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Interdisciplinary Materials Science Program

Ph.D. Exams

Preliminary Exam    |    Qualiying Exam    |    Public Oral Defense

Preliminary Exam

To proceed with study for the M.S. or Ph.D. degree in the IMS program, a student must demonstrate proficiency in the fundamentals of materials science , proficiency in the corresponding fields involved in the candidate's dissertation research and demonstrate the potential for conducting high-quality original research by fulfilling the following two requirements.

  1. Students must earn a grade of B or better in each of the four core courses taken. Students who fail to receive at least a B in any of the core courses will be required to repeat each course in which a B was not earned. If a student fails to receive a B (or better) in a course that is being repeated, that student will be terminated from the program. For purposes of repeating coursework, any course enrollment maintained by the student past the University-stated add/drop date for that semester will be considered an attempt. Exemptions for exceptional circumstances (e.g. unforeseen illness) will be considered by the IMS Director on a case by case basis.
  2. Students must pass an exam administered by the Advisory Committee that consists of a) submission of an area paper to the Advisory Committee at least one week prior to the oral component, b) oral presentation in a program seminar format of the work contained in the paper, and c) defense of the work presented and examination. The format and extent of the area paper are at the discretion of the advisors, but the expectation is that the paper will describe original research efforts conducted so far and should be written as if the work were to be submitted for publication in a refereed journal or as a conference proceeding. The presentation should be between 15-20 minutes in length, provide an introductory slide highlighting what coursework the student has completed and timeline for completion of any core classes not taken to date. The presentation will be based on the research included in the area paper, but the examination is not limited to those fields of study or technology. Students should be prepared to address questions related to a) the core course work already completed, b) any other materials-related course work already completed, c) work conducted during research rotations, or d) research conducted in the student’s research group. The examination can encompass areas both directly and indirectly related to the paper.

The test should be administered after the student’s second academic semester and before the last day of classes of their third academic semester. Failure to sit for the exam before the end of their third semester will result in an automatic “U” for that semester. Extensions beyond the end of the third semester will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but in all cases must be completed prior to the start of the fourth semester. For students who have transferred from another graduate institution, scheduling of the exam will be established on an individual basis, but the test must be taken within 12 months of beginning studies at Vanderbilt. If a student fails any component of the exam, the Advisory Committee can grant the student a second chance at their discretion. If a second chance is granted, the second test, which will have the same format, must be retaken within 3 months. A second failure will result in termination from the Ph.D. program.

Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Examination will be given in accordance with the regulations of the Graduate School and administered by the Ph.D. committee. The exam will consist of a written dissertation proposal, an oral presentation of the proposal and defense of the proposal. The oral segment may include an examination of concepts both directly and indirectly related to the dissertation proposal. Students should complete the Qualifying Examination after 24 graduate hours and within 42 months of beginning graduate study in the IMS. The examination can be taken a maximum of two times. For students with any other prior graduate work, the timeline for Ph.D. qualifying exam can be established on an individual basis.

In the oral qualifying examination, the student should

  • demonstrate competency with fundamentals in the areas that required remedial action as a result of the preliminary examination
  • demonstrate in-depth knowledge of subject matter related to the dissertation project
  • present a written proposal containing a reasonable research plan and some demonstration of original work in the area of the dissertation to the Ph.D. committee two weeks prior to the examination, inclusive of a proposed timeline for completion and defense of the dissertation research.

The formal request for appointment to the qualifying examination committee must be received by the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the date of the examination. Forms for this request are available in the program office.

Final Public Oral Examination

The final examination is a public oral defense of the student’s thesis presented before the Ph.D. committee and the public in accordance with the Graduate School requirements. The student must pass the oral and the dissertation must be approved by the committee. These two requirements do not have to be concurrent. The student can take the oral examination a maximum of two times. The dissertation is considered approved once it has been signed by all committee members.

In general, the final oral examination will be conducted in two parts. The first consists of a public presentation of the thesis followed by questions from the gallery. The second will be in the form of a question period attended by the Ph.D. committee and invited faculty only, which may include one faculty member external to Vanderbilt who is directly participating in the student's dissertation research. As indicated previously, any external members must be approved by the advisors and director prior to setting a date for the oral exam. While participation of faculty is preferred to take place in person, virtual attendance can be acceptable under some conditions. Approval for such conditions will be made on a case-by-case basis by the IMS director or if deemed necessary by the University leadership. It is anticipated that the five-member committee chosen for the Oral examination will be used for the final defense. If changes are made after the Oral exam, approval of all changes must be obtained from the IMS Director along with a brief statement concerning why the change(s) was (were) made.

The student shall submit, no later than two weeks before the end of the final exam period of the term in which the student expects to graduate, two approved copies of the thesis to the Graduate School office, one to the program office and one to each of the thesis advisors. Approval requires at least five signatures on the thesis title page of members of the Ph.D. committee. The candidate shall also furnish an abstract of the thesis, not to exceed 250 words in length, to the Graduate School office. Both hard and soft copies of the documents may be accepted depending on graduate school guidance and advisor preference. Signatures may be electronic.