Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree (PhD) is granted in recognition of the candidate’s discovery of new information and knowledge in a specific field. Written and oral examinations, preparation of the doctoral dissertation, and publishing manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals are the principal measures of achievement. The program requires that students maintain a B or better average. 

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Course Requirements

Course Requirements

Students typically complete  roughly 50 credits to develop competency in their field of interest.

Required Core Courses for the PhD degree (10 credits)
  • LAAS 5050 Integrated Topics in Land & Atmospheric Science (3 credits)
  • LAAS 5051 Research in Land & Atmospheric Science (2 credits)
  • *LAAS 8128 Land and Atmospheric Science Seminar (1.5 credits)
  • SOIL 8123 Research Ethics (0.5 credits)
  • GRAD 8101 Teaching in Higher Education (3 credits)

*Returning graduate students who have already completed LAAS 8128 have the option of re-taking it, or of taking an alternative graduate course or directed study (with DGS approval) focused on science communication and related topics.

Additional Requirements:

  • LAAS 8888: Thesis Credits: PhD (24 credits required)
  • A minimum of 6 credits in the major area. LAAS or departmental courses, determined suitable for their particular area of study in consultation with their advisor/committee.
  • A minimum of 10 credits in the minor or supporting area(s). If applying for a specific Minor, coursework must be approved by Minor advisor.

Current PhD students who already hold an MS degree from the LAAS program are expected to complete all PhD program requirements. They are responsible for taking an additional 6 credits of course work including Research in Land and Atmospheric Science (2.0 credits) if it wasn’t taken during the MS. In addition, they are responsible for taking Seminar (1.5 credits), Ethics (0.5 credits), Teaching (3 credits), and an additional 24 credits of Thesis Research above the requirements for an MS.

Students who have already received credit for SOIL 8123 Research Ethics or GRAD 8101 Teaching in Higher Ed will be required to take additional courses such as Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR training) and Supervised Teaching/Teaching Experience (LAAS 8005/8550). Equivalent substitutions will be considered by the program.

Appropriate graduate level courses taken at another university may be considered for transfer to a University of Minnesota program.

Doctoral Degree Timeline

Doctoral Degree Timeline

Timeline PhD steps
Year 1
  • Begin coursework
  • Identify dissertation topic
  • Formulate committee
Year 2
  • File degree program
  • Written preliminary exam
  • Complete coursework
Year 3
  • Schedule oral preliminary exam
  • Submit oral exam report
  • Submit thesis proposal form
  • Continue thesis research 
Year 4
  • File any necessary petitions
  • Request graduation packet
  • Complete thesis research
  • Write thesis
  • Submit application for degree
  • Submit thesis reviewers report form
  • Schedule thesis defense
  • Submit thesis document
  • Complete exit interview 

PhD Candidacy

PhD Candidacy

To progress to PhD candidacy, students must pass a written and oral preliminary examination. The exam is an opportunity for the student to demonstrate knowledge of core concepts in land and atmospheric science and within the student's subdiscipline, and to showcase the skills of creativity and analytical ability necessary for completing a PhD in LAAS.

The student is responsible for completing all paperwork related to the exam, for both the Graduate School and LAAS.

Both components of the exam are normally completed by the end of the student's second year; exact timing can be coordinated between the student, the faculty mentor, and the examination committee.

See more details of the exam procedure below. If you have questions about the exam, please contact Kari Jarcho, the LAAS Graduate Program Coordinator.

Written Preliminary Examination

Written Preliminary Examination

The written portion of the preliminary exam is a hypothesis-driven research proposal that does the following:

  • outlines a series of experimental approaches that will test the validity of the hypothesis;
  • includes an original contribution by the student; 
  • establishes the scientific context of the proposed research with respect to prior work and the current state of knowledge in the field.
  • demonstrates knowledge of core information and concepts in their field within land and atmospheric science.

The topic should be approved in advance by the examination committee.


Here are some guidelines for the format of the written research proposal:

  • Be written in the style of an NSF or USDA research grant proposal
  • Contain the following:
    • An abstract
    • A brief review of the pertinent literature
    • A detailed description of experiments designed to test the hypothesis
    • A discussion and interpretation of the anticipated results
    • A concise statement of the significance of the project
    • A list of references
  • Be between five to eight pages (single spaced; 12 point font; one inch margins) in length, not including reference or figures

The written proposal should be distributed to all members of the exam committee. Each member of the exam committee, with the exception of the minor field examiner, will prepare a written critique. Examiners will be asked to comment specifically on the creativity, originality and validity of the proposal and of the experimental approaches proposed to test the postulated hypothesis as well as on the quality of the presentation. Within two weeks of receiving the proposal, the exam committee will take an “pass or fail” vote on the acceptability of the research proposal and the readiness of the student to proceed to the oral examination phase.

If the proposal is deemed acceptable by the exam committee, the oral examination is then scheduled for a date not later than six weeks after the exam committee vote. If the proposal is deemed unacceptable by the exam committee, the student will have one opportunity to revise their proposal. The revised proposal should be submitted no more than three months after the evaluation of the initial proposal is returned, and may be submitted earlier depending on the extent of revision required. The exam committee will then vote on the revised proposal within two weeks of its receipt. If the revised proposal is found acceptable by the exam committee, the oral exam shall be scheduled for a date not later than six weeks after the exam committee vote. 

In the case of an irreconcilable disagreement among the exam committee members regarding the written preliminary examination, it shall be the responsibility of the DGS to determine a solution.

Oral Preliminary Examination

Oral Preliminary Examination

The oral preliminary examination must be scheduled within 6 weeks of the exam committee’s acceptance of the written proposal.

The oral preliminary examination will be used to 1) test the student’s ability to present and defend the written proposal (Part A) (no more than 45 minutes) and 2) to test the breadth of the student’s knowledge of fundamental concepts in Land and Atmospheric Science and their specific sub-discipline (90-135 minutes).

  • At the beginning of the exam, the student will give a short oral presentation introducing the written proposal to the committee. Preliminary data are not required. This presentation can be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Committee members will not be allowed to ask questions during the student’s presentation.
  • Following the presentation, committee members will ask questions about the written proposal or topics related to the written proposal. The total time for the presentation and questions from the committee on the proposal will be 45 minutes.
  • For the remainder of the exam, the committee will test the student on breadth of knowledge of fundamental concepts in land and atmospheric sciences.

The outcome of the examination, with all committee members present and voting, is recorded in one of three ways: pass, pass with reservations, or fail. The voting proportions necessary for these decisions are as follows: if the committee consists of four members, a favorable verdict for passing consists of either a unanimous vote or a vote of 3-1; if the committee consists of five members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 4-1 is needed; if the committee consists of six members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 5-1 or 4-2 is needed; and if there are seven members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 6-1 or 5-2 is needed. Candidates who do not earn committee votes in these proportions fail the examination. If, to achieve the minimum number of votes to reach a verdict of pass, any vote of pass with reservations is included, then the outcome will be recorded as a pass with reservations. A vote to pass the student with reservations still constitutes a passing vote.

A pass with reservations is appropriate when the student demonstrates overall competence, but is found to be deficient in some specific area. In this case, the student is informed immediately, but the committee is permitted one week in which to convey its reservations to the student in writing, informing the student of the steps that must be taken to remove them. A copy of this letter must be sent to the Graduate School and should accompany the signed Oral Examination Report Form. The committee may require that the student take a specific course to address the deficiency, take a second oral examination confined to that subtopic, or write a scientific paper on the topic. Any additional requirements are to be completed within 6 weeks of the original oral examination. When the student has satisfied the committee's reservations, a second letter informing the student and the Graduate School that the reservations have been removed and that the student may proceed toward the degree is also required. Both letters should be written by the committee chair. In the case of a fail vote, the student may, at the discretion of the examining committee, have one opportunity to repeat the oral examination and must obtain either a pass or a pass with reservations to remain in the program. The re-examination must be conducted by the original preliminary oral examining committee, and in no case may the re-examination take place before 10 weeks have passed after the first oral examination. No more than one re-examination is allowed.

Doctoral Examination Committees

Doctoral Examination Committees

The doctoral preliminary and final oral examination committees must consist of at least four members, including the advisor(s). All members of the committees and the candidate must participate.

  • At least three members (including the advisor) must be from your major field.
  • At least one member must represent a field outside the major.
  • If you have declared a minor, at least one member must represent the minor field.
  • Members cannot satisfy the requirement with respect to more than one field.

The final oral examination committee is not required to include the same members who served on the prelim oral committee.

Thesis Reviewers for final oral examination:

  • A minimum of two major field reviewers and one minor/outside reviewer are required. In the case of multiple minors, there must be a reviewer for each minor.  
  • Advisor(s) must serve as reviewers.
  • Every designated reviewer on the doctoral dissertation reviewer’s report must certify that the dissertation is ready for defense before the doctoral final oral examination may take place.


  • Must represent the major on the preliminary oral and final oral committees.
  • May serve as chair for the preliminary oral examination.
  • The chair of the doctoral final oral examination committee may not be the candidate’s advisor.

Co-advisor (if any):

  • May represent the major or the minor/outside field on the preliminary oral and final oral committees.
  • May serve as chair for the preliminary oral examination.
  • The chair of the doctoral final oral examination committee may not be the candidate’s co-advisor.

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