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The PhD program

The PhD program is a 4-year or 5-year program with guaranteed financial support by the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EARTH) for the length of the program.

Students entering with a Program length
MS degree 4 years
BS degree 5 years

All students begin the PhD program as pre-candidates for about two years. They “advance to candidacy” (i.e., they become PhD candidates) after earning a minimum of 18 credits at the graduate level and passing the Qualifying Exam. PhD candidates earn their PhD degrees if they successfully defend their dissertation.

See the Rackham Graduate School Academic Policies.

Planning Meeting in Year 1

Immediately after entering the program, a PhD student and research adviser must identify an Academic Mentor, a faculty member in EARTH who is familiar with the student’s research. The Academic Mentor gives the student general academic advice on navigating departmental procedures and policies, choosing course work, GSI assignments, research strategies, and research funding. The Academic Mentor is also a member of the student's Qualifying Exam Committee and can, after advancing to candidacy, be a member of the Dissertation Committee. 

The student, adviser, and mentor must have a Planning Meeting during the first week of the first term for 1–2 hours. They should review the student’s academic preparation and select courses that would strengthen the student's knowledge in the research discipline and provide opportunities for building research skills. Identifying GSI assignments may help refresh the students’ understanding basic earth and environmental science concepts.

The outcome of this Planning Meeting is a two-year plan for research activities (e.g., experiments, field work, research travel), course work, and GSI assignments until the student takes the Qualifying Exam. This plan should be included as Section G on the IDMP Form.


See also Coursework for MS and PhD students.

PhD students must complete 18 credits of coursework before advancing to candidacy, including a class that satisfies the Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) requirement. Of these 18 credits, at least 12 credits must be in EARTH, no more than 4 credits may be in seminars, and at least 4 must be in cognate courses. The student can depart from these program rules by taking advantage of special cognate courses that are beneficial to the student’s scientific interests. The student must write an acceptable justification, which must be reviewed and approved by the student’s adviser and the Grad Chair.

Onboarding seminars EARTH 531 (“Seminar in Geologic Problems”) and EARTH 495 (“Methods in Research for Natural Sciences”) are required for all first-year students. EARTH 531 is offered in Fall term. EARTH 495 is offered in Winter term and satisfies the U-M Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) training requirement.

The course numbers for Independent study courses depend on the year in the program:

EARTH 990 – Pre-candidates
EARTH 995 – Candidates

Electronic permission is required for registration for independent study classes. To obtain permission, contact the Academic Program Manager with the following information: course name, course number, name of the adviser. Once the permission has been entered, you will receive automatic notification that you may register for the course.

Advancement to candidacy

Students take the qualifying exam in their third or fourth term in residence. Students will advance to candidacy after completing requisite course work and passing the Qualifying Exam in either the third or fourth term in residence.

Dissertation Committee

Before the first day of classes of the term following the successful completion of the Qualifying Examination, the student and adviser must form a Dissertation Committee of at least four members but five members is recommended.

  1. Chair – the research adviser. 
  2. Cognate member – a regular member of the Graduate Faculty in a doctoral program in the Rackham Graduate School from outside EARTH.
  3. Member – the academic mentor.
  4. Member
  5. Member (advised)

The chair of the committee must be a tenure-track faculty member in EARTH. A research scientist may serve as co-chair. The Committee must have at least four members but five members is recommended. At least two of these members must be tenure-track or tenured faculty with their primary appointment in EARTH. One cognate member must be a regular member of the Graduate Faculty in a doctoral program in the Rackham Graduate School from outside EARTH. This cognate member must hold an appointment in a collateral or related field.

See Guidelines for Dissertation Committee Service for Rackham’s rules and recommendations. The Dissertation Completion Worksheet 

The student must fill out the Dissertation Committee Worksheet and submit it to the Academic Program Manager. The Academic Program Manager will submit the Dissertation Committee Form to Rackham Graduate School once the committee list has been approved by the Grad Chair.

Annual Review and Individual Development and Mentoring Plan (IDMP)

Each year, students must have a formal mentoring meeting with their research adviser to review academic and professional progress. The student and the adviser should update the IDMP form and send it by email to the Academic Program Manager prior to the last day of classes of Winter term. The Academic Program Manager will upload each form to a Google Drive and review these forms with the Grad Chair. Students (in their first year) who fill out the IDMP for the first time can use this blank form (version May 2022).

Annual Annual Dissertation Meeting

The student must meet with the Dissertation Committee at least once each academic year before the end of Winter semester to review thesis research progress. Ideally, the student sends an updated CV, copies of recently published or submitted research articles, and a copy of the (preliminary) powerpoint presentation to the Committee one week prior to the meeting. Usually, the one-hour meeting begins with a 15–20 minute (powerpoint) presentation that includes

  • a summary of the year’s research activities
  • a list of (tentative) thesis chapter titles
  • a list of publications and papers in press or preparation
  • a summary of professional meetings and workshops attended
  • research goals for the coming year(s)
  • other academic and professional activities
  • expected defense date
  • career plans

The presentation will be followed by a discussion of the past year and the years ahead. The main goal is to update the Committee on the student’s progress, to discuss the feasibility and timeline of newly planned research, and to make adjustments where necessary.

Following this meeting, the research adviser must use the Dissertation Committee Meeting Report Form for PhD Students to inform the Grad Chair and the Academic Program Manager of the outcome of this meeting.

Dissertation defense

The Rackham Graduate school sets dissertation defense requirements and deadlines. See the Dissertation TimelineDissertation HandbookFormatting Guidelines, and other guidelines under “Dissertation” in Navigating Your Degree.

Clean copies of PhD dissertations are available in Word and Latex. The U-M library has help-pages on Word formatted PhD dissertations.

Students should consult with EARTH's Academic Program Manager early in their final term about scheduling the dissertation defense and final requirements.