Carnegie Mellon University

PhD Program

PhD Focus Areas

A number of influences on the built and natural environment will drive future research needs and opportunities in civil and environmental engineering.  As the world’s population continues to grow and concentrate in urban areas, it taxes all forms of existing infrastructure and creates significant environmental quality issues.

At the same time, much of the infrastructure in developed urban areas is aged and in poor condition. As the climate changes, weather patterns in both urban and rural areas will also change and create new challenges for both the built and natural environment in the form of more intense and frequent wind, flood and landslide events.

Each of our established focus areas serves to address these real challenges facing professionals in the civil and environmental engineering disciplines.

Students who have completed an MS degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon or another institution are eligible to apply to the PhD program in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Students who have completed the MS requirements at Carnegie Mellon who wish to continue must formally apply to the PhD program. 

How is a PhD Program Different from a BS or MS Degree?

The degree program leading to a PhD helps students to learn about the process and skills needed to do independent research so as to create new knowledge. Thus, it is quite different from programs leading to a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Master of Science (MS) degree. In those degree programs, the objective is to learn a certain body of established knowledge, usually by taking a certain number of units of coursework. While courses can also be helpful in learning how to structure research questions and do research, they are really only one of several means to an end. 

People really learn to do research by doing it consistently, usually in collaboration with some mentors who have had significant previous experience. In our research here at Carnegie Mellon University, we strive to advance the state-of-knowledge and art in how engineering problems are formulated, solved and interpreted and used.

How long will it take?

To complete a PhD, typically at least four years of graduate study beyond the BS degree, or three years of graduate study beyond the MS degree are required. 

What are the course requirements for the PhD program?

There are no formal course requirements for the PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering program. Most PhD students take some courses to prepare for the candidacy exam and/or provide additional bakground for their chosen research area. 


Are students limited to a narrow set of research topics, or can I influence the choice of my topic and its overall direction?

Most of the research in the department is faculty-initiated. The faculty write research proposals, start centers and conduct research in their areas of interest and focus; the interests of our current faculty are generally covered on our website. However, the list is always evolving. Often this evolution is sparked by a new faculty hire, new major proposals being funded, and new research initiatives sponsored by an external funding agency. We encourage our students to think independently and creatively about their research -- this is part of the PhD training process. Nevertheless, our students must work within the limits of available resources, both intellectual and financial, to accomplish their goals.

Most PhD students are supported on externally funded research projects (these projects are often new initiatives, but they are typically based on proposals written prior to the student's arrival). Students working on these projects usually have to help fulfill the general objectives specified in the project proposal or grant agreement. Their own opportunity to expand or adjust the focus of the proposed research may only come once some significant portion of the initial project objectives are met.

However, some students come with their own support or fellowships. Others may apply for fellowships or work with faculty to write new research proposals, perhaps in a newly emerging research area. Again, such independence and entrepreneurial effort is encouraged. It does, however, demand initiative and hard work on the part of the student. Also, the student must interest and motivate some set of the faculty to participate in advising their research.

Strong advising and research supervision are essential to a good educational program, and we work hard to see that our students benefit from the knowledge and guidance of committed faculty advisors.

Do I get to choose my faculty advisor?

MS students doing an MS Thesis and PhD students will be assigned to an advisor whose interests match their own. PhD students will be assigned to the advisor with whom they will be doing research.

What is the form of the PhD qualifying examination?

PhD Candidates will be required to take a Qualifying Examination consisting of two parts:

  1. Comprehensive Examination
  2. Thesis Proposal Examination

For detailed information about the degree requirements for PhD students, please visit our PhD Requirements section.

What can I expect from the doctoral qualifying process?

The qualifying examinations consist of a take home written examination followed by an oral examination and a thesis proposal. The written examination is tailored to the individual programs and interests of particular students. The examination is intended to insure that students are ready to take on their doctoral research, so they serve a diagnostic role. In some cases, students may be asked to take courses in areas which they may need and are not sufficiently prepared. The pass rate on the written and oral examination is high because we are extremely careful in the admissions process.