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Department of Chemistry Physical Division

Getting a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry

All students formally admitted for graduate study by the Department of Chemistry are eligible to complete their graduate course and research requirements in the physical chemistry division. Students with undergraduate degrees in chemistry or related fields are eligible for admission into the graduate program of the chemistry department. Students in unrelated fields who have completed significant undergraduate course work in chemistry are also eligible for admission. Students who do not hold ACS certified degrees in chemistry may be asked to include selected undergraduate courses in chemistry in their graduate course program.

Timetable for Progress toward the Ph.D. in the Physical Chemistry Division

First Year

First year students will be advised to take courses based on review of the student’s previous course work. Graduate students in the physical chemistry division are expected to complete 2-3 courses in each of their first two semesters of study. Formal Ph.D. course requirements in the physical chemistry division are listed in the course requirements link. First year students are also expected to meet with at least three chemistry faculty to discuss potential Ph.D. research projects. The selection of a research supervisor must be made before the end of the second semester, but students are encouraged to make this decision as early as possible. Once the decision to join a group has been made, the student is expected to initiate research activities. The summer of the first year is normally devoted to full time research.

Second Year

Continue course work and research activities. According to the Graduate School requirements, students who intend to pursue a Ph.D. degree must submit a Program for Doctoral Degree form to the Graduate School by the end of the third semester, i.e, typically fall semester of the second year. The form requires the student to supply the names and signatures of Ph.D. committee members (Appendix A) and to present a list of completed and future courses that are intended to satisfy the chemistry department and Graduate School Ph.D. course requirements.

Admission to candidacy in physical chemistry is based upon a set of cumulative exams, a written proposal, and an oral defense of the proposal. The cumulative exams will be administered on a rotating basis by a physical chemistry faculty member with a different member for each exam. The administrator and a second physical chemistry faculty member will independently grade the exams. The administrator will report the results to the convener for the division who will report to the students and their advisers. The exams will have the following characteristics:

  • A total of six exams will be given, generally during the course of a student’s second year, approximately one every six weeks.
  • Each exam will consist of three questions chosen from the subjects represented by the five physical chemistry core courses (Chem 509, 531, 532, 534, 564). Every effort will be made to balance the questions over the six exams so that any one area will not be overly probed.
  • The topics covered will be based upon the courses offered during the previous year and those courses currently offered. It is the students responsibility to either take the appropriate courses or to know the equivalent material.
  • All questions will be graded with a score of 1.0, 0.5, or 0. Successful completion of the cumulative exams will require obtaining a total of six points out of 18 questions. Students who pass this requirement are then immediately eligible to apply to submit the research proposal and complete the oral preliminary examination. Thus early completion by well-prepared students will enable faster scheduling of the oral exam.
  • Failure to obtain at least four points by the end of the six exams will constitute a failure of the cumulative exam and the student will be placed in the M.S. degree track.
  • Students who obtain at least four points but less than the required six will be placed on probationary status. This must be resolved within the first two cumulative exams of the following session. Within these two exams the student will be required to pass twice the number of questions that were deficient in his/her first round of exams.

Upon the mutual agreement of the student and his/her advisor, a petition can be made to the physical chemistry faculty to delay taking the cumulative exams.  Note that once the exams are begun, this option is not available.

Students who pass the cumulative examination are eligible to apply to complete the oral preliminary examination. The application to complete the oral preliminary examination must be submitted prior to the second month of the student’s second semester after passing the cumulative exam requirement (includes summer, normally fall semester of the third year). The application should include the research proposal (Appendix B) and the official preliminary exam scheduling form from the Graduate School giving an examination date that has been agreed to by the student and his/her Ph.D. committee. A valid program of study must be on file with the Graduate School. The oral examination must be held no later than four weeks after the scheduling deadline mentioned above.

Third Year

Students who successfully pass the written cumulative examinations are expected to complete the oral preliminary examination by the end of the second month of the second semester after completing the cumulative exams (generally in the fall semester of the third year). The oral preliminary examination will be based on the content of the research proposal (see Appendix B) submitted by the student as part of the application to complete the oral examination. The oral examination will be conducted before the Ph.D. committee in accordance with the rules set forth by the Graduate School. The oral examination is an opportunity for the student to express his/her potential for original creative research, for communicating his/her thoughts clearly and concisely, and for utilizing his/her background to solve problems. The oral examination will consist of a 45 minute presentation by the student based on the research proposal followed by a question and answer session by the Ph.D. committee. Student performance on the oral preliminary examination will be rated pass or fail by the Ph.D. committee. Students who pass are granted formal candidacy for the doctoral degree. Students who fail will be required to re-take the oral preliminary examination at a later time under conditions set forth by the Ph.D. committee in accordance with Graduate School policies. Students who fail the oral preliminary examination a second time will be placed in the M.S. degree track and will no longer be eligible for Ph.D. studies.

Fourth and Fifth Years

Students are expected to complete original research leading to a doctoral thesis in the fourth and fifth years. Doctoral dissertations are normally completed by the end of the fifth year. The research adviser and thesis committee monitor research progress during this period. A final oral defense of the thesis completes the Ph.D. requirements.

Teaching Requirements

Teaching is an important mechanism for reinforcing basic knowledge and developing the communication, presentation, and interpersonal skills necessary for future success. Most students find teaching to be a rewarding and satisfying endeavor and consider it to be a valuable component of their educational experiences in the department. Accordingly, the physical chemistry division requires all graduate students to complete at least one year of teaching duties in the department.

Annual Progress Report

The Graduate School requires the department to annually evaluate the progress of graduate students toward completion of their degree requirements. The evaluation is conducted shortly after the end of the spring semester each year by the Associate Chair of the department in consultation with a student’s research advisor and teaching supervisor.

Students should submit a written statement of their progress to their research adviser by the end of the spring semester each year. Students are expected to perform well in coursework, teaching and research in order to remain in good standing in the department and the Graduate School. A grade point average of 3.0 or above is formally required to maintain good academic standing. A student’s teaching evaluations and research progress will also be considered in the annual evaluation. Students will be provided with a written evaluation of their progress each year by the department.

APPENDIX A – Selection of Ph.D. Committee

Ph.D. students are required by the Graduate School to select a Ph.D. committee by the end of their third semester and to submit the names and signatures of the committee members, along with a course program, to the Graduate School. The information should be provided on the Graduate School’s Program for Doctoral Degree form.

The current policy in the chemistry department is that the Ph.D. committee should consist of four members: the research adviser, two people from any division in the chemistry department, and a fourth person from either a division in the chemistry department other than the student’s or from an outside department who is knowledgeable in the student’s area of research.

Once a committee is selected, the student is required to provide annual written updates to each committee member of their progress toward completion of the Ph.D. course and research requirements. The progress reports should be submitted each year prior to the end of the spring semester so that they may also be used by the chemistry department in its annual evaluation of graduate students.

APPENDIX B – Research Proposal

The oral preliminary examination for formal Ph.D. candidacy will be based on a written research proposal submitted by the student not later than the beginning of the second month of the second semester after completing the cumulative examination (generally Fall of third year).

The research proposal should be based on the student’s intended Ph.D. thesis research project, but of course it is not expected to cover all aspects of the planned thesis. The style, content, format and length of the research proposal should loosely conform to current National Science Foundation guidelines. The guidelines are contained in NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide which can be obtained at There is no need, however, to address the NSF broader impacts criterion and the proposal should be limited to the NSF project description section and references. In general this should be a technical document in any area of physical chemistry with significant space devoted to the fundamental theoretical and experimental principles involved in the planned research.

Specifically the research proposal should include a review of the scientific literature relevant to the proposed project, a presentation of preliminary results obtained by the student, a discussion of the proposed Ph.D. research problem and particularly its significance in the larger context, and an outline of the procedures and timeline for completing the proposed research. The content of the research proposal will be the basis of the oral preliminary examination.