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College of Education > Department of Learning and Performance Systems > Lifelong Learning and Adult Education > Adult Education Booklet > Section 5.2: Phase II – Doctoral Committee and Comprehensive Examination

Section 5.2: Phase II – Doctoral Committee and Comprehensive Examination

Section 5.2: Phase II – Doctoral Committee and Comprehensive Examination

In the second phase of the doctoral process, the student conducts an in-depth exploration of her/his chosen area of study or practice. During this phase, the student (with assistance from the doctoral committee) sharpens the subject and focus of the research undertaking, and develops theoretical frameworks/perspectives, and research methods and techniques suitable for studying a wide range of problems associated with her/his area of specialization. This is a highly individualized phase; with students pursuing interests that are representative of the faculty’s expertise and of the broader field of adult education. Students engage in various sequences of advanced courses and seminars, independent study, practicums, internships, and related research activities. D.Ed. students often engage in extensive internships (ADTED 595) during this phase while Ph.D. students develop advanced research expertise using ADTED 594. This phase begins with the formation of a doctoral committee and culminates with a comprehensive examination.

5.2.1: The Doctoral Committee

Committee Responsibilities and Composition

Prior to passing the candidacy evaluation, the doctoral degree is directed largely by one’s academic advisor. Beyond the candidacy evaluation, the doctoral degree (whether Ph.D. or D.Ed.) is directed by a doctoral committee selected by the student. This constitutes a major shift in orientation—requiring the student to consult regularly with at least three faculty advisors instead of one. The doctoral committee approves the graduate study plan, periodically reviews academic progress, advises the student on her/his area of specialization, guides the student’s dissertation research, prepares and administers the comprehensive and final oral examinations (the dissertation defense), and evaluates the student’s doctoral thesis. Continuing communication between the student and her/his doctoral committee members is strongly recommended, to preclude misunderstandings and to develop a collegial relationship.

The doctoral committee comprises at least four Graduate Faculty members:

  • Two members from the Adult Education Program; at least one from the campus at which the student is enrolled,
  • One member from outside the Department, and
  • A fourth member from within OR outside the Department

Establishing the Doctoral Committee

The student should carefully select the doctoral committee soon after passing the candidacy evaluation. In the letter notifying the student that the candidacy evaluation has been successfully passed, s/he will be reminded to formulate a doctoral committee as soon as possible.

Committee members should bring different but complementary strengths. The student should choose individuals who can provide expertise in the chosen area(s) of specialization, the general field of adult education, and the research methods specific to the dissertation.

It is the student’s responsibility to ensure that the doctoral committee is established as early as possible. The doctoral candidate is expected to establish her/his committee within 12 months of passing the candidacy evaluation.

Committee chair: The academic advisor serves as the doctoral committee chair or co-chair. Immediately after passing candidacy evaluation the student and academic advisor should discuss whether s/he would remain in that role, and hence assume the role of committee chair. If a change of advisor is desired, the guidelines outlined below must be followed. Once the student has designated a committee chair, s/he must begin working with the chair to select the other committee members. Co-chairs may be appointed.

The committee chair or at least one co-chair must be a member of the Adult Education Program. A retired or emeritus faculty member may chair a doctoral committee if s/he began chairing the committee prior to retirement and has the continuing approval of the Professor-in-Charge. The primary duties of the chair are: (1) to maintain the academic standards of the Adult Education Program and the Graduate School, (2) to conduct an annual review of the doctoral student’s progress, (3) to ensure that the comprehensive and final examinations are conducted in a timely fashion, (4) to arrange and conduct all doctoral committee meetings, and (5) to ensure that requirements set forth by the committee are implemented in the final version of the Thesis.

Thesis advisor: The doctoral student must designate a thesis advisor. Quite often the committee chair or co-chairs also serve as thesis advisor(s). However, the thesis advisor may be someone different from the committee chair. The thesis advisor directs the student’s dissertation research. As such, s/he must specialize in the area of the chosen thesis problem. The thesis advisor may be a member of the Adult Education Program or a faculty from another program.

Minor field member: If the student declares a minor, a faculty member representing that minor must be included on the doctoral committee. (For more information, see Major Program and Minor Field under D.Ed.—Additional Specific Requirements in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin.)

Designated outside member: The Adult Education Program resides in two separate departments: the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education on the Harrisburg campus; and the Department of Learning and Performance Systems on the University Park campus. While one or more members of the doctoral committee may be from outside these two departments, an official “outside member” must be appointed, who serves a specific role as described below.

It is the responsibility of the Professor-in-Charge to designate a committee member from outside of the two departments named above, to serve as an official outside member. The primary responsibilities of the designated outside member are (1) to maintain the academic standards of the Graduate School, and (2) to assure that all procedures are carried out fairly.

The designated outside member represents the Graduate School and, as such, s/he shall be a member of the Graduate Faculty but need not have direct expertise in the research area of the candidate. S/he may contribute technical expertise, but this role is subordinate to the aforementioned primary responsibilities. Thus, the designated outside member may be in addition to a full complement of committee members with technical expertise in the area.

The designated outside member shall not have a budgetary or adjunct appointment in or other conflict of interest with the unit(s) to which either the chair or the thesis adviser belongs. And s/he shall not have any conflicts of interest with members of the committee that might preclude her/his fulfilling the primary responsibilities noted above. The committee member representing the minor area may serve as the designated outside member if his/ her budgetary appointment satisfies the conditions noted above. The designated outside member cannot chair or co-chair the committee.

The conditions outlined above do not preclude other members of the Graduate Faculty regardless of budgetary appointment from serving on the committee, and potentially in dual roles, for example, as co-chair.

Special committee members: A doctoral student may add to her/his committee a person not affiliated with Penn State who has particular expertise in that student’s research area—upon the recommendation of the Professor-in-Charge and approval of the graduate dean (via the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services). A special member is expected to participate fully in the functions of the doctoral committee. If the special member is asked only to read and approve the doctoral dissertation, that person is designated a special signatory of the Thesis.

Graduate School approval: Once the student has selected her/his committee and has gained the commitment of each member, s/he should complete a Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form. To obtain the form and to get assistance completing it, the student should contact the program staff assistant. After completing and signing the form, it must be submitted to the program staff assistant at University Park to be signed by the Professor-in-Charge. The program staff assistant at University Park will submit the form to the Graduate School for approval and will notify the student when it is approved.

Replacing Committee Members

A student has the right to replace any and all members of her/his doctoral committee. To make changes to the committee, the student must complete a new Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form, have it signed by the new committee member(s), and submit it to the program staff assistant who will forward it to the Graduate School. Either the student or the incumbent (committee member) may suggest a replacement. Common courtesy dictates that whomever decides that a replacement is in order informs the other prior to making the switch. The student must consult with her/his committee chair before replacing a committee member.

It is the responsibility of the Professor-in-Charge to periodically review the membership of doctoral committees to ensure that its members continue to qualify for service on the committee in their designated roles. For example, if budgetary appointments, employment at the University, etc., have changed since initial appointment to the committee, changes to the committee membership may be necessary. If changes are warranted, they should be made as soon as possible to prevent future problems that may delay academic progress for the student (e.g., ability to conduct the comprehensive or final examinations).

5.2.2: The Doctoral Comprehensive Examination

The policies and procedures set forth below apply to both Ph.D., and D.Ed. students. Additional policies and procedures are found in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin.


The doctoral comprehensive examination is a single examination consisting of integrated written and oral portions. The purpose of the examination is to assess students on the following areas:

  1. Knowledge of foundational issues that transect the broad field of adult education. This purpose includes students’ recognition of important questions and issues, as well as their resourcefulness, judgment and understanding regarding information acquisition, integration and synthesis within the field,
  2. Mastery of an area of specialization within, or complementary to, the field adult education, and
  3. Student’s readiness for the research phase, including their knowledge of research methods appropriate to their particular area(s) of specialization.


To be eligible to take the examination the student must meet the following criteria:

  1. Complete all core courses, and other requirements as determined by the student’s doctoral committee,
  2. Have a minimum grade-point average of 3.00 at the time the examination is given, for graduate work done at Penn State,
  3. Have no deferred or missing grades,
  4. Satisfy the English Competence requirement, and
  5. Be registered as a full-time or part-time student for the semester in which the examination is taken. (See section below titled: “Procedures for writing the exam” for information regarding taking the exam during summer).

Tips on Preparing for the Exam

  1. Carefully select a doctoral committee soon after passing the candidacy evaluation.  Details regarding the composition, roles and responsibilities of the doctoral committee are described in a previous section of this Handbook. More information may also be obtained in the Graduate Degree Requirements section of the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin, and in the Graduate Student Committee Procedures at:
  2. Meet regularly with the committee chair and thesis advisor to discuss the process of the examination and to help clarify and develop chosen area(s) of specialization.
  3. Review papers, readings and assignments from previous courses. Also, review other pertinent literature and consult with the doctoral committee to help sharpen the subject and focus of the dissertation, and develop appropriate theoretical frameworks, perspectives, research methods and techniques suitable for studying a wide range of problems associated with chosen area(s) of specialization.
  4. It typically takes students six months of intensive study, after completing core coursework, to adequately prepare for the comprehensive examination. Inquire about forming a study group with fellow students. This is often an effective way to share the workload and discuss key concepts from various perspectives.


 Procedures for Writing the Exam

  1. Complete the Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form:  For the doctoral committee to be made official, the student must complete a Doctoral Committee Appointment Signature Form and the form must be approved by the Graduate School. If a Minor is declared, the Minor Field Member(s) must sign the form. To obtain the form and to get assistance completing it, students must contact their program staff assistant. After completing and signing the form it must be submitted it to the program staff assistant at University Park to be signed by the Professor-in-Charge. The program staff assistant at University Park will submit the form to the Graduate School for approval and will notify the student when it is approved.
  2. Develop the questions:  The comprehensive exam comprisesno less than three and no more than four questionsthat address the three areas described in the purpose statement above. The committee chair develops the questions in consultation with the student and other doctoral committee members. For instance, the chair may invite a committee member (such as a minor thesis advisor or a methodologist) to write a particular question; or the chair may work with particular committee members to develop questions collaboratively. Note: all doctoral committee members must be consulted on this process.
  3. Schedule the written examination:  Two weeks’ notice is required by the program for scheduling the examination.  It is the student’s responsibility to initiate the scheduling process.  It must be done upon the advice of the committee chair, and in consultation with the other committee members and the program staff assistant.  Once the date is set, the committee chair delivers the written examination questions to the appropriate program staff assistant—at University Park or Harrisburg.  The program staff assistant types the questions and either mails them to the student (email is acceptable) or notifies the student when they can be picked up.  The student has four weeks from the date of receipt of the questions to write her/his responses.   In the case of extenuating circumstances (e.g., family emergency or crisis, severe health problems), the student may ask the committee chair to extend the deadline.
  4. Comply with academic integrity policies:  The written comprehensive exam is a take-home exam, representing the student’s independent work. In preparing to write the examination, any learning resource deemed appropriate, may be used.  However, the comprehensive questions should not be discussed with anyone, including members of the committee, except in cases where clarification is needed.  The final written product must represent the student’s unassisted work.  Prior to the submission of the examination, no one except the student should read or edit the written responses for any reason.  A signed statement certifying that the comprehensive exam answers are the student’s original work and that the exam has been completed without the assistance of other students, colleagues or faculty members is required.
  5. Formatting the essays (style): The examination document should consist of separate, coherent essays in answer to the questions.  The essays should conform to APA, University of Chicago, or another style manual as determined by the student and the advisor .  Each essay must be free standing.  However, the entire document should be packaged as a single, consecutively paginated document and ending with a single reference list containing the citations used in ALL essays.
  6. Formatting the essays (length):  Answers to each question need not be of equal length.  However, the entire text of the total examination document (excluding references, cover page, etc.) should not exceed 60 typed, double spaced pages.  One inch margins should be used and type size should not be smaller than 12 point.  Students should be careful to allocate these pages reasonably, though not necessarily evenly, between the essays.  Submitted examinations of more than 60 pages will not be considered.  To conserve paper your comps may be printed back to back.
  7. Submitting the essays: After completion of the written exam, deliver four copies of the entire document directly to the program staff assistant.  The cover sheet should include the date on which the examination was received. Also include the signed statement certifying that the comprehensive exam answers are original work.  Be sure to include the exam questions in the body of the text.
  8. Reviewing student responses:  The program staff assistant provides a full copy of the responses to the questions to each committee member.  Each committee member reviews the entire document; four weeks is allowed for reviewing the exam.  Although individual committee members may choose to return the written examination with comments, this is not required.
  9. Taking the written exam during the summer: Students planning to take the written portion of the comprehensive examination during summer must ensure that all procedures are completed prior to the end of the spring semester, in May according to the timeframes identified for specific procedures. Committee members are not obligated to review comprehensive examinations during summer. Accordingly, if the comprehensive exam is written during summer, the four weeks allotted for reviewing responses would begin on the first day of the subsequent fall semester.


Conducting the Oral Examination

Scheduling the oral examination: The oral examination should be scheduled at the same time that the written examination is being scheduled. Upon the advice of the committee chair, and in consultation with the other committee members and the program staff assistant a two-hour meeting should be scheduled to conduct the oral examination. The oral examination must be conducted within 30 days of the committee’s review of the written portion of the examination.  In the case of extenuating circumstances (e.g., family emergency or crisis, severe health problems), the student may ask the committee chair to defer the defense date.

Notify the program staff assistant, well in advance of the examination date, of any special arrangements or equipment needed (e.g., use of PicTel, teleconferencing, use of computer and overhead projector, etc, etc.).  The Graduate School requires at least two week’s notification.  The program staff assistant at University Park submits all examination requests and requests for exceptions (if necessary) to the Graduate School for approval at least three weeks prior to the date of the oral examination. The program staff assistant at Harrisburg must therefore notify the program staff assistant at University Park, in a timely manner, of the examination schedule for Harrisburg students. It is the student’s responsibility to work with the program staff assistant(s) to ensure that these requests are submitted in a timely manner.

The student and at least three members of the committee (including the thesis adviser or chair) must be physically present at the oral comprehensive examination. (Thus for a five-person committee, two could participate via distance.). No more than one member may participate via telephone; a second member could participate via PicTel. The doctoral committee may, at its discretion, allow other students to attend the oral portion of the examination.

Conducting the oral examination:  At the scheduled date and time, the committee convenes to conduct the oral portion of the examination. The purpose of the oral portion of the examination is to give the student an opportunity to defend the written responses and to demonstrate knowledge of the field in general. The examination takes the form of a dialogue between the student and committee members. Before that dialogue begins, the committee chair may give the student an opportunity to provide a brief (less than 10 minute) oral supplement to her/his written responses.

Evaluating the entire examination, both written and oral: Immediately following the oral examination the doctoral committee meets to formally assess the student’s work—both written and oral portions—and a vote is cast. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the committee is required for passing the comprehensive examination (3 out of 4 for a four-member committee; 4 out of 5 for a five-member committee; 4 out of 6 for a six-member committee, and so on). If the student fails the examination, the doctoral committee determines whether another examination may be taken. A student shall not be allowed more than one retake of the comprehensive exam. The program staff assistant will communicate the results to the student and to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services. In the event of a failure, three options are available:

  1. Retaking those questions deemed to be unsatisfactorily addressed,
  2. Retaking the entire examination, or
  3. Withdrawal from the program.

If the decision is withdrawal from the program, alternative steps that may help the student achieve her/his academic and professional goals will be discussed prior to adjournment.