Doctor Of Philosophy-Department of Materials Science and Engineering - Carnegie Mellon University

Doctor of Philosophy

The Doctoral degree emphasizes the creation of new knowledge through extensive independent research, including the formulation of hypotheses, the interpretation of phenomena revealed by research, and the extraction of general principles upon which predictions can be made. An important part of this process is presenting and defending the results. Ph.D. candidates are expected to present their results at research review meetings, at national and international conferences, and, in particular, in peer-reviewed publications. In addition to disseminating the new results, these activities offer ways for Ph.D. candidates to establish themselves as members of the international technical community. In the MSE department, doctoral research can be conducted in a range of areas, including nanomaterials, biomaterials, materials for energy applications, metals, ceramics, electronic materials, and magnetic materials. Each Doctoral student's research is guided by a faculty advisor and a dissertation committee with milestones that allow graduation in four years or less. The milestones and expectations for doctoral students are described below.

Admission to the Doctoral Program

Applicants must supply the following materials to qualify for admission:
1. Official transcripts from previous degree programs
2. The results of GRE exams
3. Three letters of reference
4. For the case of non-English speakers, a TOEFL Score Report
5. The application fee
All admissions decisions are made by the Department Head, based on recommendations from the graduate recruiting committee.  A typical student qualifying for admission will have an undergraduate GPA greater than 3.0, a verbal GRE score of at least 146, a quantitative GRE score of at least 159, and an analytical writing GRE score greater than or equal to 3.5. For non-US citizens, the TOEFL score be 84 or higher (and also exceeding minimum scores in each of the four sections of the test; see the "Frequently asked questions" page). In 2013, the average TOEFL score for the students admitted from outside the United States was 107.
Each year, we enroll between 15 and 25 doctoral students.


Selection of Thesis Topic and Advisor

All incoming students will be classified into two groups before the start of the semester, preplaced and unplaced.  If both the student and the advisor agree to work together more than one week before the semester starts and they notify the department head of this decision, then the student is preplaced.  As a result, that project will not be advertised to the other students and the student will not be eligible to select projects available to the unplaced students.  Those not preplaced automatically join the unplaced group.  The unplaced students are given seven weeks from the start of the semester to mid-semester break to meet faculty and learn about available projects. During this period, faculty may not promise placement to any of the students in the unplaced group.  Before the mid-semester break, all unplaced students specify their project preferences and are then placed by agreement of the faculty.


First Year Qualification

At the end of each academic year, the MSE faculty will review the academic and research performance of each first year doctoral student to determine if they are qualified for continued study. The main factors are the candidate’s core and two-semester QPAs, and their advisor’s assessment of research performance. If the candidate passes this review, then he/she will continue as a student in good standing. If the candidate fails the review they will leave the doctoral program at the end of the year. This decision is based on faculty consensus.


Research Performance Evaluation

Before the end of the third semester, each candidate must take a research performance evaluation. The research performance evaluation committee consists of three MSE faculty members, at least two of whom have primary affiliations in the MSE Department; two committee members are selected by the candidate and the advisor, and one is appointed by the Department Head. The advisor does not participate directly in the Q&A phase of the evaluation. The RPE committee should constitute a core of the committee for both the Thesis Overview and Dissertation Defense. The outcome of the RPE will be based on a combination of input from the advisor and the research performance evaluation of the committee members.

The candidate will prepare a written proposal of not more than 15 pages that will be delivered to the committee members at least ten days prior to the evaluation. The candidate must also bring the yellow exam confirmation card to the meeting (for the faculty to sign).  During the exam, the candidate makes an oral presentation of their research proposal lasting not more than 30 minutes. The slides for the presentation must be numbered sequentially. The presentation is followed by questions from the committee. Only MSE faculty are permitted to attend the Research Performance Evaluation.

During the research performance evaluation, the candidate is expected to demonstrate:
1. a fundamental understanding of research goals of the project
2. a knowledge of background literature related to the project
3. an understanding of the research tools that are used to accomplish project goals
4. a hypothesis for the experiments performed to date and for the immediate future
5. an ability to develop a research plan
6. an ability to produce and analyze their own research results
7. an ability to integrate materials fundamentals that are relevant to the project

The RPE committee members each fill out an “MSE RPE Committee Checklist and Evaluation Instructions” form. At the conclusion of the evaluation, the candidate receives immediate oral feedback on both the strengths and the weaknesses in all areas listed above, and the results are communicated to the Department. The candidate will be provided with a written summary of the RPE within two weeks. Passing this evaluation allows candidates to remain in the Ph.D. program. If a candidate fails the evaluation, they may be permitted to make a second attempt before the end of the fourth semester. In such cases, a new committee is appointed by the Department Head, with one member from the original committee and two new members.


Selection of Dissertation Committee

The candidate, in consultation with the advisor, should arrange a doctoral thesis committee before the beginning of the fifth semester. The doctoral thesis committee will be chaired by the advisor, and will have at least three additional members. The requirements for the committee are that at least two of the members have a primary affiliation with the MSE department1 and at least one of the members is not primarily affiliated2 with the MSE department.  The candidate should carefully choose committee members who can provide supplemental resources, stimulate critical thinking, and assist in the candidate’s development. As such, the candidate is strongly encouraged to interact regularly with his/her committee members.
The candidates should continue to further develop their proposal presented at the RPE detailing the research plan and updating the timeline, results, and analysis sections. These developments should be discussed with doctoral thesis committee members, either individually or as a group, by the beginning of the fifth semester.
1 "primarily affiliated" MSE faculty are those whose salary is at least partially paid by the MSE department.
2 "not primarily affiliated" includes qualified people who may not be employed by CMU, CMU faculty from other departments, CMU faculty who have a courtesy appointment in MSE, and MSE adjunct faculty.


Thesis Overview

Before the beginning of the seventh semester, the candidate must convene their thesis committee for an overview of her/his dissertation.
The candidate should prepare a written document and an oral presentation that convey and justify her/his plan for completing her/his dissertation. The written document and the 20-30 minute presentation should be prepared in accordance with the standards for a final dissertation but are expected to be briefer; the document must be distributed to committee members at least ten (10) days prior to the oral presentation. A plan and a projected timeline to carry out the necessary work to complete their dissertation should be given in the presentation. It is the candidate’s responsibility to post a public announcement in the department at least two weeks prior to the date of the exam that includes the following information: the date, time, place, candidate name, title, and dissertation committee. The candidate must also bring the yellow exam confirmation card to the meeting (for the faculty to sign).

The student must attach as a separate appendix or a clearly labeled chapter within the main body of the document, a copy of each manuscript for which that student is an author. The candidate must attach a detailed plan for how the research results will be disseminated in peer-reviewed journals. The committee will provide feedback on the publication plan.
It is important to emphasize that, at the time of the overview, there may be considerable work remaining before the thesis is completed and conclusive findings may not yet have been reached.  However, the overview presentation and document should demonstrate the following five items:

  1. The candidate is able to place their research in the context of the background literature and defend how their research represents (will represent) an advancement of the state of knowledge in the field.
  2. A clear hypothesis (or clear hypotheses) has guided the production and analysis of publishable research results.
  3. The path to reach the stated goals of the thesis is clear and the candidate has mastered the skills required to complete the research; questions of feasibility should be largely absent.
  4. The scope of the research, analysis, and integration are deemed appropriate by the committee to form an acceptable Ph.D. dissertation.
  5. The student must attach as a separate appendix or a clearly labeled chapter within the main body of the document, a copy of each manuscript for which that student is an author. The candidate must attach a detailed plan for how the research results will be disseminated in peer-reviewed journals. The committee will provide feedback on the publication plan.

At the conclusion of the overview, the committee shall meet in private to prepare written comments for the candidate that include feedback on the four points above, as well as suggestions for enhancing the quality of the thesis.  Each committee member will fill out a Thesis Overview Feedback Form (see Appendix D); after the overview, the advisor fills out a Thesis Overview Feedback Summary Form (see Appendix E) that is afterwards provided to the student.  This form, with a written response, must accompany the final thesis hard copy when submitted to the committee. If the committee is not satisfied that the overview demonstrates a feasible plan for the thesis, the candidate may be asked to repeat the overview between four and six months after the initial examination.  Approval of the committee is a requirement for continuation in the doctoral program.


The Final Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation must embody the results of extended research, be an original contribution to knowledge, and include material worthy of publication. It should demonstrate the candidate’s ability to conduct an independent investigation, to abstract principles upon which predictions can be made, and to interpret in a logical manner facts and phenomena revealed by the research.
The written dissertation must be prepared according to the college guidelines summarized at:  The thesis document (hard copy + soft copy) along with a response to the Thesis Overview Feedback Summary Form must be submitted to the committee at least three (3) weeks before the tentative defense date.  The committee members have one week to verify that the overview comments were properly incorporated in the thesis document.  If the dissertation is accepted by the Committee, the candidate is eligible for a final public examination.  If not, then the committee informs the student in writing of deficiencies that need to be resolved before a new thesis defense date can be scheduled.  The committee decides by majority vote, with a tied vote resolved by the Department Head. It is the candidate’s responsibility to post a public announcement in the department at least two weeks prior to the date of the defense that includes the following information: the date, time, place, candidate name, title, and dissertation committee. The candidate must also bring the yellow exam confirmation card to the meeting (for the faculty to sign).
Upon satisfactorily passing this examination, the candidate will be recommended for the doctoral degree. One original and three copies of the dissertation must be presented to the Department Head. The original must be forwarded to the Dean of the College of Engineering for approval. The dissertation must be acceptable to University Microfilms, Inc. for the microfilming of doctoral dissertations, in which all candidates are required to participate.


Course Requirements

In addition to the research requirements, doctoral students are also required to complete 96 units of course work. This includes 36 units of MSE core classes that must be completed in the first semester (see table below).  The remaining units may be made up of graduate level classes in the MSE department or graduate level classes in the other departments within CIT (Carnegie Institute of Technology) or MCS (Mellon College of Science).  Classes outside of MSE must be approved by the student's advisor.  While the 96 unit curriculum should be comprised entirely of graduate classes, it is generally permissible to include one senior level MSE undergraduate class, with the exception of 27-454, 27-555, and 27-556.

MSE Core Courses (required)





Defects in Materials



Diffusion in Materials



Structure of Materials


27-797 Bonding in Materials 6
27-798 Thermodynamics I 6


Thermodynamics II


To remain a candidate for the Ph.D. degree, a student must have a QPA greater than or equal to 3.0 for the MSE core courses taken in the first semester or have a QPA greater than or equal to 3.0 by the end of the first two semesters in graduate level coursework that includes the MSE core courses.  The first year QPA calculation includes only courses offered by the MSE department.  Courses involving independent study or supervised reading are not counted toward the 96 unit requirement and are not used in the calculations to the QPA. Finally, all of the courses in the 96 unit graduate curriculum must be taken for credit and completed with a QPA greater than or equal to 3.0 by the time of graduation (thus, pass/fail classes can not be counted toward degree requirements).
All full-time graduate students must also enroll, attend, and actively participate in the Graduate Seminar course, 27-774, each semester in which they are registered as full-time students. More information regarding the seminar attendance policy can be found on the Departmental Seminar Series website.


Course Assistant

All graduate students in the department are expected to act as "course assistants." The duties of course assistants include grading homework, providing assistance to faculty and staff in laboratories and proctoring exams. Graduate students who are in their first or final semester of studies or are part-time are excused from participation in this activity.  This activity, when averaged over the entire semester, should require no more than 3 hours per week.


English Language Requirement

In a continuing effort to improve technical and interpersonal communication, it is the policy of the department that all international students, whose first language is not English, should attempt to pass the Intercultural Communications Center's International Teaching Assistant ( ITA) test before graduation at the doctoral level.


Financial Aid

Doctoral students generally receive financial support for their tuition and stipend from fellowships, traineeships, government grants, graduate assistantships, or scholarships. The vast majority of graduate assistantships that cover stipend and tuition are paid for by competitive external research grants.  Hence, continued financial assistance for doctoral students is contingent upon both satisfactory research progress and academic performance.


Graduate Ombudsperson

In the course of graduate studies, situations sometimes arise where students need advice on some aspect of their activities or interactions with others in the department, yet may not feel that it is appropriate to speak with their advisor or another member of the faculty.  While close friends and family members are important resources in such situations, it is also true that their scope of experience might not include working toward a doctoral degree in an Engineering School. For this reason, the MSE department relies on a Graduate Ombudsperson.  The Ombudsperson is available to consult with students about any situation that affects their work and, where appropriate, offer advice or attempt to resolve a problem. Conversations with the Ombudsperson are confidential and the Ombudsperson will not communicate information to the Department Head or other faculty members without the student's consent.


Research Performance Reporting

Each graduate student shall submit a research report each semester by the last day of classes, using the template provided in Appendix B. The advisor will evaluate the report and assign a letter grade, which then becomes the student’s research grade for that semester. If the student’s research progress is insufficient, according to the expectations of the advisor, then a letter grade no higher than a “C” will be assigned and the advisor will spell out in writing, as part of the research report, which aspects of research the student is expected to improve upon.  A “C” grade also signifies department intervention. A student who has received a “C” grade will receive close scrutiny during the next semester’s research report evaluation; the student is expected to specifically describe how he/she has addressed any issue(s). Two consecutive semesters with a “C” or below grade automatically imply termination from the graduate degree program.