PhD Proposal Examination: Content and Format Guidelines

The student is required to have the graduate coordinator sign-off on the proposal to ensure it meets the department requirements prior to scheduling the proposal defense with the department graduate secretary. Ideally, this should be done at least two weeks prior to the anticipated defense date.

The research proposal should answer the questions:

  1. What do you intend to do?
  2. Why is the work important?
  3. What has already been done?
  4. How are you going to do the work?

This information should be distilled down into an efficient, written proposal which is double-space, 12 pt font and is as short as possible while covering the requisite information. A reasonable target for the proposal is 30-40 pages, excluding references and appendix material. The proposal cannot exceed 50 pages. All tables, graphs, figures, diagrams, and charts must be included within the page limit and should be, where possible, blended into the proposal text.

The following format and page distribution is recommended. This proposal format is adopted from that for National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. Substantial published information exists on writing NIH proposals, which may be of use to students learning to write their first proposals.

A. Specific Aims. What do you intend to do? List the broad, long-term objectives and what the specific research proposed in this application is intended to accomplish. State any hypotheses to be tested. (Recommended: 2-4 pages).

B. Background and Significance Why is the work important? Briefly sketch the background leading to the present application, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. State concisely the importance and relevance of the research described in the proposal by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives. (Recommended: 4-6 pages).

C. Preliminary Studies. What have you already done? Provide an account of your preliminary studies pertinent to the proposed research. This information should help to establish the feasibility of the proposed project and your experience and competence to pursue the proposed project. Any manuscripts/publications submitted or accepted for publication may be listed, and when submitted in the appendix are not part of the page limitations. (Recommended: 12-16 pages).

D. Research Design and Methods How are you going to do the work? Describe the research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data or other results will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methodology and models and their advantages over existing practices. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Provide a tentative sequence or timetable for the project.

The following sections should be included but are not part of the page limit: 

Literature Cited. List all references cited in the proposal.

Appendix. If needed, manuscripts (submitted or accepted for publication) and/or other materials directly relevant to this project, e.g. detailed derivations or analyses not suited for the text, can be included as an appendix to the proposal.


PhD Qualifying Examination - Oral

The oral examination of the Doctoral Qualifying Process is designed to assess the breadth of the student's knowledge of the discipline,the student's achievement during the first a year of graduate study, and the potential to conduct independent research. It is used to identify those students who maybe expected to successfully complete a doctoral program as well as to identify possible areas of weakness in the individual student's preparation.

When: Summer of first year.

Format: Each examination will be approximately 65 minutes in length. This will consist of a 20-25 minute presentation (you will be cut off at 25 minutes) and 40-45 minutes for questions from the 5-member faculty panel. The presentation will be on a journal paper from the literature - your paper will be available 1 week prior to the day of your exam.

Faculty Committee: The same faculty committee of 4-6 faculty will examine every student. The faculty committee will have members covering the three core chemical engineering subject areas: Thermodynamics, Transport Phenomena, and Reaction Engineering. Where possible the faculty committee will also be chosen with representation from the department’s research areas.

Presentation: Your presentation should include:

  • background suitable to introduce the committee to the research area of interest, and the specific topic of the paper
  • an assessment of the paper, including its success in communicating its stated objectives
  • an evaluation of the worth (i.e., impact) of the research to the field of chemical engineering, related disciplines, and the ChE subarea from which the paper was drawn [i.e., a critical analysis of the paper]

As you prepare your presentation and for the examination, YOU MAY NOT COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR ADVISOR REGARDING THE QUALIFYING EXAMINATION OR THE PAPER YOU ARE ASSIGNED. You may, however, consult with other faculty members and/or research groups who MAY OR MAY NOT ASSIST you in connecting the paper to the broader ChE field.

Examining Period: Questions will generally address 1) Issues related to research methods, assumptions, or interpretations of results; and 2) Knowledge in the core chemical engineering areas. The latter questions will most likely, but not exclusively, be found in the context of your presentation when possible.

Overall Evaluation: Each student’s overall evaluation as to pass/fail for the Doctoral Qualifying Process will be based on performance on the oral presentation/exam.