Schedule of Requirements and Due Dates

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Advisory Committee

Each graduate student has an Advisory Committee consisting of at least three but commonly four faculty members (at least two must be Geosciences faculty). Normally, the advisory committee Chair is the student's principal research advisor. The principal advisor may be a member of the Geosciences faculty or (rarely) a faculty member in another Princeton department. Members of the Advisory Committee are selected by the student in consultation with the advisor. Initial selection takes place in September or October of the first year and may be changed after a student has settled on a research topic and. Some continuity of membership is desirable, and often the same committee serves throughout the graduate student's career.

For the purposes of the General Examination, students may need to add members to the advisory committee to form the General Exam Committee. The current rule is that a General Exam Committee must have two members of the Graduate Work Committee, and if that brings the total number of members to more than four, then one GWC member will be an observer only.

The advisory committee of post-General Exam students will normally include the prospective readers of the thesis.

An Advisory Committee meeting must occur each semester even if the primary advisor is on sabbatical, with another faculty member serving temporarily on the committee. Note that students will not be permitted to reenroll in the graduate school without at least one committee meeting in the preceding academic year.

We urge each student to make maximum use of the advisory committee. The student should feel free to meet with the committee members at any time. The advisory committee is responsible for the student’s welfare in case of absence of the advisor and is expected to mediate in case of conflict between student and advisor.

The major duties and responsibilities of the Advisory Committee are:

  • To evaluate the thesis and to conduct the final public oral examination. About three months before the dissertation is submitted, the student will convene a meeting of his/her committee to ensure that the dissertation is in order. The committee will determine if the completed research is sufficient for the Ph.D. The committee will also assist in scheduling the readers’ reports and defense.

Advisory Committee Meetings

(one per semester)

In the first two years, Advisory Committee meetings will help guide the students towards a compelling scientific problem, identify difficulties the student may encounter, and recommend research tools and approaches. At the meetings, committee members will give feedback on the required documents submitted prior to the meetings and also help prepare the student for their General Examination. After the General Exam, the committee will help guide the student’s research progress and identify new questions and problems. It is often helpful to get feedback from faculty who are outside your direct research area as they may bring different perspectives and provide sound advice on how to present your material to a broad audience. The nature of committee meetings varies widely. Some advisors or committees will expect a formal or informal presentation of the student’s research with slides, results, etc., while others will prefer an informal conversation. For students in years 3-5, it is encouraged to begin discussions about career goals and professional development. Discuss the format of the Advisory Committee meeting with the student’s advisor and other committee members in advance.

First-Year Research Proposal

(Due Tuesday before Thanksgiving)

The first-year research proposal is a summary of the student’s research plans for the following year. It should outline a scientific problem of interest, demonstrate a proficient understanding of the relevant literature and state of the field, and identify what tools will be used to tackle this problem (e.g., field work, lab work, computational strategies, etc.). The proposal will outline the project that has been discussed with the student’s current advisor, and may be read and commented on by others prior to submission. It is generally 1-2 pages single-spaced, not including figures, initial data or results, and references. Specific expectations for the research proposal should be discussed with the student’s advisor and/or Advisory Committee. The student will receive feedback on this proposal from their advisory committee at the meeting that will occur before winter break.

First-Year Progress Report

(Due first week of May)

The progress report summarizes the student’s research activities of the first year. The amount of progress will vary widely between students. For example, students whose research involves fieldwork may have not collected any samples by the time of the progress report, but presumably will have done extensive background research and initial analysis, modeling, etc. Expectations for the first-year progress report should be discussed with the advisor and Advisory Committee. As a rough guideline, the progress report should be two to four pages single-spaced, not including figures or references. The main purpose for this report to encourage the student to make progress on research and to serve as a means of generating discussion and getting guidance from the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee should have written and/or verbal feedback for the student at the spring Advisory Committee meeting.

Research activity in the second year may be a continuation of the first year's research or it may be a new project, possibly with a new research advisor, if the first year's project is essentially complete or if a student's scientific direction has changed. Although changing advisors may be difficult, the department is committed to ensuring each student is matched with the most suitable advisor before thesis research begins in earnest. Typically, the first-year project leads directly to the second year research and then to thesis research, but there is flexibility to change direction, if needed.


Reenrollment, which occurs toward the end of the spring term each year, is the annual formal process in which departments and the Graduate School evaluate the academic progress of graduate students. All students eligible for reenrollment, including those writing dissertations, must make a formal application each year.

Requirements for satisfactory progress are listed in the timeline in the beginning of this document. A student’s advisor, in consultation with the advisory committee, is responsible for determining whether the student has performed satisfactorily to be reenrolled. For students who have not yet taken the general examination, this includes completing high-quality work in courses and seminars, and performing effectively in assistantship or research positions. For students who have passed the general examination, significant progress toward the completion of the dissertation is the central criterion.

Recommendations for reenrollment are made in March or April. Those who do not meet the requirements will be informed at this time. If a student does not wish to reenroll, he or she should discuss the decision with the Advisory Committee. If the advisor wishes to recommend that the student be denied reenrollment, the advisor will make a recommendation to the Advisory Committee. The advisor and committee then confer with the DGS and a vote must be taken by the full Geosciences faculty if the recommendation is to deny readmission.

Readmission decisions regarding students taking generals in spring will be deferred until after the examination. Others, whose performance is in doubt, may also be deferred, for example first-year students whose progress on their research project is inadequate. For example, it is possible to suggest a trial period until the end of the summer to reach a decision about readmission.

When notified to reenroll (typically late March) students should log on to the Princeton University SCORE website (, click through to the Graduate Reenrollment section, fill in the online form, and submit. This information will then be transmitted to the Advisor who will review the application, make any comments, and submit to the DGS. The DGS will review the application, enter department support recommendation and submit to the student for review. The student reviews the application, makes comments, and submits the application to the DGS who then submits the final copy to the Graduate School.

Second-Year Research Paper

(Due 2nd or 3rd Monday of October)

In the fall semester of the second year, each student is required to submit a research paper that summarizes their research progress thus far. This second-year research paper typically builds on the first-year proposal and progress report. Typically, this report involves a 5-8 page single spaced (though double spaced is encouraged for submission) report not including figures and references. It should take the format of a formal scientific manuscript, but is not expected to reflect a completed project. This report will serve as a discussion piece for the advisory committee during the fall advisory committee meeting. The committee will come to the meeting prepared to give feedback on the report. This paper serves as good practice for writing the generals exam research paper.

Second-Year Presentation

(four days after the due date of the research paper)

The second year presentation is a formal “AGU-style” presentation (twelve minute presentation, with three minutes for questions) that summarizes the student’s research progress. The student should explain why the problem they are working on is important, outline the methods and results, and discuss the implications and next steps. The audience is the entire department, and so the presentation should appeal to a relatively broad scientific audience. Students are strongly encouraged to give practice talks to their peers both inside and outside their research group. More senior students are particularly good at giving feedback on these talks, so take advantage of their expertise!

Generals Exam

(late April to mid-May of second year)

Students must pass a General Exam to become a PhD candidate. The examination may be taken earlier by well-prepared students. It can be delayed with the approval of the GWC under special circumstances such as serious illness or fieldwork schedule conflicts. In every case, it is the student’s responsibility to schedule the date, time, and place of the generals exam so that all Examination Committee members can attend.

The committee for the General Examination consists of four faculty members including the student's primary advisor. The committee may include a faculty member from another department of the University. Members of the student's Advisory Committee during the first two years may be members of the Examination Committee, but it is not required. The chair of the Examination Committee, who organizes the question period and insures that the exam proceeds according to the guidelines below, must not be the student's primary advisor. With the goal of consistency and continuity between exams, at least two GWC members should be part of the examination committee. If having a second GWC member brings the total number of examiners to five, then one of the GWC members may not ask questions.

The exam is typically between two and a half to three hours, and consists of the following requirements: 1) a research paper summarizing a single research project conducted over the first two years, 2) a PhD thesis proposal, 3) an ~20 minute presentation at the beginning of the exam summarizing the research paper, and 4) an oral examination by the student’s generals exam committee. More details on these requirements are given below.

  1. The research paper. A research paper summarizing the first two years of research must be turned in at least one week prior to the General Exam. If a student does not turn in the paper a week before the exam, they will fail the exam and it may be rescheduled. The paper should be turned into the graduate administrator (Sheryl Robas), and also sent via email to the Examination Committee. The paper does not need to be ready for publication in a peer-reviewed journal but should be of comparable quality. The research accomplishments should indicate a reasonable level of productivity, and the interpretation should indicate deep knowledge of the literature and excellent critical thinking. The research paper should not exceed 20 pages (double spaced) with figures and references. Students are encouraged to get feedback from their advisor on drafts of the paper and proposal.
  2. The thesis proposal must outline what the student will pursue for his/her dissertation. If it is a continuation of the first two years of research, it should show that the student has identified the next steps of the project towards a suitable dissertation. In addition to a discussion of methodology, goals, and research objectives, the proposal should include an explanation of why the research is important and how the research will be performed in a timely fashion. This proposal should be mostly his/her own work and should outline a plan of research for the next two or three years. It is typically short – about two pages single spaced - and serves the purpose of generating discussion among the committee and student.
  3. The presentation should focus on the student’s research thus far, and take the format of a talk at a scientific meeting. It may contain a few slides about the thesis proposal, especially if the proposed topic is new. It should not be longer than 20 minutes. Students are encouraged to give practice talks to their advisor and/or other students.
  4. The oral examination is split into two parts. Following the student’s presentation, the first hour of the exam covers the research paper and the thesis proposal. Generally, the committee will take turns asking questions of the student. The questions may be very specific, e.g., about details of the methodology presented in the paper, but they may also be broader about the motivation for the project or about the literature cited. The student should assume that anything discussed in the paper and presentation may be questioned, but also that the committee members may venture beyond those topics to related research topics, problems, or methodologies. After a short break, the second part of the exam covers two chosen topics of expertise, or areas of concentration, and lasts between an hour and an hour and a half. The student should choose these areas of concentration based on their expertise and their research and discuss these areas with the Examination Committee prior to the exam, ideally in the winter meeting of the Advisory Committee. The areas of concentration can be narrow (e.g. stable isotope geochemistry) or wide (i.e., paleoceanography). Students choosing narrow topics will be examined in greater depth, whereas broader topics are less likely to go into the detailed methodologies applied to that topic. Areas of concentration can be based on GEO or the non-GEO courses (e.g., inorganic chemistry, statistics), but are generally related to one’s research interests.

Information about Passing and Failing the General Exam

The outcome of the general exam is decided by the Examination Committee at the end of the exam, with two possible outcomes: Pass and Fail. If the Committee decides that the student has satisfied the requirements for all parts of the exam, they will pass and move on to their PhD dissertation research. If the student does not pass one or more parts of the exam, it is considered a fail. If it is the first failure, the student has the option of retaking the exam according to the rules of the Graduate School and the Examination Committee. The Committee can require the student to retake one or all parts of the exam, and will recommend when the exam should be retaken. It must be retaken within a year, but more typically it is within six months. If a student fails twice, the student is required to leave the program.

If a student passes, they are awarded a Master’s Degree in addition to being permitted to continue on to PhD research. If the student fails twice or decides to leave the program after a first failure, the committee can decide whether a terminal Master’s degree is appropriate.

Preparing for the General Examination: Some Suggestions

Several months before the examination period….

Student’s being examined should meet with students who have passed the general exam.

Students should begin to work with his/her advisor on the report and the proposal in order to have drafts ready for review well in advance of the exam. The advisor should read these drafts carefully; making suggestions as to how they can be strengthened, and helping the student identify areas where their knowledge of the subject matter should be improved.

Students should meet individually with members of the Examination Committee to discuss the topics to be covered during the examination, to identify readings as part of the preparation, and to ask for any help in understanding the Science.

Students should begin reviewing all relevant course material in depth. There is no reason students should be unable to answer questions involving basic information and concepts covered in courses they have taken.

In the weeks leading up to the exam….

Students should convene a group of post-generals graduate students to serve as the examining committee in a “mock exam”.

Students should make finishing touches on their proposals and reports in order to have them submitted to the committee at least one week prior to the exam.

Dissertation and Final Public Oral Examination

The primary purpose of the dissertation for the student to demonstrate their ability to conduct high-quality, independent, and original scientific research. From the graduate school website: "The dissertation shows that the candidate has technical mastery in the chosen field and is capable of independent research. It is expected to be a positive contribution to knowledge, which may consist of a new scientific generalization, a new body of integrated facts that carries scientific implications that extended beyond itself, or a substantial improvement in technique or procedure.”

Format of Dissertation

Most dissertations consist primarily of research that has been or will be submitted to professional journals as multiple stand-alone research papers. Such theses should be preceded an introductory chapter that defines the overall problem, and serves to draw the various papers into a coherent narrative. While there is no formal rule for the number of chapters, a typical thesis contains at least three chapters that are publishable as stand-alone manuscripts (so the dissertation would be at least four chapters including the introduction). If any part of a thesis has been or will be submitted to a journal as a multiple-author paper, this should be clearly indicated, and the student's role in the collaboration should be described on a page preceding the chapter. Multiple authored papers that have been written substantially by another author may not be included in the thesis, although they may be appended to it.

Approval of the Dissertation prior to the Final Public Oral Examination

Prior to completion of the thesis, two dissertation readers are chosen by the student in consultation with the advisory committee. At least one of the principal readers of the dissertation must be from the student’s home department. Qualified principal readers are those who are authorized to supervise doctoral dissertations in the University (such as regular faculty at the rank of assistant professor or higher and certain others in senior research ranks). External readers must be of comparable standing at another university or in the research community. External readers must be approved by the Graduate School prior to dissertation submission.

The completed dissertation must be submitted to the readers at least two weeks before the date of the Final Public Oral (FPO). At the same time, the dissertation must be made available to the entire faculty by depositing a copy in the Graduate Administrator’s office. The readers’ reports are presented at a faculty meeting no less than one week later. The faculty votes on the readers’ reports and may impose requirements for changes that must be made before the dissertation is approved. If changes are required, new readers’ reports, or amendments, will also be required. If the readers’ reports and the dissertation are approved by a vote of the faculty, the final oral examination will be scheduled at least one week later. Normally the final oral examination will be given only during the academic year.

A candidate for the Ph.D. degree in the Department of Geosciences is required to submit one copy of their thesis - the original which goes to MUDD Library.

Final Public Oral Examination (FPOE)

The final public oral examination (FPOE) is a final examination in the student's field of study as well as a defense of the dissertation, and is open to the public. FPOs are scheduled after the Graduate School reviews and accepts the readers' reports and is satisfied that all other requirements have been met. The department is required to post the date, time, and location of the examination for a minimum of three days (including Saturday) between the dean's authorization and the date of the examination, in order to assure the open, public character of the oral.

FPOs include at least three principal examiners, all of them typically members of the Princeton faculty at the rank of assistant professor or higher, at least two of whom have not been principal readers of the dissertation. In other words, it is possible that one or more of the readers is not present at the FPO, but normally both are present, thus requiring at least four members of the examination committee. At least one of the examiners must be from the student’s home department. The examination committee may be the same that has served as the advisory committee after the General Exam, or may be reconstituted at the discretion of the student in consultation with the advisor and advisory committee. The student and the examiners should be present in person. In extraordinary circumstances, a department may request that the Graduate School approve virtual, video-conferenced participation of an examiner, but in no case may there be fewer than two examiners who participate in person. Acting on the advice of the examiners, the department determines whether or not the candidate has passed the examination.

In general, the FPO starts with the candidate giving a presentation of about 40 minutes length on his or her dissertation research. Next, members of the audience who are not members of the examining committee may ask questions, after which there is generally then a short break during which audience members may choose to leave. Following the break, members of the examining committee ask their questions. The questioning is still public, but only the examiners and the candidate are permitted to speak. After this round of questioning is concluded, the Chair of the committee will ask everyone to leave except for the committee members, who will discuss the outcome of the exam.

More specific details provided by the Princeton University Graduate School

The University maintains webpages with general info about the dissertation and the degree application and completion process: including links to checklist for Ph.D. defense and all necessary forms.


For Graduate Students

Grad Student Handbook thumbnail image
  • Graduate Student Handbook
    Last Update: 07/31/2023
    This guide comprehensively covers the academic requirements for attaining a Ph.D. in GEO. It focuses on the first and second years, as these have the most requirements. Information pertaining to subsequent years focuses on dissertation research and career services.