Doctoral Study Infomation
Doctoral studies emphasize independent research under the guidance of a research advisor in a field related to Chemical and Biological Engineering, culminating in the writing of a thesis document and its defense in a presentation to the department and the thesis committee. Financial support typically comes from fellowships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, or a combination.
Applying to the Doctoral Program
For applications and instructions for applying to our Doctoral program, please visit the Graduate Admissions Office.
Key aspects of the application include: academic performance as an undergraduate Chemical Engineering student, GRE scores, and at least two letters of recommendation. Other aspects, such as undergraduate research or MS degree or industrial experience are viewed favorably, but are not required. Most of our PhD students have an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering; however, occasionally students with degrees in related fields (e.g., materials science, biomedical engineering, chemistry, polymer science/engineering, biotechnology) are accepted into our PhD program. Initial screening of completed applications by the departmental graduate admissions committee begins in early January each year, and continues until roughly late March. The deadline for acceptance of our offers is usually April 15th each year. We pay reasonable travel expenses to US‐based students who receive our offer to visit us to learn more about the program and the geographical area to help them make decision on acceptance of our offer.
Doctoral students in the incoming (first year) class do not have a pre‐assigned advisor. Advisor assignment takes place in the first semester and is designed to most effectively match student interests and talents with the research needs of faculty to work on externally funded projects. In early September, all departmental (and joint) faculty members who have a funded opening in their group make presentations to students. This activity typically lasts two evenings (with a break for Pizza), and is a great opportunity to get to know faculty and staff in the department and learn about the numerous exciting research activities in the department. Students are given roughly six weeks to meet with Professors to learn about the details of various research projects to help make an informed decision about their preference for a research advisor. Students then fill out a form indicating their top three choices. Students must meet with at least six different faculty members before filling out the form. Faculty members also indicate their preferences for students, and a multi‐dimensional optimization (!) is performed to make advisor assignment to best match student and faculty preferences. Typically, most students get one of their top choices in the first round. It is not uncommon for one or two students to be asked to revisit their preferences to make the advisor assignment possible.
Advisor selection is an important decision. It is helpful to learn as much as possible about research projects (e.g., by reading papers, by visiting laboratories, talking to people), about the culture of a given research group, about opportunities to learn new things, and about the match between your talents and interests and the demands of the projects.
Note that the research culture at Rensselaer is collaborative and multidisciplinary. Jointly advised projects (with two research advisors) are offered frequently.
Finally, it is not helpful to excessively worry about whether you will get a job if you work in a particular research group. Four to five years is a long time. What is hot today may not be five years down the road. Research endeavor is an inherently challenging and frequently frustrating activity. If you love what you do, you will enjoy the time, achieve a lot, and discover new things; all the qualities an employer would want in the people they recruit!
Following is a typical coursework expectation for the first year.
Fall semester: First year students are expected to take five courses. These include three mandatory courses:
- Thermodynamics (CHME‐6570: Chemical and Phase Equilibria)
- Mathematics (CHME:6610: Mathematical Methods in Chemical Engineering)
- Chemical Engineering Seminar (CHME‐6900)
and two additional elective courses.
Spring semester: Students are expected to take two mandatory courses in the Spring semester.
- Advanced fluid mechanics (CHME‐6510: Advanced Fluid Mechanics)
- Chemical Engineering Seminar (CHME‐6900)
and one to two elective courses. Selection of which elective courses to take is made after consulting with a research advisor.
The department offers a number of interesting elective courses in subjects including Statistical Mechanics, Single Molecule Phenomena, Biosurfaces, Colloids and Interface Science, Synthetic Biology, Protein Aggregation. We also offer a “professional development course for graduate students”, which is highly recommended. This course focuses on fundamental skills needed by scientists and engineers to become successful researchers (e.g., data analysis, writing of grants, papers, and reports, presentation skills, and ethical aspects of doing science). Also, other departments at Rensselaer offer a variety of interesting courses that may be relevant to your research topic.
Doctoral students are required by the Rensselaer Graduate School to maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0. Students not meeting this requirement will be dismissed from the program.
Qualifying exam is conducted typically one week before the start of the Spring semester (~second week of January each year). The examination tests student’s competency in four subject areas in core chemical engineering: (1) Thermodynamics, (2) Fluid Mechanics, (3) Heat and Mass Transfer, and (4) Chemical Kinetics. Results of the qualifier exam are announced to students within two to three weeks of the examination. Passing the qualifying examination, maintaining a GPA of 3.0, and finding a research advisor represent three important steps in becoming a PhD candidate at Rensselaer in the first year.
Students in their first year are almost never assigned to be a teaching assistant. Their primary goal is to concentrate on coursework, pass the qualifying exam, and find an advisor. Most doctoral students, however, serve as a teaching assistant at least once during their time at Rensselaer. Teaching assistants assist the Professor teaching a given course by grading homework and exams, by conducting help sessions, or helping with the laboratory, etc. A TA training course (offered by the Graduate Office – see the TA Handbook) and communications test is required to be completed before a student can be assigned a TA. Teaching assistants serve an important role in the education of our students. For TAs who excel in their duties, the department offers two TA awards each year – Philip A. Groll TA Awards.
Once the first year is completed successfully, the main focus of doctoral study is independent research under the guidance of the research advisor. There are four further steps toward successful completion of PhD: (1) Research, (2) Departmental presentation, (3) Candidacy examination, (4) Thesis defense, as described below.
Research is the main focus of doctoral study. You will work on a challenging (open ended) problem and make original contribution(s) to an area related to Chemical and Biological Engineering discipline. Research is the most fun and exciting part of doctoral study.
Doctoral students who have been at Rensselaer between 3.5 to 4.5 years are expected to make a 20‐25 min presentation to the department during our regular Wednesday morning seminar time (9:30 to 10:30 AM). Two students will present on a specific Wednesday. If you are in the 3rd or 4th year, please contact the seminar coordinators to make sure you are on schedule to present.
The candidacy exam can be taken any time after the first year (and after having done sufficient research). The decision about an appropriate time is usually made in consultation with the research advisor who serves as the chair of the Ph.D. committee. Detailed rule on the composition of the thesis committee are give here. Briefly, the committee must include at least four members. The committee is chaired by the thesis advisor, includes at least two other faculty member from the department, and at least one “outside” member. A joint faculty in Chemical Engineering will likely not count as an “outside” member. The candidacy exam is an oral exam conducted by the members of your Ph.D. committee serving as the examiners. Prior to taking the exam, you should have fulfilled the following requirements:
- Plan of Study approved by the Graduate School
- GPA of at least 3.0
- Doctoral Committee approved by the Graduate School
You should prepare a talk lasting 30‐45 minutes without questions. The committee members may ask questions throughout the exam and afterwards, so the exam may last two hours. You also need to prepare a written candidacy proposal, which includes details of the research you have performed, your proposed research, and what you will achieve before graduation. (See also Rensselaer Writing Manual for Dissertations and Theses.) Be sure to check with your advisor and consult other committee members from the start and along the way to see what they want from you.
Please check the thesis preparation checklist on graduate school web‐page, as well as the thesis writing manual and thesis preparation help using LaTex or MS‐WORD. When your thesis document is written, you must defend it in a public exam conducted by your committee. You will need to:
- Schedule the defense for a time when all committee members can be present.
- Reserve a room.
- Fill out a Record of Thesis/Project Examination form. After your defense, have your committee members sign the form.
- Have your committee members sign your thesis cover pages (after successful defense of your thesis).