Skip Navigation.
Carnegie Mellon Department of Chemistry

Guide to Graduate Studies

Ph.D. Requirements

Original Research Proposal

For students entering Fall 2015 and later

Each student is expected to write and defend an original research proposal during the sixth semester of residence. The learning objectives of the proposal are to demonstrate that the student has the ability:

Developing a proposal distinct from the thesis provides valuable experience in building on current expertise to address new research problems and convincing others of the importance and feasibility of the work, as will be needed in most careers whether the position is in academia, industry or government. It is also an opportunity for breadth useful for adapting to changing priorities in business or society.

Eligibility for oral exam.

Students will typically not be eligible to take the original proposal oral exam if they have not passed the research progress report/candidacy exam, and the English proficiency requirement. Students may petition the GPC for an exception to go ahead with the oral exam; documentation must be provided to show strong effort to date and extenuating circumstances.

If a student has not submitted a complete written proposal by the 11th week of the semester and has not submitted a petition for extension, he/she is not eligible to have the oral exam and is on probation pending review by the GPC for possible termination from the Ph.D. program at the end of the semester.

Topics.

To ensure sufficient originality and promote feasibility within the desired timeline, topics must be approved by the student’s Advisory Committee and at least one member of the Graduate Program Committee who is not on the student’s advisory committee to ensure the topic is distinct from the student’s thesis work (see timeline under Topic Approval). The topic need not exclude the general field of the student’s research but should use some primary sources outside his/her specific dissertation topic. In general, topics should go at least one step beyond what has been published. In addition, to the student’s knowledge, work on the same hypothesis should not have been proposed before. In order to produce work distinct from the thesis topic and to facilitate an oral exam of appropriate scope, depth and rigor, students are encouraged to propose work that could conceivably be done in their lab or group (however not restricted to the instrumentation currently available). Students who wish to pursue work distant from their field of interest are advised to include information in their topic description and discuss two issues with their advisory committee members and the GPC member reviewing the topic to make sure they can complete the proposal with appropriate rigor: (1) whether the committee members view their expertise as sufficient to serve as an examiner or can recommend an alternate member, and (2) whether the student’s background is sufficient to complete the proposal successfully in the available time.

Topic Approval.

Descriptions of topics (approximately 1–2 pages) are due the third week in November for students who are due to complete proposals in the spring semester. Note that students entering in January will have their deadlines on third week of July for topic submissions and September 15 for final topic approval.

The topic descriptions must include (1) a statement of the problem to be addressed and the proposed approach, (2) several key references to show that the approach is viable, and (3) a discussion of similarities and differences compared with the student’s thesis work to date and to related work reported in the literature, with affirmation of the committee as examiners or listing the alternate member, and the student’s relevant background/experience for topics distant from the thesis work (e.g. in a different area such as a theorist proposing synthetic work). Written approval from the advisory committee and a member of the GPC who is not on the advisory committee is needed for final topic approval by December 15. A significant change in topic at any point must be re-approved by the student’s advisory committee and one member of the GPC.

Each student should submit his/her proposed topics to the Advisory Committee and at least one member of the GPC. All Advisory Committee members must agree that the proposed topic is acceptable. If a student has not received his/her entire committee’s approval and the approval of one member of the GPC by 6 weeks after the topic submission due date, the student will submit a petition for extension explaining the concerns or differences of opinion about the topic. Note that typical reasons for rejecting a topic would include insufficient chemical content involved in addressing the question, lack of feasibility, lack of sufficient distinction from the student’s dissertation research, or too much distance from the student’s background to master sufficiently in the time available.

If the student is not able to address their Advisory Committee members’ concerns successfully by 8 weeks after the topic is due, the student will be put on probation. Subsequent failure to write and adequately defend the proposal by the end of the seventh semester would be grounds for termination from the program.

Written proposal.

Like proposals submitted to a funding agency, students’ original proposals will be expected to have major sections which accomplish the following goals, with subheadings to be determined in consultation with the research advisor(s):

Proposals should be no more than 15 pages of text, including figures but excluding references, in a font no smaller than 12 point Times with 1.5 spacing. The student is free to consult with anyone, including the advisor, in developing the proposal, but the advisor’s role should be non-directive and the work should represent the student’s own creative thinking. A final version of the proposal must be distributed to Advisory Committee members at least one week before the scheduled examination date.

Pursuing guidance and feedback.

While the original proposal should be produced largely independently, students are expected to pursue sufficient feedback to complete the proposal in a timely way. The student is encouraged to seek feedback and guidance from his/her committee chair in week 6 after the topic is approved and responsible to consult his/her advisor and the GPC Co-Chairs by week 11 if progress is not on track for an oral exam within the next 3–4 weeks. A student who does not submit a draft of a written proposal to his/her advisor by week 11 will typically be placed on probation until the proposal oral exam is completed, unless a petition for extension is approved. Students are also encouraged to consult the following resources in developing and writing the proposal:

NIH’s Writing Your Application, particularly NIH peer review criteria and writing tips

Write Like a Chemist: A Guide and Resource by Marin Robinson, Fredricka Stoller, Molly Costanza-Robinson, available online at the MI Library.

Exam Committee.

The Exam Committee will normally be the student’s Advisory Committee. As a condition of approving a topic, the Graduate Program Committee member or Advisory Committee Chair may add or approve replacing a member if additional expertise is needed in a specific area.

All committee members are responsible for asking questions and should not intervene in each other’s questions, except to rephrase questions, if needed after a student’s response. Note that members of the GPC can attend to assist with questions about requirements, policy or procedure or to facilitate completion of the outcome/feedback form.

The Advisory Committee Chair is responsible for the following:

The Advisor is responsible at the exam for:

Oral defense.

The defense comprises a public seminar (approximately 30–45 minutes in length) and a private oral examination by the student’s Advisory Committee. One more member may be added by the student or the Graduate Program Committee as a condition of topic approval if more expertise in a specific area is desirable. Attendance at the examination may be by any of the Chemistry Faculty, although they will be nonparticipating spectators.

During this oral examination, the student is expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the literature and methods relevant to the proposal, including any material mentioned in the written proposal or oral presentation. While some of the questions may not have clear-cut answers, the Committee will evaluate the student’s ability to reason effectively and draw appropriately on a broad range of knowledge to do so. In addition, the student’s skill in speaking and writing about chemistry will be assessed.

Outcomes.

Passing the original proposal requirement typically leads to All-But-Dissertation status. There are five potential outcomes to the original proposal, to be determined by majority vote of the committee: high pass, pass, conditional pass, conditional pass with probation, or failure. Additional work may be required to pass as follows, and the Advisory Committee sets the specific deadline using these guidelines:

            High Pass indicates outstanding performance based on overall assessments of excellent or good and no deficiencies in the four objectives above.

            Pass indicates clearly satisfactory knowledge of both fundamental theory and research methods, along with satisfactory research progress that is on a trajectory to successful completion of the Ph.D. Students should have at least two areas of good or excellent overall performance and no deficiencies. A student may not pass without at least “pass” on writing quality.

            Conditional pass indicates that the deficiencies are deemed minor and that additional work over a short period (2–3 weeks) is expected to polish skills and help bring out the best in the student. The student’s performance may be recorded as a conditional pass and the student required either to revise the written report, give a revised presentation to the Advisory Committee, or otherwise address deficiencies in writing or in person as requested by the committee. Students must have not more than one overall deficiency and may have no failures.

            Conditional pass with probation indicates that the deficiencies are considered significant (e.g. important fundamental errors in background knowledge, major misunderstanding the literature relevant to the proposal). Re-exam by the committee and revising the written report is normally required in this situation; advisory committees may assign additional written follow-up as appropriate. The re-exam is required within 1–2 months. Students must have at least satisfactory (“pass”) performance in two of the first three areas and have failure in no more than one area (including speaking ability).

            Failure indicates grave concerns about a student’s ability to generate ideas and design research independently such that the advisor and committee question the student’s ability to complete a Ph.D. in this research area. Re-exam is normally permitted on a first-attempt and the student is on probation, with financial support from the advisor continued if there is an intervening summer. If a student fails, the committee must agree by majority on one of the following actions:

            Advisor(s) permit an oral re-exam and revision to the proposal typically within 2–3 months, upon agreement of the GPC Co-Chairs. The student must pass fully on the second attempt to remain in the Ph.D. program. If co-advisors cannot agree on the outcome during the deliberation, the matter will be referred to the Department Head and/or his designate(s) for resolution.

            Advisor(s) will terminate the student from his/her group(s). If the student is terminated from the group and cannot join a new group within a 1–2 month grace period, he/she would be terminated from the Ph.D. program. If a change of groups is possible, the student may be accepted only on a probationary basis and given up to 3–4 months to pass the original proposal while simultaneously conducting research satisfactory to the new advisor. Note that, at the discretion of the Graduate Program Committee, a new progress report may also be required for students who change major research areas.

Note that if there are suspected academic integrity issues, the person identifying the concern must gather the evidence and discuss the matter with the department head or GPC Co-Chairs according to the departmental academic integrity procedures and penalties, when warranted, will be determined separately from the outcome of the written progress report. The concern should be kept confidential and not be raised with the Advisory Committee at the exam.

In each case, the deficiencies must be communicated in writing by the Advisory Committee Chair to the student and the Graduate Program Committee, along with conditions to be satisfied in order to pass and a new deadline for re-defending the proposal, if a re-defense is required, reported in writing by the Advisory Committee Chair to the student and the Graduate Program Committee by the next day.

A student may not achieve ABD status without a satisfactory performance on the original proposal. Failure to defend an original proposal successfully by the end of the seventh semester in residence is grounds for termination from the Ph.D. program.

For students entering Fall 2014 and earlier

Each student is expected to write and defend an original research proposal during the sixth semester of residence. The purpose of the proposal is to demonstrate that the student has the ability to generate ideas for original research and to defend the methods and importance of the research.

Topics

To ensure sufficient originality and promote feasibility within the desired timeline, topics must be approved by the student's Advisory Committee and at least one member of the Graduate Program Committee who is not on the student's advisory committee to ensure the topic is distinct from the student's thesis work (see Timeline below). The topic need not exclude the general field of the student's research but should use some primary sources outside his/her specific dissertation topic. In general, topics should go at least one step beyond what has been published. In addition, to the student's knowledge, work on the same hypothesis should not have been proposed before. In order to produce work distinct from the thesis topic and to facilitate an oral exam of appropriate scope, depth and rigor, students are encouraged to propose work that could conceivably be done in their lab or group (however not restricted to the instrumentation currently available). Students who wish to pursue work relatively distant from their field of interest are advised to ensure that faculty members with relevant expertise are available to consult and/or serve as an additional examiner.

Topic Approval

Descriptions of topics (approximately 1-2 pages) are due the third week in November for students who are due to complete proposals in the spring semester. The topic descriptions must include (1) a statement of the problem to be addressed and the proposed approach, (2) several key references to show that the approach is viable, and (3) a discussion of similarities and differences compared with the student's thesis work to date and to related work reported in the literature. Written approval from the advisory committee and a member of the GPC who is not on the advisory committee is needed for final topic approval by December 15.

Each student should submit his/her proposed topics to the Advisory Committee and at least one member of the GPC at that time. If a student has not received his/her entire committee's approval and the approval of one member of the GPC by February 15, the student will need to have an Advisory Committee meeting within the next 1-2 weeks. The purpose of this meeting is to allow faculty to resolve directly any concerns or differences of opinion about the topic, or to advise a student in focusing or choosing topic if needed. Note that typical reasons for rejecting a topic would include insufficient chemical content involved in addressing the question, lack of feasibility, or lack of sufficient distinction from the student's dissertation research. The committee chair must clarify their concerns to the student and to the GPC, in writing, at the end of the meeting. If the student is not able to address their Advisory Committee members' concerns successfully by February 28, the student will be put on probation. Subsequent failure to write and adequately defend the proposal by the end of the seventh semester would be grounds for termination from the program. Note that students entering in January will have their deadlines on third week of July for topic submissions and September 15 for final topic approval. All Advisory Committee members must agree that the proposed topic is acceptable. The GPC member will be a nonvoting participant present to anticipate potential concerns. Note that the GPC meeting to review petitions for extension will usually be held the 3rd week of the spring semester.

Written proposal

Like proposals submitted to a funding agency, students' original proposals will be expected to:

  1. include an abstract,
  2. state the idea and motivating scientific hypothesis,
  3. justify the importance of the scientific problem,
  4. review the relevant theoretical and/or experimental background literature,
  5. propose the specific research, including details about the theoretical and/or experimental techniques and an estimate of capital costs if nonstandard or specialized equipment is required,
  6. predict results, including discussing possible outcomes and demonstrating that the approach is feasible by calculation or reference to previous literature, and
  7. discuss the significance of the research.

The format should follow NSF proposal guidelines. Proposals should be 15 pages of text, including figures but excluding references, in a font no smaller than 12 point Times with 1.5 spacing. The student is free to consult with anyone, including the advisor, in developing the proposal, but the advisor's role should be non-directive and the work should represent the student's own creative thinking. A final version of the proposal must be distributed to Advisory Committee members at least one week before the scheduled examination date.

Oral defense

The defense comprises a public seminar (approximately 30-45 minutes in length) and a private oral examination by the student's Advisory Committee. One more member may be added by the Graduate Program Committee if more expertise in a specific area is desirable. Attendance at the examination may be by any of the Chemistry Faculty, although they will be nonparticipating spectators. During this oral examination, the student is expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the literature and methods relevant to the proposal, including any material mentioned in the written proposal or oral presentation. While some of the questions may not have clear-cut answers, the Committee will evaluate the student's ability to reason effectively and draw appropriately on a broad range of knowledge to do so.

Pursuing guidance and feedback

While the original proposal should be produced largely independently, students are expected to pursue sufficient feedback to complete the proposal in a timely way. The student is responsible for seeking feedback and guidance from his/her committee chair in week 6 after the topic is approved and for additional follow-up with his/her advisor and the GPC Co-Chairs by week 11 if progress is not on track for an oral exam within the next 3-4 weeks. A significant change in topic at any point must be approved by the student's advisory committee and one member of the GPC. A student who does not submit a draft of a written proposal to his/her advisory by week 11 will typically be placed on probation until the proposal oral exam is completed, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Outcomes

Passing the original proposal requirement typically leads to All-But-Dissertation status. Should the research proposal be determined to be deficient, the outcome should be recorded as conditional pass, conditional pass with probation, or failure. In each case, the deficiencies must be communicated in writing by the Advisory Committee Chair to the student and the Graduate Program Committee, along with conditions to be satisfied in order to pass and a new deadline for re-defending the proposal, if a re-defense is required, reported in writing by the Advisory Committee Chair to the student and the Graduate Program Committee by the next day. There are four potential outcomes to the original proposal: pass, conditional pass, conditional pass with probation, or failure.

  1. Pass indicates clearly satisfactory knowledge, along with a satisfactory original idea, written proposal and oral exam.
  2. If the deficiencies are deemed minor, the student's performance may be recorded as a conditional pass and the student required either to revise or otherwise address deficiencies as requested by the committee, with the deficiencies, conditions for passing, and a new deadline reported in writing by the Advisory Committee Chair to the student and the Graduate Program Committee by the next day.
  3. If the deficiencies are considered significant or major (e.g. fundamental errors in central background knowledge), the student's performance should be recorded as a conditional pass with probation. Re- defending the proposal to the committee and/or revising the proposal is normally required in this situation; advisory committees may assign other written follow-up as appropriate.
  4. If the concerns are grave and call into the question the student's ability to complete the Ph.D., the outcome should be recorded as failure and the Advisory Committee may terminate the student from his/her group or, upon agreement of the advisor and GPC Co-Chairs, may allow the student to submit and defend arevised proposal. Failure in the oral exam on a first or second attempt is grounds for termination from the Ph.D. program.

Approximately 1-2 months would be the typical time allotted for revising and re-defending after a conditional pass, conditional pass with probation, or failure, with the goal of making the time as short as is reasonable for the required work. The Advisory Committee sets the specific deadline using these guidelines.

A student may not achieve ABD status without a satisfactory performance on the original proposal. Failure to defend an original proposal successfully by the end of the seventh semester in residence is grounds for termination from the Ph.D. program.