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Degree Requirements

This page provides an overview of the requirements for the Ph.D. degree in Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; complete information can be found in the department's "Guidelines for Polymer Science and Engineering Doctoral Students" (obtainable from the Graduate Program Manager) and in the university's Graduate School Bulletin (obtainable from the Graduate School). The PSE department does not formally support a terminal master's degree program. By accumulating a required number of credit hours en route to the Ph.D., doctoral candidates can obtain a coursework M.S. degree.

The two biggest achievements on the road to the Ph.D. are:

  • the comprehensive examination, testing not only a student's knowledge of polymer science and engineering but also his/her ability to propose original research based on this knowledge; an
  • the doctoral thesis, establishing a student's research skills and accomplishments

The typical time from program admission to degree conferral is between four and five years, although much depends on an individual's initiative and previous research experience.

Students are only admitted in the fall, after applying during the previous spring (see "How to Apply" for more information on admission procedures and deadlines). Although there are no formal course requirements attached to the Ph.D. degree, students are strongly encouraged to take advantage of the broad spectrum of courses offered in the PSE department as well as those taught in neighboring science and engineering departments.

Program Chronology

To outline the Ph.D program, subsequent paragraphs trace the typical activities of a PSE graduate student from arrival on campus to graduation.

Most incoming students enroll during their first and second semesters in a sequence of core courses that are designed to introduce the central topics of the polymer science and engineering discipline. There are five of these courses for the fall semester and four for the spring:

Fall Core Courses

PSE 602
Polymer Characterization Laboratory

PSE 603
Polymer Synthesis Laboratory

PSE 604
Introduction to Polymer Engineering

PSE 607
Introduction to Synthetic Polymer Chemistry

PSE 608
Physical Chemistry of Polymers I

Spring Core Courses

PSE 760
Organic Polymerization Reactions

PSE 797X
Advanced Polymer Engineering

PSE 789
Physical Chemistry of Polymers II

PSE 721
Morphology of Polymers

The department expects all students, including those in their first year, to attend the weekly departmental seminar series. After the first semester and until graduation, most students regularly enroll in advanced topics courses that provide in-depth coverage of more focused academic subjects. A listing and detailed description of the courses taught by the PSE faculty are provided on the “Courses” page.

In the first semester, the new PSE doctoral student must attend a series of weekly research presentations in which individual faculty members introduce their research programs and suggest potential thesis topics. After further one-on-one discussions, the first-year PSE student submits (by the Thanksgiving break) a short list of advisor preferences; the student is then assigned an advisor by the end of the semester. By no later than the end of the second year, at least two additional faculty members are appointed to constitute the thesis committee; one of these must be from a department other than PSE.

At the beginning of the second semester, the student begins taking cumulative exams. These two-hour, closed-book, written examinations are offered on the second Saturday of every even-numbered month. Thus, the first exam is given in February, the second in April, etc. When three out of six exams are passed, the cumulative exam portion of the comprehensive examination is complete. Except under extenuating circumstances approved by the graduate program director, these examinations must be taken in sequence. Failure on the first four exams is grounds for disqualification from the doctoral program. Each cumulative exam is balanced by two questions from synthetic chemistry, two from physical chemistry or physics, and two from engineering. Only four of the six questions posed must be answered. Questions may derive from undergraduate coursework, departmental seminars, core PSE coursework, or recent polymer literature.

The cumulative exams constitute only a portion of the comprehensive examination. To finish the examination, the student must also submit and orally defend an independent proposal in a polymer research area that differs from the dissertation topic. The written document should be prepared according to current National Science Foundation guidelines. Based on the quality of both oral and written presentations, an independent proposal will be graded "A," "Pass" or "Fail" by the thesis committee. If a failing grade is received, the student will be given a second and final chance to present the proposal.

The student must also prepare a thesis prospectus, a document that describes the objectives, research strategy, and scientific significance of the research project that will be undertaken for the Ph.D. degree. As with the independent proposal, the prospectus must be defended orally in front of the thesis committee. Both the prospectus and research proposal should be approved by the end of the fifth semester.

As the student approaches the successful completion of the thesis research and believes that the research objectives described in the prospectus have been met, the student requests a data review by the thesis committee. At this time, the student informs the committee of the status and conclusions of the research project. Based on this information, the committee may suggest further experimentation or new directions of research that could resolve inadequacies in the data presented. Also discussed is the format and content of the written Ph.D. thesis. This meeting should occur no earlier than nine months nor later than three months before the final oral examination. Normally, the student begins writing the thesis immediately after a successful data review meeting.

The final examination is an oral defense of the thesis, a document providing a clearly written and detailed summary of the student's entire research project. It is expected that major portions of the thesis will be published separately in the scientific literature, so the written document should be of the caliber to pass the rigorous peer review required for outside publication. The Graduate School at UMass Amherst maintains detailed stylistic guidelines for the Ph.D. thesis and checks each one carefully for compliance, requiring revisions whenever necessary. The defense process begins with submittal of a "next-to-final" thesis draft that has been approved by the thesis committee and department head. An oral defense is then scheduled, and the graduate program director gives the Graduate School at least three weeks' notice of the committee composition, thesis title, location, and time. The oral defense takes the form of a public seminar followed by a closed examination by the thesis committee. The Ph.D. degree will be awarded when the oral exam is passed and a final thesis draft accepted by the thesis committee, department head, and Graduate School.