Assessment of English Competency

The Food Science Department defines the level of speaking competency as the ability to convey scientific and general information in an understandable manner, and the level of writing competency as the ability to relate scientific information in clear and easy-to-understand language that uses correct English grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. All Ph.D. candidates must take this exam--domestic students included.

The Director of Graduate Studies will conduct the assessment of speaking and writing competency at the beginning of Fall and Spring semesters. Within the first month of their first semester in residence in the Food Science program, all new Ph.D. candidates will be asked to:

  1. Write a one-page summary on a subject in one hour to test writing competency. The Director of Graduate Studies will determine the topic and supervise the administration of the writing exercise. This will be evaluated by the Director of Graduate Studies.
  2. Complete a half-hour oral interview with the Director of Graduate Studies to test speaking competency.

The Director of Graduate Studies will evaluate each candidate's performance within two weeks and report the outcome to the candidate. A candidate must successfully complete both aspects of the English competency examination. Those successfully completing only one part will be required to take an appropriate remedial course(s) in the other area.

Improvement of English Competency by Students with Deficiencies

Those students whose speaking is judged below acceptable standards based on the initial assessment by the Director of Graduate Studies will be required to take SPCOM 114G, 116G, or other appropriate courses. Those students whose writing is judged below acceptable standards based on the initial assessment by the Director of Graduate Studies will be required to take one or more appropriate courses as determined by their graduate committee.

Attainment of Competency

For candidates with below-standard English based on their initial exam, assurance of acceptable speaking and writing competency will be based on evaluation of his/her performance on a second evaluation of his/her performance on oral and written and oral portions of the Comprehensive Examination.

Request for Exemption from English Competency Examination

The student must submit a one-page petition justifying the exemption to the Director of Graduate Studies along with evidence for speaking competency and writing competency.  For example, the student may have published a research paper (in English) as primary author, and the student may have recently presented an oral presentation (in English) at a scientific meeting.  A copy of the manuscript and presentation abstract should be attached to the petition.  Furthermore, the student's major advisor will also be required to sign the petition.  By signing the petition, the advisor is attesting to the fact that the student has attained a level of speaking and writing competency in English.

Qualifying Examination

The primary purpose of the Qualifying Examination is to provide an early assessment of whether the student has the potential to develop the knowledge, skills, and attributes the program has defined in its formal Learning Objectives, including evidence of critical thinking skills, necessary for a successful researcher in the disciplinary field.

  1. The Qualifying Examination is conducted early in a student's program to ensure that the considerable investment of time, resources, and effort required by the student has a high likelihood of leading to completion of the Ph.D.
  2. Additionally, the Qualifying Examination may assess if the student is well grounded in the fundamental knowledge of the discipline.


  1. It is the responsibility of the major Graduate Program Head to ensure that the Qualifying Examination is scheduled within the required time limits as defined below.
  2. All students must take the Qualifying Examination within three semesters (not counting the summer semester) of entry into the doctoral program.
    1. Students who have been identified as master's-along-the-way upon admission into the graduate program may be allowed an extension such that the three-semester time limit will begin upon completion of the master's degree.
    2. Students pursuing dual-title degrees must take the Qualifying Examination within four semesters (not counting the summer semester) of entry into the doctoral program.1
  3. To be eligible to take the Qualifying Examination the student must have:
    1. Earned at least 18 credits in courses eligible to be counted toward the graduate degree (these may be graduate credits earned previously at other recognized institutions from which transfer credits would be accepted) or the equivalent as determined and documented by the program.
    2. A grade-point average of 3.00 or greater for work done at the University while a graduate student.
    3. No incomplete or deferred grades.


  1. The student's major program must establish guidelines for the Qualifying Examination that are uniformly applied to all students. These guidelines and evaluation criteria must be presented in the graduate program's handbook, which must be provided to the student upon matriculation. These guidelines must include:
    1. The timing and the format of the examination.
    2. Clear criteria for evaluation.
    3. The program's policy describing the student's options in case of failure. The policy must include:
        -- If retaking the examination after failure is allowed.
        -- If retaking the examination after failure is permitted whether there is a limit to the number of attempts.
        -- If students who have failed the final attempt will be dismissed from the program or may be allowed to change to the master's degree.
  2. If the student is also enrolled in a dual-title graduate degree program,
    1. The Qualifying Examination requirement shall be satisfied by one of the following:
        -- Ideally, a single Qualifying Examination that incorporates content from both the graduate major program and the dual-title program. The Qualifying Examination Committee must include at least one member of the Graduate Faculty from the dual-title program.
               ** In cases where the timing of the Qualifying Examination in the major area precludes the inclusion of the dual-title area, the dual-title program may choose to examine proficiency in the dual-title area at a later time, but no later than the end of the fourth semester (not counting summer semesters) of entry into the major doctoral program.
        -- Dual-title programs may choose to allow the Qualifying Examination in the major area alone to satisfy the requirements for the dual-title program.
    2. The means of establishing proficiency in the dual-title area must be defined in the major program proposal adopting the dual-title degree and must be included in the student handbook for each dual-title program.

Format of Exam:

  1. Each graduate program will determine the composition of its Qualifying Examination Committee. All members of the Qualifying Examination Committee must be members of the Graduate Faculty, with the majority drawn from the faculty of the program.
  2. The graduate program administering the Qualifying Examination may choose from the following general formats with the specific details being left to the discretion of the program. The exam can be:
    1. a written, oral, or written and oral assessment of a student's ability to conduct doctoral-level research as determined by the graduate program; or
    2. an assessment of a thesis submitted in fulfillment of a research master's degree in the major or a related program.

At the conclusion of the evaluation, students must be informed of the results in writing. In cases when the Qualifying Examination is not passed, the student must also be notified whether a re-examination is offered or if the student will be terminated from the Ph.D. program. If the student will be terminated from the Ph.D. program, they must also be informed if they will be allowed to change to the master's degree.

The same report of all Qualifying Examinations, regardless of the outcome, must be reported to both the student and Graduate Enrollment Services as soon as possible but no later than 30 days following the conclusion of the assessment of the student; this includes both the initial examination and any subsequent retakes.

  1. The report will include any identified deficiencies as well as any remedial steps the committee recommends or requires the student to undertake. Unresolved deficiencies from other assessments (e.g., English Competence, see GCAC-605) should be included.
  2. Following the examination, the Qualifying Examination Committee should also share any recommendations for further study or preparation, as well as any remedial steps the committee requires the student to undertake with the student's Academic or Dissertation adviser and Ph.D. Committee (when formed).
  3. While it is common and helpful for a student and the student's Ph.D. Committee to use the information gathered to further guide the student's program, such discussions are not part of the examination itself.

1The additional time allowed for dual-title degree students is in recognition of the additional requirements they may need to fulfill.

Committee Composition

The Ph.D. Qualifying Examination Committee (Committee) will be composed of four Food Science faculty members representing the diversity of disciplines within Food Science.  Members will be appointed by the Head for a period of four years and will become Chair of the Committee in their fourth year.  All Committee members will have equal rights and voting privileges.  When a member of the Committee has a conflict of interest (e.g. advisor of the Ph.D. student being evaluated) that member will be responsible for finding a substitute within the Food Science Faculty in the field they represent and notifying the Committee and the student of the change.  In the event the Chair of the Committee has a conflict of interest, the next senior member of the Committee will act as Chair.

Protocol and Evaluation 

The Qualifying Examination must be taken within three semesters of entry into the doctoral program.  All Ph.D. students must have a M.S. degree or have completed at least 18 credits of graduate coursework beyond a Baccalaureate degree, prior to taking the Qualifying Examination.  Approximately two months before conducting the Qualifying Examination, the Chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee will ask all Food Science graduate students to inform the Chair of their intent to take the Qualifying Examination.  Approximately one month prior to the Qualifying Examination, the Chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee will meet collectively with those students scheduled to take the Qualifying Examination to clarify the protocol and evaluation criteria.

Students must pass the Qualifying Examination to be considered a Ph.D. candidate.  The Qualifying Examination will be administered consistent with the policy of the Graduate School above.  The general guidelines are described in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin (https:

What follows is a description of the specific evaluation criteria as developed by the Graduate Faculty in Food Science and administered by the Qualifying Committee under the direction of the Department Head, who is also Head of the Food Science Graduate Program.

The Qualifying Examination will be administered during January and May, preferably when classes are NOT in session. The chair of the Qualifying Committee will meet with the students in December and April to explain the procedures and expectations for the exam.

Before taking the Qualifying Examination, students should have knowledge of the following areas with an emphasis on principles/concepts rather than details:  

  1. The scientific method, including hypothesis development, basic experimental design, and methods of data analysis.
  2. Scientific ethics and academic integrity.
  3. How to effectively communicate scientific research information to a wide variety of audiences.
  4. Principles of chemistry and biochemistry of foods, including food ingredients and food systems from raw materials to during and after processing.
  5. Principles of food microbiology, including beneficial and detrimental aspects of microorganisms in foods, as well as methods used for detection, enumeration and control of microorganisms important in foods.
  6. Principles of nutrition with emphasis on aspects of human physiology and metabolism, nutrient intake and utilization, nutrition surveillance and dietary recommendations, and the impact of food intake patterns on health.
  7. Principles of food engineering, including fluid flow and heat transfer, as applied to unit operations in food processing and manufacture.

Two weeks before the Qualifying Examination, the student shall submit to the Department's Graduate Program Coordinator the following:

  1. A copy of the master's thesis and any relevant published work.
  2. Transcripts of undergraduate and graduate course work and GRE scores.
  3. Statement of purpose for Ph.D. studies (professional goals, major research interests and plan for completing Ph.D.).
  4. A list of courses taken and to be taken at Penn State.

The materials will be made available in a file in the main office for review by the Qualifying Examination Committee prior to the Qualifying Examination. 

The Qualifying Examination will consist of an oral examination.  The Qualifying Examination is used to evaluate a student's potential for Ph.D. research, including the student's ability to think critically, analyze research problems, and communicate means to approach and examine these problems.  This examination serves to validate the transformation in the student's status from graduate student accepted to work toward the Ph.D. to graduate student recognized as a candidate for the Ph.D. in the Food Science Graduate Program.   In general, as administered in the Food Science Graduate Program, this examination is designed to test two things: 

  1. the student's ability to engage in critical thinking within the field of food science, and
  2. the student's knowledge in broad areas of the field, with an emphasis on understanding central principles and concepts rather than specific factual detail. 

Two weeks prior to the Qualifying examination, the student will be given a research paper of broad relevance to Food Science.  This paper will be selected by the Qualifying Examination Committee.  An ideal research paper will describe food science research and be published in a core food science journal (e.g. Journal of Food Science, Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Food Microbiology, Journal of Food Engineering, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).  The research paper should be broadly comprehensible to all members of the Committee and should have some flaws that the student can identify and criticize.

The exam will begin with the student presenting a 30-minute critique of the research paper. The student shall share a copy of the presentation with the Qualifying Committee members.  Students may use visuals aids and notes, but a written draft that could be read from will not be permitted.  After the presentation, the Committee will have the opportunity to ask questions regarding information presented in the paper, primarily to evaluate overall understanding of the work and how it is related to other areas in Food Science. The aim of these questions is to determine the student's ability to show a clear understanding of the data presented and to demonstrate competency in explaining research data to a scientific group in a logical and precise manner.  It is expected that the student will have a thorough understanding of all aspects of the research paper including background literature and all methodology used.

Decision of the Qualifying Examination Committee and Communication of Results

The primary outcome of the examination is either pass, fail with an opportunity for a re-examination, or fail.  To pass, the student must receive at least 3 out of 4 positive votes from the Committee.  If the decision is to fail the student (less than 3 of 4 positive votes from the Committee) the Committee will then vote to determine whether the student may retake the Qualifying Examination.  At least 3 out of 4 positive votes are required to allow a retake and, they must take the Qualifying Examination the following January or May.  Students will only be given one opportunity to retake the Qualifying Examination. The result of the Qualifying Examination (pass, fail with the opportunity to retake, or fail with no opportunity to retake) will be communicated to each student immediately after their Qualifying Examination.  Within a week after all of the Qualifying Examinations are finished, each student taking the Qualifying Exam, their advisor(s), all members of the Qualifying Examination Committee, the Department Head and the Director of Graduate Studies will be notified in writing as to the outcome of the Qualifying Examination, whether the Qualifying Examination Committee perceived any specific deficiencies and what coursework and/or other work are recommended to remedy the perceived deficiencies.

Specifically, the Qualifying Committee will assess the following student abilities with the goal of determining the student's potential to successfully conduct independent research and complete a doctoral degree in food science:

  1. Ability to identify the hypothesis, objectives, and major experiments in a peer-reviewed scientific publication.
  2. Ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses related to the hypothesis, experimental approaches, and data interpretation.
  3. Ability to place a particular study into the broader context of the scientific literature in terms of its significance to food and related science (the extent to which it advances the field, answers important long-standing questions, raises new questions), and industry and public health stakeholders (is the topic important to industry, public health, is it translatable beyond the laboratory).
  4. Ability to outline experiments to extent or improve the studies reported in a particular peer-reviewed publication.
  5. Ability to answer questions rooted in, but peripheral to, a particular peer-reviewed scientific study. The answers should demonstrate of critical thinking, a broad knowledge of food science and related disciplines, and the ability to formulate an answer with incomplete information/expertise, and intellectual honesty (i.e. student is aware and forthcoming about what they know and what they do not know, and are willing to share that information with the committee).
  6. Ability to summarize and effectively communicate study design, key findings, implications, and strengths and weaknesses of a particular study.

The Qualifying Committee will evaluate each student in terms of each of the above abilities and score them as Outstanding, Very Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Not acceptable.  In order for the student to pass the examination, he or she should be Average or greater in 5 of the 6 abilities.