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Ph.D. Degree Requirements

Full-Time Status: Doctoral students are considered to be full time students if they are registered for at least three CU in the Fall and Spring semesters. 

Registration: Before registering every semester, Ph.D. students must obtain registration sign off by their Faculty Advisor, which allows advisors to guide as well as monitor students' coursework.

Successful completion of the Ph.D. program in ESE requires the satisfaction of the following requirements:

Course Requirements

Doctoral students must complete a required series of 20 course units (CUs) of graduate-level courses and research units.  A minimum of 10 CUs must be graduate level courses that are not independent study (ESE 899) or research (ESE 999).

The coursework is structured in order to emphasize both depth in the research area of the student as well as breadth in their education.  The coursework of each Ph.D. student must be grouped in depth, breadth, critical thinking and elective categories with the approval of a faculty advisor:

Depth Requirement: At least five graduate-level courses in areas supporting the research of the Ph.D. student.

Breadth Requirement: At least two graduate-level courses which are distinct from the major research area. The courses may be thematically linked in a 500-600 sequence or may represent two 500 level courses both distinct from the major research area. Independent Studies cannot be used in this category.

Critical Thinking Requirement: At least two graduate-level courses satisfying formal analytical reasoning. Courses that satisfy this requirement include graduate courses in Mathematics, Engineering Mathematics, Statistics, or Discrete Mathematics and the following Physics courses: 516, 518, 529/530, 531, 532, 611, 612, 661, 662.  Courses from other departments may be used provided they have a clear focus on mathematical reasoning and techniques and have been pre-approved.  Independent studies cannot be used in this category.

Electives: The remaining course units may be added to the above groups or may simply be grouped in a free electives category. The grouping of the courses will be outlined by the students in consultation with their advisors in a proposed Ph.D. Planning Guide. The Ph.D. Planning Guide will be updated every April throughout their Ph.D. career in order to reflect changes in courses, course offerings, and research focus. This will allow (every May) the Graduate Group to offer feedback to both the student and their advisor regarding Ph.D. requirements. The approval of the final Ph.D. planning guide will be performed by the Committee of the Research Proposal Examination and the Graduate Group Chair.

The remaining ten course units comprise a minimum of 8 Research Units (ESE 999) and up to 2 Independent Study units (ESE 899). Additional research units (999) may be taken in order to maintain a full-time status (see below), in excess of the 20 CU requirement.  Independent Studies must include a detailed description of the material covered and the grading scheme used and be approved by the Graduate Group Chair.  For further information on how to apply for independent studies, please visit theESE Academic Regulations page.

Additional Requirements

Transfer of Credit: Ph.D. candidates are permitted to transfer up to nine CUs from other programs. A maximum of five CUs of any transfer credits can be counted against courses that are not independent study (899) or research (999) courses. Transfer of credit must be approved by the Graduate Group Chair and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Courses counted towards an undergraduate degree will not be considered for graduate credit unless in an approved submatriculation program.

Full-Time Status: Doctoral students are considered to be full time students if they are registered for at least three CU in the Fall and Spring semesters. 

Registration: Before registering every semester, Ph.D. students must obtain registration sign off by their Faculty Advisor, which allows advisors to guide as well as monitor students' coursework.

Minimum Grade Point Average: A 3.0 cumulative average must be maintained as a PhD student.

ESE 995 Registration: Students who have completed five years of full-time status are eligible for ESE 995 courses, which allow students to maintain a full-time status with reduced tuition fees. A student may take 995, which also carries full-time status with 0 credit units for up to eight semesters.

Qualifier Examinations

Requirement: The qualifying exam is a written examination.  Students must pass TWO (2) qualifier exams by the end of the spring of the second academic year of their doctoral study.

1. If a student fails to pass a qualifier exam in its second try, the graduate chair will convene a meeting with the student’s adviser and the instructor that administered the exam in question. This committee may decide that:

  • The student is nonetheless making adequate progress and will stay in the program after completing a remedial action; or
  • The student is not making adequate progress but is allowed the chance to take the qualifier a third time because of extenuating circumstances; or
  • he student is not making adequate progress and must withdraw from the program.

2. If a student fails a qualifier exam for a third time, the student must withdraw from the program.

Selection: There are three core research thrusts – Devices; Circuits & Computer Engineering; and Information Systems.  There are two qualifier areas per research thrust.  Each doctoral student can select two (2) qualifier exams from any of the six available options.

Thrusts Devices Circuits & Computer Engineering Information Systems (Control & Communications)
ESE 510: Electromagnetic & Optical Theory
(offered in FALL)
ESE 532: System-on-a-Chip
(offered in FALL)
ESE 500: Linear Systems Theory
(offered in FALL)
ESE 521: Physics of Solid State Energy Devices
(offered in SPRING)
ESE 572: Analog Integrated Circuits
(offered in FALL)
ESE 530: Elements of Probability Theory
(offered in FALL)

Grading:  The department will appoint a two-member committee for each of the courses, with the instructor for the current year acting as the head of the committee. Each committee will finalize and publicly announce the course syllabus by the second week of the semester.

These syllabi will serve both as plans for the courses and as reading lists for the corresponding sections of the Qualifier. All Qualifier courses will have written in-class final exams, taking place during the usual university final examination period.

The qualifiers will be set and graded by the same two-member faculty committee that also set the syllabus. The committee will then determine precisely the minimum performance on each specific exam that would constitute a Qualifier pass.

Thresholds for qualifier pass/fail will generally be higher than the pass/fail for that course.  The Qualifier results are separate from the grade in the course; i.e., the complete course load (e.g., homeworks, projects, midterms, quizzes). Thus the criteria for obtaining the grade in the course are set separately from the Qualifier passing criteria. The results will be announced to the students by the graduate chair/coordinator.

The faculty will meet once a year to review the performance of the doctoral students in the first and the second year.  Continuations in the program will be determined in these meetings.

Teaching Practicum

All Ph.D. students must complete a two-semester Teaching Practicum (TP) requirement by the end of their Ph.D. career.  The TP requirement aims to prepare students for careers in academe by developing their exposure to undergraduate- and graduate-level teaching in their field.  Students engaged in a TP placement will be exposed to different areas of teaching under the guidance and supervisor of the course instructor.  Placements are by typically by faculty invitation, but students have the option to approach faculty teaching courses related to their interests.  A great effort is made to have teaching practicum placements assigned in a manner that is consistent with our students' research and teaching interests and the teaching needs of the Department.

Even though it is preferable to satisfy this requirement early in their Ph.D. career, the teaching practicum may be completed at any time during the Ph.D. program. The teaching practicum requirement must be completed by all Ph.D. students, independent of their funding support or professional interests.

All Teaching Practicum placements must be documented by the ESE Department to be counted towards this requirement.  The department monitors placements through the submission of the Teaching Practica form and throughout their enrollment in ESE 895: Teaching Practicum.

Provisional Doctoral Committee

All doctoral students are required to assemble a provisional doctoral committee at the end of their 2nd year.

The committee will consist of 2, possibly 3, faculty members in addition to the student's advisor.  One of the faculty members will act as the chair of the committee and will need to be from ESE.  The student's advisor cannot act as the committee’s chair.  Other committee members can be internal to ESE or external.  It is suggested that having at least one of the committee members be from outside SEAS or Penn would be beneficial.  Qualified industry researchers are eligible as external committee members.  In addition to faculty committee members, it is also recommended though not required that a senior Ph.D. student be part of the committee to add a student’s perspective during the committee’s meetings. 

The composition of the committee can be adjusted on a yearly basis, but only one faculty member can change each year in order to ensure adequate continuity.  The committee is expected to eventually morph into the student's thesis proposal committee, although this is not required.  Given the intent of providing assistance and feedback to the student on his/her research and overall progress towards a Ph.D., it is expected although not required that the general research expertise of committee members will be at least loosely connected to the student’s research area.

Each Ph.D. student is expected to make a yearly presentation to his/her provisional doctoral committee once it is formed.  The first presentation should take place before the end of the third year.  The presentation should describe the student’s research efforts over the past year, as well as his/her plans for the coming year.  At the discretion of the student and his/her advisor, the presentations may be open to the public, or the audience limited to committee members. The committee is expected to provide feedback regarding the student's progress or lack thereof towards a successful thesis, and offer advice of both technical and logistical natures aimed at improving the student's chances of success.  The committee’s assessment will be documented in a short report by the committee chair in collaboration with the student's advisor and other committee members.  The student will be provided with a copy of the report and another copy will be kept on record in the ESE office.

While the yearly presentation serves as an official forum for the committee to provide feedback to the student, the expectations are that interactions between the student and members of his/her committee will not be limited to this yearly event.  In particular, faculty committee members commit to being available to meet with the student on a regular basis and upon request.  Fostering such interactions is one of the main motivations for the provisional doctoral committee.  Such regular exchanges are key to offering our Ph.D. students the opportunity of a richer educational experience, as well as the ability to develop broader contacts that may prove useful upon starting their professional life, e.g., because of their longer term exposure to the student’s work, committee members would be in a better position to both advertise the student’s work outside Penn as well as write better recommendation letters when requested to do so.

The committee's recommendations are only advisory in nature.  The student's advisor remains the sole judge of whether or not the student is making adequate progress in his/her research.  Remedial actions, if any, will be implemented at the decision of the student's advisor and under his or her control. This will change if and when the provisional doctoral committee morphs into the student’s proposal committee and ultimately thesis committee, at which point these committees will assume their standard prerogatives.

Research Proposal Examination

All Ph.D. students must pass the Research Proposal Examination. This exam is administered by the Research Proposal Committee that consists of three members, including the Committee Chair. The Committee Chair must be a faculty from the ESE Department.  The Committee must be proposed to and approved by the Graduate Chair. The research advisor of the student, who is part of the committee, cannot serve as the Chair of the Committee.

The recommended time for the Research Proposal exam is the third year of study. Prior to the exam, the students must submit a three-page proposal to the Committee which provides a high level description of the nature of research, goals and impact of the proposed research, related work, existing results, references, and coarse plan of attack. The students must also submit to the Committee the most current version of their Course Planning Guide (obtained from the Grad Group Administrative Assistant).

The examination consists of a 45-minute oral presentation where the student must provide evidence to the committee that there is a research problem that needs to be addressed, and that the student is capable of addressing the problem. The Committee must assess the research quality, potential, and ability of the student to perform research. In addition, the Committee reviews and approves the most current version of the students Course Planning Guide. The outcome of the Research Proposal Examination is:

1. Pass: Research Proposal Examination requirement completed.
2. Fail: In rare circumstances, the student may fail the exam and may be asked to retake it.
3. Defer: Based on the students performance and Course Planning Guide, the Committee may make personalized recommendations. If necessary, the Committee may request reexamining the student after the student implements specific suggestions provided by the committee.

Thesis Defense
The thesis defense examination is administered by Thesis Defense Committee that consists of three members in addition to the research advisor of the student. The Committee Chair must be a faculty from the ESE Department.  One member must be outside the ESE Graduate Group. The Committee must be proposed to and approved by the Graduate Chair. The research advisor of the student cannot serve as the Chair of the Committee. Every Ph.D. student must write a dissertation conforming to the rules of Penn's Doctoral Dissertation Manual. The doctoral dissertation will be evaluated and approved (by majority vote) by the Thesis Defense Committee.

All doctoral work for full-time candidates, including the dissertation, must be completed within ten years from the student's matriculation as a graduate student at Penn.

Minimum Grade Point Average: A 3.0 cumulative average must be maintained as a PhD student.