Frequently Asked Questions

Life as a graduate student: Coursework

Through their first three semesters, students typically take three seminars each semester, plus a one-credit course on the profession.  Also, most students spend up to 20 hours in a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or similar activities supported by a fellowship.  After three semesters, students typically begin to reduce their formal coursework and replace with independent research projects.

Absolutely!  With the approval of their advisors, many students take classes in other departments, some in social science departments such as Psychology, Sociology and Economics, others in cross disciplinary departments such as African Studies, Gender Studies or Social Data Analytics (SoDA); or in policy-focused departments such as Health Policy and Administration.

We offer dual degrees in conjunction with Political Science. For example, we have dual degree programs with Asian Studies, African Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Social and Data Analytics (SoDA). Those require that students take courses in other departments.

We do not have a separate M.A. program in Political Science.  All students are admitted to the Ph.D. program and obtain a Master’s degree in Political Science along the way, typically finishing their MA essay by the end of the 2nd year.


Life as a graduate student: Research

Students can begin to do research right away and almost all have begun to collaborate with faculty by the middle of the second year of study.  The ideal path is different for each student, and because of our small size our personalized approach to advising and mentoring helps every student reach her or his potential.  Indeed, our students have been extraordinarily successful as researchers, winning competitive grants and fellowships, and publishing in prestigious journals.  See our list of student publications here.

Yes, and we encourage students to do that.  Current students have received department or College funds to conduct pilot studies, to finance travel necessary for field work, to pay experimental subjects, to hire undergraduate research assistants and more.  We also encourage students to apply for larger sums from the National Science Foundation (NSF), philanthropic organizations and research institutes.  We often provide financial incentives to encourage students to apply for fellowships from NSF.  We support grant-writing in many ways (including through workshops) and faculty work one-on-one with students to help them write the strongest possible proposal.  As a result, our students are among the most successful in the nation in winning both fellowships and dissertation grants from the NSF.


Life as a graduate student: Teaching

Unlike many programs, we have a gradual path towards teaching.  During your first four years, you are likely to serve several semesters as a teaching assistant.  As a TA, you will observe experienced instructors, help with the design of projects and exams, grade student assignments, conduct review sessions, and periodically deliver a guest lecture.  By the time you complete your own coursework, you will have the experience to teach your own class if you would like to do so.

Typically, students will apply to teach during the summer or during the regular academic year after they have passed their qualifying exams and have an approved dissertation prospectus.

All students learn about the teaching aspects of the discipline in our professionalization seminars and periodic department brown bag discussions on teaching.  Most students also enroll in the eight-week course offered by the Schreyer Institute of Teaching Excellence.  And whenever a graduate student teaches their own class, a faculty member will observe a session and provide feedback and suggestions.


Finances: Fellowships, scholarships and assistantships

Yes.  We provide a Graduate Assistantship to all students we admit to the program and guarantee funding for the full five years of the program, assuming good progress.  A Graduate Assistantship provides a stipend, a tuition and fee waiver and a health insurance subsidy.  Penn State and the department have a variety of competitive programs enhance a Graduate Assistantship in the form of increased stipends, or to replace the GA assignment with one or more fellowship semesters that provide a period free from work responsibilities that can be focused entirely on coursework or research.

Yes.   We offer financial support to attend conferences, encourage students to present their research there and work to ensure their presentations are as good as they can be. We also have funds set aside to allow students to conduct their research “in the field.” Many of our students have conducted their work in other countries.


Finances: Summer support and research support

Although not guaranteed, most advanced students and many first year students remain in the department on paid research assistantships.  Others may receive support to attend workshops, advanced training in methods or foreign languages, or travel to lay the ground work for fieldwork abroad. There are programs, too, to help students work with individual faculty over the summer to generate specific research papers.


Career considerations

Almost all of our students get good jobs.  Whether you want to be a professor in a research university, in a liberal arts college, or pursue a career in government, industry or advocacy, our placement director and your advisor will work with you to reach your goals. In particular, we are investing more heavily in placement services for those students who wish to pursue a non-academic career. Our placement page highlights our recent placement record.


Applying and visiting

Applications are evaluated on a variety of factors including undergraduate and graduate grades, GRE scores, recommendation letters, writing samples and “fit” between student and our faculty’s research interests.  We typically receive around 100 to 150 applications each year.  We evaluate applications holistically, looking for students who have the background, motivation and intellectual curiosity to thrive in our department.

Our application process is outlined here.  All applications are submitted via the online Penn State GRADS portal.  We admit students for the Fall term only.  The deadline for admissions is January 15 each year for enrollment in August. We start considering applications before those deadlines, however, and it’s sometimes a good idea to apply earlier. 

If you are a foreign national and have not obtained a degree from a university in an English-speaking country, you are required to submit TOEFL scores.  Generally speaking, we look for a minimum combined score of 630 (paper) / 109 (iBT) score.

All students offered a place in the program will be invited to visit in a weekend in the spring (typically in late February to mid-March).  We will pay nearly all expenses of students in North America and will work with students coming from other locations to make the visit possible.

If you would like to visit before the admissions process is complete at your own expense, please contact our Graduate Coordinator to arrange a visit.