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Research Degree Policies

GCAC-642 Culminating Experience - Research Master's

Purpose: to define the acceptable culminating experiences for the research master’s degree (M.A. and M.S.).

Academic Goal: to ensure that all students pursuing a research master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) complete their studies with a high-quality, approved culminating experience that integrates the knowledge and research experience acquired during their time in the degree program.

Scope: all research master’s degree programs (M.A. and M.S.).



A degree is not conferred for a mere collection of credits. A well-balanced, unified, and complete program of study is required, including the preparation and acceptance of a high-quality approved culminating experience.

Policy Statement

  1. A culminating experience is required for all research master’s degrees. The options for the culminating experience for the research master’s degree are:
    1. a thesis based upon original research in the field;
    2. a scholarly paper or essay that is research-oriented; or
    3. a capstone course that includes a work product which demonstrates evidence of analytical thinking and synthesis of knowledge in the field of study.
  2. Programs may offer one, two, or all three options, as approved through the Graduate Council curricular review process.
  3. The transcript for all students graduating with an M.S. or M.A. degree will be notated to reflect the applicable culminating experience.
  4. The supervisor of the master's work must be a member of the Graduate Faculty.
    1. Any member of the Penn State faculty with at least assistant professor rank may sign master's theses signatory pages.
  5. A thesis is prepared under the direction of the graduate major program. Under certain conditions a student may complete the thesis off campus. To do so, satisfactory arrangements must be made in advance with the adviser and the head of the graduate major program.
    1. Special signatories may be requested and approved for master’s theses.
  6. The nature and extent of the scholarly paper or essay shall be determined by the graduate major program.


For the scholarly paper/essay and capstone course options, the graduate program head shall report to the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services that the student has satisfied the approved culminating experience requirement. The graduate program is responsible for ensuring that the student’s work is finalized by the published deadline for the semester/session. The graduate program head may require one or more copies of the scholarly paper/essay for the program's library or files.

Revision History

Adapted from Graduate Bulletin: July 2018

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