PhD

Degree Requirements

In addition to fulfilling departmental course requirements, students are encouraged to take advantage of the variety of courses across the university to broaded their academic education. Such courses do need to be approved by their Qualifying Exam Committee (QEC) before the qualifying exam is taken, and by the adviser after this exam. 

Students who are pursuing a PhD may, after completing the credit requirements for the MS degree, formally apply for an MS degree. Typically an MS thesis, a defense and an MS exam are required. Full tuition payment for a total of 6 (or 5) semesters is required.

Students Entering with MS Degree

Students entering the PhD program with an MS degree, can, with approval of the QEC, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Dean of the Graduate School, transfer up to 12 relevant course credits from the previous institution. Full tuition payment for a total of five semesters is then required.

Students Entering with non CEE Undergraduate Background

Admitted students with academic backgrounds outside of civil and environmental engineering may need to take some CEE undergraduate level courses in order to be prepared for graduate level coursework. Some of these courses may be counted towards the MS or PhD degree requirements. Please consult with the Director of Graduate Studies.

Study Tracks

Each study track is associated with a sequence of core courses that parallel the research interests of our faculty. The study track courses are taught on a regular basis.

Civil Track:

Environmental Tracks:

Qualifying Examination

The format for the qualifying exam is the following:
  • A written test based on core courses taken by the student
  • A (five-page minimum) written research based proposal by the student, on a topic of their choice, which can be started at any time during their stay at Duke
  • An oral defense of the research proposal and follow-up questions to their answers on the written exam   

The qualifying exam committee (now three faculty members) meets with the student during their first few semesters to review their background, and make certain that they take courses such that they are prepared for the written portion of the qualifying exam.The qualifying exam itself is administered by faculty members in the student's study track.

The oral examination will normally be held before the end of the student's third semester from matriculation.   

Students must ultimately pass each of the three components of the qualifying exam, but are allowed to retake any portion of the exam, depending on the support of the faculty.

Graduate Colloquium

In addition to the course credits listed and discussed above, each graduate student in the department is required to participate in the departmental seminar called Colloquia on Mechanics and the Environment. This Colloquium is a series of about 18 seminars scheduled when classes are in session during the eight-month academic year. The faculty of the university, visiting scientists, and senior graduate students give the seminars. Additionally, two workshops are planned for the Ph.D. students as a part of the Colloquia to prepare them for their Qualifying Exam. One, in the spring semester of their first year, is on “Preparing and Writing a Research Proposal.” The other one, in the fall semester, is on "Research Communications" to prepare students for oral presentations at the Qualifying Exam and at scientific and professional meetings.

The minimal seminar participation requirements are as follows:

  • Each degree candidate needs to register for CE 701(301) (Fall) or CE 702(302) (Spring) and is expected to attend at least 75% of the seminars in a given semester. Attendance is recorded. Although no grades are assigned in CE 701(301)-702(302), student transcripts will show that the courses have been completed and thereby that the requirement has been satisfied. Students having scheduling conflicts should inform the Director of Graduate Studies.

  • Each candidate for a PhD degree shall register for CE 701(301)-702(302) for at least two academic years. If the candidate previously completed one year of the Colloquium as part of the Duke MS degree requirement, then only one additional year of seminar attendance is required. All PhD candidates are expected to present at least one seminar on their research. This seminar does not replace the oral defense of the dissertation and should be scheduled at the request of the advisor, in coordination with the student and Director of Graduate Studies.

  • A degree candidate does not need to be registered in CE 701(301)-702(302) in the semester that he or she presents a seminar.

The faculty encourages all graduate students to attend as many Graduate Colloquium seminars as possible, as exposure to novel ideas, research methodologies, and results from broadly or even remotely related fields is enriching and stimulating and helps to develop a critical sense of what constitutes an effective presentation.

Preliminary Examination

Students become PhD candidates upon passing a Preliminary Examination, to be administered by their PhD Committee. The Committee must be identified and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate School at least 30 days in advance of the examination. The purpose of this examination is to evaluate the student's qualifications to proceed with doctoral-level research. The two parts of the Preliminary Examination are discussed below:

Part 1: Research Proposal — The student must submit a Research Proposal, in written form, to all members of the PhD Committee.  This document:

  • Defines the objectives of the proposed research
  • Includes a survey and analysis of pertinent literature, with a focus on what is apparently missing in the literature and the student's anticipated contributions
  • Describes the research tasks to be completed including theory development, data collection, analysis, and documentation
  • Suggests a schedule for completion of the research

The goal of this proposal is to successfully provide the groundwork for all future doctoral research. This Research Proposal should be made available for review by members of the PhD Committee at least 7 days prior to the scheduled oral presentation.

Part 2: Oral Defense — The student must provide an oral defense of the Research Proposal detailed in Part 1 above. This should take the form of an oral presentation given to all members of the PhD Committee, with the presentation designed to take approximately half an hour. The Committee will evaluate the oral defense, as well as the student's readiness to undertake the proposed research.  

The PhD Committee will rely on both parts of the Preliminary Examination, as well as grades in graduate courses at Duke, to evaluate the student's potential to successfully complete the doctoral research program. The outcome of Part 2 of the Preliminary Examination is to be determined by vote of the members of the PhD Committee. Only two outcomes are possible: 1) the student passes and may continue with the proposed doctoral research; and 2) the student fails. Students who fail the exam may apply, with the consent of the Committee and the Director of Graduate Studies, for the privilege of a second examination to be taken no sooner than three months after the date of the first exam. Successful completion of the second exam requires the unanimous vote of all PhD Committee members. Failure on the second examination renders the student ineligible to continue in the PhD program.

Teaching Assistantship Requirement

All PhD students must complete two semesters of a Teaching Assistantship (TA) prior to graduation. It is expected that the student will complete this requirement some time during his/her third (3) through eighth (8) semester. Teaching Assistantships will be assigned by the DGS based on the background and interests of the student and the current department needs. Teaching Assistantships are expected to require 10 hours per week on average and may involve such activities as organizing and leading discussion sections, grading homeworks and quizzes, assisting in the development of course materials, supervising laboratory sessions and so forth. The Pratt School of Engineering Teaching Assistant Training information is available online, and will be presented in a training session at least once a year.

Final Exam

The final examination is normally administered by the same committee as the preliminary exam, and successful defense of the dissertation requires at least four affirmative votes, including the affirmative vote of the dissertation advisor. A negative vote by the dissertation advisor means that the student fails. Note: Details concerning important dates and deadlines, format of the dissertation/thesis, filing of intention to graduate, committee approval, and additional details may be found in the Graduate Bulletin or at the Graduate School website.