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PhD Degree Overview

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PhD Degree

The Doctor of Philosophy degree is offered under the general regulations of the University as set forth in the Stanford Bulletin. This degree is recommended for those who expect to engage in a professional career in research, teaching, or technical work of an advanced nature in civil or environmental engineering.

A PhD at Stanford requires a minimum of 90 units of graduate study beyond the Masters degree. PhD students who arrive at Stanford with a Masters degree that did not provide adequate background in their area of specialization may be required take additional units beyond this minimum as part of their PhD studies. Students who are directly admitted to the PhD without a Masters degree are required to take a total of 135 units of graduate study. The department requires CEE PhD students arriving without a Masters degree to take sufficient coursework each quarter, until the GQE is completed, to satisfy the requirements for a CEE Masters degree by the end of their 6th non-summer quarter of PhD studies. Once the GQE is completed, steady progress towards the MS is no longer required. PhD candidates should develop individually tailored study plans and expected-progress timetables in consultation with their thesis advisors. To provide additional guidance on the pathway toward completion of the PhD degree, a flowchart of academic and administrative responsibilities is available from the Department office, Y2E2 Room 314.

Residency and Program Requirements

The PhD requires completion of a minimum of 135 graduate units, with a GPA of at least 3.0. These 135 units can be divided into three subgroups, as follows:

  1. Credit for up to 45 units can be satisfied by an MS degree or its equivalent, via one of these routes:
    • For an MS degree from Stanford, the MS units are credited automatically.
    • To receive up to 45 units of credit for an MS degree from outside of Stanford, the student must fill out and submit an Application for Graduate Residency Credit.
    • A PhD student admitted with no MS degree must take sufficient coursework each quarter, until the GQE is completed, to satisfy the requirements for a CEE Masters degree by the end of the 6th non-summer quarter of their PhD studies. MS conferral is optional, but steady progress towards the MS, prior to completing the GQE, is required.
  2. Completion of at least 45 units, beyond MS-level studies, must meet the following requirements :
    • All 45 units must be 100+ level, and at least half (23 units) must be 200+ level.
    • Some programs in CEE may require a larger portion of 200+ level courses.
    • No more than 6 out of these 45 units may be taken on a CR/NC basis (student elected). However, there is no limit on S/NC units.
    • No PE, MUSIC, or EFSLANG units may be counted as part of these 45 units.
    • No thesis/dissertation units (CEE300 or 400) may be counted as part of these 45 units.
    • All 45 units must be approved by your advisor as relevant to your PhD studies.
    • At least 24 of these 45 post-MS units must consist of lecture- or laboratory-style classes. [Note: Your program, advisor or GQE committee may require more than this 24-unit minimum.] To qualify as lecture- or laboratory-style, these 24 units must meet the following constraints:
      • No independent study (INS), activity (ACT), or research (RES, RSC) classes may count. (Class type for each course is in the Schedule pulldown, on
      • No seminar-style classes may count. These are often (but not always) under the class type SEM or COL; the course title or description may feature words like seminar or colloquium. The CEE department defines a class as seminar-style if >50% of the class meeting time is devoted to guest speakers and/or student presentations. However, Engr103 may count.
      • 1-unit courses may count towards these 24 units only if they are CME workshops (WKS), or CEE265D. No other 1-unit courses may count.
      • Units for a PhD minor may be counted here only if both the advisor and GQE committee approve of these courses as relevant to the PhD studies.
      • At least 1 course of 3 or more units from each of 4 different Stanford faculty members (assistant, associate or full professors) must be completed prior to the GQE. Courses taught by lecturers, or by visiting or adjunct professors, cannot count here.
      • Up to 6 units of CR from classes that could have been taken for a Letter grade may be counted here.
    • The other up to 21 units in this category may include:
      • CEE200A (or B or C) and 379 (both required before going TGR or defending thesis)
      • INS, ACT, RES and RSC classes within CEE (e.g., CEE299, 399, 365A, 370A, 381)
      • Additional courses that are consistent with requirements listed above
  3. For the remaining graduate coursework needed to reach a total of 135 completed units:
    • All courses must be 100+ level
    • Up to 45 thesis units (CEE399 or 400) may be included
    • Courses of all class types may be counted here (including SEM, COL, INS, ACT, RES)
    • Additional CR/NC units may be counted here
    • Any units for a PhD minor not counted previously may be counted here
    • EFSLANG courses, if required or strongly recommended on the English assessment form, may be counted here, and must be completed before going TGR (or defending thesis).


Additional Requirements for PhD Students Admitted without an MS

For PhD students admitted without an MS, additional requirements and milestones are:

  • If admitted to the PhD without an assigned PhD advisor, you must take at least 1 unit of graded independent study (CEE299L) each quarter, under the supervision of a CEE faculty member, until you identify who will serve as your dissertation advisor.
  • By end of spring of year 1, you must reach a mutual agreement with a CEE faculty member to serve as your PhD advisor, and submit signed paperwork to CEE student services documenting this.
  • By the end of autumn of year 2, you must complete and submit the General Qualifying Exam (GQE) form, scheduling your General Qualifying Exam (GQE). The deadline for passing both parts of the GQE, for a summer or autumn start, is the end of spring in year 2.
  • You must take sufficient coursework each quarter, until completing the GQE, to satisfy the requirements for a CEE Masters degree by the end of your 6th non-summer quarter of PhD studies. This may be either within a CEE program, or for a general CEE MS (see next bullet). You may fill out paperwork to have an MS degree conferred, but this is not required. Units taken beyond these 45 may count towards the post-MS requirements (described above).
  • If you choose the general CEE MS requirements (open only to direct-admit PhDs who have secured a PhD advisor), the following requirements must be met:
    • 45 units of coursework in classes numbered 100+, with a coherent focus o Course of study must be planned in collaboration with, and with the approval of, your CEE PhD advisor and either the CEE Department Chair or Associate Chair
    • At least 36 units must be taken for a letter grade o At least 30 units must be graduate level (numbered 200+)
    • At least 27 units must be CEE courses o A maximum of 3 units may be seminars
    • A maximum of 6 units may be independent study or research courses
    • No remedial English language, physical education or language classes may count
    • None of these 45 units may be double-counted towards a PhD minor, or towards the post-MS requirements

Selecting a Research Area & Principal Advisor

In most cases students are admitted to the PhD Program by their Principal Advisor with an already agreed upon research area. If you are admitted into the PhD program without a principal PhD advisor, you must enroll in at least 1 unit of CEE299L each quarter with CEE faculty members who might serve as your PhD advisor. You are encouraged to rotate, and expected to secure a principal PhD advisor by spring of your first year. Some letters of admission for students with outside sources of funding may specify more explicit deadlines, steps and/or requirements for identifying a principal advisor.

It is the student’s responsibility to find a principal advisor. Faculty members are more likely to accept the responsibility of supervising the research of a student whose abilities, initiative, and originality are fairly well known to them. Agreeing to work together on a dissertation research project is a serious commitment between a student and principal advisor.

The availability of faculty members to serve as principal advisors on dissertations limits the number of students that can be recommended for candidacy. An award of financial support (research assistantships, traineeships, and teaching assistantships) for the second year of graduate study does not assure that the faculty will recommend approval of a student’s application for candidacy.

The Principal or Primary Doctoral Program or Doctoral Dissertation Advisor must be a CEE professor who is a member of the Academic Council. On occasion, a non-Academic Council member may serve as a co-advisor, however they must be approved by the Department Chair.

PhD Specific Requirements

  • CEE379 Introduction to PhD Studies Seminar: This one-unit seminar course, offered every Autumn quarter, will include faculty research presentations; presentations and discussion on career development; discussion on how to explore research and advisor options; and the GQE requirements for all PhD students. Completion of this seminar course is required for all PhD students by Autumn quarter of Year 2 of their PhD, and is recommended at the beginning of their graduate studies.

Because pedagogy and teaching and learning are so important to the careers of many Ph.D. graduates, three required steps focused on these topics (one orientation and two 1-unit courses) are required for all Ph.D. candidates:

  • TA Orientation: The first step in the required educational process before serving as a teaching assistant (TA) is completion of the university’s 3-hr TA Orientation, offered at the beginning of each quarter by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).
  • CEE200 Seminar on Teaching for TAs: This one-unit seminar, offered every Autumn quarter, introduces students to effective teaching practices and engineering pedagogy for Teaching Assistants. This course is the 2nd step in the required TAing educational process for all PhD students, and should be completed by Autumn of year 2.
  • CEE200A or B or C Teaching of Civil & Environmental Engineering: This one-unit class, offered Aut/Win/Spr, is the final step in this requirement. It should be taken concurrently with the first time serving as a teaching assistant at Stanford. PhD students cannot advance to TGR status until all 3 educational steps for TAing have been completed.

Entering Candidacy: General Qualifying Exam (GQE)

Admission to the PhD program gives a student the status of being a PhD student but does not imply having been admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree. The designation of “PhD candidate” is reserved for students who have passed the department’s General Qualifying Exam and have submitted an approved program of PhD course work on an Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree.

The general qualifying examination is designed to ensure that students have an in-depth understanding of the fundamental aspects of material related to graduate-level coursework and that they have a thorough knowledge of the literature in their proposed area of research. The GQE is a two-part exam lasting a total of no more than 180 minutes. Part I of the GQE consists of an oral examination administered by at least three academic council faculty members. The makeup of the committee must follow all University and CEE departmental requirements. Part I of the GQE focuses on coursework material related to the candidate’s PhD field of study, and/or tests the candidate’s understanding of a literature review related to their PhD field of study. Part II consists of a written proposal that is presented either publicly or to the GQE committee in private. This presentation is followed by a questioning session from the GQE committee in private. Students must pass both parts of the GQE in order to advance to candidacy.

The key events leading to candidacy and granting of the PhD degree are:

  • Complete the Intro to PhD Studies (CEE 379) seminar by fall quarter of your 2nd year as a PhD student
  • Obtain approval from your identified primary advisor to sit for the GQE by filling out the General Qualifying Exam form, obtaining your advisor’s signature, and submitting the completed, signed form to CEE student services. The composition of the GQE committee must be approved by the CEE Department.
  • Complete GQE Part I: Oral examination
  • Complete GQE Part II: Written proposal presentation
  • Complete TAing educational requirements [previous section] and TA at least 1 class

The University Oral Exam

Candidacy must be valid and the student must be registered in the quarter in which the University Oral Examination is taken. Passing a University Oral Examination is a requirement of the PhD program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The Oral Exam is a dissertation defense, presented either upon completion of a substantial portion of the dissertation work or upon completion of a pre-final draft of all dissertation work. The examination is intended to verify that the research represents your own original contribution to knowledge and to test your understanding of the research.

Dissertation Submission

When you are ready with a final draft of your dissertation, make an appointment to consult with a Graduate Degree Progress Officer at the Student Services Center at Tresidder Union (Second Floor) to review the completion of your PhD program and the strict formatting requirements for the dissertation. Submit the final version of your dissertation to the Graduate Degree Progress Officer no later than the posted deadline for your degree to be conferred in the quarter you wish to graduate.

Academic Performance

In order to be recommended for the PhD Degree in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, students must achieve an average GPA of at least 3.0 in the Stanford courses listed in the 45 units of post-MS coursework on their Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree. The GPA is calculated as: A=4, B=3, C=2 and D=1; a plus (+) modifier adds 0.3 and a minus (-) modifier subtracts 0.3. More information at: How the General University GPA is Determined.

Graduate Study Minimum Progress in CEE

Course grades: Minimum GPA of 3.0 for PhD degree students in the quarter being evaluated.

Credit hours passed: Students enrolled for 11 or more units must pass at least 8 units per term that count towards their degree by the end of each term. Those registered for 8-10 units must pass at least 6 units per term that count towards their degree by the end of each term.

For the PhD degree: 

  • General Qualifying Exam: The university expects all PhD students to complete departmental qualifying procedures and apply for candidacy within two years (24 months) of beginning the PhD program. A leave-of-absence does not extend this deadline, except for pregnancy and parental leaves.
  • Candidacy time limit: All requirements for the degree must be completed before candidacy expires. Candidacy is valid for five calendar years (through the end of the quarter in which candidacy expires), unless terminated by the department (for example, for unsatisfactory progress). The time limit is not extended by a student’s leave of absence, except for pregnancy and parental leaves.