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Graduate Advisement

Regular academic advising will ensure steady progress towards completion

Students will first be assigned temporary advisors by the department chair during their first semester in residence. They are encouraged to obtain permanent advisors as early as possible during their first two semesters in residence. Students are required to meet with their advisors for program approval and for review of academic progress at least twice each semester.

Making steady progress through your coursework and research is key to successful completion of the M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. Many faculty schedule weekly meetings with their students, which enables them to regularly assess the student's progress and for the student to present tangible progress on a weekly basis. In addition to presentations at scientific or engineering conferences, publication in first-rate peer-reviewed journals is expected and strongly encouraged of graduate students in this Department, especially for those pursuing their Ph.D. A typical milestone for a Ph.D. student is three papers published, or submitted, prior to scheduling the dissertation defense.

Yearly progress will be assessed by using the Annual Progress Report form, which is to be completed by all graduate students no later than April 15 of each year of graduate study. This form is filled out by the student, with an evaluation added by the advisor; it will then be examined by the Graduate Program Director who is also available to all graduate students for discussion and feedback on their graduate studies.


Master of Science (M.S.)
Comprehensive Exam

Four M.S. degree programs are offered by our Department (Geology, Geophysics, Hydrology, and Geological Engineering).

Of these, only Geological Engineering requires a formal comprehensive exam to be taken by M.S. graduate students; this is the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying and given twice a year (typically October and April).

Please contact your M.S. thesis advisor to find out what may apply to you in your chosen discipline.

Ph.D. Qualifier Exam

It serves as the first dissertation committee meeting so the student and the committee members can meet each other.

The committee evaluates and, if possible, approves the student's plan of study (courses and schedule to accomplish them during the multi-year timeframe envisioned by the student and the committee).

The doctoral student gives a PowerPoint presentation of not more than 30 minutes describing the proposed area of research including why it is important to the advancement of the field. The most important part of the Exam is this: based on the student’s presentation and Q&A session, evaluate if he/she is qualified to pursue a Ph.D. here, and in the topic area. This part then demonstrates if the student is, or can be with the right course work and guidance, capable of functioning at the Ph.D. level. Later, for the student’s Comprehensive Exam (written and oral), the general objective is to see whether he/she IS functioning at a Ph.D. level; if not, then additional courses or guidance could be recommended. The committee should also evaluate the student’s grasp of the research area to probe if it is sufficient in scope, difficulty, etc. Some faculty in our Department see the student preparing and defending a written research proposal for the Ph.D. work that is almost a contract; other faculty use the Qualifier Exam as an all-around evaluation of the student, program of study, and science area. The Comprehensive Exam provides the opportunity for the committee to dig as deeply as they wish on both parts (written and oral) to test the student’s grasp of the field of study. You should contact your dissertation advisor as soon as you can to find out what will be expected of you on this exam, since its format (but not the general purpose) does vary from program to program within our Department. The student should leave a successful Qualifier Exam with a signed Program of Study form.

Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

Written Comprehensive Exam. Each committee member provides 2-4 questions for the student to answer (one or more committee members may opt out or they may ask any number they wish, as long as it’s “reasonable”). Normally the questions are closed-book, closed-note, closed-web unless specifically noted otherwise by the committee member. Often each set of questions is allotted about 3 hours to complete, so the full exam with question sets from all 5 committee members should take about 15 hours to do (basically it is a week-long exam). The time limits are honor-system since the student takes the exam either home or to his/her office, unless the committee member specifically requests otherwise. The student is typically also taking classes and perhaps TAing during the semester of the comp exam, so he/she will need to work around that. Ideally the committee member can email the committee chair (the dissertation advisor) the questions who will give them to the student directly as a complete set, or the committee member can give them to the student directly, whichever you prefer. Emailing the questions directly to the student, and requesting answers to be returned via email, works well as a standard approach.

Each committee member gets to grade their own questions, using High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, or Fail. Three or more failing grades constitute failure of the written comp and the student can retake the exam one other time. Any mixture of passing grades from 3 or more of the committee constitutes a passing grade for the exam. Once the date is set for the written comp exam, the student will be encouraged to stop by and talk with each of his/her committee members about what is expected of him/her; normally the committee member can discuss what the student has done or is doing on his dissertation and coursework, and then suggest some topics or areas for study before the exam. Regardless of the grade the committee member eventually gives the student on a question set, the student will be encouraged to stop by and discuss his/her graded answers with each committee member for feedback before he/she takes the orals.

Oral Comprehensive Exam. This can be taken anytime after the written exam has been passed. Usually it is taken within two weeks of a successful written comp exam. The student’s committee usually meets in the examination room first, without the student, to discuss his/her written comps or any other issues about the student that are considered important, and then the committee will invite him/her into the examination room. Many committees prefer to forego a formal presentation from the student on his/her Ph.D. work and go directly to questions from the committee. The committee chair typically leads off with the first question to get things started, and then each committee member takes a turn. Each committee member can ask anything they like for as long as they wish, but normally the questions focus on what’s related to the student’s subject area and background.

This exam is usually limited to 2-3 hours' total time, so with 5 committee members, each would have 30 minutes or so apiece. In unusual cases the exam can run longer but it’s also helpful to be able to make the committee’s assessment in a shorter period of time, as long as all of the committee members have had sufficient opportunity to assess the candidate’s knowledge of the field and capability as an imminent Ph.D. Questions can build on those asked at the Qualifying Exam, on the written comps, or wherever. When the committee is done, and the student has left the room, the committee discusses and decides if the student passes the Orals or not, then bring him/her back in for the decision. The committee then adds their signatures to the appropriate form from the Graduate School that was previously prepared and brought to the examination by the student.

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