The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences

Ecology PhD requirements

Requirements that PhD students in Penn State's Ecology program need to satisfy in order to obtain a degree
Overview

The mission of the Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Ecology is to educate and train scientists with respect to both basic and applied aspects of ecology. Research and teaching in the program focus primarily on interactions between organisms and their environments, ranging from the molecular to the biosphere level.

The Ecology Program is part of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences which is dedicated to encouraging new perspectives across disciplinary boundaries. The Huck Institutes catalyze innovation and excellence in interdisciplinary research and education in the life sciences at Penn State.

Candidacy exam

A candidacy examination is required of all Ph.D. students. The examining committee is appointed by the Program Chair. The Candidacy Exam consists of both a written and an oral component. The Chair of the Candidacy Committee must inform the Program Office in writing about the outcome of the Candidacy Exam.  The outcome of the Candidacy Exam is sent by the Program Office to the Graduate School. The exam should be taken in the second or third semester of the Ph.D. program. It is the responsibility of the graduate student to contact the Chair of the Candidacy Examination Committee to schedule his/her exam. When requested by the Chair of the Candidacy Examination Committee, the student shall provide the following information: name, advisor’s name, campus address, telephone number, e-mail address, date of entry into the program and a copy of the semester course schedule. If a dual-title student is taking the exam, a representative of the dual-title program must be present on the Candidacy Committee for that exam.

A Ph.D. candidate is required to register continuously (spring/fall) for each semester from the time the comprehensive examination is passed and the two-semester residence requirement is met until the thesis is accepted by the doctoral committee, including the semester of the comprehensive exam and the semester of the final oral exam, regardless of whether work is being done on the thesis during this interval. A doctoral student must register for at least one credit if he/she plans to take the final exam during the summer semester.

Goals. The candidacy examination is given to evaluate the student’s general level of knowledge, to evaluate the intellectual capability for the study of ecology at the doctoral level, and to identify weaknesses in the student’s preparation. The examination also will evaluate the student’s abilities in problem solving, such as experimental design and interpretation of experimental results. Subject areas to be covered include, but are not restricted to, the contents of basic textbooks in biology, ecology and statistics.

Candidacy Committee.  The Program Chair will appoint a four-member Candidacy Committee to administer the examination.  If a dual-title student is taking the exam, a representative of the dual-title program must be present on the Candidacy Committee for that exam.  The Candidacy Committee will develop written questions covering the general content specified above.  An examinee’s advisor shall not participate in the administration of the oral examination or the marking of written examinations.  However, before a final decision is made regarding candidacy, the advisor will have an opportunity to give input to the Committee.

Examination. The examination will occur in two parts, a written and an oral.  The written examination will consist of questions in general biology (e.g. anatomy, physiology, evolution, botany, zoology, microbiology), general ecology, basic statistics, and questions that require some synthesis (e.g. experimental design, explanation of experimental results).  This examination will require 3-4 hours of writing time on 6-8 questions. A laptop computer is recommended. The written portion of the examination will be read and graded by the Candidacy Committee.  Each student will then be given the oral portion of the examination. The student’s responses on the written portion of the examination may serve as the basis for initial oral questioning.

Schedule.  Candidacy examinations will be scheduled twice each year.  In the fall semester, the written portion of the exam will be scheduled for the last week of October and the oral portion for the second week of November.  In the spring semester, the written portion of the exam for the third week of March and the oral portion for the first week of April.  For students entering with a master’s degree or a strong background in ecology from their undergraduate institution, the candidacy examination is recommended to be taken during the second semester of study.  For students entering with a baccalaureate degree with only one or two courses in ecology as an undergraduate, the examination will normally be taken during the third semester of study.

Results.  The Committee will assign grades based on majority opinion (3 of 4 members) using both the written and oral examination results.  Grades will be pass, unsatisfactory (fail with opportunity to retake), or fail.  A student who receives a grade of unsatisfactory may be offered an opportunity to retake the candidacy examination at the next scheduled examination time.  For the second examination, only grades of pass or fail will be given.  Failure results in the student not being permitted to continue in the Ph.D. program.  Typically, the student will receive a M.S. degree.  Students receiving a passing grade will be advanced to candidacy.  The examining committee may recommend to the student’s advisory committee specific courses or readings based on evidence of weaknesses in the student’s preparation.  The student’s advisory committee will have responsibility for determining the program of study and the content of the comprehensive examination.

English competency
Ph.D. students are required to demonstrate a high level of competence in the use of the English language.  Written and speaking competence in English will be assessed by the Candidacy Examination Committee at the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam. All entering international students are required to take the American English Oral Communicative Proficiency Test (AEOCPT) which is administered by the University’s Department of Applied Linguistics. Given at the beginning of fall and spring semesters, international students are required to pre-register for the AEOCPT. The test scores from the AEOCPT are posted on the University's Administrative Information System (AIS) computer. A score above 250 on the AEOCPT satisfies the Department’s requirement; students scoring under 250 must take courses to improve their spoken language and retake the test before being allowed to teach, as prescribed by the Graduate School. Students who are required to enroll in English as a Second Language (ESL) must complete the ESL requirement by the end of the second semester. Students who fail this requirement may be terminated from the respective graduate program at the discretion of the Program Director.
Committee

A doctoral committee consists of at least 4 members of the Graduate School Faculty. At least half of the members must be from the Ecology Program.

  1. A chair (typically the advisor)
  2. One or more additional members of the Ecology faculty
  3. An outside FIELD member. This person may or may not be a member of the Ecology faculty but must represent a field outside the student’s major field of study. Please contact the Program Office for advice on selecting an outside field member
  4. An outside UNIT member. This person must have a primary appointment in a different administrative unit than the advisor (and co-advisor, if applicable). Please contact the Program Office for advice on selecting an outside unit member

Further guidelines regarding doctoral committees can be found in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin.

Comprehensive exam

The Comprehensive Examination for the Ph.D. will be a rigorous examination administered by the student’s committee as early as possible in the student’s tenure but after the Candidacy exam.  An oral examination is required. The committee may also choose to require a written examination. The Comprehensive Exam should cover aspects of advanced ecology and related disciplines necessary to the student’s field of specialization.  The Comprehensive Examination must be scheduled by the Program Office with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance of the exam date.  Therefore, the student should contact the Program Office at least three weeks before the requested defense date in order to have the proper forms completed. The student must be registered during the semester of the Comprehensive Exam, including summer.

Thesis defense

Each student must pass a final oral thesis defense before degree certification. The final oral examination for the Ph.D. student must be scheduled by the Program Office with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance of the exam date.  Therefore, the student should contact the Program Office at least three weeks before the requested defense date in order to have the proper forms completed.  The Ph.D. student’s advisor must inform the Graduate School and the Program Office about the outcome of the final oral thesis defense using the form provided by the Graduate School via the Program Office.

Registration
A Ph.D. candidate is required to register continuously (spring/fall) for each semester from the time the comprehensive examination is passed and the two-semester residence requirement is met until the thesis is accepted by the doctoral committee, including the semester of the comprehensive exam and the semester of the final oral exam, regardless of whether work is being done on the thesis during this interval. A doctoral student must register for at least one credit if he/she plans to take the final exam during the summer semester.