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The Graduate Program Experience

Students will develop areas of specialization in their study. While HDFS is a single department and grants a single degree, it is possible to gain a master's degree en route to a doctoral degree. HDFS does not have a terminal master's program.

Thus, 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.


While some students will elect to specialize in methodology, all students are also expected to develop strong skills in research methods, a hallmark of our graduate training. All students complete a common four-course methodology sequence, which focuses on research design, measurement, and statistics, with a strong emphasis on statistical approaches for modeling development and change over time.

In consultation with their advisers, students fulfill the remaining course credit requirements through the selection of electives individually tailored to their research interests. These courses include seminars offered in the department, as well as courses offered in other departments across Penn State, such as demography, women's studies, statistics, psychology, sociology, and communication arts and sciences. Students may wish to consider additional specialization through a graduate minor, a concurrent degree (e.g. master’s degree in statistics) or a dual-title Ph.D.

Foundations of an HDFS graduate degree

Cohort icon-olus-circle

Students enter the program with a cohort of peers and typically develop strong bonds of support and collaboration within their cohort.

Research Experience icon-olus-circle

The doctoral degree is a research degree, and as such, the most important training takes place outside the classroom through various apprenticeship experiences. This is the primary focus of the work the student completes in their adviser’s research lab, and may include carefully selected opportunities with additional labs that expand the student’s skill set and exposure to research. Students are encouraged to be engaged in their lab environment and capitalize on the intellectually rich environment at Penn State. Students will complete a comprehensive dissertation project involving empirical research in fulfillment of the doctoral degree requirements.

Teaching Experience icon-olus-circle

Students also have opportunities to gain invaluable teaching experience through teaching assistantships, courses in effective college teaching, and the opportunity for supervised teaching experiences. When relevant, students may pursue summer internship opportunities outside of the University.

Training icon-olus-circle

The department views the graduate training program as a collective mission, and graduate student mentoring extends beyond the students’ individual adviser. Students receive education, training, feedback, professional guidance, and supervision from a broad range of faculty during their graduate training. Faculty work with students to identify professional development goals tailored to the student’s career objective.

Development Across Domains icon-olus-circle

Students are encouraged to develop across multiple professional domains as appropriate for their career objectives. Students may have the opportunity to gain experience in teaching, methods specialization, presenting scientific data at research conferences, educating non-scientific audiences about research, writing grants to fund research, publishing research, and working with community stakeholders to understand and improve program outcomes.

Funding   icon-olus-circle

All students admitted to the graduate program in HDFS are provided funding for their graduate study. Funding could be in the form of a fellowship or an assistantship, but both include the full cost of tuition, a stipend for living expenses, and a health insurance subsidy. Tuition costs are paid directly by the fellowship or assistantship and, therefore, the student does not have the responsibility of paying the tuition. Funding is guaranteed for a minimum of four years, with the expectation that funding can be provided for as long as needed to complete the program, presuming the student remains in good standing and is in residence in State College.