Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering

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What is a Ph.D?

The Ph.D. is a research degree in which the student will learn how to initiate and carry our original research. At first, the student will explore the current state of knowledge in his/her field. Information and ideas developed by others are critically examined and placed in proper context. Through this activity, subject areas are identified that are important to achieving the goals of the discipline, but which have not been explored or developed. At this point, the student will propose new research to improve understanding in this key area. A research proposal is written that outlines in an orderly and logical manner how key questions are addressed. While pursuing these research hypotheses, the student must take time to consider alternative explanations for experimental observations, and devise new experiments that critically test assumptions and theories.

Although the student will acquire much factual knowledge in graduate school, the greatest benefits of the Ph.D. program come from acquiring logic and reasoning skills that have much broader applicability. The student will learn to state problems clearly and solve them in a reliable and efficient manner. Reliable means that whatever lines of reasoning one uses, one must be sure as possible that the conclusions are correct, particularly since there is always some uncertainty in science and engineering. Efficient means that although many approaches may reach the same objective, some may take an unreasonably long amount of time compared to other equally reliable approaches. The student must think through his/her research plans to avoid unproductive activities. Because research involves managing time and resources, the Ph.D. student is receiving excellent preparation for future professional work.


Each graduate student, when first reporting to the Department, is initially assigned a Program Advisor, based on the stated interests of the student. The advisor should be consulted in matters of programs of study, financial aid, thesis topics, or other problems. Ph.D. students should eventually select a Research Advisor who may or may not be the same individual as the Program Advisor. This occurs as soon as the student has defined his/her area of interest and is sufficiently familiar with the faculty of the Department. Both the Program and the Research Advisors should be consulted in making the decision and notified of the student's selection.

Administrative responsibility for the candidate's progress rests initially with the Program Advisor; this responsibility is then assumed by the Research Advisor. This does not imply that the student should seek guidance in his/her research only from the advisor. The entire staff of the Department, and in fact of the University, is available to each student to supply whatever advice and assistance may be needed in pursuing research and other work for the advanced degree.

Thesis Proposal

By the beginning of the second year, Ph.D. students, in consultation with the Research Advisor, should begin developing a research topic and preparing a thesis proposal. The Ph.D. is a research degree, in which the student learns how to initiate and carry out original research. The current state of knowledge in the chosen field will be explored first. Information and ideas developed by others are critically examined and placed in proper context. The student then proposes new research to improve understanding in this key area. A research proposal is written that outlines how key questions will be addressed in an orderly and logical manner. More information about the thesis proposal is provided in the next section.

Since the preparation of an acceptable thesis (essay) is a significant portion of the M.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees, it is important to set research objectives that are well defined and attainable. The writing of a thesis proposal helps to plan and organize the research. The proposal aids to connect ideas and discover inconsistencies in thinking. Relatively short proposals (15-20 pages) are encouraged. All proposals should contain a clear and succinct statement of the proposed work, including the following:

1. Title of the proposed thesis,
2. Specific aims or objectives,
3. Supporting information (work by others, literature review),
4. Research methods,
5. A proposed time or progress schedule.

Discussion of thesis topics may begin as soon as the candidate wishes. It is recommended that this proposal be submitted at the earliest possible date, not later than December 1 for candidates intending to complete the M.A. or M.S. in April, not later than May 1 for candidates intending to complete the M.A. or M.S. in October, and not later than one year prior to the intended completion date of candidates for the Ph.D. Candidates for the M.A. or M.S. must submit copies of a thesis proposal to the research advisor and the Department Chairman before the research is started. Candidates for the Ph.D. must submit a thesis proposal prior to their Departmental oral examination.

Qualifying Examinations

Except in unusual cases, no oral examinations are required for candidates for the M.A., M.S., or M.S.E. degrees. The Ph.D. candidate must pass a Departmental Oral Examination and a Graduate Board Examination in order to progress toward the Ph.D. degree. These two exams are normally taken in either the 4th or 5th semester of Ph.D. study. The 4th semester is encouraged for Ph.D. students entering our program with a Master's degree. Students entering our Ph.D. program directly from the B.S. degree have until the 5th semester to take the exams. If the exams are not held by the end of the 5th semester, then a letter of explanation and request for delay must be written by the Research Advisor to the Department Chairman and be placed in the student's file. Students should discuss the time, place, and membership of these oral examinations with their advisor. The Research Advisor's secretary will assist the student in scheduling these examinations.

1. Department Oral Examination - This examination should be held in the 4th or 5th semester of a student's graduate work in the Department, after he or she has focused upon an area of primary interest and research and prepared a dissertation proposal. The examination is administered by three or more members of the faculty of the Department. Occasionally faculty members from other departments may be invited to attend. This examination serves four purposes:

a) to review and evaluate the student's dissertation proposal, prepared prior to the examination (see "Thesis Proposal," above),

b) to determine whether the student is qualified to take the Graduate Board examination,

c) to assist the Department in determining the areas of weaknesses and strengths in the student's reasoning skills and educational backgrounds,


d) to provide the student with experience in being examined orally.

The Research Advisor is responsible for preparing a written statement summarizing the outcome of this examination for placement in the student's file.

2. Graduate Board Examination - This is the official University examination. Three faculty members from other departments and two members of the faculty from our Department participate in the oral examination. Members of the examination committee are requested in writing by the Chairman of this Department, and approved by the Graduate Board. The chairman of the exam is a senior faculty member from another department and is assigned this status by the Graduate Board. The procedures and requirements of the Graduate Board are available in the Graduate Board Office in the Wolman House, 3213 N. Charles St.

The Graduate Board Examination is scheduled after successful completion of the Department oral exam, usually during the 4th or 5th semesters. This examination is ideally taken within specified time periods, set by the Grad Board. A listing of the exam dates is posted throughout the department or can be obtained from the Departmental Office. Under special circumstances, the exam can be scheduled outside these time periods, with a written request and explanation provided to the Graduate Board.

The Graduate Board Examination covers the student's major field and includes, but is not limited to, a defense of a dissertation proposal. The goal of the examination is to determine whether a satisfactory dissertation topic and research plan have been selected, and whether the student is capable of carrying out the work. The examination is of sufficient duration to permit the Committee to determine what it needs to know about the candidate in order to make a judgment; ordinarily examinations are not longer than two hours, but the Committee is not restricted to this time limit. The examination may result in one of the following:

a) Unconditional pass (majority vote of the Committee),

b) Pass with conditions to be met by the student,

c) Failure, with re-examination to be administered by the same Committee at a later date,


d) Failure, with no further examination.

The Research Advisor in cooperation with his or her secretary is responsible for obtaining a copy of the signed outcome of this Graduate Board Examination for placement in the student's file.

Continuation Toward the Ph.D. Degree

Step 1: The Research Committee: A Research Committee will be formed following the successful 
completion of the Graduate Board Oral Examination. The role of the committee is to provide 
general oversight of the candidate’s progress, and to provide critical feedback and suggestions during the period of the student’s dissertation research and writing. The research committee will be composed of:

The faculty may be drawn from within or outside the department, as appropriate. The members of 
the committee also generally form the core of the Dissertation Defense Committee, described below.

The research committee should be formed no later than a month following the Graduate Board Oral
examination. The advisor should confirm members of the committee to the Department Chair in 
writing (email is appropriate). The composition of the committee may be changed subsequently as 
dictated by the needs of the student, the direction of the research, or the availability of faculty. The 
advisor must report changes in writing (email is appropriate) to the Department Chair. 

The Research Committee should meet with the student preferably once a year to assess the student’s progress, share ideas, and address any perceived problems. In preparation for this meeting, the student should provide a brief written report of the work in progress to the committee members at least one week prior to the meeting. The format of the meeting is flexible, but should involve some of the following things: 

The advisor is responsible for clarifying (verbally or in writing) any significant recommendations 
and offering a general assessment of the student’s progress. 

Step 2: Dissertation Defense: A final dissertation defense is required of all DoGEE doctoral 
students. The student must complete the defense before the dissertation can be submitted to the 
binding office. The purpose of the defense is to demonstrate that the student has successfully carried out a rigorous program of original research and is able to respond adequately to questions and challenges to the research. The Senior Academic Program Coordinator must be notified as soon as the student sets a dissertation defense date. 

The dissertation defense must take place at least two weeks before the dissertation filing deadline 
published by the Graduate Board. Draft copies of the dissertation must be provided to the defense 
committee at least two weeks prior to the date of the defense. 

A Dissertation Defense Committee will be established, composed of the research advisor and at least two other faculty members. At least one member of the defense committee must be from outside the department. The chair of the defense committee will be appointed by the department chair.

The advisor will submit prospective members of the defense committee to the Department Chair in 
writing (email is appropriate). The department chair must then approve the composition of the 
committee in writing (email is appropriate). A copy of this confirmation should be included in the 
student’s active file. 

The DoGEE dissertation defense is made up of two important parts: 

The seminar is open to the public and consists of a summary (~45 min.) presentation by the student of the principal results and conclusions of the dissertation, followed by questions from the general audience. Immediately following the open seminar is a closed session of questions and discussion of the dissertation with the Dissertation Defense Committee. The entire defense should last from two to three hours, although the committee is not restricted to this time limit.
The outcome of the defense is decided by majority vote of the defense committee. The possible 
outcomes include: 

The defense committee may decide whether a new defense will be required upon completion of this work. At least two members of the defense committee must review the new draft and certify that the required work has been successfully accomplished before the dissertation can be accepted and the degree conferred.

Important Note: The letter to the Graduate Board (completed by the student’s research advisor) 
certifying the successful completion of all requirements for the PhD must be signed by the research 
advisor and at least two other members of the dissertation defense committee. 

Step 3: Completion and Submission of the Dissertation: Dissertations must be completed and 
submitted to the Commercial Binding Office in the Eisenhower library by 4:00 pm on the date 
specified on the Graduate Board Calendar (http://grad.jhu.edu/academics/graduate-board/) in order to graduate in the intended semester or summer period. The student will be issued a receipt for the submission of the dissertation. The original copy of this receipt should immediately be taken to the Senior Academic Program Coordinator for submission to the Graduate Board. Note: The Graduate Board will not approve completion without a copy of this receipt. 

Student should submit dissertation copies to the following: