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November 8, 2023

PhD Program Information and Milestones

Written By: Kate Fanis

Program requirements are detailed in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering’s Academic Policies Procedures, also referred to as the Graduate Handbook. The Graduate Handbook is a resource for the requirements of our graduate program. Current and past Graduate Handbooks and related forms will be available on the intranet. Key program information and requirements are summarized below.

Matching with a PhD Advisor

During their first semester, PhD students will undergo a matching process to determine their faculty advisor (or co-advisors). CBE faculty and affiliates can serve as advisors. Matching has multiple steps as outlined below. The Chemical Engineering Graduate Students Association website has further advice on the matching procedure.

New Student Orientation begins: Late August

New graduate students are provided with a list of members of each research group, current projects, and groups that have openings for new students.

Faculty Research Introductions: Late August – Early September

New graduate students attend talks in which faculty present an overview of their research groups and potential projects. Immediately following the research talks, students arrange initial interviews with faculty members. These interviews enable students to learn about diverse research opportunities and enable faculty to assess student interest in their research area or in specific projects. Students then continue to meet with additional professors, contact members of research groups, attend group meetings, read relevant literature, or convey their interests in research areas or projects to different professors.

Submit Major Professor Preference form: Early October

Students list their top choices of advisors in order of preference. The Graduate Associate Chair will recommend assignments of students to advisors in order to meet the mutual wishes and best interests of students and professors.

PhD Program Requirements and Milestones

A typical timeline with milestones is shown below. Details on program requirements are provided in the following sections.

Chart showing PhD program requirements

Students typically must complete at least ten courses. Six of these courses must be in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, with at least four chosen from the five CBE core courses:

• CBE 620: Intermediate Transport Phenomena
• CBE 660: Intermediate Problems in Chemical Engineering (i.e., Math)
• CBE 710: Advanced Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics
• CBE 735: Kinetics and Catalysis
• CBE 781 Biological Engineering: Molecules, Cells, and Systems.

The other two are CBE electives. Click here for brief descriptions of CBE courses.

Of the remaining four courses, three should be directed towards a Minor requirement (typically 9-12 credits), and one (at least 3 credits) is an elective that must be taken from another program.

The preliminary exam presents graduate students with the opportunity to benchmark their current process and begin planning out the rest of their time in the graduate program. The preliminary exam consists of a written report and an oral examination; the written portion is typically completed by January 31st of the second year of residence, while the oral portion takes place in February-March. The written portion consists of an original 15-page document outlining research motivation, analysis of past studies, accomplishments to date, and plans for future research. The oral portion consists of a 30-minute research presentation summarizing the contents of the written document, followed by up to 0.5-1.5 hours of questions, ideas, and comments by the student’s faculty committee.

Each student must serve as a teaching assistant (TA) for two semesters, typically in the second and/or third year of study. Students have input in the TA assignment process and are able to submit their preferences for courses (both graduate and undergraduate) that they are most interested in.

Once a student has completed all requirements for their degree except for their final defense, they may become dissertators. Once a student becomes a dissertator they enroll in exactly three credits of CBE 990 each semester until they graduate. Students typically become dissertators sometime in the third year. Dissertators are considered full-time students at exactly three credits, leading to a significant reduction in segregated fees.

This research meeting takes place in the fall semester of the fourth year with a student’s research committee (generally the same as a student’s Preliminary Exam committee). The meeting consists of a 30-minute oral presentation by the student on research progress followed by a 30-minute discussion with the committee. The presentation should include motivation for the student’s research, research accomplishments to date, and plans for future work (including a tentative timeline and planned future publications).

Students are expected to complete their degree within 5 years from the start of the program. The final oral defense is an hour-long presentation to a committee followed by an hour of questions, ideas, and comments from the committee, much like the preliminary exam. The committee is comprised of at least four faculty members, including at least one, but not more than two, from outside the department (the committee should generally be the same as the committee for the student’s 4th year talk, with the addition of an outside faculty member). Three members of the committee are designated as “readers” of the student’s thesis document, and the thesis must be provided to all committee members at least two weeks prior to the final oral examination.

Clear communication between faculty advisors and students is important to achieving satisfactory progress through the graduate program. The Graduate Handbook delineates expectations of both faculty advisors and graduate students that are followed by all groups in the department. Each CBE group also has specific expectations regarding working hours, requirements for publication authorship travel or conference attendance policies, student-advisor meetings, group meetings, and requirements for graduation. Students are asked to discuss these expectations with faculty as desired. Finally, all students and their faculty advisors are required to complete annual evaluations through the College of Engineering’s Graduate Online Assessment and Achievement Learning System to ensure that expectations with respect to progress toward the PhD are aligned.