A rocky shoreline, seen from the air

Graduate Program Details & Requirements

1. Introduction

PhD training in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) emphasizes modern, quantitative approaches. It involves field and laboratory work as well as theory and advanced computation. The degree requirements are intended to ensure that all PhD candidates develop independence and originality of thought and acquire knowledge that has sufficient breadth (the broad knowledge of Earth and planetary sciences) and depth (a deeper working knowledge of a specific research area). The department believes that the major advances in science are likely to be made at the discipline boundaries and therefore does not define disciplines or impose strict rules on what constitutes depth. Instead, the Research Advisory Committee, working with the student, defines the areas of expertise the student wishes to pursue.

In the second semester, students complete their Graduate Research Project (Section 3.2), which will be used during student's evaluation at the end of first year (Section 4). During the fourth semester, the student takes an oral exam to be formally allowed to pursue the PhD (for deadlines see Section 5). Students also demonstrate competence in teaching by completing the Doctoral Teaching Requirement (Section 6). Finally, the PhD student completes and defends a dissertation (Section 7).

2. Advising and Assessment

2.1. First-Year Advisor

The First-Year Advisor is a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty, typically the Director of Graduate Studies, who provides guidance to all first-year students. The First-Year Advisor (i) recommends courses for the student to take during the first year, (ii) acts as a sounding board and provides feedback to the student regarding her or his progress in the program, and (iii) provides an assessment to the faculty as a whole regarding the student's qualifications to proceed in the PhD program.

2.2. Major Advisor

Selection of a Major Advisor and a research topic is an important decision that affects much of the student's graduate career. Each student, by the end of the second semester of graduate study, should select a research topic and a Major Advisor. The Major Advisor must be a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty.

The advisor and research topic selection process varies greatly among students. Many students know exactly with whom they wish to work before they arrive. Other students will have the possibilities narrowed down to two or three faculty members, while still others will select from among the faculty as a whole. Students should make every effort to get to know faculty members with whom they might work and are encouraged to interview faculty members so as to better understand their research interests. Courses, seminars, reading groups, and presentations by professors also provide information on their research interests. The Graduate Research Project undertaken in the second semester is an obvious way to learn the research style of a specific faculty member.

2.3. Research Advisory Committee

By the second semester in residence, the student, in consultation with the faculty member supervising the Graduate Research Project, must form her or his Research Advisory Committee. Populating the committee is the responsibility of the student. This is a three-person committee, tailored to the student's research interests. It is initially chaired by the faculty member supervising the Graduate Research Project; once selected, the Major Advisor serves as chair. For the two remaining members of the Research Advisory Committee, at least one person must be a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty. The third person may be a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty, a Research Professor, a faculty member from a different department or university, or a scientist from a research institution. This committee will be part of the student's Oral Examination Committee (Section 5.3) and the Dissertation Examination Committee (Section 7.1).

Graduate students are required to meet with their Research Advisory Committee at least once per year:

  • First year students meet with their committee members, individually or as a group, in their second semester in residence. The committee helps the student to select courses to build breadth and depth of knowledge and to choose a research topic.
  • Second year students meet with their committee members, individually or as a group, in the third semester in residence to ensure that a research project is well underway and that the student is acquiring adequate knowledge.
  • Following successful completion of the oral exam, students meet with their committee annually to review their research progress. It is recommended that the meeting occur in the Fall semester but must take place before the start of Spring Break each academic year. The advisor, in consultation with the Research Advisory Committee, will then prepare a letter to the student summarizing key observations and recommendations made by the committee. Completion of the annual review is required to maintain good academic standing in the PhD program.
  • Students nearing degree completion meet with their committee approximately 3 to 6 months prior to the expected defense date. Students will provide the committee with an outline of the dissertation, including expected completion dates for various aspects of the research. At this time committee members may identify areas that need expansion or reconsideration. This meeting can fulfill the required annual committee meeting.

Each student is responsible for making sure that the Research Advisory Committee meetings happen on schedule and are advised to contact the committee members at least one month before the meeting. The meetings with the Research Advisory Committee must be documented using a "Graduate Student Meetings with Research Advisory Committee" form available from the Department Office and on the Resources page of the Department website. The committee members sign and provide comments on the form. The forms are filed with the Department Office and will be evaluated during the orals and the dissertation defense.

2.4. Assessments of Student Progress

The EPS faculty will assess the progress of each student in their first and second years in the program at the end of fall and spring semesters. Input will be sought from the First-Year Advisor, Major Advisor, Research Advisory Committee, course instructors, instructors for mentored teaching experiences, and other faculty members. Results of these assessments will be provided to the students in written form by the Director of Graduate Studies. The Evaluation at the End of First Year (Section 4) will occur during this assessment process. After completion of the oral exam, assessment of student progress transitions to being conducted by the Research Advisory Committee during annual committee meetings (see Section 2.3).

3. Course Requirements

3.1. College and Department Requirements

It is recognized that students entering the program will bring a diverse background in their undergraduate coursework. An adequate general foundation would be three semesters of calculus, a year of general physics, and a year of general chemistry; prior coursework in biology is encouraged for students interested in the field of geobiology. Students have been successful in the program, depending on their discipline interests, with less than this level of preparation. However, two semesters of calculus constitutes a minimum mathematics background to be successful in the program. The First-Year Advisor and the Research Advisory Committee will determine a student's needs in physics, math, chemistry, and other fields and provide advice and direction on the means of removing deficiencies.

The minimum prerequisites to take many courses within the Department are EPS 201 (Earth and the Environment), EPS 352 (Earth Materials) and EPS 353 (Earth Forces). Incoming students whose degree area is outside of the Earth and planetary sciences will be expected to obtain requisite knowledge in these areas by the end of the first year, using a combination of any appropriate undergraduate courses and steps taken within the Department to remove these deficiencies. The First-Year Advisor and the Research Advisory Committee will determine a student's needs in this area and provide advice on the means of removing deficiencies. Students with no prior coursework in Earth and planetary sciences are required to enroll in EPS 201 (Earth and the Environment), including a laboratory section. Enrollment in EPS 201 will not fulfill a course requirement for the PhD or AM degrees. The PhD program is flexible in its course work requirement. It is not intended that a student will repeat her or his undergraduate experience. Those students with a strong background in Earth and planetary sciences will be able to concentrate on research at a relatively early stage in the program.

The Department requires the completion of 8 courses, at least 5 of which must be in EPS. All EPS courses taken must be at the 400-level or above. For students entering without a degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences or a closely-related field, EPS 352 or 353, taken by enrolling in EPS 590 (Independent Study), will fulfill EPS course requirements with advisor approval. In all other cases, EPS 590 will not meet a course requirement; EPS 591, 592, and 595 also do not fulfill course requirements. Courses taken outside the department are expected to be in the areas of science, mathematics, or engineering. Up to two 2XX- and 3XX-level courses in these fields may be taken to fulfill course requirements with advisor approval.

The student selects courses in consultation with her or his advisor and the Research Advisory Committee (Section 2.3). The student and the advisor are responsible for ensuring that the selected courses provide breadth and depth of knowledge needed for the student to conduct graduate research and successfully finish the graduate program. The Research Advisory Committee may recommend further coursework during annual committee meetings (Section 2.3) and as a result of the oral examination (Section 5).

Students entering the graduate program who have previously received a Master’s degree in Earth and planetary sciences or a closely-related field may petition to waive up to 2 of the 5 required EPS courses. This petition may be submitted no earlier than the second semester in residence and should contain a justification for the number of courses to be waived that identifies how previous coursework is similar to that offered by the department. The waiver must be endorsed by the student’s Research Advisory Committee and forwarded to the Director of Graduate Studies. The petition will then be considered for approval by the Graduate Studies Committee.

3.2. Graduate Research Project

Each student will take a minimum of 3 units of EPS 591 (Graduate Research Project), in the second semester of their first year. In conjunction with a faculty advisor, the student selects, designs, and carries out a one-semester research project in a field of interest to the student. The Graduate Research Project supervisor must be either a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty or a Research Professor. This project need not fully address the research topic in question, but rather should serve as a foundation for work that will continue through the oral examination. The student will submit a written report on the research project, such as in the format of a scientific article or proposal, by the last day of the final exam period of their second semester in residence. This report will cover the research scope, approach and analytical methods employed, data analysis, conclusions, and references. The report will be reviewed by the student’s Research Advisory Committee, including the research supervisor. Each member will provide comments on the report to the student and will also provide an assessment of the report during the first-year evaluation. The Graduate Research Project is intended to help the student develop research skills early in the program and to give the faculty an initial assessment of the student's potential for research.

The topic chosen by the student, in mutual agreement with a faculty member, must be sufficiently well-defined and limited in scope so that it can be completed by the end of the semester. Students are encouraged to interview several faculty members during their first semester and are required to have their project well-defined by the time the second semester commences. The Graduate Research Project supervisor must be either a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty or a Research Professor.

4. Evaluation at the End of First Year

At the end of the second semester the EPS faculty will review the performance of the student in coursework and the Graduate Research Project, taking into account feedback from the student’s instructors and Research Advisory Committee. During this review the faculty will assess whether the student’s academic, research, and professional performance is likely to lead to success in the PhD program and in the workplace for the types of positions that require a PhD degree.  A written summary of this assessment will be provided to the student. As with other assessments of student performance, the faculty may recommend that the student be placed on probation. A student deemed unlikely to succeed in the PhD program or in a career requiring a PhD will also be encouraged to spend the next year completing the AM degree before leaving the program.

5. Research Paper and Orals

The research carried out during the summer following the first year and during the third and fourth semesters will culminate in a research paper and an oral defense of the research undertaken. A research proposal may be presented as an alternative to the research paper when circumstances warrant.

5.1. Research Paper

During the fourth semester, the student will work closely with the Major Advisor to develop a research paper. The written format will be that of a journal paper and it is, in fact, expected that the document (or something close to it) will eventually be submitted to a journal for publication. Students should consult their Major Advisor regarding the research paper format appropriate for their research area. When the Major Advisor is satisfied with the effort, the paper will be distributed, at least one week before the oral exam, to the entire Department faculty. The research paper need not become part of the PhD thesis project.

5.2. Research Proposal

When circumstances warrant, with Major Advisor approval, a research proposal may be completed in lieu of a research paper. The format will be generally similar to that of the research paper, except that data collection and analysis will be much reduced or entirely absent. In most cases, the proposal option would be used only if the topic area was too broad or the data collection still largely incomplete, such as resulting from instrumentation problems. The proposal is not expected to be suitable for publication, but the other guidelines, requirements, and deadlines for the research paper do apply to the research proposal and its oral defense.

5.3. Oral Examination

To maintain satisfactory academic progress (Section 12) students must take the oral examination in their fourth semester. The deadline is April 30 (or November 30 if the fourth semester occurs in Fall). The Oral Examination Committee will consist of the Research Advisory Committee plus one additional member. The committee will be chaired by the Major Advisor and must contain three members of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty. The fourth member may be a member of the EPS tenured and tenure-track faculty, a Research Professor, a faculty member from a different department or university, or a scientist from a research institution. When selecting an Oral Examination Committee, students are encouraged to include one member from outside of their main research area in order to provide a diversity of expertise. The examination is closed to the general public, students, faculty, and staff. Interested EPS faculty members not part of the Oral Examination Committee may attend if they provide three days advance notice of their intent to the Major Advisor and student.

The examination begins with an introduction of the student by the Major Advisor. This will be followed by an oral presentation by the student of about thirty minutes duration and then questions from the Oral Examination Committee and any other faculty members present. The examination is expected to last at least 2 hours and will conclude once the examiners are satisfied that the student's ability to present and defend their research and related areas has been thoroughly assessed. Questions will cover both the primary and peripheral subjects of the research as well as Earth and planetary sciences in general. The primary interest of the committee will be to evaluate the student's grasp of the context and justification for the research, the experimental, observational, or theoretical methods required, and the accuracy and significance of the results. A mature performance is expected in the student's understanding of the research, the clarity of presentation, and the thoughts about future directions of the work. The student will also be expected to demonstrate breadth and depth of knowledge and be familiar with the relevant published literature related to her or his research. At the end of the question period the Oral Examination Committee will determine an outcome of the exam. If consensus cannot be reached, one committee member may dissent. There are three possible outcomes:

  • The student advances to candidacy for the PhD degree (a PhD-level pass).
  • The student achieves an AM-level pass or fails the oral examination and is allowed to retake the examination one more time to try to achieve the next level. The deadline for the retake is three months after the deadline for the regular oral exam: July 31 (or February 28 if the forth semester occurs in Fall). The student will automatically be placed on probation. A PhD-level pass of the retake will remove the student from probation and advance the student to candidacy for the PhD degree. Failure to achieve a PhD-level pass of the retake will result in a recommendation of dismissal from the graduate program to the Dean of the Graduate School.
  • The student achieves an AM-level pass or fails the oral examination while already being on academic probation. No retake is provided in this case. This results in a recommendation of dismissal from the graduate program to the Dean of the Graduate School.

After the examination, the Major Advisor will prepare a short (generally 0.5 to 1 page) written summary of the examination outcome that will identify areas of needed improvement. For cases where a retake is required, this document will specifically outline the deficiencies that must be remedied for the student to pass the exam. After preparation, the Major Advisor will send this summary to the Oral Examination Committee members for review and editing. The committee must agree on the final document text and then provide the written summary to the student within one week of the examination; a copy will be provided to the Department Office.

It is the intention of the faculty that those students who have a successful first-year evaluation should also have a high probability of passing the oral examination if they adequately prepare. Dismissal from the program should thus be an unusual outcome of the exam. Successful completion of the orals will partially satisfy the requirements for an AM degree, which will be awarded once all AM requirements are met (see Section 8.2.2 for specific requirements).

6. Teaching Requirement

6.1. Mentored Teaching Experience

Exposure to formal teaching methods is a necessary training component for all future faculty. In addition, students who go on to careers outside of academia have the responsibility of clearly communicating their work to a diverse audience and benefit from learning strategies and approaches to teaching. In light of these benefits to a student’s professional development, the EPS department requires that all graduate students in the PhD program gain experience in communicating and evaluating disciplinary knowledge through completion of two semesters of LGS 600 Mentored Teaching Experience. Students interested in pursuing a teaching-focused career or who seek additional improvement in communication skills may complete up to two additional semesters of Mentored Teaching Experience with advisor approval. A student’s Research Advisory Committee may require a student to complete one additional Mentored Teaching Experience, typically associated with a specific course, if a deficiency in communicating disciplinary knowledge is identified.

Each Mentored Teaching Experience will be carried out in association with a specific EPS course under the supervision of the course instructor. Possible activities during the Mentored Teaching Experience include instructing students in laboratory or field activities, conducting discussions to reinforce key concepts or develop in students higher-level thinking skills, planning or revising course activities such as demonstrations or field trips, and evaluating student knowledge. The EPS department will seek to provide each PhD student with a diverse set of experiences. The average weekly time commitment for a Mentored Teaching Experience is expected to be 10 to 12 hours. This includes time spent attending lectures by the course instructor, except in cases where a student is substantially unfamiliar with the course material. Field trips, an essential component of many courses in the field of Earth and Planetary Sciences, are not included in this weekly time commitment expectation except for courses with a recurring field component. 

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) will supervise the enrollment of students in LGS 600 Mentored Teaching Experience. The DGS will work individually with each student and their advisor to develop a long-term plan for when each Mentored Teaching Experience will occur. This will take into account student research activities, courses for which the Mentored Teaching Experience would be appropriate, the disciplinary training of the student, and the student’s English language skills. When possible, the first Mentored Teaching Experience will be conducted in the second or third semester in residence with the second experience occurring in the third year in the program. This ideal schedule is designed so that students have teaching experiences at different stages of their development while preserving time at the end of the program for completion of the PhD dissertation. All required Mentored Teaching Experiences must be complete by the end of the eighth semester in the PhD program.

6.2. Training in Pedagogy

Graduate students also require pedagogical training outside of formal teaching experiences in order to better grasp the array of teaching approaches utilized in Earth and Planetary Sciences and how these relate to specific educational goals and student learning approaches. In addition to required university-wide training events, graduate students in the EPS PhD program must complete two additional training activities. Students in their first year are required to attend an introductory departmental workshop at the start of the fall semester that covers the range of teaching approaches used in Earth and Planetary Sciences. In addition, students are required to enroll in EPS 595 Seminar: Professional Development in Earth and Planetary Sciences in their second or third years in the program to receive training in teaching goals and assessments, effective lecturing, student learning outcomes, and oral communication skills.

7. Dissertation

7.1. Graduate School Dissertation Requirements

A dissertation must be defended in accordance with the requirements of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The students, in consultation with their Major Advisor, establish the Dissertation Examination Committee. The Committee consists of at least five faculty members. Four of the five must be tenured or tenure-track Washington University faculty; one of these four may be a member of the Emeritus faculty. The fifth member must be from outside the student’s degree program and must have a doctorate degree and an active research program, whether at Washington University, at another university, in government, or in industry. If one member of the committee is an EPS Research Professor then the outside member must be a tenured or tenure-track Washington University faculty member.  Students are given the option of having a sixth member of the committee if they desire. All committees must be approved by the Dean of the Graduate School or by her or his designee, regardless of whether they meet the normal criteria. For complete description of the Graduate School requirements see the Bulletin and the Doctoral Dissertation Guide, which are available on the Graduate School's website and Resources.

7.2. Time to Completion

All PhD requirements, including dissertation defense, are expected to be completed at the latest by the end of the tenth semester. Time extensions must be agreed to by the faculty.

8. Requirements for AM Degree

8.1. Graduate School requirements for AM Degree

Students are not generally admitted who intend to earn only a Master's degree. However, graduate students usually earn one on the way to doctorate. Students working toward a Master's degree must maintain a B average in their course work. There are two tracks for the Master's degree:

Track I. Completion of a minimum of 36 units including a thesis (up to 6 credits).
Track II. Completion of a minimum of 36 units plus an examination.

See the Bulletin available on the Graduate School's website for additional information on requirements.

8.2. Department Requirements for AM Degree

The Department imposes additional requirements for the Master's degree:

8.2.1 Track I

This track is available to graduate students who are directed to a Master's degree as a result of the first-year evaluation or, in rare cases, who declare their intent to pursue a Master's degree upon entering the program. Course Requirements

The Department requires the completion of 6 courses, 4 of which must be in EPS. Rules specified in Section 3.2 regarding the level of courses for the PhD degree also apply to the AM degree. Completion of 36 units, including those for research, is required for the AM degree. Thesis

A thesis must be completed and successfully defended before a committee of no fewer than three Department faculty members. Prior approval of the thesis by the Major Advisor is necessary to bring it to a defense. Graduate school requirements are contained in the Bulletin and the Master's Thesis Guide, which are available on the Graduate School's website and Resources. The thesis defense is open to any interested person. Following questions from the general audience, all except for the student and the examining committee are excused. Members of the examining committee then may continue the questioning. Time to Completion

Students are expected to fulfill all requirements, including successful defense of a thesis by the end of their fourth semester. The deadline for the thesis defense is the same as for the oral exam (Section 5.3). Time extensions must be approved by the EPS faculty.

8.2.2 Track II

A Master's degree will be awarded under the Track II guidelines with either a PhD level or Master's level pass of the PhD oral exam (Section 5.3). At least 36 credits must have been completed, as well as the successful completion of:

(1) the Graduate Research Project (EPS 591)
(2) course requirements (see Section

9. Financial Support

The maximum duration for financial support by any of the funding sources administered by the Department is normally as follows:

For AM Candidates - four (4) semesters.
For PhD Candidates - ten (10) semesters.

For PhD students support provided by the Graduate School is not available after ten (10) semesters in the program, although support may be provided through research grants or other resources if available. AM students are not eligible for financial support after four (4) semesters in the program.  Tuition scholarships are provided by the Graduate School for up to 72 units of graduate-level coursework. Most financial awards, including the financial aid administered by the Department, are contingent on the maintenance of satisfactory academic progress (Section 12).

10. Communication Skills

All graduate students must possess written and oral communications skills sufficiently well developed to support the student's academic program, including during mentored teaching experiences. It is particularly important for international students to remove any communications deficiencies early in the program. Students must be qualified to complete mentored teaching experiences including those requiring oral as well as written skills. International students from countries where English is not the primary language are required to take oral and written English competency examinations prior to the beginning of the first semester. If testing indicated that improvement in communication skills is required, it is the student's responsibility to develop the appropriate skill level. The University, through the English Language Programs (ELP), provides courses designed to strengthen the English language proficiency of non-native English speakers. For more information see Office for International Students & Scholars.

11. Preliminary Graduation Requirements (AM and PhD)

11.1. Intent to Graduate Form

All candidates for a degree must file an Intent to Graduate Form by the College-specified date to be considered for degree conferral (this includes PhD students obtaining their AM degree). The form is available online in WebSTAC. If the student fails to complete degree requirements during the semester for which the form is filed, the student must refile the form for a subsequent degree period.

11.2. Notice of Title, Scope, and Procedure of Dissertation Form

The Graduate School requires that the Notice of Title, Scope, and Procedure of Dissertation Form (available on the Graduate School website) be completed before the start of the fifth year of full-time enrollment or at least six months before degree conferral, whichever is earlier.  Students are advised that this form requires signatures from the Major Advisor, Research Advisory Committee, and Department Chair.  Students should plan accordingly in order to obtain all required signatures before the submission deadline.  Completion of this form is necessary to maintain satisfactory academic progress based on Graduate School policy.

12. Policies on Academic Integrity and Performance

12.1. Academic Integrity

As set out by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, students are expected to comply with the university’s academic integrity policy.  Academic integrity violations (e.g., cheating, plagiarism, research misconduct) will be referred to the Graduate School for adjudication.  Students should be aware that conviction of violating the academic integrity policy can result in failure of a course or even dismissal from the university.

12.2. Academic Performance

All students are expected to maintain satisfactory academic performance as defined in the Bulletin on the Graduate School's website. This includes completing all PhD requirements except for the dissertation by the fourth year, maintaining a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0 in courses (excluding courses taken through the English Language Program), not carrying at one time more than 9 semester hours for which grades I, X, or N are recorded, and submission of a dissertation proposal, in the form of a completed Title, Scope, and Procedure Form, before beginning the 9th semester (5th year) of continuous enrollment. The Department imposes additional criteria:

  • Students are expected to maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0 exclusive of hours taken for research (EPS 592).
  • Students are expected to complete the Graduate Research Project (EPS 591) in the second semester in residence, as specified in Section 3.2, and must demonstrate proficiency in the conduct of research.
  • Students are expected to take and successfully pass the oral examination by the deadline specified in Section 5.3.
  • Students are expected to make timely progress towards degree completion through the conduct of scientific research and the production of scholarly work (for example, peer-reviewed journal articles, conference presentations) at the level of excellence expected of a Washington University PhD.
  • Students are expected to complete the requirements of mentored teaching experiences.
  • Students in the third year and beyond are expected to hold annual review meetings with the Research Advisory Committee by the deadline stated in Section 2.3.

Students who do not maintain satisfactory academic progress may be put on probation or, in rare cases, face dismissal as described in the Department’s Plan for Supervising Academic Progress and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Policy on Probation and Dismissal for Academic Reasons