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Program Requirements

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PhD Qualifying Examination

Exam purpose

The exam evaluates your capacity to perform outstanding research, and has several goals:

  • To motivate you to review and synthesize course work and research material.
  • To determine your creative potential to pursue doctoral research.
  • To determine your ability to understand and apply fundamental concepts.
  • To test your oral communication skills and your ability to respond to questions.
  • To identify areas that need strengthening as you work toward the doctorate.

Exam structure

The exam lasts approximately two hours. It begins with a 20-minute research lecture followed by questions about your research and detailed questions in the 200-series core subject areas.


The committee will deliberate on all of the information it has acquired during the process and will decide on a result (Pass, Pass either section A or B, Fail).

The chair of the exam committee will notify the student and Student Services of the results. In the event that the student does not pass one or both sections, the examination of the failed section(s) may be retaken by June 1 of the student’s second academic year.

PhD Candidacy

To advance as a candidate for the PhD degree, the student must file the PhD Candidacy Form by the end of the quarter when the qualifying examination is taken.

Stanford funding and future registration will be placed on hold until the student complies with this policy. The candidacy form should be approved and signed by the faculty research advisor, the academic advisor (when the research advisor is in another department other than Materials Science and Engineering) and the Advanced Degree Committee (via the Student Services Office).

PhD Reading Committee

Forming the reading committee

After attaining PhD candidacy, in consultation with the faculty advisor, the student should form a reading committee. Reading committee selection: The dissertation reading committee consists of the principal dissertation advisor and two other readers. At least two members must be on the Academic Council. A Materials Science and Engineering faculty co-advisor is required when the principal dissertation adviser has an appointment in another department.

Usually, the reading committee form and the candidacy paperwork are submitted at the same time. Forms can be picked up at the Student Services Office.

Requests for non-Academic Council member

On occasion, a student may request that one non-Academic Council member be included on the reading committee. If the proposed reader is particularly well qualified to consult on the dissertation project, a Petition for the Doctoral Committee Member form should be submitted to the Student Services Office. This reader must have a PhD or the foreign equivalent and the petition must be accompanied by a current CV and signed by the academic advisor. Petitions can be printed from the Registrar’s website.

TGR status

Once a student has completed the following milestones: 135 units of PhD coursework (including 48 units of core and approved technical), qualifying exam, advancing to candidacy and reading committee form, the student can petition for TGR (Terminal Graduate Registration). TGR status allows students to pay a reduced rate of tuition, which can dramatically benefit the research grants that may be paying the tuition bill.

PhD Coursework

Units required

PhD candidates must complete a minimum of 135 units. PhD candidates who received their MS from Stanford may count up to 45 MS units toward the total 135 units. Similarly, students who received MS degrees from other institutions may apply to transfer up to 45 units toward the total unit requirement.

Approved courses requirement

Please see the staff at the Student Services Office to obtain information on PhD coursework requirements.

Dissertation Proposal Presentation

Written proposal submission: At least one year before the anticipated completion of the dissertation, a written proposal must be submitted to the reading committee. The committee will review the proposal with regard to the quality of the technical content and the written exposition.

University Oral Exam

Oral exam scheduling

Any time after completing an acceptable draft of the dissertation, with the approval of the advisor and reading committee, the student may schedule the university oral exam (also known as the dissertation defense). To do so requires completion of the University Oral Exam Schedule Form, which should be submitted at least two weeks prior to the day of the exam to the Student Service Office.

Oral exam committee

The university oral examination committee must consist of a chair and four examiners including the principal dissertation advisor. Usually, this means that the reading committee, plus two other people will make up the oral exam committee. The chair must be a Stanford Academic Council member and may not have a full or joint appointment in the same department as the candidate or the principal advisor. The purpose of this regulation is to ensure that there is at least one unbiased committee member who can make sure that all rules and policies are followed during the exam. The chair need not be familiar with the student’s field or specialization. Emeriti faculty members are eligible to serve as the chair. At least three of the four remaining committee members must be on the Stanford Academic Council.

NOTE: Students must be registered during the quarter in which the oral exam is taken.

Dissertation preparation and submission

Rules governing the format of the dissertation, fees, forms and deadlines for submission can be viewed on the University Registrar’s website.