Procedures and Policies for Graduate Students in Psychology

The graduate programs at Northwestern’s Department of Psychology aim to train scholars and researchers who will become future leaders of scientific psychology. We offer PhD programs in Brain, Behavior, & Cognition (BBC); Clinical; Cognitive; Personality and Health; and Social Psychology. Requirements differ across programs, but all students take a common set of general courses and as well, courses more focused on their specific areas of interest. All engage in a series of research projects, and all assist with undergraduate teaching.

This document focuses on policies and procedures that apply to five important issues in graduate school:  (a) Funding, (b) Research and Academics, (c) Requirements, (d) Teaching, and (e) the Department’s Grievance Policy for students.

a. Funding 

Northwestern University guarantees full funding (tuition + stipend) to all Ph.D. students in good academic standing through their first five academic years (9 months) and first four summers (3 months) in the program.  In addition, students who receive an NSF or other multi-year external Fellowship may be eligible for a sixth funded year.

Funding can come from many different sources – e.g., University Fellowships (UFs), Graduate Assistantships (GAs), faculty grants, and other outside sources (e.g., NSF awards).  In guaranteeing five academic years of support (and full support for four summers), the Department does not specify what the source of that support will be.  For example, while some students may be funded primarily on a combination of UFs and GA-ships, others may work as research assistants on faculty grants or may be primarily funded through their own NSF awards. 

Students are strongly encouraged to apply for funding from university-sponsored awards or other sources (e.g., NSF).  To support that activity, the Department and the graduate programs will provide resources, guidance, and advice regarding when and how to apply for external funding.  Students are also strongly urged to consult the Graduate School’s Office of Fellowships for further assistance.  Students who receive outside funding and students who receive funding via faculty grants as Research Assistants receive some reduction in teaching assistant duties during the period of the award.  Receiving outside funding is considered a strong honor and represents an important achievement in graduate school.  There are also some university-sponsored awards that are relevant for students.  Information on these and other awards can be obtained from the Fellowships office and the Northwestern University Graduate School website.   

b. Research and Academics 

In addition to department-wide requirements, each of the five programs or areas in the Psychology Department – BBC, Clinical, Cognitive, Personality and Health, and Social – has their own specific requirements regarding courses, first-year projects, master’s theses, comprehensive exams, and so on.  Students are expected make timely and satisfactory progress toward the requirements set forth by their respective programs. Hence, it is very important to speak with your advisor and area head about the requirements in your area (more senior students in your program are also often a good source of information).  Faculty advisors are expected to provide students with prompt and reasonable feedback on their research and academic progress, including meeting regularly with their advisees.  Students must have a primary advisor at all times during graduate school to remain in good standing.  Typically students are admitted to the PhD program to work with a specific advisor.  Sometimes during graduate school, a student may wish to change primary advisors.  This is permissible, but there should be written documentation of an agreement to this change provided by both the student and the new primary advisor, and the DGS must approve this change.  Students are also expected to maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0 in their classes.  The minimum course requirement for Ph.D. set by the Graduate School is 9 graded courses (not including independent study).  Students are also expected to maintain full-time status (i.e., 3 courses, including independent study) for 8 consecutive quarters.  After the residency and the 9 graded courses requirements are obtained, students are not required to take any regular courses, but are able to register for up to four courses a year with appropriate program approval.  All students who receive funding are required to maintain full-time enrollment.  Advanced students may also wish to sit in on a course (receiving no course credit) with permission of the instructor.   

c. Requirements, Evaluations, and Exclusion 

All students should receive written evaluations from their respective programs at least once a year.  The written evaluation should be completed at the end of the spring quarter.  To prepare the evaluations, faculty in a given area will meet to discuss each student’s progress in classes, research, teaching, and other professional responsibilities.  If any special remediation efforts are prescribed for the student, this information will appear in the evaluation letter.   These written evaluations become part of the student’s file.  Students should meet with their advisors and/or area heads to discuss these reviews. 

In addition, for students who have not been making satisfactory academic progress, faculty may conduct additional reviews and provide a written evaluation letter as frequently as once per quarter (typically letters would be provided at the end of a quarter).

The Graduate School has 2 firm deadlines. First, students must be admitted to candidacy by August 30 prior to the beginning of their 4th year.  Admission to candidacy is reached by passing a comprehensive qualifying examination as administered by your particular program, as well as all of the required preparatory coursework and research.

Second, students must have a prospectus (dissertation proposal) approved by their committee by August 31 prior to the beginning of the fifth year

In the Department of Psychology, failure to make satisfactory academic progress may result in exclusion from the program.  Failure to make satisfactory academic progress includes but is not limited to: (a) average GPA below 3.0; (b) failing or not resolving an incomplete in a course; (c) unsatisfactory progress in research; (d) not meeting milestones related to the first year project, master’s thesis, comprehensive examination, dissertation prospectus, and dissertation by the required dates specified in each area’s milestones; (e) being without a primary advisor; and (f) not passing the English proficiency exam (for foreign students).  Unsatisfactory progress will be communicated by the area head (in consultation with the primary research advisor) in an evaluation letter to the student (per the timeframes stated above) and will specify the ways in which the student has not made satisfactory progress in their research/academics, will outline steps the student must take in order for their progress to be considered satisfactory, and will provide a timeline for completing these steps.  When a student receives an evaluation letter stating that they have not made satisfactory progress in the program, they will be placed on probation.  After 1 quarter of probation, if progress in the program remains unsatisfactory, this is grounds for exclusion.  With respect to milestones, if after 1 quarter of probation a student still has not successfully completed the milestone, they may petition the department for an extension of the milestone for 1 additional quarter. This petition must be sent in writing, and there will need to also be a letter of support written by the student’s primary advisor.  The petition and letter of support should be submitted to the DGS, who will then consult with the area head about the petition, and a ruling granting or denying the request will be provided in writing to the student.  If the petition is granted, the student is allowed to remain in the program, but remains on probation for a second quarter.  After 2 quarters of probation, if the milestone has not been successfully completed, the student will be excluded from the program, as per TGS rules.  The Department of Psychology also follows TGS’ rules for exclusion of students.

d. Teaching 

General Requirements

Please refer to the ‘Information about being a Teaching Assistant’ document on the Psychology Department website (under Current Students) for details.  Students are required to assist in the teaching of undergraduate courses in the Department.   Specifically, regardless of a student’s funding sources, the Department requires that all students get teaching experience during their graduate-school career.  To that effect, each student is required to serve as a teaching assistant during multiple years, as well as lead a class (i.e., lecture) at least twice on which they are evaluated by the faculty instructor and/or someone at the Searle Center.

All graduate students, regardless of their funding source or status, have teaching assistant duties in the department. Students typically serve as teaching assistants 2 quarters in years 1-4 and 1 quarter in year 5.  [The first two years are different for Clinical students: they typically TA 3 quarters in their first year and 1 in their second year.]  Most incoming grads (i.e., first year) are not required to TA during their first quarter here (except for in the clinical program, which has a different distribution of TAing across the first two years).  Students receiving external funding (e.g. NSF, faculty research grant) for at least 2 quarters of an academic year receive a one course reduction in TA duties for the years that they are on those fellowships. 

Being a Teaching Assistant: Expectations, Goals, and Best Practices

Teaching assistant responsibilities may include attending classes, holding office hours, constructing and administering exams, grading exams and papers, providing guest lectures, and leading discussion sections. For any given quarter, the amount of teaching responsibilities should average between 12 and 15 hours of work per week (maximum ~20 hours).  These figures include time spent attending the class. 

Faculty are expected to provide teaching assistants with specific information regarding their duties and responsibilities at the beginning of the course.  Faculty are expected to make reasonable demands for teaching assistants and to treat teaching assistants in a collegial and professional manner.

Faculty are also required to evaluate the performance of the teaching assistants assigned to them every quarter by completing the Department’s Teaching Assistant Evaluation Form.  These completed forms will be placed in your file in the Department main office.   

There are also several options for students to gain experience teaching their own course.  First, students can complete either the Searle Center’s Graduate Teaching Certificate and/or the Teaching Course offered by the Department.  After, completing the Searle course they will be required (and able) to serve as an instructor for a course in the School of Professional Studies (SPS).  After completing the Searle Certificate Program or the Department’s teaching course, students will be eligible to serve as co-instructors for the Department’s research methods course (assuming they have met the other requirements for this role). 

Searle Center for Teaching Excellence:  TA Conference

The New TA Conference will take place at the beginning of the fall quarter.  All graduate students TAing for the first time are required to attend this full day of interactive workshops led by professionally-trained TA Fellows. The day begins with discipline-specific suggestions for how to succeed in your TAship, then there are concurrent sessions on a range of teaching and learning issues.  More information here:

English Proficiency.  Foreign students will be required to demonstrate English proficiency before serving as a TA.  If you come from an English-speaking country, or graduated from a university at which English is the primary language of instruction, then you will be exempt.  Otherwise, you will need to take a test of proficiency before serving as a TA.

e. Grievance Policy

Graduate students sometimes experience important disagreements and problems regarding program policies and/or their professional relationships with faculty in the Psychology Department.  Should the student wish to seek assistance and/or state a grievance regarding such a problem, the student should consult first with his or her academic adviser(s).  If the issue involves the adviser him- or herself, however, the student should seek assistance at the next level up – the Program (Division) Head.  Following that, the student may wish to consult with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) in the Department.  Next, the student may wish to consult the Departmental Chair.  Finally, the student may wish to talk with a higher administrator in the Graduate School.  At the present time, the Associate Dean of Student Services in the Graduate School fills this role. 

The grievance policy, therefore, sets up a hierarchy of appeals – from adviser, to Division Head, to DGS, to Department Chairperson, to Graduate School Associate Dean.  The student is encouraged to take the grievance first to the lowest level of the hierarchy and then, if necessary, move up from one level to the next.  At the same time, students should know that one of the main responsibilities of the DGS is to monitor the progress and work to assure the well-being of all graduate students in the Department, across all Programs/Divisions.  Therefore, students may, in some cases, wish to skip over the first two levels and appeal immediately to the DGS if they feel that discussing the problem with faculty in their Division (e.g., advisor, Program Head) is too awkward or threatening.

Finally, it is the policy of Northwestern University that no member of the Northwestern community may sexually harass any other member of the community.  Graduate students who wish to learn more about the university’s policy or who feel that they may have been sexually harassed should contact the University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office (  Please note, further, that if a student discusses an incident of possible sexual harassment with a faculty member, the faculty member is obligated to report the matter to the University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office.