Student Gallery
Program Overview
Program Requirements
Program Handbook
Course Syllabi
Financial Matters
Frequently Asked Questions
Program Forms
Current Students

Frequently Asked Questions

Transfer of Course Credit

Can a student transfer courses to the Ph.D. program that were originally counted for an MSU master's degree?


How about courses taken at another university, whether or not a degree was received?

There is no fixed limit for transfer courses for other institutions. However, all transfer credits must be approved as part of the student's program plan by his or her guidance committee and confirmed by the program coordinator and associate dean for student affairs. This means that the question of whether transfer courses will count cannot be firmly resolved until the second year of a student's enrollment, when the program planning process occurs within a guidance committee. The central question is always: what courses will best serve the student's program needs. Realistically, students should not expect to transfer in a large number of courses from another institution, since they will need to construct a course of study that reflects MSU's concentrations and strengths in educational policy. There is one set of requirements that is more often open to transfer proposals: the inquiry and research methods requirement. It is difficult, nevertheless, to imagine an appropriate program plan that would include more than three transfer courses.

Are there any other limitations on transfer credit?

In order to count toward the Ph.D. degree, a course must be less than eight years old at the time when the degree is to be conferred. That means, for example, that if a student took courses in 1998, then entered the doctoral program here in 2003, was here for six years and was getting the degree in 2009, credit for the pre-admission courses would not count since they were taken more than eight years prior to graduation.

Can a student apply MSU courses taken through Lifelong Learning toward doctoral program requirements? (Typically this arises in cases where the student took doctoral courses prior to enrollment in the doctoral program.)

Yes, but only as part of an approved program plan.The procedure is this: First, the student and guidance committee develop an appropriate program plan that includes one or more Lifelong Learning courses. Then, once this plan has received approval, the advisor needs to file an Administrative Action form. According to the Academic Programs book, “No more than 10 credits earned while under the Lifelong Education status may be applied to the graduate degree program. Courses earned under the Undergraduate Lifelong Education status may not be applied to a graduate degree program."

Course-Taking Options

Can 800-level courses count towards the Ph.D.?

Yes, you can even take undergraduate courses for Ph.D. credit. However, only a very limited number of such courses are generally appropriate, and they must be approved as part of a program plan by the guidance committee, program coordinator, and associate dean for student affairs. Most master’s courses in education focus on meeting the professional development needs of educational practitioners and are not well suited to a research-oriented, academic doctoral program. But, as in the case of transfer credit, the central question is what classes a guidance committee feels are appropriate for a student’s doctoral program. The same holds true for independent studies.

Can a student take courses offered in other colleges and other departments within the College of Education and have them count towards his/her program?

Yes. We encourage students to draw widely from the resources in the college and university when planning their programs. In addition you can take courses through the "traveling scholars" program at any of the Big Ten universities. Check out the Graduate School's website description of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) program.

Does course sequence matter? Can students take courses in any order that suits them?

It is worth asking course instructors if they think prior and particular coursework is assumed for their course. While prerequisites may not appear in the course book, it may be that the instructor in some cases is assuming that students in the class will have a particular kind of academic background. One way of getting such insight it so examine the syllabus to see if some prior reading would be necessary for the course.

The educational policy core and the required inquiry course are often used as background for subsequent courses.

Independent Studies

How do you sign up for independent studies (i.e., CEP/EAD/TE990)?

There are two steps required in signing up for an independent study. First, the student and professor need to fill out the college’s independent study Project Agreement form. This requires both parties to agree to a title and brief description of the project, including whatever requirements must be fulfilled in order to complete the project (such as submitting a 20-page paper on a particular topic, for example). This form must be signed by the student, the professor directing the project, and the student’s academic advisor. Once completed, it should be approved by the graduate program secretary in the Student Affairs Office (134 Erickson). Second, the student needs to sign up for the agreed upon number of credits of 990 on the computer during the desired semester. In general, enrollment in 990 requires the department to create a unique section of 990, which occurs once the project agreement form is on file in Student Affairs.

How many credits should you sign up for when you take an independent study?

If the amount of effort involved, for both student and professor, is similar to what might be expected in a regular course, then the 990 should be treated as such and recorded at three credits. If the effort is more or less than this amount, then the number of credits should be adjusted accordingly.

What is the limit on the number of independent studies a student can take?

There is no fixed limit on the number of these that a student can take at the doctoral level. However, these 990 courses should be limited to specialized pursuits that cannot be carried out within an existing university course and must be part of an approved program plan. It is difficult to imagine circumstances that would require more than three 990s in a particular program plan.

Doctoral Dissertation Credits (i.e., CEP/EAD/TE999)

Can a student sign up for 999 credits before taking the comprehensive examination?

Yes, and this often makes sense. For example, there are times when a student’s assistantship or fellowship will pay for more credits than he or she is either willing or able to take during a semester. In that case it is worthwhile to use that support for dissertation credits rather than losing it, since students will need to buy a minimum of 24 credits at some point in order to graduate. It is not a good idea, however, to accumulate a large number of 999 credits before taking comprehensive exams. A student can gain approval for a dissertation proposal only after passing the examinations. In general, the university expects that students will purchase dissertation credits at the time they are consuming faculty and facility resources to complete the dissertation.

Academic Progress

When should a student put together a guidance committee and develop a program plan?

Very few students know enough faculty members or enough about the possibilities inherent in the program to assemble a guidance committee and develop a program plan during their first year of doctoral study. However, by the start of the second year in the program, they can and should begin this process in earnest. Waiting longer than this leaves both the student and the guidance committee in a difficult position. Students who wait until the third year have usually already made most of the significant decisions about their program, leaving the guidance committee with little remaining space for giving guidance. The risks for the student are high, since the guidance committee may determine that some of the courses already taken are not appropriate for the student’s program of study.

How limiting is the university’s limit of eight years to complete a doctoral program? What happens if a student leaves the program for several years and then comes back?

Students have eight years to complete the program – including courses, examinations, dissertation, defense, and graduation. That means eight years from the start of the semester in which they first enrolled in the program all the way through to the day they graduate, no matter what the reasons for delay along the way. If additional time is needed beyond the eight years, the Graduate School requires that students request an extension. Extensions are handled through the associate dean for student affairs, who makes a recommendation to the dean of the Graduate School. The advisor needs to fill out a time-extension form andwrite an accompanying letter requesting the extension. In this letter, the advisor has to make a case that the student is now making satisfactory progress, laying out a timeline for completing the remaining work (with appropriate benchmarks all the way through to graduation), and providing reasons for confidence that the

Residency Requirement

What is the university residency requirement for doctoral students and how can it be fulfilled?

The university’s Academic Programs book says the following: “One year of residence on the campus after first enrollment for doctoral degree credit is required to permit the student to work with and under the direction of the faculty, and to engage in independent and cooperative research utilizing University facilities. A year of residence will be made up of at least six credits of graduate work each semester.”

In practice this means that sometime prior to graduation a doctoral student must enroll for at least 6 credits during each of two consecutive semesters. This can include a summer semester (for example, six credits in the summer and six more the following fall).

Deferred and Incomplete Grades

How does a “deferred” (DF) grade work?

A deferred grade gives a student as long as two years to complete the work for the course. Work needs to be presented to the faculty member in time to evaluate it and make a grade change for the student before the two-year deadline is up, which is the day grades are due at the end of the semester two years after the semester in which the course was taken. Changing a “DF” to a regular grade is done with an Administrative Action form, requiring only the faculty member’s signature. If a “DF” grade is not made up during the two-year period, it automatically converts to the grade of “DF/U” on the student’s transcript. This grade is not counted in a student’s grade point average.

How does an “incomplete” (I) grade work?

An incomplete grade lasts only until the mid-point of the semester following the semester in which the course was taken. At this point, the grade turns to 0.0, which counts towards a student’s grade point average. For courses taken in the spring and summer, this would be the middle of the fall semester; for courses taken in the fall, it would be the middle of the spring semester. Work needs to be presented to the faculty member in time to evaluate it and make a grade change before this deadline. The midpoint of the semester is announced as part of the university calendar each year. Changing an “I” to a regular grade is done with an Administrative Action form, requiring only the faculty member’s signature.

Can deferred or incomplete grades be extended?

Yes, but only under extraordinary circumstances. The reasons must be spelled out on an Administrative Action form and must be approved by both the program coordinator and the associate dean for student affairs.

What problems arise from having deferred and/or incomplete grades on your record?

The university, college and program want to see students make steady progress through their academic program. A DF or I grade on your record is a sign that you are having trouble making such progress. If you accumulate more than one, you will come under the program’s policy for tracking students who are not making adequate progress in their programs. Such a record will also work against you if you seek a waiver in order to take on a graduate assistantship of more than half-time or after more than five years in the program, or if you seek to extend the time required for completion of degree. It will also make it difficult to qualify many of the competitive awards available to doctoral students (such as a Dissertation Completion Fellowship or Spencer Research Training Fellowship). In short, it is best to avoid deferred or incomplete grades if at all possible and to give top priority to completing these obligations before taking on new responsibilities.

Defining Terms

What is the difference between an advisor and a committee chair, or a committee chair and a dissertation director?

Very little. An advisor also becomes a committee chair at the point when a student forms a guidance committee. At that point, the two titles are interchangeable. A dissertation director is the primary guide for a student writing a dissertation. This may be the same person as the advisor/chairperson, or the student may elect to have different faculty member occupy these two positions.


What is the difference between a guidance committee and a dissertation committee?

It’s all a matter of timing. The committee is called a guidance committee during the period when the student is forming a program, taking courses, and completing comprehensive examinations. The dissertation committee is the group that helps the student through the dissertation stage. A guidance committee may simply evolve into a dissertation committee, if the student wishes to continue working with the same group of faculty members. Or the student may wish to replace some or all of the members (including the advisor/chair) at the point when he/she begins working on a dissertation proposal. It all depends on which faculty members can be most helpful at particular stages of a student’s academic career in the program.

What is the difference between an oral examination and a doctoral defense?

None. These are two names for the same thing. They both refer to the meeting of the dissertation committee at the end of the dissertation process at which the candidate defends his or her dissertation draft.