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PhD Requirements

Students holding a BS, BA, or MS degree in any field of science are encouraged to apply to the PhD program. Financial support is guaranteed for all PhD students who enroll.


Annual Review

PhD students are required to review their progress with their academic adviser each year. The student should update the Annual Review Form prior to meeting with his/her adviser to discuss his/her academic and professional progress. The Annual Review Form must be completed and submitted to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies prior to the last day of classes of Winter term. Students should contact the Graduate Program Office for a blank form.


Course Requirements

Specific Course Requirements for the PhD degree are a minimum of 24 credits at the graduate level of which at least 22 must be in courses (including seminars). Of these 22, at least 12 credits must be in Earth and Environmental Sciences, no more than 4 credits may be in seminars, and at least 4 must be in cognate courses. Cognate courses are those offered by other academic units that broaden expertise in areas related to the student’s research; Rackham requires a minimum grade of B- for cognate courses. EARTH 599 and other independent study courses are excluded from the 12 credits required in Earth and Environmental Sciences courses, but may be used in partial fulfillment of the remaining non-cognate credit requirements.  Research credits (EARTH 990, 995) may be used in partial fulfillment of these requirements but are excluded from the 22 credits of coursework.

The Department may allow certain students to depart from the requirements of a normal PhD program in order that they may take advantage of special cognate science interests and background.  However, in order for a student to qualify for such an exception, he/she must prepare an acceptable plan, which is reviewed and approved by the student’s advisor and the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.

Rackham Graduate School requires PhD students to complete 18 credits of non-research coursework before advancing to candidacy. Rackham also requires PhD students to be continuously enrolled.


Grade and GPA Requirements

Rackham policy dictates that graduate students may not take courses pass/fail, but can elect to take a course S/U or Visit/Audit. Credit is only given for courses in which a grade of C- or higher has been received. Cognate credit is only given for a course in which a grade of B- or higher has been earned. The minimum required Rackham cumulative grade point average is B (3.00 on a 4.00 point scale). Complete information about grading may be found on the Rackham Academic Policies website, Section 4.5.


Qualifying Examination (formerly Preliminary Examination)

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination is to determine the adequacy of the student's abilities and background knowledge, and his/her potential to complete a PhD degree.  The PhD Qualifying Examination includes written and oral components.  (Note Rackham's term for this exam is "preliminary exam" on the Rackham Graduate School website.)

Each student's qualifying examination committee will consist of five U-M faculty members, at least four of whom must be tenure-track or tenured faculty with an appointment in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and at least one from the standing Qualifying Examination Committee. The student's committee must be approved by his/her advisor and by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies. Students are urged to seek guidance in preparation for this examination from the committee members.

It is expected that the qualifying exam overall will incorporate assessment of the student's breadth of knowledge through the committee's 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 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.

Effective September 2018, the Department requires that PhD students who did not complete their undergraduate degree or MS at a university where English is the primary language of instruction, must either pass the OET exam or obtain an English Language Institute (ELI) waiver as a condition for candidacy.


Writing Sample

The intention of the writing sample is to facilitate the student’s progress toward publishing their first paper, while at the same time using the writing product as a means to assess their research ability and accomplishments.

The paper should be a research-related writing product in the form of a manuscript (submitted or in preparation) or a research prospectus. The nature of the document is left to the student with the guidance of the thesis advisor, but must represent original work on the part of the student that has not been previously used as part of a thesis or class assignment, unless approved by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies. 

The expectation is that the paper be comprehensible for a broad committee within the Earth and Environmental Science department – so it should include broad background (i.e. context and motivation of the science) relevant to the paper topic. The paper should include at a minimum, new data, models or techniques that are generated by the student as an initial effort toward the PhD thesis, regardless of whether or not it is judged to be sufficient for publication. The paper is expected to include high-quality graphics and appropriate referencing, and follow customary scientific writing formats. 

Length: The paper must be between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages (12 point font, text only; not including figures or references), using 5000 words as a rough guideline for the maximum length of the paper. If a longer paper is in the works for submission, then the student may provide an “abridged version” as the qualifying exam paper.

Abstract: In addition, a separate abstract needs to be written by the student, independent of the advisor, for a broad scientific audience. The length of this text should be approximately 400-700 words.

Advisor Statment: The faculty advisor must provide a statement describing his/her role in the project design and writing component of the student's submission. This can include, but is not limited to, project conception, development, and degree of editing of paper drafts.

Deadline: For students entering with a bachelor’s degree, this writing sample will be due to their exam committee at the beginning of their fourth term (January 15 for Winter exams or September 15 for Fall exams). For students entering with a master’s degree, the writing sample will be due to the exam committee in the middle of their second term (by March 15 for Winter term, or October 15 for Fall term). 

Submission: The writing sample must be submtted as a PDF by midnight on the due date. Students will have their own Box folder for the PDF that will be shared with their prelim committees.

Committee Evaluation: Committee members will evaluate the writing sample within two weeks of submission and written feedback, using the rubric below, will be provided to the student. The goal of the writing sample evaluation is to assess the student’s research progress to date, understanding of the relevant scientific literature, ability to communicate and synthesize technical information and concepts, and potential to produce original scientific research.

Upon evaluation of the writing sample, if a majority of the committee members find the writing sample to be deficient, one of three actions will be taken:

  1. The student is given an opportunity to correct and resubmit the sample to the committee prior to the oral exam.
  2. The student is asked to postpone the oral exam to the following regular semester, or
  3. In cases where the writing sample suggests that the student does not have potential to successfully complete the PhD program and is not likely to pass the exam at a later date, their appointment as a PhD student may be terminated.

Individual Meetings: Students should schedule individual meetings with committee members following the written exam and prior to the oral exam.


Oral Exam

The oral examination will begin with a presentation by the candidate of his/her dissertation research topic, not to exceed 15 minutes in length. The presentation will be followed by an open discussion between the examining committee and the candidate based on, but not necessarily limited to, the research presentation. The oral qualifying exam is typically three hours.

Oral exams will take place later in the same term that the writing sample is submitted (February and March for Winter term, or October and November for Fall term).  Oral exams should be scheduled prior to the end of the term preceding the exam to reduce stress on students trying to schedule exams at the busy end of the semester, and to relieve scheduling issues at the end of the term for faculty who serve on multiple committees.


Completion of the qualifying exam: timelines

Upon completion of both components of the qualifying examination, the chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee will submit a written report evaluating the examination and reporting whether the student passed, failed, or passed with stated conditions. This report will be submitted to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies. If the student fails any portion of the examination, the Committee must recommend if and when the student will be permitted to take a second examination. If a second examination is granted, it must be taken in the subsequent academic semester and with the understanding that failure of any portion of the examination typically results in immediate termination from the graduate program.

Students entering the PhD program with a BS/BA will complete the Qualifying Examination no later than the fourth term in residence. Students who enter the PhD program with an MS from another institution or academic discipline will take the Qualifying Examination no later than the second term in residence. Students who have received a MS from this Department and who wish to continue toward the PhD degree, will take the Qualifying Examination no later than the fourth semester in residence.


Candidate Status

Candidacy requirements are listed in detail on Rackham's Academic Policies web site. The Graduate Coordinator will submit the Recommendation for Candidacy Form to Rackham Graduate School. 

Students will be advanced to candidacy upon the successful completion of requisite course work and the written and oral portions of their Qualifying Examination. Students entering with a BS/BA are expected to achieve candidacy before the end of their fourth term in residence. Students entering with an MS from another institution are expected to achieve candidacy before the end of their second term in residence. Rackham Graduate School requires that students complete at least 18 hours of non-research graduate credit on the Ann Arbor campus.


Dissertation Committee

Before the first day of classes of the term following the successful completion of the Qualifying Examination, a Dissertation Committee will be nominated in consultation with the student and the student's advisor who will be the Dissertation Committee Chair. The chair of the committee must be a tenure-track faculty member, but a research scientist may serve as co-chair. The Committee must have at least four members (however five is recommended), and at least two of these must be tenure-track or tenured faculty with their primary appointment in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. One cognate member must be from outside the Department and must be a regular member of the Graduate Faculty in a doctoral program accepted by the Rackham Graduate School. This cognate member must hold an appointment in a collateral or related field.

The student must contact the Department Graduate Program Office about completing the Dissertation Committee Form. The Graduate Coordinator will submit the Dissertation Committee Form to Rackham Graduate School once the committee list has been approved by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.


Annual Dissertation Committee Meeting

The Dissertation Committee shall meet with the student at least once each academic year before the end of Winter semester to review his/her progress. This meeting is normally one hour, but students should consult their advisor.  The meeting will begin with an oral presentation by the student on his/her dissertation progress. The student will present the committee with a CV one week prior to the meeting. The presentation will be followed by a discussion between the committee and the student on his/her progress.

Following this meeting, written feedback about the student's performance, expected defense date, and a list of committee members who attended the meeting must be sent both to the student and the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.

Link for Faculty to Report on Dissertation Committee Meeting


Dissertation Format Requirements

Rackham Graduate school dissertation format requirements may be found on Rackham's website.


Dissertation Defense Requirements

The Rackham Graduate school sets dissertation defense requirements. Doctoral degree deadlines are slightly different for every term and may be found on Rackham's website. Students should consult with the Department Graduate Program Coordinator early in their final term about scheduling the dissertation defense and final requirements.


Graduate Student Dismissal Policy



Consult Rackham's Doctoral Students website for PhD requirements, such as candidacy, cognates, and dissertation defense. See also the Doctoral Steps on Rackham's website.

Still more questions? Contact the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences Graduate Program Office.


On Earning a Doctorate at the University of Michigan

Listen to Laura Sherman, ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award recipient, as she reflects on her graduate student experience in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Rackham Graduate School Academic Policies

The Rackham Graduate School Academic Policies web site includes essential information for graduate students.