PhD Program in Geology & Environmental Science

The Ph.D. is a research degree that represents the highest level of academic accomplishment in any field. Persons with this degree are expected to have demonstrated the ability to conduct independent research and also should have the level and breadth of knowledge about their field that one could reasonably expect of someone who has attained the highest academic degree in their field. Research performance, evidenced by preparation of a dissertation on an independently pursued research topic, is the primary requirement for the Ph.D. degree. Each program is designed in consultation with a faculty advisor to meet the needs of the student.

The Doctor of Philosophy degree requires completion of 72 credits, of which 36 must be formal lecture and laboratory courses. Completion of a preliminary assessment examination is required in order to guide selection of remaining courses.

Preliminary Exam

Students admitted to the graduate program take a suite of six courses in their first two years in residence. The “preliminary examination” in the Department of Geology & Environmental Science is based on the student's record of performance in these courses. Students will be considered to pass the preliminary exam when they have achieved a grade of “B” or better in each of the courses. The student must take GEOL 2001 and GEOL 2468, in addition to three “core” courses from the list below, which are relevant to their research. In addition, students should take at least one course from a subfield markedly outside their research area. This course must be approved by the graduate committee.

The courses in the Graduate Handbook are offered at least once every other year. Other classes not on this list may be added upon approval of the student’s advisor and the graduate committee.

Course Requirements

The minimum requirement for the Ph.D. degree is seventy-two (72) credits. These include lecture, laboratory, seminar, topics courses, and thesis research credits. A minimum of thirty-six (36) credits must be from formal courses and at least eighteen (18) of the credits must be taken within the Department of Geology and Environmental Science. A maximum of eight (8) credits numbered below 2000 may be applied toward graduation requirements with prior approval. No course numbered below 1000 may be applied toward graduation requirements.

A minimum grade point average of 3.0 must be maintained for all formal courses taken. Students with full graduate status will be placed on probation if the cumulative grade point average falls below the minimum grade point level. If a Master of Science degree is awarded from the Department prior to admission, then at least forty-two (42) additional credits are required.

Comprehensive Examination

The intention of the comprehensive overview examination is to facilitate the student’s progress toward publishing their first paper, while at the same time using the exams as a means to assess the student’s research ability and accomplishments. The written portion of the exam constitutes a research proposal or manuscript, whereas the oral exam is comprised of a seminar-style presentation followed by verbal questions by the graduate committee. The comprehensive overview exam overall will incorporate assessment of “breadth” by both the committee assessment of the introductory and background sections of the writing sample, as well as during the questioning period of the oral exam. In addition to background assessment, the oral examination questions will focus on material directly related to the major field of research and the planned dissertation research and related subjects.

The written and oral comprehensive overview exams must be taken before the 7th semester of residence in the Ph.D. program, typically during third year. The written exam (i.e., the proposal or manuscript) must be passed before the oral is scheduled. After passing both written and oral examinations (as well as the requirements of the preliminary exam), the student is admitted to “Ph.D. candidacy”. Therefore, it is to the student’s advantage to complete all requirements as soon as possible. However, the student does not need to complete all degree plan classes before the comprehensive overview exams. In particular, examining committees can require additional course work be taken as an outcome of the oral comprehensive overview exam.

Comprehensive Overview Written Exam:

The written portion of the exam can either constitute a longer research proposal or manuscript based on your own research results, or a shorter research proposal or manuscript combined with answering written questions from the student’s advisor. The choice will be made by the student’s advisor upon consultation with the student’s committee. The written document should be on a topic closely related to the student’s proposed dissertation research. It should typically be in the range of 12-15 single spaced pages (for the long format) and 6-8 single spaced pages (for the short format), including figures and references. Documents should adhere to standard formatting conventions. The balance of introductory information, preliminary data, and proposed research should be discussed with the student’s advisor prior to the written exam. In lieu of the formal proposal or manuscript format, students may opt to write a paper that summarizes work they have done to date in a form that prepares it for publication, and then adds on an extended “future work” section that constitutes the proposed dissertation research. If the proposal format is chosen, students should follow the format of one of the major research granting agencies such as

  • The National Science Foundation (,
  • The Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) Program of NASA
  • The National Research Initiative Competitive Grant Program of the USDA (, or
  • The Science to Achieve Results (STAR) competitive grant program of the US EPA ( For which proposal guidelines can be obtained from their web sites. For the comprehensive exam document, budgets, CVs, and other ancillary materials required by funding agencies are not necessary.

The five-person examining committee for the written and oral exam must include the four faculty members from the GES department who serve on your advisory committee and one additional outside committee member. The outside committee member can participate in the oral exam in person or via teleconference. Participation by teleconference must be approved by the graduate dean’s office before the oral exam

  • After you have completed the written document, send one complete copy to each committee member. The committee will have a minimum of two weeks to review the proposal.
  • The committee will rate the written document and relay their ratings to the advisor and the rest of the committee as (1) pass, (2) pass with reservations (meaning that some rewriting is necessary), (3) fail but can retake, or (4) fail without the possibility of retaking the exam.

The results of the written examination are reported on the comprehensive overview exam report form, signed by your adviser and the DGS. It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the oral examination. The oral exam cannot be scheduled before the results of the written examination are reported.

Comprehensive Overview Oral Exam:

The oral exam and its accompanying dossier is the last major milestone before Ph.D. candidacy. The oral exam consists of two parts:

  1. Seminar-like presentation on your proposed dissertation research
  2. Committee questions, which pertain to the presentation but also extend across your areas of expertise

It is the student’s responsibility to find a time at which the committee can meet for the exam, to arrange an appropriate exam room, and to see that the necessary audio-visual facilities are available.

The seminar presentation is open to all members of the faculty in addition to the committee and should include a description of the proposed work, the scientific basis and need for the work, and the progress made to date. The presentation should be scheduled to last no longer than 30 minutes, though it may last longer if the committee and faculty ask questions during the presentation. The question-answer phase may last for several additional hours. Oral exams usually take most of a morning or afternoon; a minimum of three hours should be reserved for this exam. Non-committee faculty members are allowed to stay for any/all parts of the oral exam.

Committees and advisors vary somewhat in the way they conduct the question-answer part of the oral exam and in the amount of information they are willing to provide the student in advance. It generally is a good idea to meet with each member of your committee before the exam date to obtain their perspectives on what is expected. For example, one might ask each person ‘How do you suggest I prepare for the oral exam?’ 

In addition to the background material related to their research direction, it is expected that students have good working knowledge of big-picture topics related to Earth and Environmental Science, appropriate to their degree stage and particular academic direction. The student should be prepared to:

  1. Explain the importance of the research, describe future research plans and demonstrate knowledge of scientific principles behind any methods used.
  2. Demonstrate knowledge of the fundamental concepts in core areas of geologic and environmental science, as well as in the student’s areas of expertise.

Examining committees are established to protect the academic standards of the program, however their goal is to see that students succeed. No committee wishes to see a student fail. The committee might be interested in seeing you apply your knowledge to theorize answers to questions to which you do not know the answer. Thus, while committee members may test the limits of a student’s knowledge, the inability to answer every question will not automatically result in a failure.

At the conclusion of the examination, the committee discusses and votes on the outcome, following rules prescribed.

  • Possible outcomes are pass, pass with reservations, or fail.
  • The committee may decide to allow a student who fails the oral exam to retake it one more time.
  • Pass with reservation indicates that the committee was not satisfied with some aspect(s) of the student’s knowledge or preparation; however, this does pass the student to Ph.D. Candidacy. The specific deficiencies and requirements for rectifying these deficiencies (e.g., additional coursework, writing a review paper, etc.) must be explained to the student immediately after the exam, and a written explanation is provided on the exam report. The reservation must be lifted, by approval of the advisor and DGS, before the student can proceed to the final dissertation defense.

Admission to Candidacy

Following successful completion of the comprehensive examination, and completion of the dissertation overview, the student may apply to the Dean for Admission to Candidacy. Admission to candidacy constitutes a promotion of the student to the most advanced stage of graduate study and provides formal approval to devote exclusive attention to research and writing of the dissertation.


Each Ph.D. candidate must prepare a dissertation demonstrating successful completion of the research project as well as competency in the methods and techniques of scientific investigation in the field of her/his area of specialization. The dissertation must be clearly, logically, and carefully written. The Major Advisor must approve of the content, format, and grammar prior to submission of the dissertation to the Dissertation Committee. The dissertation should contain an introductory statement, including appropriate justification of the research, a description of the methods and observations of the investigation, evaluation of the significance and meaning of the results, and a final summary. Each Ph.D. student must submit at least one manuscript to a peer-review journal prior to graduation and present research results at both a departmental colloquium and at a meeting of a national or international scientific organization. Dissertation Defense Each Ph.D. candidate must formally defend her/his submitted dissertation. The defense is a public meeting, and the notice should therefore list the title of the dissertation and the time and location of the event.

The Dissertation Committee conducts the defense of the doctoral dissertation. The student will begin the dissertation defense with a presentation summarizing her/his research topic and results. Following the oral summary and a general question-and answer period, visitors will be asked to leave and the student will then defend her/his research by answering questions posed by the Dissertation Committee. The dissertation will be formally accepted or rejected by the Dissertation Committee at the defense and the committee will decide what, if any, revisions should be made.