Doctoral Student Handbook

Doctor Of Philosophy Degree Program

The doctoral program is designed to prepare the student for a career in creative scholarship, either in academia or industry, by providing a broad background of knowledge and guidance in the performance of research. The program is divided into two stages. The first stage comprises a study of related fields of learning that support the general area of research concentration and culminates in the qualifying examination. The second stage is composed of original research and the presentation of findings in a written dissertation, which culminates in the final examination.


Entrance Requirements

General admission requirements to the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree program for the School of Engineering and Applied Science are provided in the George Washington University Graduate Programs bulletin.  In addition to that, students whose highest earned degree is a baccalaureate must present a grade-point average of at least 3.3 on a scale of 4.0 in undergraduate work. For students whose highest earned degree is a master’s degree, the grade-point average must be 3.4 on a scale of 4.0 in master’s program. GRE is required for all students applying to the doctoral program.

Areas Of Concentration

Engineering Mechanics
Environmental Engineering
Geotechnical Engineering
Structural Engineering
Transportation Engineering
Water Resources Engineering

Coursework Requirements

Upon admission to the program, each student is assigned a faculty advisor in his/her selected area of concentration, who directs his/her studies. Based on the advisor’s recommendation, the student will plan his/her program of study before the end of the first semester. Prior to the beginning of each semester, the doctoral student will meet and consult with his/her faculty advisor on the courses to be completed.

Successful completion of a PhD program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering requires successful completion of:

  1. At least 18 credits of graduate level coursework.
  2. The doctoral qualifying exam (DQE).
  3. At least 12 credits of dissertation research.
  4. An original research in a relevant field of civil and environmental engineering, and presentation of the research findings in a written dissertation.

PhD students are required to take and successfully complete a minimum of 18 credit hours of coursework, beyond master’s study, and successfully complete their doctoral qualifying exam before taking dissertation research courses. For students without master’s degrees, a minimum of 42 credit hours of coursework is required beyond the baccalaureate degree. In many cases, particularly when the student undertakes a doctoral program in a field other than that in which the earlier degree was obtained, the program of study may well exceed the minimum number of credit hours.

All doctoral students are expected to take their qualifying exams within the first year of their PhD program.  A Form should be on file for the student showing all the PhD courses completed before taking their qualifying exam. 

The Doctoral Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the qualifying examination is to ascertain that the student’s background and intellectual development are adequate to support doctoral research in a selected area of concentration. The examinations are offered twice a year, once before the beginning of the fall semester, and again before the beginning of the spring semester. The examination has a written component and an oral component. The written examination is administered first, upon successful completion of which the oral examination is given. Specific details about each of these examinations are given below. 


(I) Written Examination

I.1. Written Exam Coverage and Format:  This “uniform exam”, taken by all eligible doctoral students in a given semester, covers all areas of civil and environmental engineering but with the choice of selecting a required number of areas for passing, as elaborated below.  The exam includes questions at fundamental level (i.e., the level of undergraduate courses) from six areas of CEE and the related engineering mathematics.   The sample courses to select from in each topic area are given in parentheses.  Note that the exam questions are intended to examine the proficiency of the students in the fundamentals of a given area and are not necessarily tied to any specific course. However, the student’s proficiency in these courses, or their equivalents elsewhere, will be tested on this basis.

I.2. Examination Topics

  1. Solid Mechanics and Structural Engineering  (ApSc-2057, CE-2220, CE-3110W, CE-3240)
  2. Water Resources Engineering (MAE-3126, CE-3610, CE-4620)
  3. Geotechnical Engineering (MAE-3126, CE-2220, CE-3110W, CE-4410)
  4. Transportation Safety Engineering (CE-2710, CE-3720, CE-3730)
  5. Environmental Engineering (MAE-3126, CE-3520, CE-3610, CE-4530)
  6. Engineering Mathematics and Computational Methods (ApSc-2113 , ApSc-3115, CE-2210)

I.3. Examination Format

  • Students will take the written doctoral qualifying exam; (a) in their major area and (b) in the area of Engineering Mathematics.
  • The written examination grade distribution will be as shown in the table below.
Table 1. Written Doctoral Qualifying Exam Grade Distribution Requirements
Examination Area % Weight of the Total Grade from the Respective Area Comment
Major Area (Part 1 of Exam) 80% Must be passed individually, independent of the other area
Engineering Mathematics Area (Part 2 of Exam) 20% Must be passed individually, independent of the other area
Total Grade 100%  

I.4. Written Examination Results

The final grades communicated to the student will be Pass or Fail.

  • Completed examination booklets and/or papers will remain the property of the CEE Department and will not be distributed to students.
  • Students will be informed of the results by the Department and can request to review their exam papers.
  • Students who pass the written exam will be scheduled to take the oral exam (see the requirements for oral exam below).
  • Students who fail the exam will not be scheduled for the oral exam and their doctoral studies will be terminated. 

I.5. Written Examination Dates

DQE’s are offered before the beginning of the fall and spring semesters and all students must adhere to the schedule.

  • Students entering in the fall semester must take their DQE in the proceeding spring sitting.  Students entering in the spring semester must take their DQE in the proceeding fall sitting (if applicable).
  • The exact exam dates are determined by the Department each semester.

I.6. Provision

Students are expected to take this exam within the first year of their doctoral studies.  A provision is allowed for those who may have been taking deficiency courses before starting their PhD courses.  However, applicable only to this group of students, the period before taking the written DQE must not exceed two semesters (excluding summer sessions).


(II) Oral Examination

After successful completion of the written exam, student will take an Oral Exam which evaluates the student’s higher level aptitude and ability to undertake independent research, and also ensures the qualifications for a rigorous doctoral research.

II.1. Oral Examination Committee:  The Graduate Program Committee (GPC) recommends to the Department Chair, an oral examination committee comprised of at least three faculty members (including the student’s adviser).  This committee is chaired by someone other than the adviser but in the area of specialty of the student (to the extent possible); at the recommendation of the GPC and approval of the Department Chair, faculty members from other areas of engineering or sciences may also serve on the oral examination committee.  The Committee will comprise of at least two CEE faculty members and as deemed necessary by the Graduate Programs Committee  up to three additional committee members may be added from CEE or other SEAS or GWU departments or even external members, who offer expertise relevant to the doctoral research area.

II.2. Committee Chair: The oral examination will be chaired by the Committee Chair and not the student’s adviser.  

II.3. Oral Exam Coverage and Requirements:  The Oral Examination Committee will determine a research topic and date for the Oral DQE.  A written statement of the problem along with guidelines and necessary reference articles will be provided to the student by the Department. The student will have 10 working days (not to exceed 14 calendar days) to prepare a 5 to 8 (maximum) page paper that describes her/his approach to the problem highlighting the significant issues, challenges, and solution methods to overcome them, as learned from the referenced articles and other material s/he has found on the subject. 

The student will present her/his approach during the oral exam, scheduled one week after submission of the oral exam paper, and will be questioned both on this material as well as any other related fundamental subjects.

II.4. Student Oral Exam Paper Documents and Format

  • Student paper must be 5-8 pages maximum; the page limit excludes references, which could take additional pages; no other supplementary material is accepted.
  • Format should be Font 12, single space, with 1 inch minimum margins all around.
  • Student must submit the proposal to the Department within the 10 business day period (not to exceed 14 calendar days)
  • Oral exam is scheduled one week after the 10-business day submission limit (i.e. 5 business days after the expiration of the 10 business days submission limit).
  • Student must also prepare the presentation material (PowerPoint) and present her/his findings at the Oral exam.
  • The hardcopy of the oral exam paper and the presentation material prepared by the student will be kept as the oral DQE records.

II.5. Oral Examination Results

The Oral Examination Committee decides immediately on the passing, failing, or conditional passing of the student. The conditional passing may recommend (1) taking additional deficiency courses to be passed by a grade of ‘B’ or higher, (2) another oral examination to focus on the deficiency points, or (3) both items 1 and 2.  The Department will communicate the outcome of the oral exam to the student within two weeks of the date of the oral exam. Those with conditional passing with deficiency must fulfill the requirements within one additional semester or considered failing the oral examination.

  • Students who pass the Oral DQE will be considered Doctoral Candidates and will be officially informed by the Department of this status.
  • A failure in oral Doctoral Qualifying Exam constitutes termination of the student from the doctoral program.


Dissertation Research

The candidate now consults with his/her advisor and selects a topic for doctoral research. The director of research can be the same person as the academic advisor, or may be a different faculty member who is willing to accept the student to conduct research with him/her. Research direction may be shared by a full-time faculty member of the department and an outstanding external scientist or researcher, but the final responsibility for the academic aspects of the dissertation work lies with the faculty member. The candidate has to complete a minimum of 12 credit hours of dissertation research, prepare a written thesis, and upon the director’s approval, present it before the dissertation committee and students at the Final Examination.

The dissertation should embody the results of an extended original study, and include material that is considered worthy of publication in recognized scientific and engineering journals. The student is expected to attempt to have the results of the research published, as soon as possible after he or she receives the degree.

During the period of dissertation research, the candidate goes through the following steps:

  • Formation of Dissertation Committee:  The dissertation committee will be composed of at least five members, which will include three full-time regular status faculty members from the student’s home department, with one of them being the director.  There should be at least one committee member external to GW, who has expertise in the area of the student’s research work.
  • Presentation of Research Plan: The doctoral candidate will prepare a written research plan and make an oral presentation of the plan to his committee. At least three of the five, committee members should be present at this oral presentation. Upon approval of the research plan, the student will proceed with dissertation research. 
  • Research work and thesis writing:  The candidate will complete the research work under close supervision of his/her director and committee members. Then he/she will prepare a written thesis detailing the research objectives, methodology and results obtained. Upon approval by the director, the candidate can appear for the final examination. The candidate consults with the committee members and selects a date for the final examination. At least three weeks prior to the final exam, the candidate provides each committee member with a copy of the dissertation for review. A time period of less than three weeks will have to be approved by the entire committee.
  • Final Examination: The final examination is oral and open to the public. The director of research usually serves as the advocate for the candidate. The candidate makes a detailed presentation of his/her research work and the results obtained. The candidate must demonstrate a mastery of the special field of study, and of the materials and techniques used in the research. When the examining committee is convinced of the quality and originality of the candidate’s contribution to knowledge as well as his/her mastery of the scholarship and research techniques of the field, the committee recommends the candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Under no circumstances will the student provide a copy of the dissertation to the Dean’s office before approval by his/her Committee. Please refer to the Bulletin of Graduate Programs for additional University requirements.


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