Human Development & Family Studies

Graduate Students

Researchers observing Child Development LabAmong the top of its kind nationally, the graduate program in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides challenging opportunities for advanced study, research, and outreach. HDFS offers an interdisciplinary approach to development across the lifespan leading to the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Students who enter the PhD program without a master’s degree complete their master’s degree along the way. Those who are interested in a terminal master’s degree are encouraged to apply to the Master of Science in Human Ecology Program. The HDFS program is served by a full-time faculty of 13 and additional affiliated faculty from other UW-Madison departments. Faculty have diverse research interests and are professionally active with strong records of national and international scholarship and service.

In addition to world-renowned faculty, students in the program can take advantage of the department’s many affiliated programs and Centers. These include SoHE’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being, the Center for Financial Security, the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies, the Waisman Center, the Institute for Research on Poverty, and the Morgridge Center for Public Service. HDFS is also a co-sponsor of the interdisciplinary training program in Prevention Science which offers both a graduate minor and certificate in prevention science. Finally, the department has close ties to the state Extension network which serves as an important link between campus and county-based Extension colleagues, stakeholders, partners, and the residents of Wisconsin.

Read more in our PhD program print piece.

What Makes this Program Unique

Principles of Graduate Education 

Students benefit from the perspectives of multiple disciplines and an understanding of the social, cultural,and historical contexts in which people develop. For this reason, our faculty come from diverse professional and disciplinary backgrounds and possess a wide range of experience and expertise. We also encourage scholarship that takes into account the larger social and cultural contexts in which people live, such as historical change, community, social class, ethnicity, and public policy.

The application of knowledge to real-world issues is central to our program and consistent with the Wisconsin Idea of outreach and service. Hence, faculty and students direct their work toward finding solutions to the current challenges facing individuals, families, and communities. Many work closely with policy and community leaders – in Wisconsin and nationally – to gather, disseminate and apply scientific knowledge.

Graduate training is most effective when students work closely with faculty to pursue programs of research and outreach that are tailored to their individual interests and aspirations. For example, students co-author scholarly articles with professors, give conference presentations and professional workshops, collaborate on research and evaluation projects, and work with community groups and policy makers to affect social change.


The program offers courses on development throughout the lifespan and across ecological settings. These courses focus on a range of topics, including risk and resiliency throughout the life span, positive human development, adult development and relationships, and aging and the family. Courses that address the applications of research to practice are also part of the curriculum. Recent offerings include courses in prevention science and bridging the gap between research and practice.For catalog descriptions of all of HDFS graduate courses, please see the Graduate Catalog.

Methodological Orientation 

Reflecting the multidisciplinary orientation of the program, faculty and students employ a wide array of methods in their work. Faculty possess expertise in areas as diverse as longitudinal modeling, community-based research, qualitative research, program evaluation, observational methods, survey methodology, and action research. The program explicitly values both qualitative and quantitative methods and encourages students to become proficient in both.

Student Success

There is a high demand for professionals with expertise in human development and family studies. Regardless of whether students end up in academic or applied settings, they are prepared for a life of scholarship and service. In addition to faculty positions at universities and colleges, recent graduates have careers in government, human service agencies, educational and prevention programs, technical assistance organizations, and policy institutes.

Doctor of Philosophy

The PhD curriculum is designed to provide advanced training in HDFS. Whether our graduates end up in academic or applied settings, we prepare them for work that includes independent research, outreach, and teaching. Students who are admitted to the PhD program are expected to have completed a research-based master’s thesis prior to admission or to complete the requirements for our MS degree as part of their PhD curriculum. Student who apply to our PhD program with a master’s degree that does not include an empirical thesis will need to complete a pre-doctoral research project prior to taking the doctoral preliminary exam. PhD students must take a proseminar in HDFS and three courses in human development and family theory. Students choose additional HDFS graduate courses to fill out their major area of concentration.

There is also a methodology core requirement of one course in advanced statistics and one course in advanced research methods. These advanced methodology courses are beyond those required for the MS. In addition, all students must complete 10 credits in a minor concentration area. Full-time students can expect at least three years of work toward the PhD after the requirements for the MS are met. Students take their preliminary exam after completing their required course work (usually at the end of their second year). This exam requires students to use their knowledge and skills regarding theory, research methodology, and the student’s substantive areas of interest. Upon completion of the preliminary exam, the student must prepare a dissertation proposal. All students are required to complete a dissertation and defend it in a final oral examination. Within the PhD program, students may choose to focus on preparation for an applied career by tailoring their program to emphasize such areas as applied research, prevention science, family policy, program development and evaluation, community development, or public policy.

Graduate Student Organizations

History and Objectives

The HDFS Graduate Student Organization (GSO) was started in September 2000 by a group of students interested in bringing a formal graduate student voice to the department. Since its inception, members of the GSO have worked to advocate for students’ needs and voice their opinions on departmental policies, procedures, and customs. The goals of the GSO are to:

  • Establish a unified graduate student voice
  • Improve communication between HDFS faculty and graduate students
  • Select representatives to serve on departmental committees
  • Create a support system and sense of community among HDFS graduate students
  • Provide mentorship and ease the transition for incoming graduate students
  • Advocate for graduate student interests and well-being when necessary

Elected students represent the GSO at departmental faculty meetings, the Undergraduate Program Committee (UPC) and at the Graduate Program Committee (GPC) meetings. Occasionally, graduate students also serve on ad hoc committees formed within the department and the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) as needed.

Opportunities for Professional Development 


There are a number of elected positions available in the GSO that offer members the opportunity to exercise their skills in leadership, communication, and collaboration, and other areas of professional and academic development. Any active graduate student has the opportunity to be elected as a GSO Co-Chair or to represent the GSO at meetings. Both faculty and students consider these roles important leadership positions within the department.

Academic and Professional Development

Depending on varying student needs each semester, the GSO hosts a variety of activities to help members achieve their academic or professional objectives and support the department. In the past, GSO activities have included the following:

      • Professional development workshops to prepare for key departmental benchmarks (such as writing a proposal or successfully defending theses or dissertations).
      • Weekly writing groups to allow students to build a sense of community while preparing academic manuscripts.
      • Speaker and poster sessions to highlight intellectual and graduate student research.
      • Mentor pairs to support successful navigation of the department and university.

Social Support

Beyond advocating for student voice within the department, the GSO’s activities focus on creating a social support network for new and current graduate students. The GSO sponsors a number of social activities during the school year, which have included dinners to welcome new students to the department, informal happy hours, community potluck lunches, bowling, karaoke, trivia, and attending the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Applied Outreach

Another aspect of GSO opportunity is in serving the local community. Each year, the GSO organizes a service project in which students, faculty, and staff in the department and the school can participate. Some recent projects included a mindfulness program in partnership with a school and community program evaluations. Some of these projects have resulted in published work and poster presentations. Other community service efforts have included book drives for a reading program at a local correctional facility, toy and food drives for the holidays, volunteering at the Special Olympics, gardening at a local senior center, evaluation projects for nonprofit organizations, and participating in a 5k run/walk for charity.

The organization communicates these opportunities through in-person meetings, an e-mail listserve, and a graduate student forum website. All graduate students in the department are automatically considered members of the GSO, although participation in GSO activities is voluntary.

Our Alumni

Graduates of the HDFS program gain an interdisciplinary understanding of human development and the contextual factors that make individuals and families thrive across the life course.  The application of knowledge to real-world issues is central to our program. Graduates of the program are poised to become leaders in academic and applied settings. In addition to faculty positions at universities and colleges, recent graduates have careers in government, human service agencies, educational and prevention programs, technical assistance organizations, and policy institutes. A few of our graduates and their current or first-destination positions are showcased below.

Areas of Faculty Expertise

Developmental Stages

Family Relationships

Families and Human Development in Context
Supporting Human Development and Families
Specialized Research Methodologies

Financial Aid and Funding

There are a number of sources of funding for graduate students, including assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships. For additional information, please review information regarding the School’s Graduate Funding Opportunities.

General UW-Madison graduate student funding information
Or, contact the Office of Student Financial Aid, 333 East Campus Mall, 608-262-3060.

Program Contacts

Picture of Kristin Litzelman

Kristin Litzelman | Assistant Professor | 608-262-3314 |




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SoHE Graduate Program |