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Frequently Asked Questions about the Systems Science Ph.D. Degree

1. Tell me about the Systems Science Ph.D. degree.

A Ph.D. is a research degree which certifies that you have demonstrated competence in the skills needed by a research scientist -- the ability to independently formulate a research question, assemble the human and material resources needed to attack that question, to collect and analyze the appropriate data, and finally, to prepare a written report which combines rigorous logic and well-crafted words to present the results of the research in an understandable form. Not everyone is interested in doing this, or in doing the kinds of jobs that research scientists are hired for. You should consider carefully your own interests before committing the time, money, and effort needed to get this degree. The Systems Science website includes a list of jobs in which our graduates are performing.

2. What are the prerequisites for admission to the Ph.D. program?

Prerequisites exist because the university wants concrete evidence that you have the basic skills, academic work habits, and persistence to complete what you have begun, i.e., they want some prior assurance of a high probability of success. Each participating department has its own prerequisites, but they all include minima for undergraduate GPA, graduate test scores (GRE, GMAT), letters of recommendation, and a statement of personal goals. In many of the courses it helps to have a background in calculus, statistics, and programming.

3. Tell me about this Statement of Personal Goals.

This is the only one of your required admissions documents where the content is under your direct immediate control. All the others are based on prior performance and the opinions of others. It is the first indication the faculty has of your abilities to formulate and articulate both your goals and your paths to them. It is your first step toward convincing them that you have the personal attributes necessary for success in the program. The statement should be clearly written, straightforward, and well thought-out and it should explain how a Systems Science Ph.D. fits into your goals.

5. What do you mean by "Core Option?"

The Core Option is a course of study administered by the Systems Science Ph.D. Program itself. If you elect to go this route, much of the coursework you will take will be from courses offered in or specified by Systems Science, but you will be expected to choose the rest of your courses from the wide range of topics offered by the participating departments (See Question 8.). Your primary advisor will be a Systems Science advisor.

6. How do I go about getting a Systems Science Ph.D.?

The process is reasonably straightforward, but it requires a good deal of planning and focus (and work!) on your part. You can think of it in terms of six, sometimes overlapping, subtasks:

1. Get Admitted -- This means assembling the necessary paperwork, test results, and supporting documents, and getting them in on time. It is particularly important to pay your fees on time. You are allowed to take a limited number of courses while awaiting admittance -- check with the departments for recommendations.

2. Complete Your Coursework -- You have to take at least 72hrs of coursework, broken into four roughly equal areas of study, all of which are demonstrably pertinent to your self-specified goal. You have five years from the time of admission. (See Question 7 and Question 8.)

3. Pass Your Comprehensives -- A four-day set of written exams, followed by a two hour oral exam, covering your four areas of study, including any transfer courses. You get two tries. Fail them both, and you are out of the program. (See Question 9.)

4. Create an Acceptable Dissertation Proposal -- This is your statement of what you want to study, how you want to study it, and who you will study it with. The task includes putting together a dissertation committee, people who are willing to work with you on your topic. You have one year from the day you pass your Comprehensives to complete this part of the process. There is a maximum of a one-year extension possible, by special petition. (See Question 12.)

5. Researching and Writing the Dissertation -- What all the previous effort was aiming toward. This is a piece of original research which demonstrates your competence in your chosen field. You have five years from the day your Proposal is accepted to submit an acceptable dissertation to the library.

6. Defending Your Dissertation -- This is your capstone experience. Having written your Dissertation, you now have to make a presentation to your Dissertation Committee on its methodology and findings. You must be prepared to justify your decisions and defend your conclusions. This can be a trying experience, particularly if you have failed to keep your Committee fully informed of your process and progress.

7. Can I transfer courses from previous graduate work?

Yes, provided the courses are acceptable to your advisor and Comprehensives Exam Committee as pertinent to one of your areas of study. The rule is that you will be tested on the information presented in the current equivalent of the course. What is at question is your competency in that topic today. At least 27 of your 72 course credits must be taken at PSU.

8. What, and how many courses must I take?

Total requirement is at least 99 credits, of which 27 are Dissertation Research (603) credits. The other 72 credits must be allocated roughly equally among the four study areas. One of the four study areas must be a Systems Science-related topic, and one must involve some form of research methodologies. They all must be developed with the advice and consent of your advisor, and, ultimately, your Comprehensives Exam Committee. Detailed requirements are available in the Catalog.

9. Tell me about the Comprehensive Exams.

As was said earlier, your Comprehensives are four-day set of Written exams, followed by a two hour Oral exam, covering your four areas of study, including any transfer courses. You get two tries. Fail them both and you are out of the program.

Each day, for four days, you take a four hour Written exam which covers one of your chosen study topics. The questions were prepared by a faculty member competent in that area, whom you have taken courses from, and with whom you have agreed on the specific subjects for test. (See Question 10.)

The tests are graded that same week, but you will not be told of your performance -- yet. Part of the process is to see if you can tell from your test experience where your weaknesses are. The week after the written portion of the Comprehensives you will meet with the members of your Comprehensives Exam Committee for a two hour Oral examination. The written exams focus on the specific topic areas covered in your proposal; the orals explores your ability to apply the underlying principles of one topic area to cone or more of the other topic areas. In addition, the oral exam period is used "to clear up areas of weakness that may have been demonstrated in the written exams" -- they ask you about the bits you got wrong the first time.

10. What is the Comprehensive Proposal?

The preparations for your Comprehensives can be viewed as a dry-run for your Dissertation. You must assemble a Comprehensives Exam Committee. You must prepare a Comprehensives Proposal and get your Advisor and all committee members, and the Graduate Studies Office to agree to it. The Comprehensives Proposal lists the courses you have taken, the way you plan to allocate them across your four study areas, and the details of the topics you will be tested on.

At least three months before your proposed Comprehensives date (the start of the academic term prior to your Comprehensives term is best) you should meet with your advisor and develop a Comprehensives Exam Committee, and get them to sign off on your Proposal. This is a formal meeting at which signatures are placed on paper -- the proposal is the equivalent of a contract between you and the Committee. The wise student will have maintained close contact with the members of the Committee and with his or her advisor, so that there are no surprises. The reason I recommend holding this meeting one full term before Comprehensives is because that gives you time to take the courses you need to clean up any loose ends.

11. What else goes on during the term in which I take my Comprehensives?

Not a lot. You will have completed all of your required coursework the term before. You cannot start on your Dissertation credits until your Dissertation Proposal is accepted. On the one hand, you may want to consider taking only three credits of Directed Study -- you have to have at least one credit to be enrolled (and you have to be enrolled to take the exams), but any time you are getting services/benefits from the faculty, you are expected to sign up for three. On the other hand, you have to take at least nine credits to retain your Graduate or Teaching Assistantship. You may want to look at courses that will help you review for the test. But never forget -- Your prime objective during this term is to pass your Comprehensives!

12. What is a Dissertation Proposal?

This is your statement of a research problem and plan for attacking it. In it, you lay out what questions you are going to answer, why they are important, what prior work exists, what information is needed to answer the questions, and how you plan to collect and analyze that data.

13. Do I have to have a Dissertation Topic before I apply for admission?

The short answer is -- no, you do not. The longer answer is -- the more clearly focused you are early on, the better organized you will be, in discussions with your advisor, and in deciding on your study areas, selecting your classes, and recruiting your Comprehensive and Dissertation committee-members. Perhaps the best answer is -- It helps if you can act as if you had a topic.

14. How long does it take to get a Ph.D.?

As with most systems kinds of questions, the answer is "it depends." Specifically, it depends on how much graduate work you can transfer in, and on how much of a course load you want, or can afford, to carry. Adding up the requirements listed in Question 9 shows that you have a maximum of 12 years from the date you are admitted to the date you must submit a successfully defended Dissertation. As for a minimum, for a person with no prior graduate experience, a normal course load would require about eleven terms to complete 99 credits. That works out to a minimum of just under four years, if you can manage a full schedule each Summer Term -- not always possible, considering the reduced offerings during the Summer. The fact that these numbers represent somewhere between perhaps 5% and 17% of your total lifespan is another reason to consider carefully if a Systems Science (or any other) Ph.D. is for you.