Graduate Study
Student Resources
PhD Curriculum

Students in the MS and PhD programs arrange their study and research in association with individual faculty members and often with the various interdepartmental and special programs associated with the Master of Manufacturing Engineering Program, the Center for Surface Engineering and Tribology, the Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, and the Program in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics.

Curriculum Overview

PhD students are not required to follow a rigid curriculum; each student may arrange a curriculum that accommodates individual needs, talents, and interests while satisfying the basic degree requirements. The basic degree requirements are designed to ensure that the students develop a rigorous appreciation of mathematics, and have a broad exposure to fields of engineering and science outside of their immediate area of interest.

The PhD program requires six quarters of course work beyond the bachelor's degree and the successful completion of a dissertation after at least six quarters devoted to research. Students entering the PhD program directly after completion of a bachelor's degree are not required to obtain an MS but may choose to do so.

The PhD program typically takes four to five years to complete.

PhD Degree Requirements

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Course Requirements

  • Number of post-BS courses: A total of 15 course units (excluding project/research units) are required toward PhD. Nine course units within this 15 units must satisfy the MS course requirements.
  • Breadth: General program students must take at least one course each from four of seven sub-areas:
  1. Solids
  2. Fluids/Thermodynamics
  3. Dynamics/Controls
  4. Design/Manufacturing/Tribology
  5. MEMS/Nanotechnology
  6. Biomedical/Biology
  7. Mathematics/Sciences.
  • MS from another school: Students admitted with an MS degree from elsewhere may petition for a waiver of a maximum of six course units of the PhD requirement of 15 courses. A course credit waiver form listing the equivalent post-bachelor's degree courses must be completed by the student and the adviser and approved by the Graduate Study Chair. No residency credit will be awarded by The Graduate School (TGS) for work completed in a graduate program outside of TGS. All students pursuing a PhD, regardless of previous degrees, must complete eight quarters of residency at Northwestern consecutively over two years, including summers.
  • Level: At least one-half of the course units satisfying the post-MS requirement must be 400-level courses.
  • Seminar: Registration and regular attendance for the non-credit ME 512 seminar is required for all quarters.
  • Professional essentials: Registration for the non-credit ME 513 seminar is required for one quarter within the first two years. It is strongly recommended that this seminar course be taken before PhD candidacy.
  • Approval: Students must obtain approval from their adviser for all courses in advance and submit a signed course form each quarter to the ME graduate program assistant before registration.
  • Timeline: The course requirement for the PhD program shall be fulfilled within the first 12 and 8 quarters of full-time registration for students matriculating with BS and MS, respectively.

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TA Requirement

All PhD students must meet at least one of the following teaching experience requirements: (1) serve as an instructor of an undergraduate course, (2) serve as a full-time teaching assistant (20 hours a week) in an undergraduate course for at least one quarter, or (3) serve as a part-time teaching assistant (6-8 hours a week) in an undergraduate course for at least three quarters. The PhD students should register for either GEN_ENG 546-0 “Teaching Experience” (1.0 units) for activities that fall under (1) and (2); or GEN_ENG 545-0 “Teaching Experience” (0.34 units) for activities that fall under (3).

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English Requirement

All international PhD students whose primary language is not English are required to take the Versant English Test after arriving at Northwestern. Students whose countries of origin are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom are exempt. Versant test results will be released to students, their departments, and The Graduate School. A score of 65 or higher (out of a total of 80) meets The Graduate School’s English proficiency requirement.

Low-scoring students will be assigned to participate in a mandatory supplemental English language curriculum offered by English Language Programs .

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Eight quarters of full-time registration consecutively over two years, including summers, are required. Full-time registration requires enrollment in a combination of course units and ME 590 (research) units for a total of three to four units each quarter.

After residency has been obtained, full-time registration is maintained at a reduced tuition by registering for TGS 500 (Advanced Doctoral Study). Courses related to the student’s area of study may be taken in addition to TGS 500, up to a maximum of four course units per quarter subject to the approval of the adviser.

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Qualifying Examination / Admission to Candidacy / PhD Prospectus

Students are admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree by passing:

  1. A research qualification exam before the end of the fifth quarter (entering with MS degree) or the seventh quarter (entering with BS degree) of full-time graduate study
  2. A dissertation proposal exam by the end of the second year of full-time study beyond the MS degree or the end of the third year of full-time study beyond the BS degree.

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Research Qualification Exam

All PhD students shall pass an oral research qualification exam that tests their research ability. Students who enter with MS degree or BS degree shall take the exam before the end of the fifth or seventh quarter of full-time graduate study, respectively. Taking the exam sooner is encouraged.

With the consensus of adviser, PhD students who enter with BS degree may consider to first obtain an MS degree and use the MS thesis exam as a substitute for the PhD research qualification exam. Any requests for changes to the regular deadline require prior approval of the Committee of Graduate Studies.

The exam consists of a 30-minute presentation by the student and 30 minutes of questions by the faculty committee. The purpose of the exam is to demonstrate the ability to define a research problem, explain its relevance in scientific terms, and articulate current research challenges and a methodology to address such challenges, as well as for the student to demonstrate an understanding of the underlying fundamental concepts related to the research topic. A two-page abstract should be provided to the committee a week before the exam.

Students should register for at least two units of ME 590 before the exam. A student who does not pass the exam on the first attempt may:

  1. Continue with the same adviser and retake the exam the next quarter, if agreed to by the adviser
  2. Switch advisers if possible, and retake the exam after two more quarters of ME 590
  3. Leave the program, no more than two attempts of taking the exam may be made

The examination committee will consist of at least three faculty members who are members of the graduate faculty. A student’s faculty adviser will serve on the committee but will not be its chair. At least one member of the committee should be from a subdiscipline outside the student’s area of specialization. The composition of the examination committee is subject to the final approval by Graduate Studies Committee.

The examination committee's recommendation to pass or fail students will be voted on by the entire tenure-track ME faculty, whose decision will be final.

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Dissertation Proposal Exam

Students are eligible to take the dissertation proposal exam when all but three of the courses required for PhD have been taken (see GPA requirement below). Students are admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree by passing an oral qualifying exam.  The oral qualifying examination will be based on (but not restricted to) a written research proposal (no more than 30 pages in total length, double spaced) prepared by the student, a proposal presentation made by student, and an oral examination administered by the examination committee.

Students must take the dissertation proposal examination no later than the end of the second year of full-time study beyond the MS degree or the end of the third year of full-time study beyond the BS degree. Students who fail the examination may, upon the recommendation of their committee, retake it within one quarter. Students who do not pass the re-examination shall not continue in the PhD program.

The examination committee is normally the advisory committee of a student. Each committee should consist of at least three faculty members who are also members of graduate faculty. At least one of the members must be from outside of the ME department. The committee normally conducts the final examination for the PhD at a later date.

The chairperson of the committee must be a graduate faculty member and is generally the student’s adviser. If the chairperson is not a ME faculty member, a ME faculty member must be identified to serve as the co-chair of the committee. Any faculty member may request the privilege of serving on the committee for a particular student. Formation of an examination committee is subject to the approval of both the ME department and The Graduate School.

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GPA Requirement

GPA is determined by all post-BS courses taken at Northwestern toward satisfying the course requirements above, excluding research and seminar units. All but one ME 499 may be used toward the overall GPA. Students whose GPA falls short of a 3.5 average shall be required to take an oral and/or written preparatory examination prior to the oral qualifying examination. These examinations will be administered by a committee consisting of at least three faculty members appointed by the department chair.

The student's adviser shall not serve on the preparatory examination committee. The committee will inform the students involved as to the form and content of the examination beforehand. The result of the examination will be decided by the committee in consultation with the student's adviser and the department chair. Students who fail the preparatory examination shall not continue in the PhD program.

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PhD Thesis Dissertation

A written dissertation on the research project that is satisfactory to the student's faculty adviser, the advisory committee, and meets the University's requirements, is required.

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Final Examination / Dissertation Defense

An oral examination by the examination committee of faculty including the student's adviser addressing the research is required. The written dissertation must be given to the members of the student's examination committee at least one week before the date of the scheduled examination.

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Kellogg Summer Program: Management for Scientists and Engineers

This is a certificate program taught by Kellogg School faculty that will equip promising doctoral students with the necessary business and leadership skills. A full schedule of classes are held on Wednesdays during eight weeks of the summer quarter. The classes are free for accepted students. Students must have completed all coursework and qualifying exams to be eligible for the program.

More information on the Management for Scientists and Engineers certificate program can be found on the Kellogg website.