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University Bulletin
Graduate Degree Programs

Credit Loads and Academic Status

Graduate Assistants--Graduate assistants must be enrolled at Penn State as graduate students. More specifically, since assistantships are provided as aids to completion of advanced degrees, assistants must be degree-seeking and enrolled in residence for credit loads each semester that fall within the limits indicated in the table below. Maximum limits on permissible credit loads are indicated in order to assure that the student can give appropriate attention both to academic progress and assistantship responsibilities. These considerations give rise to the table of permissible credit loads below.

Level of Assistantship Credits Per Semester Credits per 6-Week Summer Session

Minimum Maximum Minimum Maximum
Quarter-time 9 14 5 7
Half-time 9 12 4 6
Three-quarter-time 6 8 3 4

*Credits taken during the Maymester and over both six-week summer sessions must total a minimum of 9 (for 1/4- and 1/2-time assistantships) or 6 (for 3/4-time assistantships) and cannot exceed a maximum of 8 (for 3/4-time assistantships), 12 (for 1/2-time assistantships), or 14 (for 1/4-time assistantships).

To provide for some flexibility, moderate exceptions to the specified limits may be made in particular cases. The credit limits specified above may only be increased or decreased in exceptional cases for a specific semester or summer session by permission of the assistantship supervisor, the student's academic adviser, and the dean of the Graduate School (requests should be submitted for the dean's approval via the Office of Graduate Enrollment Services). The Graduate School expects that an exception made in one semester or summer session will be compensated for by a suitably modified credit load in the subsequent semester or summer session, so that, on the average, normal progress is maintained at a rate falling within the limits above. Failure to do so may jeopardize the student's academic status. Maintenance of the established credit loads and responsibility for consequences of a graduate student's change of course load rest with the student and adviser. The course load is a factor in determining whether a graduate student is classified as a full-time or part-time student; has met residence requirements; and is eligible to hold a fellowship, traineeship, assistantship, or departmental or program appointment.

Full-Time Academic Status--Students holding fellowships, traineeships, or other awards based on academic excellence are required to carry 9 or more credits each semester (fall and spring). For awards that require full-time summer registration, students should register for a minimum cumulative total of 9 credits (over all summer sessions), or SUBJ 601 (in the case of post-comprehensive doctoral candidates). A graduate assistant whose semester or summer session credit load meets or exceeds the minima in the above credit table and whose assistantship duties are directly related to his or her degree objectives is considered by the Graduate School to be engaged in full-time academic work for that semester or summer. A post-comprehensive doctoral candidate who is registered for SUBJ 601 also is so considered.

Part-Time Academic Status--A student who in any semester or summer session is registered for study but who does not meet the criteria for full-time status is considered to be engaged in part-time academic work for that semester. This includes students registered for SUBJ 611.

Credit Loads for Internationals--The Department of Homeland Security requires that international students proceed in a timely fashion toward completion of their degrees, as established by the academic department and (usually) stated on their initial immigration document. Failure to maintain normal progress toward completion of the degree during this period will jeopardize the student’s ability to continue academic study, adjust status, or seek future employment in the United States. Because of this, students should not be enrolled less than full-time during fall or spring semester without prior approval of the University Office of Global Programs Directorate of International Student Advising (DISA).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires the DISA to report violations of status, including failure to maintain full-time enrollment. The following is intended to provide guidance for international graduate students and for DISA in determining full-time status:

  • A graduate student is considered full-time if registered for a minimum of 9 credits, excluding courses taken for audit, or if a Ph.D. candidate who has successfully completed the comprehensive examination and is registered for SUBJ 601.
  • On rare occasions, and under exceptional circumstances, international students in master’s degree programs who have completed all required course work and, if applicable, research for their degree, may be granted an exception to the need to maintain full-time status as defined above, for a limited period (in no case to exceed two semesters), by special petition to DISA in advance of the semester in which the exception is needed. This request must be initiated by the student using the DISA eForm system. The academic adviser will be asked through this eForm system to justify the reduced course load.
  • Under all circumstances, international students must be enrolled--either full-time or approved by DISA for a reduced course load. (See Academic Information and Procedures/Registration/International Students.)

Employment--Many students depend upon part-time employment to help meet their expenses. A student who is thus employed, whether on or off campus, must recognize the time demands of a work schedule in planning an academic program. A student holding a fellowship or scholarship may not accept employment of any kind for service beyond that specifically permitted by the appointment. A graduate assistant may assist in classroom or laboratory instruction, in research or in other work. The tasks assigned to a graduate assistant often are identical in nature to those required for the advanced degree sought. Additional compensation is paid to a graduate assistant by the University for additional hours of work only with special, advance approval of the administrative head of the academic unit in which the assistantship is held, and of the chair of the student’s graduate academic program, and provided that such compensation is not for additional hours of work on the assigned assistantship duties.  A graduate assistant may not hold a concurrent appointment with the University other than a Fellowship Supplement.

For international students, guidelines for assistantships or employment are the same as for domestic students, with the following distinctions: (a) I-9 and W-4 forms must be processed through DISA; (b) vacation period employment may be up to forty hours per week; and (c) since Department of Homeland Security regulations on employment are subject to change, all employment off campus for international students must be cleared through DISA.

Full-Time Employment Off Campus--A candidate for the Ph.D. degree at a particular campus of the University may not count the work of any semester toward the residence requirement for this degree while engaged in full-time employment off campus or at a different campus of the University.

Staff Employee Credit Status--A full-time staff employee of the University may schedule up to 16 credits per academic year, either for credit or audit.

Full-time University employees may meet Ph.D. degree residence requirements by registering for 6 credits per semester or 4 credits per eight-week summer session and by obtaining certification from the department head as being principally engaged in activities directly relating to their degree objectives. A post-comprehensive full-time University employee may not register for SUBJ 601 (i.e., full-time thesis preparation), but may register for SUBJ 611 (part-time thesis preparation).

No academic employee above the rank of instructor or research assistant or equivalent may receive from the University a master’s degree or doctoral degree in any graduate program where the faculty member has membership, teaches courses, serves on master’s or doctoral committees, or has other supervisory responsibilities that might give rise to conflicts of interest. The faculty member should inform his/her department head of his/her intention to pursue an advanced degree.
University staff employees who want to take graduate degree work must first be admitted to the Graduate School.



Updated: 4/15/12


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