PhD Program
Curriculum and Focus Areas

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Core Curriculum

PhD students spend about half of their first year of study taking a common core of six industrial engineering and management sciences courses that provide fundamental knowledge:

Additional first-year courses may be chosen from relevant graduate-level offerings throughout the university in areas such as:

  • Mathematics
  • Economics
  • Engineering
  • Management
  • Social sciences

At the end of the first year, PhD students must take a candidacy exam that tests their ability to understand, apply, and integrate concepts from the basic core curriculum. Students who demonstrate satisfactory performance in 12 courses and the candidacy exam are eligible to receive the master of science degree in industrial engineering and management sciences, if they do not already hold an MS degree in a similar discipline.

View the Curriculum Planning Worksheet for the PhD Degree

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Advanced Study

Students whose performance in first-year courses and the candidacy exam demonstrates a strong potential for success in research are invited to continue to study for the PhD degree. The program has two additional required courses, which can be taken in either the first or second year from the following list

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Majors and Minors

PhD students also complete one three-course major and one two-course minors. Majors and minors may be chosen from the following areas:

  • Analytics (minor only)
  • Stochastic Analysis & Simulation
  • Optimization
  • Financial Engineering
  • Logistics & Operations
  • Healthcare Engineering
  • Applied Statistics & Statistical Learning
  • Management Science

Permitted courses in these areas are listed in the PhD Major and Minor Areas Document. Students may also petition to substitute a major or minor area of their own design with approval from their adviser and the Graduate Committee.

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Candidacy Exam 

All PhD students who wish to continue beyond the first year for the PhD must take a candidacy exam that tests their ability to understand, apply, and integrate material from their first year of study. The candidacy exam is offered in June each year.

A student must take the exam no later than their first opportunity after completing the eight required first-year PhD core courses. For most students, this would mean June of their first year.


The candidacy exam is a two-hour oral exam that is administered to individual students by committees of at least three Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences faculty members. The exam is based on the student's review and presentation of one of a selection of papers that is provided by the faculty.

A student is also required to submit to their committee a short written report on the paper prior to the oral examination. Guidelines for the oral presentation and the written report are communicated in advance. The phrase "IEMS faculty member" means any faculty member with at least a 20% appointment in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences.


The Candidacy Exams take place following final exam week during the week of commencement. The times and dates are subject to change, but dates will be announced at least one month before they are scheduled to occur.


Following the student's exam, committee members each confidentially submit a grade evaluation to the IEMS Graduate Committee. This grade evaluation is incorporated into the Graduate Committee's evaluation of all first-year students for the purpose of deciding continuation toward the PhD and the awarding of the MS degree. This evaluation is based on exam performance, overall course performance, faculty evaluation of research ability, and other criteria.

There are three decisions that can be made during this evaluation:

  • No pass, no MS. In this case the student did not successfully pass the exam and will not be eligible to receive the MS degree.
  • MS conferral, no continuation. In this case the student passed the exam and will receive their MS (upon successful completion of 12 courses), but they will not be asked to continue on the PhD track.
  • MS conferral, invitation to continue. In this case the student passed the exam and will receive their MS (upon successful completion of 12 courses), and they are asked to continue in the program.

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A student's dissertation committee is chaired or co-chaired by the student's adviser. Two or more additional committee members are chosen by the adviser in consultation with the student. At least two committee members, including the chair or a co-chair, must be full or joint industrial engineering and management sciences faculty members. The committee must include at least one member who has primary affiliation outside of the department.

To earn a PhD, students must also pass the prospectus examination and dissertation defense at which they present their research.

The degree is awarded following an oral final examination and submission of the completed dissertation. The entire PhD program is usually completed in four or five years.

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Teaching Requirement

Teaching is an essential element of the education and training experience of PhD students at Northwestern. The Graduate School requires that all PhD students serve in some instructional capacity for at least one academic quarter during their graduate education at Northwestern.

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Graduate Program Handbook

Please consult our Graduate Program Handbook for further information on departmental policies and procedures.

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