IV. Departmental Requirements for the Ph.D. Degree

This section summarizes the standards for the Ph.D. degree. This degree signifies completion of a substantial body of work by the student that displays distinction, original scholarship, and superior achievement.

Course Work - 61 credits of graduate courses including:

  • 30 course credits of coursework, (at least 20 credits at the 700 level); 5 of these 30 credits must be GEOL 790 (1 credit)
  • One credit graduate comprehensive exam (GEOL 795)
  • 30 dissertation credits (GEOL 799)

Course selection will be determined in conjunction with your advisor, committee, and the program graduate director. Examples of possible courses can be found in the University catalog.

A minimum of 61 graduate credits is required for a Ph.D., of which at least 30 credits must be in course work (grade of B or better). With the approval of the Advisory-Examining Committee and DGSE Chair, up to 15 credits (Grade B or better) can be transferred from other graduate work and applied to the UNR Ph.D. program. Transfer credit can be requested on the Graduate Credit Transfer Evaluation Request form available on Graduate School website, and must be signed by the student, major advisor, and graduate director. At least 20 credits of formal course work must be in 700 level classes. One credit of 795 (Comprehensive) must be taken, and at least 30 credits must be in dissertation research. Any exceptions to these requirements must be approved by the Advisory/Examining Committee, Department Chair, and Graduate Dean.

The Graduate Seminar (GEOL 790) is required of all students entering MS. and Ph.D. programs in DGSE.  Doctoral students must enroll in a minimum of 5 semesters. Graduate seminar is a forum for faculty and students from UNR and other organizations to present information on cutting edge topics in the geological sciences.  The seminar schedule varies each semester.


The Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering and the university as a whole require three examinations for a Ph.D. degree:

1. Qualifying examination

The exam includes both oral and written sections. The goal of this exam is to assess the student’s geoscience background knowledge and the student’s progress toward defining a thesis topic and plan of study.


The student must meet with their dissertation committee and complete the qualifying exam by the end of their second semester. 


At least two weeks prior to the meeting with their dissertation committee, the student will submit to their committee two different written documents. One must be a proposal that will summarize their proposed dissertation research. The second document has two options. Option one is a second proposal on a research topic that is distinct from the student’s dissertation research. This is meant to demonstrate the student’s independent ability to construct a research proposal. Therefore, the second proposal may be in similar or related disciplines to the primary dissertation proposal, but should address demonstrably different scientific questions and utilize distinct methods to ultimately show the student’s independent scientific breadth and creative thinking. The second proposal should not be related to ongoing research, unless the research was developed independently by the student with minimal input from their advisor. In the proposal(s), the student should address the following questions:

  • Why is the chosen topic important for the broader Geoscience community and society?
  • What is the hypothesis/problem that will be addressed? 
  • What methods will be used? What type of data will be generated?
  • Are there any preliminary results (optional to present)? 
  • Any foreseeable challenges (scientific, technical, logistical)? 
  • What is the timeline or plan to conduct research and take related courses?

Option two for the second written document is to read at least three different journal articles assigned by the committee and to write a thorough synthesis/literature review of these articles. The articles may be in the same or related disciplines to the dissertation research, but should be focused on clearly distinct branches of methods, approach, science questions, etc., relative to the student’s dissertation research. In the synthesis, the student should address questions including:

  • Why is the chosen topic important for the broader Geoscience community and society?
  • What was the hypothesis/problem that was addressed? 
  • What methods were used? What were/are the limitations of those methods?
  • What were the assumptions, interpretations and outcomes of the study? 
  • What future research directions could be pursued based on the findings of the study?

The goal of the second written document—either a proposal or literature review—is to determine the student’s ability to critically evaluate relevant published work, to formulate and test research questions, and to synthesize research independent of the student’s dissertation project and advisor. Both documents should be limited to 3–5 pages (single spaced). Figures and references are not counted toward the page limit for each document. Which option is chosen, expectations for numbers of papers, topic and length of written submissions, should be discussed and agreed upon with the dissertation committee prior to the exam.

During the meeting, the student’s committee will assess the student's general knowledge of geology and research topics surrounding their proposed dissertation to determine if the student has the necessary skill set and knowledge to proceed with a Ph.D. The examination will consist of: (1) the student giving two ~15 minute presentations, one on their written thesis plan and the other on their 2nd proposal/literature review; and (2) a 1-2 hour oral questioning on the research plan and on fundamental concepts in geosciences that would be expected for a doctoral candidate at the end of their 1–1.5 years. The committee will report either “pass”, “conditional pass” or “fail” based on a simple majority vote in writing to the Graduate Program Director. In the case of “Pass”, the student may continue in the doctoral program. In the case of “Conditional Pass”, the committee will provide suggestions for additional coursework or studies that should be undertaken during the student’s progress toward the doctoral degree. These recommendations shall be used by the advisor and the student to help define the student’s Program of Study.  The Program of Study is to be submitted to the Graduate School by the end of the 4th semester. With an outcome of “fail”, the student will not be allowed to continue in the department’s doctoral program, but may be eligible to complete the requirements of a Master’s degree.

2. Comprehensive examination

The exam includes both oral and written sections. The purpose of the written and oral examinations is to assess the candidate’s accumulated background in geoscience and progress toward conducting original and independent research. The written portion of the exam will consist of preparation of a full thesis proposal and, at the discretion of the advisor and committee, a suite of closed book exams to assess the student’s comprehension of specific disciplines related to the proposed research. The oral exam will consist of an oral presentation of the research proposal by the candidate followed by questions from the dissertation committee directed toward clarification of issues in both the thesis proposal and closed book exams in addition to general questions of a wide variety of geoscience themes.  If this examination is passed, the student is advanced to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Students sign up for 1 credit of GEOL 795 the semester they take their exam. 


The student must schedule and complete the written and oral comprehensive exams by the end of their fourth (if the student already has an M.S. degree) or fifth semester (if the student does not already have an M.S. degree). The written exam needs to be given to the committee in a timeline that allows for the student to also complete their oral exam within the same semester. Any request to deviate from this timeline must be presented in the form of a petition (email) to the Director of Graduate Studies no later than the end of the semester before the written exam was required to be taken. Significant delays in this schedule will not be accommodated except in extenuating circumstance. Failure to complete the comprehensive examination in this timeline will result in the student being dropped from the program. 

Written examination


The research proposal will outline the background, methodology, any preliminary results, and anticipated implications of the proposed research. The student’s research must be presented in terms of how it is relevant to a broader geoscience community; what is the broader importance of the research? The department insists that the proposed research exhibit originality and that the candidate display a full command of the questions and logistics that will need to be addressed during the course of the proposed research problem. The format of the proposal should conform to the standard suggested by a suitable funding agency (e.g., NSF, NASA, DOD, USGS or DOE). For example, it should be a maximum of 15-pages and single-spaced, including figures. It should have a one-page summary page that includes 2 sections: Overview and Intellectual Merit. The proposal must also have a list of references cited. The summary and references are not counted towards the 15-page limit. A hard-copy example is available from the Graduate Director. It is also strongly suggested that the student distribute the one-page summary of the research proposal to faculty and graduate students in DGSE, NSL, and NBMG in order to enhance communication and provide a feedback mechanism to the student. The student shall deliver the research proposal to each committee member at least four weeks prior to the oral exam.

In addition to writing of the research proposal, the student can be required by the dissertation committee to sit for timed, closed book exams to assess the student’s comprehension of specific disciplines related to the proposed research. The closed-book exams will be taken at the same time that the proposal is submitted to the dissertation committee. The exams will be graded on a pass-fail basis.

Within three weeks of receiving the proposal and, if required, after the student has taken the closed-book examination, the committee will vote on whether the student has passed the written exam. If the committee decides the proposal does not pass in quality and/or content to proceed to the oral examination and/or if the student did not pass the closed-book exam, the committee will provide guidelines of how the proposal should be re-written and/or a new closed-book exam will be administered. The student will be informed in person by their advisor whether they have passed and/or whether they need to make revisions/take a new closed-book exam. The student will then be given two weeks to complete these changes before moving onto the orals. If the committee still deems the proposal to be in poor shape after revision and/or the student to have failed the closed-book exam, the student will fail the overall comprehensive exam.

Oral examination


The general goal of the oral examination is to provide an opportunity for the dissertation committee to evaluate the student’s general knowledge base and understanding of research methods, and the significance and feasibility of the proposed research to advancing knowledge in the Earth Sciences. The exam consists of a formal, 20–30-minute presentation of the thesis proposal by the student. The presentation is followed by ~1–2 hours of questions from the committee.  Questions may range from those directly related to the thesis proposal and presentation to general geoscience knowledge relevant to the student’s field of study. The committee determines if the candidate (1) has sufficient ability and comprehensive knowledge to conduct the research, (2) has sufficiently reviewed the literature, (3) has proposed research which has a reasonable scope and which should produce an original and acceptable research contribution; and (4) has a general grasp of geoscience knowledge.

For the overall comprehensive exam, the committee shall (1) unconditionally approve the proposed research, (2) approve the proposed research with revisions, (3) reject the proposed research with specific reasons given and recommendations made, or (4) terminate the student from the Ph.D. program. Results 1 and 2 constitute passage; results 3 and 4 constitute failure. Following outcome 3, a reexamination may be held in accordance with Graduate School provisions.

Results of the Comprehensive Examination

Once the student has passed the written and oral exams, the student must submit an Admission to Candidacy Form, which is available from the Graduate School. The student's advisory committee, Director of Graduate Studies of the program, and the Graduate Dean must approve the form. 

3. Final oral examination

The final oral examination (i.e., thesis defense) must be announced 10 days in advance on DGSE listservs and on the University events calendar, and it must be open to the public. Details on the timing and location of the defense must be submitted the Graduate School via an online submission form in order for it to be listed on the University events calendar. The exam is held with the Advisory-Examining Committee to evaluate the quality and professional standards of the student’s research.  The defense is usually ~2–3 hours long and consists of a public talk (~45 min), with general questions from the audience, followed by a closed session with the committee where questions are asked and specific recommendations/revisions are suggested for the dissertation. The exam should be scheduled by the student in a venue that can sufficiently accommodate the audience (> 30 people).


The exams will help make sure you are prepared for the research and writing of a dissertation. The dissertation must represent original and independent research of high quality and should reflect a mastery of research techniques and literature. The dissertation documents the ability of a student to select an important problem to be investigated, to study it competently, and to express the results in a comprehensible manner. 

According to Graduate School regulations, the format of the dissertation can vary in that the student may elect either the "dissertation" or "publication" option.  The Graduate School standards for organization, scope, and content of the dissertation are the same regardless of the choice of option. For the publication option, the Graduate School does not require acceptance and publication of manuscripts submitted to journals as prerequisites to successful completion of the dissertation; however, all of the manuscripts within the dissertation must be of publication quality, with the goal of submitting the manuscripts either before or shortly after the defense. Publication of one's dissertation prior to its approval by the committee does not in any way imply that it will be approved by the student's committee; publication and dissertation approval are separate processes. The dissertation must also include an abstract, table of contents, introduction, and conclusion for the entire body of work. In addition to these components, you may also include appendices with additional data or analyses that were conducted during the course of your dissertation but that do not cleanly fit into the publication chapters.

Provide a copy of the complete dissertation to your committee at least 2 weeks prior to the scheduled defense. Please ensure that you have thoroughly reviewed the chapters and that all grammatical errors have been addressed before providing your committee with your dissertation for review.

Time limits

All requirements for the Ph.D. degree, exclusive of prior M.S. work, must be completed within eight (8) calendar years.

Students switching from an M.S. to a Ph.D. without completing the M.S. degree

The student should follow all of the guidelines described above for a normal Ph.D. track. If the student has completed the M.S. Comprehensive Exam before switching to the Ph.D. track, then the proposal written for that exam can count as the first proposal requirement described above for the Qualifying Exam; this is the proposal focused on the student’s primary research. The student will need to complete the requirement of the second document, choosing either option 1 or option 2 to show their ability to critically evaluate relevant published work, to formulate and test research questions, and to synthesize research independent of the student’s dissertation project and advisor.

In addition, the student must fill out the Program Change of Degree/En Route Request form through the Graduate School indicating that they are switching from the M.S. degree to the Ph.D. degree program. There is no fee for filing this form.