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

Following successful completion of the two qualifying oral examinations, the Research Advisor then selects one of two options for the Ph.D. candidate to follow to obtain the Ph.D. degree. The Research Advisor must write a letter to the Department Chairman stating which of the two options will be followed.

Option 1
Following successful completion of the two qualifying oral examinations, the Ph.D. candidate continues research leading to the dissertation under the guidance of the research advisor. The results are to make an original contribution to the chosen field and must be worthy of publication. The dissertation must be read and approved by the research advisor and a second faculty member (two readers). The second reader may come from inside or outside of the Department.

Final Oral Examination - A final oral examination in the form of defense of the dissertation is conducted as an open seminar. The seminar is open to the public and consists of a brief (30-45 min) presentation by the student of the principal results and conclusions of the dissertation, followed by questions and discussion from the general audience.

Option 2
Soon after successful completion of the two qualifying oral examinations, a Research Committee will be constituted for the student. This committee will consist of the research advisor and at least 2 other faculty members from inside or outside of the Department, with expertise in areas relating to the proposed research of the student. The Research Committee, chaired by the Research Advisor, oversees the student's progress and program, with the principal responsibility in the hands of the Research Advisor. The function of the Research Committee is to assist the research advisor in providing suggestions and critical feedback to the student and to facilitate the progress of the student in the completion of his or her research project.

The Research Advisor is to send a letter to the Department Chairman to identify the faculty members who will serve on the student's Research Committee. The membership of the Research Committee may change as dictated by the needs of the student and the direction of the research. The Research Committee members generally form the core of the dissertation examination.

The extent to which the Research Committee becomes involved with the research is at the discretion of the student and the Research Advisor. It is highly recommended that the Research Committee meet with the student at least annually from the time of the Graduate Board Oral Examination up until the final defense. This will ensure that there is adequate time for Research Committee input to be incorporated into the research project. The periodic review (annually at a minimum) of the research progress will also help the student build confidence that he or she is on the right track for completion of the Ph.D. degree.

The format for a Research Committee meeting is flexible and is likely to involve a presentation by the student on results and future plans that initiates discussion and feedback by the Research Committee members. Documentation of the meeting is at the discretion of the Research Advisor. For example, a brief written report of these meetings could be forwarded to the Department Chairman for the student's file. The reports could contain the date of the thesis committee meeting, the members present, a brief description of the committee's recommendations to the student, and a general evaluation of the student's progress. A copy of the report will be made available to the student.

Final Oral Examination (Dissertation Defense) - A final oral examination will be a dissertation defense. This will take place at least two weeks prior to the date specified by the Graduate Board for completion of all requirements for the Ph.D. degree. The goal of the dissertation defense is to determine if the student has carried out a program of quality independent research, and whether the student is capable of presenting the results in a professional manner. The Examination Committee includes the Research Committee formed earlier and any additional faculty member(s) or external colleague(s) deemed appropriate. The Research Advisor will designate one member of the Examination Committee to serve as chairman of the defense. A minimum of one member must come from outside the Department. The Examination Committee must consist of at least four members; five is encouraged. At least two weeks prior to the time of the examination, draft copies of the dissertation must be made available to all members of the Examination Committee. The Final Oral Examination consists of both an open seminar and a closed examination. The seminar is open to the public and consists of a brief (30-45 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 examining committee. The entire defense should last from two to three hours, although the Committee is not restricted to this time limit.

A majority vote of the Examination Committee is necessary to pass the Final Oral Examination. Successful completion of the Final Oral Examination signifies that the student will be awarded the Ph.D. degree after submission of the approved dissertation to the University. Rewriting of the dissertation may be required. In this case, a new defense may or may not be required, but the Dissertation Committee must certify that the work has been done before the thesis is accepted and the degree awarded. A student who fails a Final Oral Examination may be given the option, at the discretion of the Examination Committee, to complete additional research and/or writing, in which case a second Final Oral Examination will be given with as many members of the original Examination Committee as possible. The student's Research Advisor and Dissertation Committee are cosigners (minimum of three) of the dissertation and have the responsibility of ensuring that high standards of performance are maintained. Their signatures on the dissertation represent the final certification of the quality of the dissertation. A letter to the Graduate Board signed by the readers will also be needed to certify completion of the Ph.D. requirements.

Completion of Thesis
The Graduate Board Office in the Wolman House serves the University in matters relating to all essays and dissertations. This office issues regulations regarding the preparation of essays and dissertations. The Graduate Board secretary will answer questions about University requirements for Ph.D. and Masters degrees, however questions about dissertation format or about microfilming of dissertations should be addressed to the Commercial Binding office in the M.S.E. Library. A set of instructions for thesis preparation is normally posted in the copying room (Ames 3l8). Although a student only has to submit one copy of the final Ph.D. dissertation to the library by the Graduate Board deadline, the student is encouraged to submit copies for the Department and readers at the same time.

The challenge for students near the end of the program is to complete the research and carry out final synthesis of the findings. The difficulty of this latter phase of the Ph.D. program often comes as a surprise to students as they near the end of their studies at Johns Hopkins University and are anxious to graduate. Students that take on other obligations almost without exception experience disappointing delays.

Language Requirement
The Department no longer has a formal language requirement. However, each faculty member can stipulate his or her own language requirement depending on need and desired educational experience. For example, when working in certain fields, additional languages may be demanded by the material. Proficiency in the language of interest may be required by the student's advisor. Students in Human Geography are required to demonstrate proficiency in a language relevant to their research.

For degree candidates, there are several deadlines throughout the academic year for completing/submitting an acceptable thesis or essay or submitting an approval for a degree that involves only coursework. Please check with your advisor or the departmental staff to confirm these deadlines. It is important that your name appears on the graduation list that is submitted to the Office of the Registrar. There is only one university-wide commencement ceremony held in May of each year. Diplomas for all degrees completed within the academic year are awarded at that time.