The Ph.D. Program

Our Ph.D. program is a dynamic, hands-on and research-focused degree program. Overseen by the Graduate Group in Materials Science and Engineering, students will interact closely with professors and research staff to pursue a degree tailored to their interests. Each student’s course of study is selected with the help of his or her advisor and the Graduate Group Chair. Thesis research is guided by the research advisor, a member of the graduate group, with advice from a small committee of faculty chosen for their interest and competence in areas related to the thesis work. The minimum time required for the Ph.D. degree for a student entering with an M.S.E. or equivalent degree is two calendar years. The time for the completion of a combined M.S.E. / Ph.D. is typically between four and six years.


The Ph.D. degree is awarded by the Graduate School of Arts and Science; as a result, there are certain differences in the specifications for written dissertation and certain formal requirements to be met. Information on these is available from the Office of the Associate Dean for Graduate Education of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. All applications for the Ph.D. degree are made through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Students accepted into the Ph.D. program need not complete a master’s degree.


Currently, MSE supports over 60 Ph.D. students. The collaborative nature of the MSE graduate group allows the theses of our students to be co-advised by faculty drawn from diverse disciplines. After graduation, many of our students have assumed leadership roles in industry and academia.

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PhD Applicant Support Program

In this section:

Ph.D. Program Requirements

Students must complete each of the requirements outlined below within the general time frames outlined above. If a member of the dissertation committee is unavailable for an examination, the advisor will recommend an appropriate substitute committee member, which must be approved by the Graduate Group Chair. In rare cases, the Graduate Group Chair may approve rescheduling the examination based on incompatibilities in the schedules of the committee members.


To qualify for the Ph.D. program, all students must complete 7 approved courses in their first year. Typically, four of these will be taken in the first semester and three in the second. Three core courses are required for all students (no exceptions): MSE 520 Structure of Materials, MSE 530 Thermodynamics & Phase Equilibria, and MSE 540 Phase Transformations. Students must maintain a grade point average (GPA) above 3.25 for the first year and above 3.0 for the remainder of their coursework. Non-core courses may be selected from offerings within the MSE department and other departments in SEAS, as well as the physical, biological, and mathematical sciences. A student transferring from other graduate programs can only include transferred courses with the approval of the MSE Graduate Group Chair. Students should register for one research credit in their second semester reflecting the expectation that they participate in research. Students are required to take at least 10 graduate level courses (500 or greater). Within the ten courses, students are expected to include courses outside of their research area to gain a broader understanding of materials science and engineering. Doctoral students with a Master’s degree may transfer up to nine credits as course units to the Ph.D. program upon the approval of the Graduate Group Chair.

Qualifying Exam (Paper and Oral)

In Year 1, in addition to the coursework, Ph.D. students must also pass the qualifying examination. This examination is held at the end of May after the second semester and tests student’s potential for identifying and investigating significant research questions, the depth of their understanding of the materials covered in the 7 courses and their intellectual integration. As part of this examination, the student will write an original paper that consists of an analysis and critique of one or more articles published in the scientific literature typically, though not necessarily, in the general area of student’s research focus area. The qualifying exam paper will be orally presented and defended to a committee of faculty members. The student must prepare (1) an abstract of their qualifying exam paper (no more than 250 words) and (2) a separate paragraph describing their research progress in the first year (no more than 250 words). The abstract (1) should describe the proposed area of focus for the qualifying exam paper, the topic(s) of the journal articles to be reviewed, and the general nature of the proposed critique. Students must also include copies of the selected research article(s). The abstract must be submitted by the end of the first Friday after the Spring Break. The student will be notified within 2 weeks whether the proposed literature article(s) is acceptable. If it is unacceptable, the students will be provided feedback explaining why the proposed articles(s) or other aspects of the abstract were not accepted. The qualifying examination paper must incorporate a thorough analysis of one or more important and significant research articles in the published scientific literature and include a proposed research plan. A typical qualifying examination paper will (1) specify the general research area, (2) summarize the main points of the article(s) and the student’s view of its significant contributions to the field, (3) identify issues that the article author(s) neglected or did not properly address and problems with the methodology, (4) address how these deficiencies would alter the data or their interpretation, (5) describe how the student would address these deficiencies, and (6) identify appropriate next steps in the line of research discussed in the article. The qualifying examination paper should be approximately (but no more than) 20 single-spaced pages (including figures) with references (no page limit), plus a one-page (single-spaced) description of their research progress to-date. The qualifying examination paper must be submitted by the end of the Spring Term finals period.

The oral section of the qualifying examination will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday the week before Memorial Day. During the oral examination, the student will (1) present their qualifying exam paper (30 minute maximum) and (2) present their research progress (15 minute maximum). The qualifying examination committee will assess the student’s ability to debate the fundamental background, significance, and results of the research article(s) and the research plan, illustrate its importance within the research field, and demonstrate that he or she is able to integrate the knowledge gained in their coursework. The qualifying examination committee will consist of members of the Graduate Group and the student’s advisor will not be present. Any student who fails the oral examination has the option of retaking the examination within six weeks of their first attempt. Students failing the retake are not permitted to continue in the doctorate degree program and have the option of entering the Masters degree program.

Dissertation Committee Composition and Meetings

The Dissertation Committee provides the student and advisor with additional sources of information, guidance, and critique of the research project, and reviews student progress in the Research Proposal Examination, 4th Year Research Update, the Dissertation Defense and other times as the student or advisor may request. Each student in the doctoral degree program will have a Dissertation Committee of at least four members, including the advisor. At least half of the members of the Dissertation Committee must be members of the MSE Graduate Group (at the time of their appointment to the committee), and at least one member must be outside the MSE department. One member of the Dissertation Committee from the Standing Faculty in the MSE Graduate Group will be appointed as Chair of the Dissertation Committee. If the Chair of a Dissertation Committee leaves the Standing Faculty before the dissertation is completed, then a new chair from the Standing Faculty in the MSE Graduate Group must be appointed as chair. The membership of the Dissertation Committee (including members from outside the MSE Graduate Group) must be approved in writing by the MSE Graduate Committee Chair.

The Dissertation Advisor is the person primarily responsible for overseeing the student’s dissertation research. A student may have both a Dissertation Advisor and a Dissertation Co-Advisor, or two Dissertation Co-Advisors, if that responsibility is shared equally. Dissertation Advisors, and/or Dissertation Co-Advisors, must be members of the Standing Faculty at Penn, with special exceptions that must be approved by the Graduate Group Chair. A member of the Associated Faculty (such as Research Faculty or Adjunct Faculty) may be permitted to serve as a Dissertation Advisor with prior approval of the Vice Provost for Education on a case by case basis. The MSE Graduate Group Chair may petition the Vice Provost for Education, in advance, for an exception. In such cases, a member of the Standing Faculty in the MSE Graduate Group must be appointed as the Dissertation Committee Chair.

Second Year Progress Update

In Year 2, doctoral degree students must submit an Annual Dissertation Research Progress Report (one page, single-spaced, one figure), signed by the advisor, to the Graduate Group Chair. This progress report should include background, motivation, research progress, and a brief summary of future work. This update is due December 1.

Third Year Research Proposal

In Year 3, doctoral degree students must submit a research proposal to the Graduate Group Chair and their Dissertation Committee. The proposal (20 pages maximum) should describe the focus of the student’s thesis project, identify the technological and scientific importance of the work, outline the theoretical or experimental approach to be followed, and include their results to date. The proposal is due December 20. In the week of Martin Luther King Day of the following January, an oral examination will be scheduled. The exam will be conducted by the Dissertation Committee. The purpose of this exam is to evaluate the motivation and capability of the student for research, based on his/her demonstration of in-depth understanding, independence of thought and progress towards completing his/her PhD. The committee will also provide advice and/or suggestions for future directions. The student will be expected to make a presentation (30 minute maximum) on thesis research followed by discussion with the Dissertation Committee. If the committee finds the student is seriously deficient in progress and/or capability to conduct the independent research, the committee may recommend a second oral examination within 3 months. Continuing in the PhD program requires committee approval of the research proposal.

Annual Research Update Beyond Year 3

In the week of Martin Luther King Day of Year 4 (and subsequent years if a student has not completed all requirements for the PhD degree), a 15-minute student oral presentation will be scheduled with the Dissertation Committee. (With the approval of the advisor, the students who will graduate within the same academic year may request a one-time waiver of the update.) The students will discuss their progress (e.g., significant discoveries, publications, proceedings, and abstracts) and anticipated work for completion of their doctoral thesis. The committee will review the doctoral degree progress and determine whether the progress is sufficient in all aspects. If the committee decides that the student is seriously deficient in research progress, it will recommend a follow-up oral presentation within 3 months from the first review.

Dissertation and thesis defense

When the dissertation work is completed to the satisfaction of the advisor, the student prepares a written dissertation according to the specifications available in the departmental office or Deputy Dean. The Examination Committee is normally the same as the Dissertation Committee; deviations from this norm must be approved by the Graduate Group Chair. Copies of the dissertation must be submitted to the members of the Examination Committee ten days before their defense, after which the student will defend the dissertation in an oral examination before the committee. Students schedule the time and location of their thesis defense and are asked to announce the time and place of the examination in advance, and the dissertation presentation and initial question-and-answer portion of the exam are open to the public. The final portion of the examination will be restricted to the student and the Examination Committee. However, this part of the examination may also be public if unanimously approved by the Examination Committee. If the dissertation and the defense are accepted, the advisor and the Graduate Group Chair will sign the Ph.D. Degree Certification form, which is then submitted to the Deputy Dean for further action. The committee may require changes in the dissertation, and, in exceptional cases, a second dissertation defense.


All doctoral degree students are required to attend all departmental seminars; persistent absences may result in removal from the graduate program.

Modifications and Exceptions

Requests for exceptions to or modifications of these requirements must be made in writing to the Graduate Group Chair. Requests should be discussed in advance with the advisor, and should include the reasons for seeking the change. Petitions to modify requirements of the University or of the School must be further approved by the Graduate Affairs Committee of the School.

Advising and Advisor Selection

The faculty advisor is principally responsible for overseeing the student’s program and degree progress, including course selection and requests related to the student’s formal status in the graduate program. Students may be assigned a thesis advisor at the time of admission or enter the program without a thesis advisor assigned.

Doctoral students typically register for four courses in their first semester, and three courses plus one research course unit in their second semester. Course selection is made in consultation with student’s thesis advisor. For unassigned students, the Graduate Group Chair will recommend and approve first-semester courses based on the student’s undergraduate transcript and intended area of research. An official course approval form signed by the thesis advisor or the Graduate Group Chair will enter student’s departmental file.

For unassigned students, the expectation is that a thesis advisor will be assigned during the first semester. Unassigned students should make appointments to meet individually with members of the MSE Graduate Group whom they consider to be prospective advisors, as well as students in the relevant research groups. By October 1, unassigned students must submit to the Graduate Group Chair a ranked list of three faculty members to whom the student would like to be assigned. The Graduate Group Chair then assigns students to faculty advisors in accordance with student preferences, subject to limitations imposed by the availability of research support, the wishes of faculty members, and the existing distribution of students among advisors.

Students may request a change of advisor at any time during their Ph.D. study, and the request will be honored if possible. However, since changing advisors usually implies changing research topics, it is advantageous to request a change as early as possible during the graduate program.

PhD Applicant Support Program

The Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) department and the University of Pennsylvania are strongly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Application Support Program will offer assistance to applicants to the MSE Doctoral Program from under-served or under-represented communities in the admissions process. The program will connect each applicant with a current PhD student who will serve as a mentor to help navigate the application process, give feedback on the resume and personal statement, and provide any other reasonable assistance necessary.

This program is open only to U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents. Interested applicants should apply by filling this form. This form will expire on December 14, 2020 which is the deadline to submit a PhD application. Note that applying to this program does not guarantee a mentor, but the earlier that the form is filled, the more likely a mentor will be available.

Note: At the end of the application cycle, individual responses will be deleted, and only aggregated information in anonymized form will be retained for the purpose of evaluating the impact of the program.

Apply Here

Additional Information

The following individuals can also be contacted for more information:


See Also:

Graduate Program FAQ

Graduate Student Handbook

Graduate Group Faculty

Groups + Resources

Forms for Graduate Students

Diversity and Inclusion

MSE Newsletter Archive


Dr. I-Wei Chen
Professor and Graduate Group Chair

Dr. Mahadevan Khantha
Senior Lecturer, Faculty Advisor and Master’s Program Advisor
Office: 221 LRSM

Ms. Irene Clements
Graduate Program Coordinator
Office: Room 201, LRSM
Phone: 215-898-8337