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Degree Offered

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree

The Department

HDFS Graduate Program OverviewDepartment of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) Graduate Program Overview

Penn State’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) is committed to excellence in research, teaching, and service in the study of individuals, families, communities, and society. The department offers an interdisciplinary approach to development across the life span. Courses and research within the department emphasize topic areas such as child and adolescent development, adult development and aging, neuroscience and other biological aspects of human development, family studies, prevention science, and developmental research methods. The department has been recognized as the top interdisciplinary developmental science program in the nation.

The Program

The HDFS graduate program helps students develop into exceptional researchers and scholars. Through coursework and assistantships, students develop critical thinking, writing, research, and teaching skills. Graduates become leaders in academia, government, or in applied and policy-related research institutes.

The Penn State Difference

Penn State is one of the leading research universities in the United States. According to the National Science Foundation, it consistently ranks among the top 15 major U.S. universities in research expenditures in science and engineering fields. Its graduate programs attract students from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds and from more than 100 countries all over the world.

Penn State has an enrollment at its main campus–University Park–of nearly 45,000 students, some 7,000 of which are graduate students. The University invites students to consider its graduate programs, whether they aspire to conduct research that will contribute to global knowledge or to hold a leadership position in their field with government or industry.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree

The Ph.D. program draws from multiple disciplines to enable students to understand the biological, social, and psychological processes that affect development from birth to old age, as well as to give students strategies for enhancing development and remediating or preventing problems. Throughout their programs of study, students develop substantive interests, while also receiving strong methodological training.

Graduate study is organized into four core research areas. Graduate students are expected to develop expertise in two or more areas.

  • Individual Development (Childhood, Adolescence, or Adulthood and Aging)
  • Developmental Research Methodology
  • Prevention and Intervention Research
  • Family Development

Course Work

Entering students take required courses in Life Span Development, Family Studies, Prevention Science, Research Methods, and Statistics, as well as professional development seminars during the first two years. Over time, course work becomes increasingly specialized and tailored to the student’s individual interests. Yearly plans of study developed in consultation with the student’s adviser specify course work and apprenticeship experiences directed at the student’s emerging scholarly and career interests.

In addition to required courses, students take credits in their substantive fields, elective credits in methodology, and credits in thesis research.

Apprenticeship Experiences

Much of a graduate student’s training takes place outside the classroom. Apprenticeship activities include working as a research or teaching assistant, completing workshops on teaching techniques, spending a summer on an internship, presenting research at professional meetings, and taking advantage of the many colloquium series, symposia, and conferences held at Penn State every year.

Other Opportunities

Students can enter a dual-degree program in HDFS and Demography, or pursue concentrations in Social Policy or Neuroscience.


The HDFS graduate program has an excellent reputation for preparing its graduates to enter the job market. Many graduates move to faculty positions, in which they teach and conduct research at universities and colleges. Others go on to program evaluation or policy-oriented research positions. Additional career settings include research centers and institutions, state and federal agencies, community programs, consulting firms, think tanks, or other non-profit agencies dedicated to promoting health and well being in individuals and families.


HDFS graduate students receive full support as long as they are in good standing in the program. Sources of support include fellowships, training grants, and research and teaching assistantships. Support includes tuition and a monthly stipend.


HDFS graduate students have the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of studies led by faculty members and to develop their own programs of research during the course of their studies. Several research themes highlight some of the opportunities for students:

  • Adolescence and emerging adulthood
  • Biological bases of behavior
  • Biological and health consequences of daily stress
  • Cognitive and intellectual development
  • Cultural diversity
  • Developmental systems
  • Families, work, and career development
  • Family policy
  • Gender and development
  • Health, development, and family processes
  • Innovative statistical and methodological approaches
  • International studies
  • Neuroscience perspectives on childhood and adolescence
  • Parenting and caregiving
  • Promoting healthy aging

Many students also work with faculty members on research projects being conducted within some of the multidisciplinary research centers within the College of Health and Human Development, including:

How To Apply

The process of applying for admission to graduate school at Penn State and HDFS requires the completion of an on-line application and other materials. Go to the Graduate Program Application page for detailed information.

GRE scores are required for all prospective students and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) scores are required for international applicants.

An applicant may apply to only one graduate degree program and campus at a time. The Graduate School will not consider concurrent applications for admission to more than one degree program and does not act upon an application without a program's recommendation.

Questions about the graduate program or the application process may be directed to the academic programs coordinator.


Department of Human Development and Family Studies
The Pennsylvania State University
119 Health & Human Development Building
University Park, PA 16802

814-863-7963 (fax)