Carnegie Mellon University

Ph.D. Program FAQs

Financial Support

Being admitted to an excellent, but expensive, graduate school, such as Carnegie Mellon University, is generally only the first prerequisite for a student to enroll and attend. Most Ph.D. students require and receive some financial support to cover some or all of their tuition, and many receive a stipend for their living expenses. Any student who wishes to be considered for financial support should indicate this by checking "yes" on the application where it asks if you wish to be considered for financial support from Carnegie Mellon.

As indicated above, most Ph.D. students in the department are supported as research assistants on projects for government agencies, foundations or private industry. The budgets for these projects include funds for graduate student tuition and stipends, as well as other project costs, such as a fraction of the salaries for participating faculty, and administrative support, computing, travel for meetings and conferences, supplies and overhead. For a summary of the current research activities in the department, see the section of the website on Research.

Students with fellowship support, for example, from the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy, or a private foundation, usually have some or all of their tuition paid directly by the fellowship granting organization, with stipend also generally funneled through the University to the student. Particular arrangements for tuition and stipend payment for students with their own outside support, e.g., from their government or company, are made on a case-by-case basis.  The department also has funds to support a small number of students per year, typically used to support for new Ph.D. and M.S. students as a bridge to identifying external research funding sources, or to provide carry over (tuition and/or stipend) for more senior students when there has been an interruption or delay in outside funding.


Our Ph.D. support letters generally stipulate support for one academic year.  So long as you remain in good academic standing and continue to exert reasonable effort and make reasonable progress on your research, we work hard to find a way to support your continued studies. We typically expect you to participate in this endeavor. If outside research grant support does not materialize as we had hoped, or if your grant is ending, we will ask you to apply for available fellowships and to help us in the writing of appropriate research proposals. If such efforts are made by the student, and are unsuccessful, we can usually find some other way to continue your funding. In fact, we have never had a student in good academic standing who is making good research progress and has made efforts to apply for funding leave the program due to lack of funding.  We also encourage students with secure funding to apply for available fellowships, since success in this effort can free up project funds to support other students and offer prestige to the student. In short, we view the need to generate funds for student support as a collective responsibility and a team effort. You may also view your role in this as good training for the real world you will undoubtedly face after graduation, be it in academia, industry, consulting or government research and management.

Research and the Curriculum

Once you are admitted and begin your program, we expect you to do well. Most graduate students receive A's or B's in most of their courses. EPP graduate students are expected to maintain a B average and are allowed to count at most two courses with a grade of C towards graduation. Students meet with their advisors each semester to discuss and choose courses consistent with program requirements and their individual disciplinary and research objectives.  A curriculum progress sheet is maintained to ensure appropriate coverage, planning and progress towards meeting course requirements.

In addition, assuming good performance in courses, the major milestones along the path through the EPP Ph.D. program include the qualifying exams, the thesis proposal, and the completion of the thesis and the thesis defense. These are major and important hurdles, and our standards are high. However, we are committed to working hard with you to give you the skills, encouragement and support necessary to meet and exceed them.

The Ph.D. is about learning how to do independent research and how to create new knowledge. Thus, it is quite different from a B.S. or an M.S.. In B.S or M.S. degree, the objective is to learn a certain body of established knowledge, usually by taking courses. 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. The way people really learn to do research is by rolling up their sleeves and doing it, usually in collaboration with mentors who have had a lot of previous experience.

The department is currently involved in several large collaborative efforts. These include: Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making; the RenewElec Project; the Green Design Institute; the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies; the Carnegie Mellon CyLab Institute for Security and Privacy; the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, the CMU Program in Strategy, Entrepreneurship, & Technological Change; the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, a set of activities in telecommunications, spectrum management, etc.; a set of activities in risk-analysis, risk-ranking, risk-communications; and a set of activities involving energy systems in India. Visit EPP's research page for more information.

In our research we advance the state-of-knowledge and -art in how engineering policy problems are formulated, solved and interpreted for policy insight and development. We are highly interdisciplinary, often approaching problems with teams of faculty and students bringing different skills, insights and methods from different disciplines. We present our results at conferences, publish in the best journals, and communicate our results to decision makers and the public through various government and private committees, councils and advisory boards. Our results influence both how others think about and do research on similar or related problems, and how decision makers develop and implement policy in government agencies, corporations and non-government organizations (NGO's) in the US and internationally.

Much, indeed 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 in the list provided above. However, the list is always evolving, as are the particular projects within and between the major research domains. Often this evolution is sparked by a new faculty hire, or by the interests of our students. We encourage our students to think independently and creatively about their research - this is part of the Ph.D. training process.

Most students are supported on existing research projects. 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 work on the part of the student. Also, the student must interest and motivate a 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.

For Ph.D. students, usually one or more faculty advisors are initially assigned. They are actively involved in the research domain of the incoming student and eventually become their thesis advisor. Most often, these faculty are the principal (or, co-principal) investigators on the research project that supports the student in their first and subsequent years in the department. Usually the incoming student will have already met and discussed the project with these faculty during the application and interview process. As such, there is a mutual agreement and understanding that develops between the department and the incoming student as to who their advisor or advisors will be. Students with their own support, or the support of a more open-ended fellowship, may have more flexibility in choosing their advisors. However, for these students as well, we attempt to make a good initial assignment of advisors to allow their research plans to materialize as soon as possible.

In either case, the initial advisor assignments are not set in stone. Students may change their advisors, either due to a change in research interests or a mutual recognition that the approach and interests of the student and faculty member are not compatible. This is usually done in consultation with, and the approval of, the faculty involved and some combination of the Department Head and the Associate Department Head. The most common time for a change in advisors to occur is following the qualifying exams, after the student's third semester. However, changes, if needed, can also occur before or after that time.

In EPP, many Ph.D. students have more than one research advisor, typically two or three. This occurs because most of our research projects are now team efforts, involving multiple faculty and students in research centers or interdisciplinary projects; or because, in the process of conducting their research, students realize that a broader range of insights and perspectives can enrich the quality of the research. Some of our students work in the more traditional single-advisor mode, but even in these cases, students frequently seek out the input and participation of a number of faculty members, and our faculty are happy to help and have their advice considered.

Yes, some of our students pursue an MS in another department at CMU (most often, one of the other engineering departments) along the way to obtaining their Ph.D. in EPP.  Such students must be admitted into the MS program of that department and fulfill all of their degree requirements. This course of action may be appropriate for some students, including:
  • Those who enter with only a previous BS degree and, wishing to establish better disciplinary skills and credentials in their area of focus, already plan to take all, or most of the courses required for the MS in the other department.

And inappropriate for many others,
  • I.e., those who already have an engineering or science MS, or those wishing to complete their Ph.D. in a more expeditious manner.

A number of students have also pursued and received joint Ph.D. degrees with EPP and other departments at CMU. Such students must fulfill all of the Ph.D. requirements of both departments (e.g., complete qualifying exams in both departments, have the appropriate number of thesis committee members from both departments, etc.), usually require a carefully planned program of course work and research, and should not expect to breeze through in three years. There may also be issues related to financial support that need to be factored in when thinking about a joint degree.

The average time to completion for our students receiving their Ph.D.'s since 1990 has been 4.5 years. A few of these students have finished their theses under ABD (All But Dissertation) status after accepting their first post-graduate position, so that the actual time to effective completion of Ph.D. residency here at EPP is somewhat less. (Note that we strongly prefer students to complete their thesis prior to leaving for their post-graduate position, since they otherwise run the risk of slipping into an unofficial, though permanent, ABD status.)

Students tend to finish somewhat more quickly when:

  • They enter the program having already obtained their MS degree;
  • They are able to "hit the ground running" soon after arrival with their Part A qualifier research, and the qualifier topic area continues as the main, or closely-related, area of focus for their subsequent thesis research.  
Students tend to take somewhat longer when:  
  • They pursue a joint or concurrent degree in other departments; 
  • They leave the program for a while on an extended internship or fellowship at another academic or non-academic organization; 
  • They must spend significant time or leave for personal or family matters.

Shorter is not necessarily better, especially when other educational, professional, personal or family priorities are considered. We value these also and respect these choices.

Qualifying Exams, Proposal, and Thesis Defense

We expect our students to be entrepreneurial and take charge of their own education. While we pay a lot of attention to our students, we try very hard not to be paternalistic. Don't expect to be led thoroughly by the hand. That's not the way the real world works, and we wouldn't be preparing you well if that's what we did. Expect to go out on your own to explore the various resources available at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere, and put them together to meet your own educational needs. The faculty are always ready to help if asked (and sometimes, if they think you need it, without being asked), but we really want you to take charge of your own education as quickly as you can.

The qualifying exams occur at the end of a student's third semester.  They include a "Part A" research paper and a "Part B" take-home exam.  The Part A paper is developed, written and submitted by the student, followed by an oral presentation and subsequent question and answer session with the faculty.  Questions can relate directly to the analysis presented in the paper or to more general disciplinary knowledge and skills. The Part B exam is taken and written over a 6-day period and involves a problem in which students must analyze and evaluate a realistic (and generally current) problem with engineering, science, social science and policy content.  All students receive the same problem. The written exam reports are graded blindly by the faculty (this means that the faculty do not know which student wrote which report until the grading is completed).

  • The following outcomes are possible for the qualifying exams:
    • Both the Part A and Part B exams are passed at the Ph.D. level.  The student has completed their qualifying exams and may now move on to their thesis proposal; 
    • One of the exams is passed at the Ph.D. level and the other is passed at the MS level, or both the Part A and Part B exams are passed at the MS level.  The student may not move on to their thesis proposal until both the Part A and Part B exams have been passed at the Ph.D. level. Students have the right (and are usually encouraged) to take the exams for a second time, usually in the following year, to meet this requirement. Students may also elect to leave the program with an MS degree in Engineering & Public Policy, so long as the course requirements for the MS have also been completed. 
    • One or both of the exams failed. Students have the chance to take the failed exam a second time, however, the student can neither move on to the subsequent stages (thesis proposal and defense) nor receive an MS degree unless the second exam is passed at the corresponding level. Students in this situation are at times advised to leave the program.  

The success rate of our students on qualifying exams in recent years has been very high. This has occurred due to good overall academic and research effort on the part of students, and specific initiatives to teach and prepare students for the exams. For the Part A exams, students are required to submit an abstract of their planned paper for full faculty review in the beginning of their first summer (~six months prior to the submission date of the Part A paper) and to make a practice oral presentation to the faculty and other students early in the fall (~3 months prior to the exam). Students receive extensive feedback and guidance following both of these exercises.  As a result, most Part A papers are of very high quality. In most cases when our students do not pass both the Part A and Part B exams at the Ph.D. level, further course or writing efforts in concert with ongoing progress on their research allow them to successfully complete the exams the following year.

The thesis proposal is written and presented to the thesis committee as soon as reasonable progress is made in defining the planned scope and contribution of the research.  It is a proposal, and should be completed well before the student plans their defense, in order to allow adequate input, guidance and feedback from the committee. The thesis committee is chaired by the student's advisor(s), includes at least two faculty members from EPP, and at least one faculty member or scholar from another department or institution. Approval of the thesis proposal by the thesis committee constitutes the final formal step in the advancement of the student to Ph.D. candidacy.

The thesis represents the written presentation of the student's Ph.D. research. It is expected to provide a substantive new contribution to the knowledge and understanding of engineering and public policy. The candidate makes a public, oral presentation and defense of the thesis.  The thesis committee must approve of the oral and written thesis following the defense. The thesis is signed and approved by the student's advisor, the department head, and the dean of the college of engineering. Examples of recent thesis titles can be found on the EPP Alumni page.

Traditionally the thesis has been written as a single, well-unified document, from which subsequent journal articles or related publications are gleaned or derived.  However, some of our theses consist of a series of related peer-reviewed journal articles or conference proceeding papers with appropriate introductory, linking and concluding text to provide context and coherency, and technical appendices as appropriate for more detailed presentation of data, models or methods.  This model, with a thesis consisting of typically two to four published, accepted or submitted high-quality journal articles, has the advantage of providing additional peer review for the work beyond the student's advisors and committee, and ensuring wider dissemination of the research results.  It also allows those students seeking a career in academia, or other sectors where the publication record is important, to get off to a fast start in this endeavor.