Prospective Ph.D. Student FAQs

The College of IST employs a holistic review based on several criteria including academic performance, participation in research, writing sample, personal accomplishments, letters of recommendation, and accomplishments outside of academia. Our admissions committee reviews an applicant’s complete application package. Weaknesses in one area can be offset by strengths in another area. Applicants who have overcome hardships or obstacles as part of their education or who have had unique life experiences are invited to share their stories.

About Our Graduate Programs

Compared to computer science, the College of IST’s graduate programs address a broader set of issues dealing with computing, particularly those involving a large volume of heterogeneous information and considering the human and societal impacts of computing and information systems.

Compared to MIS, the graduate program of IST focuses on information-centric issues of individuals, groups, organizations, and other social entities, not just those of business.

Compared to psychology, the graduate program of IST focuses on how cognition, motivation, and other human elements affect—and are affected by—computing and information design issues within a particular context.

Generally, it takes four to five years to complete our doctoral program.

No, the College of IST only offers master of professional studies degrees through Penn State World Campus. You can explore the college’s degree programs here.

No. IST requires full-time matriculation at the University Park campus for both master's and doctoral degrees. The College of IST offers master of professional studies degrees through Penn State World Campus that can be completed on a part-time basis.

No, we welcome applicants from diverse academic backgrounds including the liberal arts, computer science, engineering, environmental sciences, information sciences, law, life sciences, management, philosophy, mathematics, and social sciences.

Ph.D. applicants are typically students who have previous research experience from their undergraduate, graduate, or work settings, and who have determined that they wish to pursue a research-focused graduate degree. M.S. applicants often have less research experience or are not yet prepared to commit to the more extensive work and time required in the Ph.D. program.

No, you may apply directly to the Ph.D. program without a master's degree.

Application Information

The requirements listed for each country are seen most often from institutions within the selected country. Academic credentials will be reviewed on an individual basis to determine degree comparability and eligibility for admission. Please click here to choose a specific Country/Territory.

University policy does not allow the waiver or deferment of the application fee. If you cannot pay the fee yourself, then a third party, such as a friend or relative, may pay the fee on your behalf. Applications received without the fee cannot be processed.

Exception: The Penn State Graduate School offers application fee waivers for members of selected minority groups, including Native Americans, Hispanics, and Black/African Americans. McNair scholars also may be eligible. Students requesting fee waivers must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. For more information, please contact the Office of Graduate Educational Equity.

No, we only admit students for the fall semester.

All applicants will be considered for funding. There are no additional forms to be filled out.

Yes, all international students must submit an official TOEFL score. However, international applicants are exempt from the TOEFL requirement if they have received a baccalaureate or a graduate degree from a college, university, or institution in any of the following countries or regions:

  • American Samoa
  • Anguilla
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Australia
  • Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Bermuda
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Canada (except Quebec)
  • Cayman Islands
  • Dominica
  • England
  • Ghana
  • Grenada
  • Guyana 
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya
  • Liberia
  • Montserrat
  • New Zealand
  • Nigeria
  • Northern Ireland
  • Puerto Rico
  • Republic of Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • St Lucia
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Turks and Caicos Islands
  • Uganda
  • United States
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Wales

Yes, we accept IELTS scores, but we prefer applicants to submit TOEFL iBT scores.

The Graduate School has a total minimum of 80 points on the internet-based test, with a minimum of 19 on the speaking portion. Since we support many of our graduate students through teaching assistantships, IST requires a minimum of 23 on the speaking portion.

No, we do not have a minimum GPA requirement; however, we have found that our strongest candidates possess a GPA of at least 3.5 (out of 4.0), or the equivalent.

No, all documents submitted as part of your application packet must be submitted in English.

No, Penn State's Graduate School does not allow students to apply to more than one program at a time.

We do not require GRE scores and we will not accept GRE scores as part of your application. This holds for both the GRE general test and the subject tests.

Unlike a resume, which is often limited to 1-2 pages, a CV has no page limit and should include a comprehensive list of all your relevant accomplishments.

We ask you to submit a portfolio of your best work so that we can see how you have developed as a critical thinker and researcher. Note that the College of IST is an interdisciplinary organization and as a result we have many different understandings of research. While we are most interested in your potential as a research student, we recognize that many applicants have other important works to share. Examples include published papers, essays, technical reports, software or websites you have developed, or other creative accomplishments. These examples can be from any part of your academic background; they do not need to be from within the research area to which you are applying. Remember to include an explanation of your role in any item that was a collaboration with others. URLs to online works are permissible.

We will review this statement for evidence that you can formulate one or more research questions; and that you are passionate about research problems that are well-aligned with IST. If you have already developed some of the skills that will help you address the research problem(s), you should explain that here as well. This is a good place to identify one or more faculty members or research groups and explain why working with them will help you to pursue your interests. Faculty members hoping to take on new students will use these descriptions to find possible matches.

We recognize that applicants vary in how much research training they have received but providing a compelling statement of your interests -- how a graduate degree from IST will allow you to pursue these interests -- will help us to evaluate your application. If you are uncertain about how to prepare this statement, please feel free to request a mentor.

Socio-technical researchers investigate the relationships between complex social systems and the technologies embedded within these systems. They often use the methods of social science (e.g., interviews, observation) to study the challenges and opportunities associated with socio-technical systems. This style of research can be contrasted to IST research that has a technical focus, for example designing and evaluating algorithms, mathematical models, software systems or datasets that are used to solve a particular problem in the world.

We ask letter writers to comment on your potential to succeed in an interdisciplinary doctoral program, with research that focuses on real world problems at the intersection of information, people and technology. We also will ask them to rate you with respect to ability to conduct research that emphasizes quantitative or mathematical methods; ability to conduct research that emphasizes qualitative methods; logical and critical reasoning skills; and writing ability.

Please feel free to share this particular FAQ answer with the people you have asked for letters of recommendation.

We recommend that you review faculty members’ personal websites, which are more detailed than the overviews provided by the College. These websites often also include invitations or other information aimed at prospective graduate students. These websites also often contain pointers to recent research papers, which can help you understand if you might be a good match. Many faculty members are willing to engage with you in advance (e.g. over email) if you can describe why you are interested in studying with them.

Our students and faculty are engaged in cutting-edge projects in a variety of research areas. Understanding the area of research you are most interested in will help us align you with faculty in that area. Visit the research areas page to read more about each area.

Individual faculty and the admission committee use these keywords to sort the applications and identify additional reviewers. Please choose keywords that are the best descriptors of your interests. List them in order of relevance if possible.

We use academic records, your statements and portfolio, along with your letters of recommendation to assess your preparation and potential for success in a research degree. However, we also recognize that some aspects of your aptitude may be revealed by non-academic activities and experiences. Critical events, episodes or personal challenges in your life may have had a prolonged impact on you and can provide useful additional information.

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