If you are interested in Educational Theory and Policy Ph.D, please follow this link to the new program: 

As of Fall 2024, the PhD in Educational Theory and Policy is no longer offered at Penn State.  The information below is only relevant to the cohorts admitted Fall 2023 and prior.

Welcome to the Educational Theory and Policy Ph.D. Degree Program 

(Note: The information below is only for Students that applied prior to 2024, this PhD is now Education Policy and Leadership)

The doctoral program in Educational Theory and Policy is designed to prepare professionals in education research and policy development and analysis. The goals of our program are to understand the nature and context of educational systems, institutions, and processes and to understand and evaluate policies. Our program enjoys a strong climate of research collaboration among graduate students and between faculty and graduate students.

Specific degree requirements for a Ph.D. Degree are:

  • A minimum grade-point average of 3.00 for work done at Penn State is required for graduation.

Major components of the doctoral program include:

  • Core courses
  • Qualifying Examination 
  • One-year residency requirement
  • English proficiency
  • Oral comprehensive examination
  • Thesis proposal
  • Final oral defense

Students with a minimum grade-point average of 3.00 will be considered for admission to the Ph.D. program. Exceptions to the minimum grade-point average may be made for students with special backgrounds, abilities, and interests.

students engaging in conversation

Credit Requirements

The EDTHP doctoral program requirements include required courses (proseminar, qualitative and quantitative methods, research design, and EDTHP theory and policy classes, and a focused area of study.) The plan of study and any additional coursework will be discussed with the student’s academic adviser, including relevant course experiences at other universities that could allow a student to be exempt from required coursework. Depending on the nature of the courses, up to 9 credits may be taken in 400-level courses.

Credit Transfer

Requests for academic or professional credit transfers may be submitted after the first semester of coursework through the time of filing of the candidacy portfolio at which time the faculty as a group will review the request and make a decision. For students who enroll with higher qualifications (already have completed much doctoral coursework elsewhere), advisers can petition the EDTHP faculty for modification of the typical procedure for advancement to doctoral candidacy, and faculty will decide these on a case-by-case basis.
Note: Students cannot receive course credit for courses that have been credited to complete a previous degree program; they can, however, petition to wave out of requirements.

Graduate credits (a maximum of 10) may be transferred from another university if the following stipulations are met:

  1. Courses to be transferred must have been taken five years prior to the date of first degree registration at The Graduate School;

  2. Grades in courses to be transferred must be of at least a B quality (no pass/fail grades);

  3. Courses must be relevant to the student’s program of study in EDTHP; and

  4. Credits have not been counted toward a prior degree.

A maximum of 9 professional credits may be awarded to those who have professional experience in education policy. The student must submit to the Program Coordinator a letter outlining his/her experience and the number of credits being requested.


Over some 12-month period during the interval between admission to and completion of the Ph.D. program, the candidate must spend at least two semesters (excluding summer) as a registered full-time student engaged in academic work on the University Park campus. Full-time Penn State employees must be certified by the department as devoting half-time or more to graduate studies and/or thesis research to meet the residency requirement.

Communication and Foreign Language Competence

A candidate for a doctoral degree at Penn State is required to demonstrate a high level of competence in the use of the English language, including reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Proficiency is expected at the time of admission to The Graduate School or must be achieved before admission to candidacy. No other language is required by the EDTHP program.

Overview of Required Courses

EDTHP’s doctoral program is competency based and not based on a credit number. Students in dual enrollment programs such as the joint J.D./Ph.D. program can only have 12 credits (four courses) count for both programs.

Introduction to the EDTHP Program (3 credits)

EDTHP 500 Proseminar

Research Methods (12 credits)
  • EDTHP/EDLDR/HI ED 585: Research Design

  • EDTHP/EDLDR/HI ED 586: Qualitative Methods

  • In addition, two quantitative methods courses are required.

    • For the first quantitative course, it is recommended that students take EDPSY 406. Quant methods options most often chosen: EDPSY 406 and EDPSY 505; STAT 500 and STAT 501

    • Other options include: AG 400; R SOC 573; SOC 574; SOC 575; HDFS 519; HDFS 523

  • It is recommended that students planning on doing a qualitative dissertation should also take Advanced Qualitative Methods.

EDTHP Content (15 credits)*

Five additional content courses are required at the 500 level (e.g., EDTHP 533, 536, 540, 541, 516, 557, 534, 536 or 538). 400-level EDTHP courses or other courses within the department may be granted on a case-by-case basis.

Policy Foundations (9 credits)*
  • EDTHP/EDLDR/HI ED 587: Policy and Politics

  • In addition, two 500-level EDTHP courses in educational policy (e.g., EDTHP 555, 518, 520, 533 or 527) are required. 

  • After a student has consulted with his or her adviser, one 400-level course may be substituted for EITHER one 500-level Theory course OR one 500-level Policy course, depending on the nature of the 400-level course. Students who take advantage of this option will need to do additional work beyond the 400-level requirements and should make arrangements with the instructor ahead of time.

Focused Program of Study (variable credits)

As students advance to candidacy, they will be required to consult with their advisor in forming a focused program of study. We find that students are much more marketable when having a focus of concentration, such as a demography minor, dual degree in CIED, or other related fields.  This course work tends to occur outside of the EDTHP program and often outside the department.

Thesis Preparations, Minor or Dual-title Requirements,* Elective Credit, Transferred Credit, or Professional Experience (variable credits)

Students can fill the rest of their requirements with elective credits from the university. These credits can also be fulfilled with a dual title degree, transferred credit from other institutions (credits that did not lead to a degree), professional work experiences, and thesis preparations. Post-comprehensive Ph.D. students can maintain registration by registering for credits in the usual way, or by registering for noncredit 601 or 611, depending upon whether they are devoting full time or part time to thesis preparation.

*NOTE:  Some EDTHP courses may be counted as either a Theory course or a Policy course, but they may not be double-counted.

Candidacy Examination

The candidacy examination is a written exam consisting of essay questions, administered the week before classes begin for the student’s fourth semester. The exam is constructed by the EDTHP faculty and will include questions from the EDTHP courses that the student took in the first three semesters.

The faculty will use a common rubric to evaluate the exams; the assessment of the exam will focus on whether or not the student has demonstrated the level of writing and reasoning expected of a doctoral student. Exams will be assigned one of the following four grades:

4) high doctoral pass
3) pass at the doctoral level
2) fail at Ph.D. level/pass at the master’s level
1) failed at both Ph.D. and Masters level 

If the student fails any or all questions on the candidacy exam, the faculty will identify the specific weaknesses so that the student may prepare to retake either specific parts of the exam or the entire exam. Students who fail at least half of the exam will be asked to retake the exam or leave at the master’s level. Students will be given one opportunity to retake the exam when the exam is next offered. Students who do not pass after the second administration of the candidacy exam will end doctoral studies in EDTHP at the completion of the semester in which the second exam results are received and may be eligible for a master’s degree. Once a student passes the candidacy exam, he/she may be advanced to candidacy.

Candidacy Portfolio

After passing the candidacy exam, the student must prepare a candidacy portfolio as soon as possible. It includes: 

  1. current unofficial transcript (obtain from LionPath);

  2. letter(s) of support from the advisor and doctoral committee chair (if advisor and chair are different); Content will include research topic;

  3. brief dissertation summary;

  4. completed EDTHP Doctoral Plan of Study (Appendix C) (obtain from EDTHP handbook or EDTHP staff assistant);

  5. completed EDTHP Doctoral Committee (Appendix D) (obtain from EDTHP handbook or EDTHP staff assistant); and an

  6. evaluation letter provided by the faculty with whom the student has worked as a graduate assistant, if applicable

The student should submit the portfolio to his/her academic adviser, who will attach a letter of support and turn in the entire packet to the EDTHP program office.  The portfolio will be reviewed by the entire EDTHP faculty, and after it is approved, the result of the candidacy examination will be forwarded to GES and noted on the candidate’s academic transcript. It is expected the candidacy portfolio will be completed by the end of the semester in which the student has passed the candidacy exam.

For students who enroll with higher qualifications (already have completed much doctoral coursework elsewhere), advisers can petition the EDTHP faculty for modification of the typical procedure for advancement to doctoral candidacy, and faculty will decide these on a case-by-case basis.

Students should plan to defend their dissertation proposal (comprehensive exam) the academic year following their advancement to candidacy.

Time Limitation

A student is required to complete the proposed program of study within eight years of the date of acceptance as a candidate. The Graduate School bases this calculation on the date the candidacy examination was passed, not on the date the result is received by Graduate Enrollment Services.

After advancement to candidacy, a student’s academic progress will be monitored by a doctoral committee consisting of four or more active members of Penn State’s Graduate Faculty. Committee members will evaluate the candidate’s comprehensive examinations and supervise and approve the thesis.

One person must be designated as chair (usually the student’s current academic advisor) and is largely responsible for administrative details of the student’s matriculation. Any EDTHP faculty with an appointment from the Graduate Faculty may serve as chair and is usually the thesis advisor. A Professor Emeritus or Emerita may serve on the committee but may not be designated as chair.

The committee must include at least two full-time members from the EDTHP faculty (i.e., not EDTHP-affiliate faculty). At least one member of the committee must represent a field outside the student’s major field of study. This committee member is referred to as the “Outside Field Member.” In cases where the student is also pursuing a dual-title field of study, the dual-title representative to the committee may serve as the Outside Field Member. Additionally, one member of the doctoral committee must be in an administrative unit that is outside the unit in which the dissertation adviser’s primary appointment is held. This committee member is referred to as the “Outside Unit Member.” If the candidate has declared a minor area of study, that field must be represented on the committee.

Once designated, the committee must be officially appointed by the dean of The Graduate School. The EDTHP staff assistant will provide the Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form to the student; it is the student’s responsibility to obtain each committee member’s signature on the form to indicate his or her willingness to serve on the student’s committee. After completing the form, the student should return it to the EDTHP staff assistant to be processed.

Special Member

A person who is not affiliated with Penn State but who has a particular expertise in the candidate’s research area may be added as a fifth, “special” member of the doctoral committee. A special member is expected to participate fully on the doctoral committee, including attending all committee functions. In order to add the special member, the committee chair must submit a written request, including justification for the addition of the special member, to the dean of The Graduate School. The request must be accompanied by the appointee’s résumé or vita, which the student must obtain from the prospective special member.

Committee Changes

Any changes to the committee after it is officially appointed must be submitted to Graduate Enrollment Services on a new Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form. It is the student’s responsibility to inform committee members and the EDTHP staff assistant of changes in committee membership and to obtain the new members’ signatures on the new form.

Research Protections

To ensure compliance with applicable federal and state laws, certain University activities require review and approval by appointed institutional review committees. Projects involving human subjects, vertebrate animals, and/or biohazards must obtain review and approval through the Office for Research Protections (ORP) before the project is initiated. This approval is mandatory; failure to comply with this policy may result in retraction of the graduate degree.

Upon the successful completion of all required coursework, the candidate must pass a comprehensive examination.

Comprehensive Examination, Part 1:  Thesis Proposal

The student is required to submit to the doctoral committee a thesis proposal; the student should consult with all committee members during the writing of the proposal. The proposal usually includes:

  1. a statement of the problem or research question,

  2. a focused literature review, 

  3. a study design, and 

  4. a plan of analysis, including a methods section and, if appropriate, an explication of the study’s conceptual/theoretical framework. 

Students should consult with their chairs about the specific format. The student must circulate the proposal to the committee and obtain the chair’s approval before arranging a presentation of the proposal (part 2). Typically, students should expect to produce several drafts before the chair decides that the student can move to the proposal defense stage. Proposals usually will be approximately 25–30 pages (double-spaced). In some cases the chair may ask that a student complete a larger, more comprehensive literature review related to the problem or research question, and this longer version could be attached to the proposal as an addendum. Committee members will evaluate the student’s proposal in preparation for the proposal defense.

After the chair decides that the student is ready to advance to part 2 of the comprehensive examination, the proposal defense will be scheduled by the student and doctoral committee (see next section). EDTHP faculty members will contact the student’s committee chair about any concerns before the proposal defense.

Comprehensive Examination, Part 2:  Proposal Defense

The second part of the EDTHP comprehensive examination consists of a 90‑minute to two-hour thesis proposal defense (oral comprehensive examination). Typically, soon after the start of the exam, the committee will confer about the proposal without the student for about 15 minutes. The student then is called back in, and then usually gives a brief presentation. The committee may have questions both during and after the presentation.

This portion of the examination is a Graduate School requirement and is scheduled through Graduate Enrollment Services (GES). It is administered and evaluated by the doctoral committee; all members of the doctoral committee, including any special members, must be present for the oral comprehensive exam. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the committee members is required to pass. The result of the oral comprehensive examination will be sent to GES and entered on the student’s official academic record.

The student will work with the doctoral committee to establish the date and time of the proposal defense; the EDTHP staff assistant will reserve a conference room when the student provides the confirmed date and time and will process the appropriate paperwork through GES. GES requires notification two weeks in advance of the oral comprehensive examination.

Second Comprehensive Examination (if needed)

When more than six years have elapsed between the passing of the comprehensive examination and the completion of the program, the student is required to pass a second comprehensive examination before the final oral examination can be scheduled.

Minimum GPA

At the time the comprehensive examination is administered, the candidate must have a minimum grade-point average of 3.00 for work done at Penn State.

Continuous Registration

After a student has passed the comprehensive examination and has met the two-semester residency requirement, no further registration for credit will be required. However, status as a Penn State student must be maintained by continuous registration for at least the fall and spring semesters beginning with the first semester after both of the requirements mentioned above have been met. Continuous registration must be maintained until the student passes the final oral examination (thesis defense), regardless of whether or not work is being done on the thesis during this interval.

Registration may include non-credit full-time Ph.D. thesis research, EDTHP 601, or 1 or more credits of thesis research, EDTHP 600 or EDTHP 610 (thesis research off-campus). This registration decision may be based on the student’s employment situation, student loan requirements, etc.

All international students must be registered for at least 1 credit during each regular (fall and spring) semester, even if an exception to full-time enrollment has been approved. International students who fail to register may jeopardize their status.

Final Oral Examination

The final oral examination provides an opportunity for the student to make a formal presentation of his/her completed thesis research. Typically, soon after the start of the exam, the committee will confer about the proposal without the student for about 15 minutes. The student then is called back in, and then usually gives a brief presentation. The committee may have questions both during and after the presentation. The exam will be scheduled only after the thesis has been approved by the chair, read by all members of the doctoral committee, and revised by the candidate to incorporate the major revisions suggested by committee members.

It is the responsibility of the student to provide a written copy of the revised thesis to each member of the committee at least two weeks before the date of the defense (unless a faculty member requests only an electronic copy).

The final examination is oral, open to the public, and related in large part to the thesis. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the doctoral committee is required to pass. The student should bring the appropriate signatory paperwork to the exam for the committee to sign if the student passes. The result of the final oral examination will be sent to GES and entered on the candidate’s official academic record.

Often students will have revisions to complete after the defense. These revisions are completed in consultation with the thesis advisor. A student does not officially graduate from the program until the revisions are submitted and approved by the thesis advisor.

Scheduling the Final Oral Examination (Thesis Defense)

The student who has satisfied all other requirements for the degree will be permitted to schedule a final oral examination (thesis defense). The student is responsible for coordinating the availability of his or her doctoral committee members to establish the date and time of the exam. The EDTHP staff assistant will reserve a conference room when the student provides the confirmed date and time and will process the appropriate paperwork through GES. GES requires notification two weeks in advance of the final oral examination.

Thesis Submission

The student is responsible to ensure that the thesis strictly adheres to the guidelines set forth in Penn State’s Thesis Guide. The Guide provides requirements and guidelines for the preparation of both master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, and may be viewed online (  Both the format review and final copy must now be submitted online.

Intent to Graduate

It is the student’s responsibility to activate his/her intent to graduate on LionPath.   Deadlines are listed on the Grad School calendar, Students who do not complete graduation requirements by the deadline must re-activate their intent to graduate for the next semester; this does NOT happen automatically.

Commencement Ceremony

Penn State holds commencement exercises for graduate students three times each year:  at the end of the fall and spring semesters and at the end of the summer session. Students are expected to attend commencement exercises; diplomas for students who do not attend will be mailed to the student’s home address or LionPath diploma mailing address approximately three weeks after commencement.

Commencement Attire

Students are responsible for obtaining appropriate commencement attire (doctoral hood and gown), which may be purchased at the Penn State Bookstore. Orders for the doctoral hood and gown should be placed as early as possible during the semester of graduation. Doctoral hoods and gowns may be available to rent as well.

How to Apply

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Meet the EDTHP Faculty

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