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Explore Health and Human Development

Choosing whether or not to apply

1. What is the difference between HDFS and a degree in Developmental Psychology?

It is true that there is significant conceptual overlap between these two types of departments and in reality degrees in Psychology and in HDFS are largely interchangeable.  Many of our faculty earned their degrees from Psychology programs, and graduates from our program regularly take faculty positions in Psychology programs.  However, traditional developmental psychology programs focus primarily on the individual, whereas HDFS emphasizes the importance in considering individuals with the contexts and environments that shape their development.  Environments can include families, schools, work, communities, institutions, and even cultures.  IN HDFS we focus on the dynamic exchange between individuals and their environments, and place considerable emphasis on the methodological tools needed to study complex dynamic systems.

2. What careers would a degree in HDFS prepare me for?

Students receive rigorous training in scientific research, and are highly competitive for academic careers in Universities, research institutions, and consulting groups.  Students who focus on prevention/intervention and program evaluation are well poised for positions in government agencies (local, state, federal) to consult on policy and make decisions on how to allocate resources to maximize public benefit.  Students emphasizing quantitative research will be positioned for careers in industry, including the ability to harness social data to recognize trends in human behavior.  However, HDFS is not a clinically-focused degree and does not prepare students for careers in counseling or direct service delivery. 

3. How long does it take to complete the PhD. program in HDFS?

For students who enter the program without a masters degree, we estimate that it will take about five years. For students who come in with a masters degree, it may take four to five years, depending on the nature of that previous degree and whether it included exposure to empirical research.

4. Do you offer a master's program?

We currently do not offer a terminal master's program, and we do not accept students who are interested in master's training only. We admit students who are interested in pursuing doctoral work, but we ask that they complete a master's along the way, unless they already have one from another institution or program.

5. What are the funding opportunities?

We are currently able to provide funding for all graduate students who are making timely and satisfactory progress. Funding typically includes a half-time assistantship, full tuition, and medical benefits. The assistantship requires that the student contribute twenty hours per week to the department's research and/or teaching activities. Each year several incoming students received graduate fellowships from Penn State's Graduate School. In addition, some of our advanced students also receive funding through traineeships, assistantships, or fellowships. funded by college research centers.

The Application Process

1. How many students do you typically admit?

The number of available positions varies from year to year and is based on available funding.  Each year we seek to identify the best candidates in the applicant pool and will offer admissions to between 15 – 20 students.  Naturally, not all students who are offered admissions ultimately decide to attend Penn State, and so the size of a given cohort will vary from year to year.  Typically cohort sizes are around 10-12 students, although past years have seen cohorts as small as 5 or 8 students, and as large as 15 or 18.

2. What is the Admissions Committee looking for?

The admissions committee evaluates all applicants in two domains: (a) readiness to pursue graduate training, and (b) fit with our program.   Evidence of readiness can include undergraduate coursework, but should also include experience in a research setting.  Research experience helps prepare students for the work they will do in graduate school, and confirms their commitment to conducting research.  It is important for students to have an accurate and realistic sense of what graduate training entails and the career path it provides.  Sometimes students will not be offered admissions because it is felt that they are not yet ready for this step in their career and would benefit from more experience. 

Even in cases where an applicant is clearly prepared for graduate study, the committee may not elect to accept the student if it is believed that our program does not have the right research opportunities to support the goals the applicant identifies.  Not all graduate programs are equivalent, even if the degree title is the same.  Typical indicators of poor fit are identifying a career goal that this program does not prepare students for (e.g. counseling) or identifying research interests that are not aligned with any current faculty.  Students should carefully review the program information online and ensure that this is a training environment that fits with your goals before engaging in the application process.  Applicants are encouraged to convey their perception of fit in their statement and to identify specific faculty whose programs of research align well with the applicant’s goals. 

3. Do you have a cut-off for Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores?

We examine GRE scores as one small piece of information within an application.  Because the GRE is limited in what it can tell us about an applicant’s readiness for graduate study, we do not identify a minimum threshold for consideration.  We recognize that the GRE can be biased toward individuals from certain backgrounds and levels of privilege, and that standardized testing is not always the best context for evaluating what an individual is truly capable of.  That said, very low scores can be an indicator that a student does not have some specific skills needed to engage with the curriculum in the program, and it is our goal to ensure that students accepted into the program can experience success here.  If you are concerned about low GRE scores it is recommended that you take steps to ensure that your application contains evidence of your ability and experience that contradicts what the lower GRE scores might imply.  For instance, if you have low quantitative scores, it is helpful if you have evidence in a transcript of successfully completing mathematical or statistics courses.  You can also request one or more of your letter writers to address those skills in their letters.  It is always better to address, and explain, any weaknesses in the application than to hope they aren’t noticed.

4. Can I visit the program?

We encourage prospective students to visit the program after they have been admitted. Students can come any time, but we especially encourage them to come to our Annual Admissions Weekend, usually held the 3rd weekend in February. The weekend provides an organized way to hear about the program, meet the faculty and current graduate students, and see the campus and surrounding areas. The department will cover some of your travel costs, put you up in a local hotel, and provide meals while you are here. If you can't visit, we encourage you to call and e-mail faculty members you are interested in working with, request reprints of their recent articles, and communicate with some of our current graduate students. Call (814-863-8000) or e-mail ( Christa Kreps, the coordinator of the graduate program, and she will help you plan a trip or get in touch with faculty and graduate students.

Admissions Process

I am interested in several different researchers, do I have to select only one?

No!  Applicants who have overlapping interests with multiple faculty members are often considered the best fit.   HDFS accepts students into the program as a whole and is looking for students who will benefit from range of work being done here.  Identifying multiple faculty members of interest can also be beneficial in cases where one faculty member is not accepting students, but the others might be.  Even if a particular faculty member is not able to serve as your primary mentor, they are often still available to serve on committees and provide guidance in a secondary role.   As such, applicants are encouraged to review all faculty research in the program and identify several researchers whose work they are interested in.  However, applicants are encouraged to do so thoughtfully.  Selecting all faculty members in the application process can be confusing to the committee, and can indicate the applicant’s interests are not well clarified.  Applicants are also encouraged to describe their perceived fit with the faculty members in their statement.  When applicants select multiple faculty members in the application process, but do not make any mention of those faculty members in their statement, or explain how they feel the different lines of work each researcher is doing connect to the applicants goals, it can be difficult for the committee to recognize fit.

Will I need to do an interview?

HDFS does not require students to travel to State College for an interview as part of the admissions process.  It is possible that the committee will have questions as they review your application, and someone may reach out to get more information.  Sometimes the faculty member that the student indicates an interest in working with will arrange a phone conversation with the applicant to further determine whether there is a good fit.  However, it is also common for the admissions committee proceed without the need for any additional contact with the applicant. 

When can I expect to hear?

The admissions committee will hold its first meeting in December, and will continue to meet weekly through the month of January.  Once the admissions committee votes to offer a student acceptance, you will be contacted via email and a letter will be mailed to your address.  If the committee is unable to offer acceptance a letter will be sent to this effect, so you can assured that you will receive a response regardless of the decision. 

Life in HDFS

1. How do advisers get assigned?

In most cases advisor matches are obvious at the time of the admission process.   When a student expresses interest in a specific faculty advisor, that person is consulted to determine whether there is a mutually recognized match.  In some cases however, students have clear fit with more than one faculty member, and may be admitted to the program without identifying a single advisor.  In such cases advisor assignments may be postponed until after the visit weekend, when the student has a chance to talk in depth with each researcher.  The Professor-in Charge will communicate with students and faculty in the late spring to make advisor assignments before students arrive in the fall. 

2. What kind of funding support is available?

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 (a) the full cost of tuition, (b) a stipend for living expenses, and (c) 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.  There are many different ways that funding is provided and so the details will differ somewhat from student to student, and the exact nature of the offer made to a student will be specified in writing once the details are known.

The College of Health and Human Development, as well as the Graduate School, have a variety of fellowships available only to incoming students.  If you are eligible for a fellowship the department will nominate you for consideration at the time that the admissions committee issues your program admission offer.  No additional information or application will be requested from you, you will automatically be advanced for consideration. Eligibility is typically based on academic record including GRE scores and undergraduate GPA.  Some fellowships are specifically targeted at enhancing diversity in the graduate programs and eligibility is restricted to individuals from under-represented minorities.  Your eligibility for such fellowships is determined by your response to the demographic questions in the application. 

3. What is it like to live in State College?

State College is a medium-sized college town in the Nittany Valley of Central Pennsylvania. The surrounding area includes rolling farmlands, hills, state parks, and forests. We are about a 3 hour drive to the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Campus offers all the amenities of a large, Big Ten University: great sports events, excellent pools and work-out facilities for student use, a varied schedule of music, drama, and art offerings, religious organizations and services, and activities such as the Outing Club which organizes a variety of activities such as hiking and canoeing trips. Penn State even has its own renowned Creamery where you can buy ice cream made right here.

Downtown State College includes restaurants, bars, and coffee houses, as well as clothing stores and specialty shops that are unique to the area. Just outside of town you will find a large Barnes and Noble bookstore and the Nittany Valley Mall that includes several department stores and numerous specialty stores. A short drive from State College takes you to several excellent restaurants: The Hummingbird Room in rural Spring Mills and the Gamble Mill in nearby Bellefonte.

Prospective graduate students with families should know that the State College Area School District is one of the top-rated school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For younger children, there are a variety of good child-care facilities and nursery schools in the area including two on campus that are administered by our program (HDFS Children's Programs.) There are numerous local opportunities for children to participate in community-organized team sports, as well as music, drama, art and dance lessons.

State College local newspaper—The Centre Daily Times

Guide to Graduate Student Living in State College