Doctoral Program

The Ph.D. program in Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE) welcomes candidates with a strong background in science and engineering who are interested in pursuing an academic doctoral degree. The objective of this program is to help students develop skills needed to perform independent research and teaching in an exciting intellectual environment.

Our students work with world-class faculty advisors and mentors, and our research laboratories provide ample opportunities for students to work with other students and faculty to develop cutting-edge theories and technologies in collaboration with other departments and schools within the University.

The Ph.D. program is focused on the development of research skills to prepare the student for a life of scholarship in his/her field of interest. The heart of the course of study is the thesis research which culminates in the doctoral dissertation, a work of substantial original research which contributes to the body of knowledge available in a field. Additional coursework to continue the process of strengthening the command of the chosen discipline and to add to the inventory of mathematical skills is also required. The Ph.D. degree requires a minimum of 20 course units including thesis research. Up to 9 courses may be transferred from prior graduate work; this is subject to the approval of the Graduate Chair. Prior graduate work is not a prerequisite to Ph.D. application.

A Note on GRE Scores: Due to the current uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, the GRE General Test is optional but encouraged for the ESE Ph.D. program application for Fall 2022.

Acceptance into the ESE Ph.D. program is very competitive, as accepted students are also awarded fully funded scholarships and stipends. Successful completion of the Ph.D. program requires the completion of all course requirements, a qualifier examination, a teaching practicum, the formation of a provisional doctoral committee, a research proposal examination, and a thesis defense.

Becoming a Ph.D. student means embarking on a journey of discovery, both of the limits of the world’s knowledge as well as limits of a student’s own knowledge and capacity. What’s more, it is a journey of transformation from a student to an independent researcher and scholar. It is a lifelong pursuit filled with challenges and fulfillment.

Degree Requirements

The ESE Ph.D. program is designed to provide sufficient structure to help students build a strong foundation, and to have sufficient flexibility to accommodate the direction of their creativity. Students will collaborate closely with a faculty advisor on the direction of their research. Successful completion of the ESE Ph.D. program requires the satisfaction of the following:

Course Requirements

A minimum Grade Point Average of 3.0 cumulative average must be maintained.

ESE 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. The remaining 10 CUs are composed of Research Units (ESE 9990) and may include up to two Independent Study (ESE 8990) units .

10 CUs of Coursework:

These graduate level courses are organized by depth, breadth, critical thinking and elective categories.

The student must discuss with their advisor the courses that would best suit each of these categories for their specific Ph.D. career at Penn. Course plans for ESE Ph.D.’s are very individualized and must be approved by their Faculty Advisor. Note: Independent Study courses cannot be used in any of the Coursework categories. 

  • 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 or are distinct from each other and distinct from the major research area.
  • 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: PHYS 5516 Electromagnetic Phenomena, PHYS 5531 Quantum Mechanics I, PHYS 5532 Quantum Mechanics II, PHYS 6611 Statistical Mechanics, PHYS 6612 Advanced Statistical Mechanics, PHYS 6661 Solid State Theory I, PHYS 6662 Solid State Theory II
  • Courses from other departments may be used provided they have a clear focus on mathematical reasoning and techniques and have been pre-approved.
  • Electives: Any remaining courses approved by your faculty advisor may fulfill this category.

10 CUs of Research:

Students may use up to two Independent Study units (ESE 8990) to fulfill this requirement. Independent Study units are not required. Additional Research Units (9990) may be taken in order to maintain a full-time status (see below). Students who have completed their course work will register for 3 CUs of Research Units per semester to maintain full time status.

  • ESE 8950: Teaching Practicum. Remember to discuss this with your faculty advisor and email the ESE PhD Coordinator to help you register for this course (see Teaching Practicum section below). This does not count toward full-time student status, therefore you will still need to be registered for 3 CUs of courses &/or research units.
  • ESE 8980: Curriculum Practicum Training (CPT). You and your advisor may agree that an internship at a company would be beneficial to your research. It is up to the student and their advisor to arrange the details of such an internship. 1) If you are an international student, you must contact ISSS to apply for CPT. 2) If it is a paid internship, you must alert Penn Engineering Financial Services ( as this may affect your PhD stipend payment. CPT will be registered on your transcript and does not count toward your full-time status.
  • ESE 8990: Independent Study. Students who find that none of the courses offered at Penn covers the topic of their research interest may choose to create a course. To do so, the student will submit an application, which you can find here: ESE Independent Study Form (ESE 599/ESE 899). This proposal should be developed in collaboration with a faculty member who will serve as the supervisor for this course. To obtain credit for an ESE Independent Study, the supervising faculty should be an ESE standing faculty (Assistant, Associate or Full Professor). However, if you are working with faculty from another department or school because their work is a better fit for the research you are studying, you may do so by finding an ESE faculty member to be a co-advisor. This proposal will be reviewed by the Department Graduate Group Chair. Once approved, students will be registered for the course by the department. This must be complete before the registration add deadline (also known as the “Course Selection Period”, usually within the first three weeks of the semester). It is advisable to begin this process as early as possible and provide at least one week’s time for faculty review and department registration.
  • ESE 9990: Research Unit. The registration of ESE 9990 Research Units is used for the administrative purpose of keeping students enrolled as full time students – the number of units does not reflect amount of research progress expected. For example, if a student only registers for one course, then they will register for two CUs of research units. If a student has registered for 3 courses, they will not need to register for any Research Units, but this does not mean that they are not engaged in research. The process of research is highly individualized and are determined between the student and the faculty advisor.
  • ESE 9950: Dissertation Status. Students who are ready to present their Thesis Defense should register for ESE 9950. Students usually register for this in their final one or two semesters.  Contact the Department PhD Coordinator to complete this registration.

Qualifying Examination

A qualifier exam is the final written examination of select courses and takes place during the usual university final examination period.

There are three core research thrusts – Devices; Circuits & Computer Engineering; and Information Systems – with two qualifier courses per area. Each doctoral student can select two (2) qualifier exams from any of the six available options and should be selected in consultation with the faculty advisor.

Thrusts Devices Circuits & Computer Engineering Information Systems (Control & Communications)
ESE 5100 Electromagnetic and Optics
(offered in FALL)
ESE 5320: System-on-a-Chip
(offered in FALL)
ESE 5000: Linear Systems Theory
(offered in FALL)
ESE 5210 The Physics of Solid State Energy Devices
(offered in SPRING)
ESE 5720: Analog Integrated Circuits
(offered in FALL)
ESE 5300: Elements of Probability Theory
(offered in FALL)

Thresholds for qualifier pass/fail are generally higher than the pass/fail for that course. The qualifier exam results are separate from the grade obtained in the course; i.e., the complete course load (e.g., homework, projects, midterms, quizzes). Qualifier Exams are evaluated by a two-member committee for each of the courses, with the instructor for the current year acting as the head of the committee.

Passing the qualifiers is an important benchmark. Students must pass two (2) qualifier exams by the end of the spring of the second academic year of their doctoral study (usually Spring).

Students may take each qualifier exam up to two times. If a student fails to pass a qualifier exam in its second try, the student has failed to fulfill this requirement and may need to withdraw from the PhD program. A student who fails a qualifier a third time must withdraw from the program.

The ESE faculty meet at the end of each semester to review the performance of all doctoral students. The goal of the review is to provide individualized evaluation and support to students. Therefore all aspects of a student’s academic and research portfolio will be considered in these cases to determine if continuation in the PhD program is appropriate.

Students who have not made adequate progress overall must withdraw from the PhD program. Other possible scenarios include students with extenuating circumstances who are allowed additional time or opportunity to retake the exam and students who are making adequate progress overall may be required to complete recommended remedial action.

Teaching Practicum and other Trainings (RCR and TA training)

As future academics and leaders in their field, instructional training and experience are important to doctoral students’ future success.

First- and Second-year Ph.D.’s will complete a 3-day training workshop, usually in late August, hosted by the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The department will register students for this event.

Students are also encouraged to participate in additional workshops offered by CTL and to become trainers for other TAs across campus! Please see the many opportunities available at their website.

Ph.D. students will fulfill the Teaching Practicum (TP) requirement by serving as a Teaching Assistant for two courses. The TP placement will expose students to teaching methodology under the guidance and supervision of the course instructor.

Placements are typically by faculty invitation, but students may also take the initiative to to approach faculty teaching courses related to their interests. This decision should be made in consultation with your faculty advisor.

All Teaching Practicum placements must be documented through registration. Once you have confirmed with the instructor of the course and your advisor, email your PhD Coordinator (and cc’ the instructor and your faculty advisor) to register for ESE 8950.

Ph.D. students usually complete their TP requirement after they have completed their qualifiers in their second year. But it may be completed at any time during the Ph.D. program.

The teaching practicum requirement must be completed by all Ph.D. students, regardless of their source of funding support or professional interests.

Special Trainings. In addition to teaching training, Ph.D. students will be required to complete a two-part training on Responsible Conduct for Research (RCR). This consists of a one-day in-person workshop and an online component.

It will be registered as EAS 900 on a student’s transcript, but does not count toward a student’s full-time status. Students will receive additional information from the school regarding how to register for this.

Provisional Doctoral Committee

Once qualifier exams have been completed satisfactorily, all doctoral students are required to assemble a provisional doctoral committee. This usually happens after you have completed the second year.

The Department requires a minimum of 3 members for this committee.  See the Provost’s website on the composition of your Proposal and your Thesis committee.

Changing committee member. 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 continue to serve as 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.

Committee Recommendation Advising. At the proposal stage, the provisional committee’s recommendations are 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 discretion.

Candidacy Examination

The recommended time for the Research Proposal exam is in the third year of study.

The examination consists of a 45-minute oral presentation where the student explicates by evidence a research problem that needs to be addressed and demonstrate their ability to address it. After this presentation, the committee will discuss and provide feedback to the student. The Committee will review and advise on the research quality, potential, and ability of the student to perform research as proposed.

Prior to the proposal exam, the student must submit a three-page proposal to the Committee, providing a high level description of the nature, goals and impact of their proposed research. It should also include a summary of related work, existing results, references, and a coarse plan of attack to address the problem identified.

The Committee will deliberate and determine if the student’s work was satisfactory or if additional work must be submitted in order to fulfill this requirement.


Dissertation Defense

Every Ph.D. student must write a dissertation conforming to the rules of Penn’s Doctoral Dissertation Manual. Students will find the Dissertation Manual on the University Catalog as well as other useful resources for writing Dissertations in general.

The thesis defense examination is a public, oral defense of your research, and is administered by the Thesis Committee. See link above for composition of your thesis committee. The doctoral dissertation will be evaluated and approved (by majority vote) by the Thesis Committee.

See the a detailed Candidate Graduation Checklist for the process in ESE.

For general information on Graduation Procedures

Helpful Tools for Enrolled Students:

Here are some tools that will help students navigate the program benchmarks successfully.

Roadmap with step-by-step guides

This is a checklist listing the major tasks for each year of your program by semester, including steps to take before new students arrive on campus.

Graduate Handbook

Keep this page bookmarked on your browser. You may not remember all the details in this handbook, but it is an important and searchable resource! In particular, review the Student Code of Conduct.

Course Planning Guide (CPG)

CPG lays out the course, training and benchmark requirements for successful completion of the Ph.D. program. The department will use this form to perform an “audit” of your degree when you are about to graduate.

You should discuss with your faculty advisor about when or how to fulfill these requirements.

Transfer credits

Ph.D. candidates are permitted to transfer up to nine CUs from other programs. Review the information in the Graduate Student Handbook on this topic.

See a step-by-step guide on the procedure: PhD Transfer Credit Guide

Leave of Absence (LoA)

LOA may be granted for up to two years.

Please see the new University-wide PhD Student Leave of Absence Policy.

Please also review the information in the Graduate Student Handbook on this topic.

Step-by-step guidance on the LOA procedure can be found here: Leave of Absence guide.

Course registration and information

Registration: Before registering every semester, Ph.D. students must obtain registration sign off by their Faculty Advisor on Path@Penn . This process allows advisors to guide as well as monitor students’ coursework.

Once you and your advisor have agreed to a course plan, register for classes through Path@Penn

You will also be able to search for available courses on Path@Penn. You can also see a full list of all current courses available at Penn on the registrar’s website: Course Roster. If you are interested in the full course catalog, then go to the registrar page. Please note that courses listed in the full catalog may not be offered currently.

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.

If you plan to take four (4)CUs, make sure to discuss this with your advisor. Three (3) CUs is considered the full course load for graduate students.

Letter confirming your student status or degree completion

Sometimes for employment or immigration purposes, you may need an official letter from the school stating that you are indeed a current full-time student or that you have indeed completed your degree (but your transcript has not updated yet).  See SEAS grad forms.

Candidacy Examination

See details on proposal process in the Candidacy Examination

Go to BP Logix to submit you Dissertation Committee form

Thesis/Dissertation Defense Forms

See details on defense process in the step by step guide Step-by-Step Guide

Things to consider the week before Defending your Dissertation

External Fellowships:

There are a number of eligible external fellowships available to PhD Students. For more information on This year’s External Fellowship Opportunities