOG 500, GEOG 502, GEOG 590) in their first year.
  • Students entering the PhD program with a master’s in geography from another program will also normally take the full sequence unless the entry interview committee recommends otherwise. Such recommendations are rare because these courses reflect Penn State’s approach to graduate training.

Fall Semester
GEOG 500: Introduction to Geographic Research
(3 credits)
The purpose of Geography 500 is to help the student take a major step in their development as a professional geographer, moving from a role of a consumer of geographical knowledge to a position in which they are poised to contribute to that knowledge. GEOG 500 is about surveying the field selectively, sub-discipline by sub-discipline; it is also about contemporary and historical debates that have shaped the field. At a broader level, it is about major debates in the philosophy of science and how we conduct research today in a multi-faceted world in which no single point of view dominates. Students are responsible for organizing and synthesizing material and presenting it in class, overseeing class discussions, and contributing to classroom dialogue. It is a chance to join together to see what the field holds in common and how we, as individuals, situate ourselves within geography. Along the way, students become acquainted with Penn State’s research resources and, through supportive interactions, help each other prepare for their programs of study. Students will receive a letter grade for this course.

Spring Semester
GEOG 502: Research Scholarship in Geography
(3 credits)
Graduate students are expected to make a significant research contribution as part of the requirements for a MS or PhD degree in Geography. The course Research Scholarship in Geography provides students with the basic understanding of the craft of scholarly geographic research. It does so by setting research into a tradition of commonalities that shape expectations (e.g., disciplinary and federal IRB ethics standards; ideas of academic freedom and responsibility) and by focusing on the mechanics of key steps in the research process (identifying problems, developing questions and proposals, designing programs of research, executing a systemic program of research, responding to criticism and to opportunities, preparing and delivering oral presentations, and writing and publishing research reports). The course emphasizes important skills in developing research proposals, seeking research funding, writing manuscripts, giving presentations, and publishing research results.

Oral presentations of students’ proposed research occur in the second half of the semester. Students should invite their advisers as well as prospective committee members to attend their presentations. Students will receive a letter grade for this course.

Fall and Spring Semesters
GEOG 590: Colloquium
(1 credit for each semester, for a total of 2 credits)
For the Colloquium, new graduate students host the Geography community and public at weekly Coffee Hour presentations by invited speakers from other universities, industry, and government, other Penn State departments, and the department’s own faculty and senior PhD students. New grads advertise each speaker and organize refreshments to welcome attendees before each presentation. They also bring a critical ear to the varied topics presented, with weekly assignments submitted to the faculty organizers of Coffee Hour. Students will receive an “R” grade in this course.

Attendance and participation are mandatory for all first-year students; it is possible for you to fail this course.

Communication Requirement

Developing communication skills is central to the graduate program in Geography. Whether one pursues a career in government service, private research, or teaching, the ability to synthesize information, complete written and oral presentations, and communicate research results effectively are vital to successful professional activities.

Competency in communication skills is required of all MS and PhD students, regardless of whether they hold fellowships, assistantships, or rely on their own funding. To build skills essential in future professional activities, the department expects all students to participate in teaching and research activities associated with particular courses or projects during two or more semesters.

Competency in communication will be developed and refined by:

  • Classroom, seminar, and formally funded research activities
  • Preparation of reports summarizing research activities
  • Oral communication through teaching (as a teaching assistant, instructor, and/or volunteer activities such as guest lecturer in courses), seminar presentations, and presentations at professional meetings
  • Thesis and dissertation research and writing

Each student is responsible for participating in sufficient activities to meet the communication requirement. Completion of the requirement will be judged by the academic adviser and graduate committee. The adviser’s certification of a student’s progress toward accomplishing an appropriate level of ability is made at the proposal defense meeting for MS students. For PhD students, this progress is certified before the comprehensive examination can be taken, and is checked either (1) at the proposal defense or (2) at a special meeting before the comprehensive exam.

Graduate Assistantships

Graduate assistantships consist of either graduate Teaching Assistantships (TAs) or graduate Research Assistantships (RAs). During the fall and spring semesters, graduate assistantships are 18 weeks in length each semester and duties begin one week before classes begin and conclude one week after the last day of class. TAs and RAs should make travel plans that accommodate these responsibilities occurring before and after classes meet. TA course responsibilities and grading must be complete before departure at the end of the semester. Failure to do so will be taken into consideration for future funding.

The Graduate Program Officer will ask students in residence about their TA and RA preferences before the start of each semester, but assignments are made based on a balance of department needs, student skills and preferences, and schedules. RAs are selected according to the availability of research funds and specific research needs of the faculty procuring the funding.

Graduate Teaching Assistantships

In general, half-time TAs are expected to work 20 hours per week on average and are required to meet classes on time, to be well prepared, to guide and grade students respectfully and accurately, and to support the course instructor’s goals. Specific tasks may include, but are not limited to:

• Teaching recitation, discussion, or lab sections, including preparation, delivery, and grading
• Attending and assisting at all course lectures (e.g., setting up/taking down equipment, taking roll, distributing handouts)
• Meeting with instructor once per week outside of class
• Photocopying course materials
• Grading exams, papers, labs, and other student assignments
• Proctoring all exams
• Delivering occasional lectures (requiring mutual agreement between TA and Instructor)
• Helping develop recitation, discussion, or lab exercises, materials, etc. on request

If the workweek consistently averages more than 20 hours per week, TAs should work with the instructor to reduce hours to an average of 20. If the instructor demands more than 20 hours per week on average, TAs should see the Graduate Program Officer to resolve this conflict.

The Department requires all incoming students who are TAs or who are likely to become TAs to attend during orientation week the following workshop taught by the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence: TA 101: Survive and Thrive.

This workshop for new teaching assistants highlights teaching assistant responsibilities, effective classroom management, learning-centered office hours, effective grading, and maintaining professional boundaries with students and faculty supervisors.

If there is a conflict that prevents an incoming TA from attending this workshop, then that student must work with the Graduate Program Officer to find a substitute activity as soon as possible.

International Students

International students from countries where English is not the language of instruction and who will serve as TAs need to take the Penn State American English Oral Communicative Proficiency Test. For students to serve as a TA, they must receive a score of 250-300. If this score is not met, the students are required to fulfill language requirements by taking specific English courses in the International Teaching Assistant Program offered by the Department of Applied Linguistics.

Additional Resources

Graduate Research Assistantships

In general, half-time RAs are expected to work 20 hours per week and complete tasks effectively and efficiently, bringing analytical insight to the research. Specific tasks may include, but are not limited to:

• Meeting with supervisor once per week or more
• Meeting with sponsors on demand
• Collecting data and building databases
• Graphing, mapping, and manipulating data
• Analyzing data
• Developing and experimenting with software
• Preparing written reports
• Preparing and presenting oral reports
• Attending conferences, workshops, symposia, etc.

If the workweek consistently averages more than 20 hours per week, RAs should work with the research supervisor to reduce hours to an average of 20. If the supervisor demands more than 20 hours per week on average, RAs should see the Graduate Program Officer to resolve this conflict.

Annual Evaluation for Continued Funding

Each student prepares an Annual Report in January of each year. This report will become part of the student’s permanent record and will be used in the annual evaluation of the student’s academic status and eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, and awards.

The due date for the completed annual report is January 31.

Continued funding depends on, but is not necessarily limited to:

  • Making satisfactory progress on––and meeting specified deadlines for––program milestones, such as proposals and exams
  • Executing and completing TA/RA responsibilities effectively
  • Achieving and maintaining good grades in courses, with at least a Graduate School-mandated minimum grade point average of 3.0
  • Upholding the highest standards of academic integrity and professional behavior

Funding is limited to a maximum of:

  • two years for MS students,
  • three years for Ph.D. students with master’s degree from Penn State Geography
  • four years for PhD students with master’s degrees from other programs
  • five years for five-year PhD students

Annual evaluation process

(a) The annual evaluation for funding process starts in January, with students providing an annual report detailing their activities and accomplishments over the previous year; the Graduate Program Officer will provide forms and deadlines to students at the beginning of spring semester.

(b) The Graduate Program Assistant will compile the annual report, transcripts, and Teaching/Research Assistant evaluations, distributing these materials to faculty in early February.

(c) Faculty will meet later in February to evaluate students.

(i) In preparation for that meeting, faculty will place students into one of three ranked categories based on their paper record, although other information can be used to inform their ranking: (1) exceeds expectations, (2) meets expectations, and (3) exhibits reasons for concern. Faculty do not need to place any particular proportion of students in any particular category.

(ii) At the meeting, faculty will discuss the progress of students in the program, with emphasis on identifying students exhibiting reasons for concern.

(iii) The number of slots available for funding will be announced at the meeting, but not before the progress of all students has been determined. The Department Head in consultation with the faculty will decide on the appropriate balance between number of incumbent students to fund and size of incoming class.

(iv) Students in group 1 (exceeds expectations), group 2 (meets expectations), and group 3 (exhibits reasons for concern) will be ranked as necessary, and all students will be placed in one of three categories: funding, waiting list for funding, no funding.

(v) The Department Head will mail funding letters to incumbent students. All students who receive no funding or are on the waiting list have the opportunity to meet with the  Department Head, Graduate Program Officer, and their Adviser to discuss their evaluation and options.

Pausing departmental funding

Graduate students may request to have their departmental funding paused for either one or two semesters for any of the following reasons:

  • Medical or family issues incompatible with typical progress in the program;
  • Self- or externally funded fieldwork that requires them to be away from campus (e.g., a Fulbright scholarship), or
  • Opportunities for relevant professional experience (e.g., internships).

The pause in departmental funding is for a maximum of two semesters.  Requests for extensions will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but are not guaranteed.

Because a student who pauses his/her departmental funding will still be enrolled in the program, it is their responsibility to pay for tuition each semester they are not covered by a PSU-paid stipend.  Similarly, a student considering pausing his/her department funding should explore implications for health care and other facets of the program (e.g., accessing departmental discretionary funds, such as lab funds), in consultation with their thesis/dissertation advisor and the Graduate Program Officer.

Requests to pause departmental funding (GeogGradFormsInteractivePDF08newFundingPause-1tumyyq) will go to the Graduate Program Officer and must be approved by the Department Head. In the case of fieldwork and relevant professional opportunities, the student’s master’s program committee or doctoral committee will make a recommendation to the Department Head regarding the request. If approved, such pauses in departmental funding will not count against the student’s expected total support from the Department.

Students who pause departmental funding for the academic year (July to June) or for only the spring semester will resume their funding by signing their annual contract, and must do so by April 15.

Students who pause departmental funding for the calendar year (January to December) or for only the fall semester must resume their funding by filing a formal letter with the Graduate Program Officer by November 15.

Requests that do not fit these guidelines may still be directed to the Graduate Program Officer, in consultation with the student’s thesis/dissertation advisor.

Award Match

We encourage our graduate students to seek out external funding to support their research. In 2017 the faculty approved an award match program to encourage students that receive an external award to pause their departmental funding so that they can focus entirely on their research. This program uses departmental funds as a match to pay grant-in-aid for tuition/benefits, paired with a research grant awarded to a resident geog PhD student.

Criteria for “Award Match” that pays 601-level tuition and continues PSU health benefits:

  1. Student is enrolled in the geography PhD program, met all milestones of progress, passed proposal defense, and passed comprehensive exam (601-level tuition as ABD)
  2. 2017/18 amounts for reference: $2,035 (tuition) + $2,066 (single’s semester benefits cost) =$4,101 per semester.
  3. Student’s grant needs to meet $4.1K amount for each semester they compete for an Award Match ($4K not awarded on a $1K grant)
  4. Maximum two semesters of award per person (student’s grant exceeds $8.2K total—2017/18 amount). These dollar amounts will change each year as tuition and benefit costs change. Spring benefits are more expensive than fall because they include summer coverage.
  5. Only resident grads within the funding range for their PhD program may compete.
  6. This program is specific to matching research grants awarded to geog PhD students. It is NOT available to supplement any positions paid by Penn State (such as teaching in another dept or faculty research grants), personal funds, funding by home country, or external agency employment.

Medical Insurance

Please note: The provision of healthcare through the university is undergoing changes. In order to have the latest information please refer to the University Health Services Websites. Below are some general comments that may not reflect the most recent changes.

Penn State offers excellent medical insurance –– including medical, dental, vision, and prescription drug benefits –– for all Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, internal fellowship winners, and external fellowship winners whose fellowship meets a certain threshold. (The current threshold is approximately $32,000 per year; please see the Office of Graduate Fellowships and Award Administration to find out the details and to obtain the necessary form to request health coverage while holding an external fellowship.)

Students pay 20 percent of the medical insurance premiums through withholding from their monthly checks; the University subsidizes the remaining 80 percent. Subsidized benefits are also available for dependents at additional cost. Fall semester coverage runs from the beginning of fall semester in August to December 31; spring semester coverage runs from January 1 to the beginning of the next fall semester in August. For a complete description of the program, see

Students who are funded externally, either by their own funds, external sponsors, or external fellowships that fall below the per-year threshold, are still eligible to purchase the same insurance as our graduate assistants (see International students and dependents must comply with Penn State’s Mandatory Health Insurance Requirement (see

Graduate students who do fieldwork in foreign locations face particularly complex circumstances regarding medical insurance. If their fieldwork is part of a course or associated with a Research Assistantship, they are covered under the standard graduate student insurance plan. If their fieldwork is self-funded or is funded by external grant money (and no one source exceeds the current threshold of $32,000), then prudence dictates that students should purchase medical insurance, although there is no regulation mandating this purchase. Students planning to conduct foreign fieldwork should consult the Graduate Program Officer to explore least-cost options, best coverage, and opportunities for assistance at least one semester before heading into the field.

PLEASE NOTE: Penn State requires all students to purchase HTH Worldwide ( supplemental insurance for all international excursions, regardless of duration of other insurance coverage. The cost is approximately $1 per day.

The Penn State Graduate Student Health Insurance Program provides information about graduate student insurance and is located at 302 Student Health Center.
Phone: 814-865-7467

Other Important Points: Working, Travel, Conflict of Interest, and When you leave

Additional Work Outside of TA/RA Work
Per the original terms of offer that all incoming students sign, graduate students cannot take on additional paid work outside of their TA or RA duties unless first obtaining written permission from the Graduate Program Officer.

International Travel
As of July 1, 2016, all Penn State students, faculty, staff and other affiliated academics traveling to international destinations are required to use the Travel Safety Network database to record their travel plans. To access the TSN database, visit the TSN webpage ( and log in with your Penn State Access ID.

TSN encourages travelers to create a record of their travel in the TSN as soon as they make their initial plans. Registrations which require approval for High Risk, Travel Warning Countries should begin at least 45 days prior to departure. Complete travel enrollment information must be submitted not less than 30 days prior to travel or as soon as possible if the decision to travel is made less than 30 days prior to departure; TSN data should be updated as the traveler’s itinerary changes.

Reimbursement of Graduate Travel Expenses
Upon completion of any University-funded travel, it is necessary to fill out and submit an “Employee Travel Reimbursement Form,” even if you do not qualify for reimbursement. Travelers must clearly note the purpose of the trip and, if the trip was to a conference, carefully specify their role at the conference on the appropriate line of the form. Information on travel requirements and forms are available in the departmental office or online at: Forms should be submitted to the office within one week of completing travel.

Graduate student instructional assistant (GISA) conflict of interest disclosure form
A potential or actual conflict of interest exists when commitments and obligations are likely to be compromised by a GSIA’s material interests or relationships with respect to another graduate student enrolled in a graduate course to which the GSIA is assigned, particularly if those interests or relationships are not disclosed. The University expects disclosure via a form.

Forwarding Address, Cleaning Office, and Returning Keys
Upon graduation, students should leave a forwarding address with the Graduate Staff Assistant in 302 Walker Building or by sending an email to Please note, however, that it is the student’s responsibility to have mail forwarded to a new address. The Geography Department cannot forward mail. Before leaving Penn State, students must clean their office and research space and return all keys to the Department office.

Academic Integrity

Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Statement

Academic integrity is the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity in the College, and all members of the College are expected to act in accordance with this principle. Consistent with this expectation, all students should act with personal integrity; respect other students’ dignity, rights, and property; and help create and maintain an environment in which all can succeed through the fruits of their efforts.

The highest standards of academic integrity are an absolute necessity for the successful pursuit of scholarly activities and research. Any violation of honesty in the College of EMS will not be tolerated and will be evaluated and punished in an appropriate and timely manner. Forms of academic dishonesty include, but are not limited to, cheating and copying on examinations, inappropriate collaboration on assignments, and tampering with another person’s work. In addition, we are particularly concerned about violations of the research integrity of the College, such as all manners of plagiarism, the submission of previous work, the alteration or omission of relevant data, and electronic theft.

Academic integrity includes a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception. Such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the EMS community and compromise the worth of work completed by others. It is to protect the work of others and our own reputation that we will pursue and impose sanctions on the perpetrators.


Violations of academic integrity in the College of EMS are first dealt with at the prerogative of the individual course instructor, the Graduate Program Officer, and the Department Head, in consultation with the student. Typical sanctions range from zero on the assignment or examination in question for a first occurrence or minor offense, to failure in the course for more serious or repeated occurrences. (Students are cautioned that failure in certain courses can lead to termination of the perpetrator’s program of study.) A more extensive list of sanctions relevant to specific violations may be found on the EMS website. Should the course instructor or student wish to appeal or pursue that matter further, including the awarding of the XF grade, the violation may be brought before the EMS Academic Integrity Committee. The procedure for such action may be found in the EMS College Academic Integrity Rules and Procedures. Note that the final award of an XF grade, which is a disciplinary sanction, must include the concurrence of the individual course instructor, the EMS College Academic Integrity Committee, and the University Judicial Affairs Committee. The University Judicial Affairs Committee assigns this grade following a review of the case upon the request of the College committee.