Ph.D. Candidacy Examination: Submission and Defense of the Dissertation Proposal

To be eligible for the Ph.D. Candidacy exam, a student must have passed the Qualifications Evaluation and be in good academic standing. All Ph.D. students should defend their dissertation by the end of the fall semester of their third year of graduate studies.

Step 1: Getting Started - Registration for Your Dissertation Proposal

Before the third year, each student and advisor should identify a dissertation research topic, select potential committee members, and develop a timeline for their Dissertation Proposal by the end of the fall semester of their third year of study. All students must formally register for the Dissertation Proposal Candidacy Exam (access registration form here) by the end of the fifth semester of graduate study. If the student took a leave of absence during their studies or believes he/she may have other extenuating circumstances, contact the Graduate Program Coordinator so that a timeline to defend the proposal can be determined based on individual circumstances.

Step 2: Registration Review - Committee Approval and Appointment of Chair

The Graduate Group Chair will review the topic, committee members, and timeline proposed on the registration form. After reviewing your registration and committee recommendations, the Graduate Group Chair will appoint your Dissertation Committee Chair. Changes or additions to the committee require the approval of the Graduate Group Chair.

Guidelines for Selecting your Committee

Dissertation Committee Composition:

  • The committee shall be composed of 4 faculty members (including the advisor) and approved by the CBE Graduate Group Chair. In special circumstances, an additional member may be added, subject to the approval of the Graduate Group Chair. Appointment of committee members who are not part of Penn faculty requires details of their full title, affiliation, and a short biographical sketch.
  • The dissertation advisor is an ex officio member of the committee.
  • Three committee members must have full-time Standing or Research faculty appointments at Penn.
  • Two committee members must be members of the CBE Graduate Group.
  • One committee member must hold a doctorate in an Engineering discipline or a highly quantitative subject (e.g. math, physics), AND/OR is a Primary Faculty member in a School of Engineering and Applied Science Department.
  • One member (who meets the criteria listed below) is recommended as Chair by the advisor and must be approved by the CBE Graduate Group Chair

Responsibilities of the Dissertation Committee Chair:

  • At every stage, verify that the dissertation meets the CBE requirements for rigorous engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular science content. Discuss any concerns in this regard with the student and advisor, and contact the CBE Graduate Group Chair when concerns arise.
  • Ensure that the content and tone of the proposal defense, annual committee meetings, and dissertation
    defense meeting are constructive for the student and advisor. If the student and advisor have difficulty in scheduling meetings in a timely manner, the Committee Chair will contact the CBE Graduate Group Chair to recommend the replacement of committee members with limited availability.
  • At each meeting of the committee, review the student’s course planning guide and transcript (provided by the student) to ensure the student is meeting CBE course requirements in a timely manner. Inform the advisor and Graduate Group Chair of any concerns, and include committee recommendations for additional coursework in the official meeting report.
  • At each meeting of the committee, ensure that proper forms are completed with comments to the student, signed by all members of the committee, and submitted to the Graduate Group Coordinator (Ken Lambert)

Qualifications of the Dissertation Committee Chair (must satisfy all criteria):

  • Is a member of the CBE Graduate Group
  • Is a member of the Standing Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Has served as a member or advisor on the proposal defense of at least one University of Pennsylvania
    CBE dissertation committee previously (Preferred).

Step 3: Write your proposal - and have your advisor read, edit and approve it.

The advisor must approve the dissertation proposal before it can be distributed to the committee. The dissertation proposal is based on the NIH application format and should have the following sections:

  • Cover page including title, student and advisor name and contact information,
  • Table of Contents, Abstract (<1 page),
  • Specific Aims (1 page) and Research Strategy (12 pages).
    • The Specific Aims section states the specific objectives of the research proposed (e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology).
    •  The Research Strategy section includes subsections: Significance (e.g. importance of the problem and how the project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability), Innovation (e.g. methods, instrumentation, theories, etc.), and Approach (overall strategy, methods and analyses, as well as preliminary data, potential problems and alternative strategies).  This format emphasizes the scientific and technical merit of the proposed studies, with less emphasis on preliminary data.
  • There is a 13-page limit, single-spaced with a minimum font size of 11, excluding the Cover Page, Table of Contents, Abstract, and References.


Step 4: Schedule the Dissertation Proposal Date & Location

Concurrent with the final stages of writing, the student should schedule a date for the examination, allowing a minimum of two weeks for the proposal to be reviewed by the committee. The student should copy his/her advisor on all correspondence with committee members. To facilitate rapid convergence on convenient meeting time and dates, students should find 5-7 dates/times that work for the student and advisor, and use meeting planner websites (e.g.,, when2meet) to help schedule the exam. If the student has continued difficulty scheduling an exam due to an unresponsive committee member, he/she should inform the advisor for help. If the member is non-responsive for more than a week, do not hesitate to contact the Graduate Program Coordinator or Graduate Group Chair to expedite the scheduling of the oral exam.

When the student has finalized a date, they must inform the Graduate Program Coordinator. Meeting rooms can be reserved through the SEAS Room Reservation Request Form. If a student needs assistance reserving a room he/she should contact the Graduate Program Coordinator.

  • The student should send an email to all committee members with confirmation of the date and meeting place.
  • The student will send a reminder to all committee members of the time and place of the examination one week before the meeting.
  • The Graduate Group Chair and Graduate Program Coordinator should be copied on the reminder, which can be distributed by e-mail.
  • The student must also prepare and bring the proper paperwork for the proposal meeting. This includes a CPG, updated transcripts, and the Acceptance of Dissertation Proposal Form found online.

If there is a need to change the meeting time of the presentation the student must confirm these changes with committee members and make sure that everyone is agreeable to the change. The student must also inform the Graduate Program Coordinator and the Graduate Group Chair of any changes that are made.

Step 5: The Oral Dissertation Proposal

The Oral Presentation period of the dissertation proposal should last approximately 45 minutes and will be followed by a question-answer period of similar length. Adjustments may be made concerning the length of the presentation and subsequent discussion based on committee discretion, but the student should tailor the presentation roughly to these guidelines. The exam room should be reserved for two and a half hours to also allow the committee time for evaluation and discussion. The committee chair will report the recommendations to the Graduate Group Chair on the form provided by the student. The Acceptance of Dissertation Proposal form can be found online.

All committee members must be present at the oral presentation. If a member of the committee is unable to attend, the student must obtain approval from the committee chair and Graduate Group Chair to proceed with the proposal. In this case, the absent member will be required to send comments to the Committee Chair two days before the presentation. At the Committee Chair’s discretion, these comments or questions may be used during the exam to test the candidate’s knowledge of the subject area.

The dissertation advisor is an ex-officio member of the committee and should always be present at the examination and all meetings of the committee. However, the advisor must allow the student to demonstrate their knowledge and command of the subject on their own and will be recognized by the committee chair only to clarify issues when requested by a committee member.

Step 6: Feedback from the Dissertation Proposal

The student may be informed orally on the outcome of the dissertation proposal following the examination. Written confirmation of the outcome will follow after the Committee Chair returns the examination approval form to the Graduate Program Coordinator. The committee may request revisions to the proposal, accept it as is, or fail the student. The dissertation committee must accept the proposal before the student advances to Candidacy.

NOTE: Students who have not defended their dissertation proposal and passed their Candidacy Exam by the end of the Fall semester of their 3rd year of graduate studies must petition to the Graduate Group Chair for an extension. The petition should explain why a proposal was not submitted and provide a schedule for submission. The University regulations state that the maximum time limit for a student to “Advance to Candidacy” is five years, after which time the student will be dropped from the rolls. Dissertation proposals must be defended and approved at least 12 months before the Doctoral Dissertation is submitted. The Graduate Group Chair will not accept a Doctoral Dissertation before this period has passed.