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Doctoral Degree

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The goal of the PhD program is to create a culture of scholarship and high impact research that produces articulate researchers who are called upon first to hold leadership positions in society and academia.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree is the highest degree awarded by the Mechanical Engineering Department and is recommended for students who are interested in leadership careers in academia (e.g. as a faculty member of a university), industry, or government.


Ph.D. Research at the University of Michigan:

Research involves active, student-directed inquiry into an engineering topic. A student’s research experience forms the core of the PhD program. There are two goals for conducting research: 1) to learn the general skills to conduct independent research and 2) to develop new knowledge in mechanical engineering.

Conducting research requires combining knowledge gained in the classroom with the ability to read the scientific literature, identify critical knowledge gaps, structure complex problems, formulate and test hypotheses, analyze and interpret data, and present and discuss technical results. Engineering research also requires significant experimental, computational, and analytical skills. A student learns these core skills as she pursues her research topic.

Many of these skills cannot be learned in the classroom setting, but instead must be developed in the laboratory, library, and conference room as the student actively interacts with faulty, other students, and researchers around the world. Independent, non-classroom based learning and problem solving is a core aspect of the PhD degree. Upon completion of his dissertation the student should be an international expert in a technical area. Dissemination of new knowledge at technical conferences and in peer-reviewed archival publications is an important part of research.


Milestones to the Ph.D.:

There are three student profiles in the ME PhD program: (1) Direct PhD students that are admitted without a relevant Master's degree, (2) students who enter the PhD program with a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering or a relevant field, and (3) students who enter the PhD program with a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering or a relevant field from the University of Michigan. The differences in the three tracks toward the PhD vary at the coursework level. Please be mindful of the requirements listed below. A student should always discuss academic plans with his research advisor.

The major ME program milestones all PhD students complete:

  1. Research and Coursework
  2. Qualifying Examination (RCC & RFE)
  3. Advancement to Candidacy
  4. Dissertation Proposal Examination
  5. Thesis Dissertation (written) and Defense (oral)

In addition to the academic component of the PhD, students are encouraged to participate in professional development. The Rackham Graduate School has partnered with divisions around campus to develop a central location to promote workshops, training sessions, forums, and talks relevant to graduate students. It is recommended that students visit the PLAN Your Professional and Academic Development website on a regular basis to stay informed about the activities on campus.



The timeline for completing these milestones and other program requirements and expectations.


Finding a Research Advisor:

To select a research advisor, the student should talk to faculty members in potential areas of research interest. If the research topic is of an interdisciplinary nature, the student can choose to have two research advisors as long as at least one advisor is from Mechanical Engineering. Recommendations and tips for finding a research advisor:

    • Talk to senior graduate students about their advisors. Share your interests and ask them for suggestions about whom you should meet.
    • Familiarize yourself with various research groups.
    • Make a list of faculty to contact who are involved in research areas that interest you. A list of faculty by research areas can be found here.
    • Read about faculty research in journals, conference proceedings, or on their website.
    • Visit their labs. A list of labs can be found here.
    • Schedule meetings with faculty members. Typically this is done via email which includes an introduction and requests time to meet with them. Be knowledgeable about their work in order to have an active discussion about their previous and ongoing research.
    • Sometimes working in their lab for academic reasons only (not as a Graduate Student Research Assistant (GSRA) ) will provide you with the opportunity to prove your researching capabilities and may lead to a GSRA with that faculty.
    • If possible, enroll in classes being taught by faculty whose work interests you.
    • Do well in classes relevant to your research interest and get to know the faculty.
    • Consider doing a small project supported intellectually by a faculty member. ME590 research credits are taken.
    • If you are unsuccessful with securing a research advisor, it is recommended that you meet with the Graduate Program Chair immediately to discuss the situation.


Research Requirements:

  • Students should have at least one research advisor in the ME department.
  • Students should take at least 6 credits of research in the first three terms of the PhD program.
  • Students should enroll via Wolverine Access.
    • Anyone who does not already have a Master's Degree (i.e. a Direct PhD student):
      • if on the Master's research track, you should take 6 credits of ME590 research, followed by ME990.
      • if on the Master's thesis track, you should take 6 credits of ME590 research, followed by 3 credits of ME695 (thesis work).
      • if on the Master's coursework track, you should take 6 credits of ME590, followed by ME990.
    • PhD students entering with a relevant Master's degree who are pre-candidates should take all ME990 research credits.
    • Once a student reaches Candidacy, ME995 research credits are taken.
  • Students should complete 8 hours of responsible conduct of research and scholarship (RCRS) training by the end of their 3rd term of enrollment. 


Coursework Requirements:

For Direct PhD students (i.e. students admitted without a relevant Master’s degree):

    • It is necessary to complete all of the academic requirements for the Master’s degree which includes 30 credits. Please visit the Master's Degree page for specific degree requirements. This type of Master's degree is referred to as an "embedded" master's, a master's degree awarded "on-the-way" to the PhD. In addition to their MSE degree, direct PhD students must complete:
    • At least 6 credits of letter-graded (including the grade S - Satisfactory) graduate coursework registered as a Rackham student while in residence on the Ann Arbor campus. Courses elected as visit (audit) do not meet this requirement, nor do ME590, ME695, ME990 and ME995.

For PhD students entering with a relevant Master's Degree:

    • At least 18 credits of letter-graded (including the grade S - Satisfactory) graduate coursework registered as a Rackham student while in residence on the Ann Arbor campus. Courses elected as visit (audit) do not meet this requirement, nor do ME590, ME695, ME990, and ME995.
    • Of the 18 letter-graded credits, 4 credits must be cognates. The cognate requirement may be satisfied by having completed a UM Master’s degree which included a cognate component.
    • A PhD student entering with a relevant Master's degree that decides to pursue an additional master's degree at the University of Michigan may apply the 18 credits required for the PhD to the master's degree in another department. The student's advisor should approve of the second degree.

For PhD students entering with a Master's Degree from the University of Michigan (i.e. change of program students):

    • At least 6 credits of letter-graded (including the grade S- Satisfactory) graduate coursework registered as a Rackham student while in residence on the Ann Arbor campus. Courses elected as visit (audit) do not meet this requirement, nor do ME590, ME695, ME990, and ME995.

For students who completed the SUGS program:

    • At least 6 credits of letter-graded (including the grade S- Satisfactory) graduate coursework registered as a Rackham student while in residence on the Ann Arbor campus. Courses elected as visit (audit) do not meet this requirement, nor do ME590, ME695, ME990, and ME995.
    • Additional credits of letter-graded graduate coursework equal to or greater than the number of credits double counted in the SUGS program.


 Qualifying Examinations

The PhD Qualifying Examination (QE) consists of two components: the Research Core Curriculum (RCC) (formerly GCC) and the Research Fundamentals Exam (RFE).


Research Core Curriculum (RCC) Exam

The goal of the RCC is to ensure proficiency in technical topics both within and outside of the student's primary research area.

All PhD students must take four Research Core Curriculum (RCC) courses in the first two semesters. Typically students will enroll in two Research Core Curriculum courses in the first term however some exceptions exist where students will only enroll in one or will opt to take three. During the second term of study, the remaining Research Core Curriculum courses are taken. If the student has changed from the MSE to the PhD program, in which case the student follows the change-of-program instructions provided further below.

The RCC consists of four 500+ level graduate courses that satisfy the following course distribution requirements:

    • At most, three may be in the student’s research area
    • At least one must be outside of the student’s research area
    • At most, one may be from a department other than Mechanical Engineering. Note: Multiple cross-listed courses in the RCC plan will prompt additional consideration by the Graduate Program Committee (GPC)

In consultation with their research advisor a student should develop and submit a RCC plan. If a student does not have a research advisor, the student should submit a preliminary RCC plan by the Friday before the first day of classes. The ME Graduate Chair will then work with the student (if necessary) to arrive at a satisfactory plan. An RCC Plan is comprised of the following components:

    • A list of the four courses on which the RCC will be based (a list of all ME graduate-level courses scheduled for the Fall and Winter terms is located here).
    • A short (3-4) sentence statement that specifies how the courses fit into the student's current or intended research plan (this can be general if the student does not yet have a research advisor).
    • The approval of the student’s research advisor and/or the ME Graduate Chair.

The GPC will review and (if appropriate) approve RCC course plans based on their accordance with the course distribution requirements specified above and their academic rigor. The GPC will monitor the historical record of GPAs for courses selected on the RCC, and may ask a student to revise the student's RCC plan if the plan is judged to be insufficiently rigorous.

RCC plans may need to change after the start of the semester or between the first and second semester of the RCC. Typical circumstances that may necessitate a revision include course cancellations and a change in the student's research area and/or research advisor. Revised RCC plans require GPC approval. Requests for modifications to RCC plans should be submitted via the RCC form prior to the deadlines listed below in order to give the GPC sufficient time to review the request before the add/drop deadline.

Fall 2017September 25, 2017
Winter 2018January 22, 2018

GPC approval is required for dropping a course after the above dates and will only be given in rare circumstances. Changes in research area and/or research advisor are not sufficient reasons for dropping an RCC course.

Evaluation of the RCC (for those who entered the PhD program after Winter 2014): The grades students receive in RCC courses will be averaged to determine an RCC GPA. The GPA is based on Rackham's new 4.0 scale where A+ = 4.3 , A = 4.0, A- = 3.7, and B+ = 3.3. The RCC GPA will be used to determine the outcome of the RCC and will follow these guidelines:

RCC GPARCC OutcomeRFE Stipulation
≥ 3.7Pass Unconditionally--
≥ 3.5 - < 3.7Conditional PassStrong RFE Pass*
< 3.5Fails Unconditionally**--

*Note: A student must demonstrate proficiency by performing very well on the RFE (as judged by the RFE examiners) to pass the PhD qualifying examination. The student has two tries on the RFE to perform very well.

**Note: The student may petition the GPC to take an additional course in the third semester if that course grade could increase the overall GPA (of all five courses) to at least a 3.5 (or a 6.5 via the old Rackham 9.0 scale).

Petitions for a deviation from the above guidelines due to rare and extenuating circumstances can be made to the GPC. There are no course retakes in the RCC.


Change-of-Program Students. The GPC will evaluate the prior courses taken by a change-of-program (i.e. MSE to PhD) student to determine which (if any) courses may be eligible to include in an RCC plan, thus reducing the total number of RCC courses required to be taken after the student enters the PhD program. In some cases, a student's previously completed coursework may satisfy the RCC entirely; thus, the student would not be required to take any additional coursework.


Research Fundamentals Exam (RFE)

The RFE is an oral examination to test the student's potential to conduct independent research at the PhD level along with her written and oral communication skills. There are four primary objectives:

    1. Assess the depth of knowledge in the area of research specialization and the ability to relate this to research, 
    2. Assess the ability of the student to propose an interesting and relevant problem for PhD research
    3. Test ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving skills, and 
    4. Assess written and oral communication skills and the ability to respond to questions.

Students who have a research advisor and have successfully completed the RCC coursework or who have successfully petitioned are eligible to apply for the RFE. Students must have a 3.5 GPA or higher to take the RFE. If a student does not have this GPA, he is required to submit a Petition form to the graduate chair for consideration to take the RFE.

PhD students who successfully complete the RCC coursework must take the RFE the following semester. Change of Program students must take the RFE within one year. It is not mandatory for Change of Program students to take the RFE in their first semester as a PhD student.

Exams are held in the first two full weeks of November (fall) and the last full two weeks of March (winter). The RFE is an oral exam lasting for 45 minutes which is structured with a 15 minute presentation followed by 30 minutes of question and answer with two faculty members.

The RFE is organized by research subject areas as listed below:

Dynamics & VibrationsSolid Mechanics
Fluid MechanicsThermodynamics and Combustion
Heat Transfer 

Registration. Eligible students must register their intent to take the RFE to the Academic Services Office. The online registration form is announced to eligible students via email each Fall and Winter semester. In addition, students are responsible for submitting an electronic document with the following elements:

    1. Bio-sketch using NSF fellowship application format
    2. Research abstract describing research: the purpose of the research being examined, key related research, research hypotheses, research methodology, and results to date. The abstract should be formatted with 11 point font, single spacing, one inch margins, and be a maximum of 2 pages. These two pages include citations and bibliography.
    3. A list of RCC courses with discussion of how the RCC courses match the RFE topic and future research plans (less than 200 words).

Examiners. Two faculty are selected by the Graduate Program Committee to act as examiners for each RFE thematic area. A student's research advisor cannot be an examiner. The research advisor is not allowed to be present during the RFE.

Grading. Students are evaluated on a scale ranging from excellent to poor in each of the following areas:

    1. Synthesis of course material in research problem context.
    2. Input to research project.
    3. Research conduct and methodology.
    4. Research outcomes.
    5. Communication.

A sample gradesheet with more information about grading criteria can be found here, and a sample RFE presentation can be found here.

All areas are considered when determining the student's examination outcome (pass/fail). The two examiners will produce a written report to the Academic Services Office indicating if the student has passed or failed the RFE with specific reasons for their decision.

Communication of Results. The result of the RFE is communicated by the Academic Services Office to the student by way of individual email. Successfully completing the RFE does not mean a student passes the RCC.

Retaking the RFE. A student who fails the RFE must petition the Graduate Program Committee to repeat. Petitions submitted by the student and signed by the student's advisor will be automatically approved. Only one repeat is permitted and must be taken no later than the next offering of the RFE after the original RFE. If the student does not receive support from the current advisor, the student may choose a new advisor who agrees to intellectually and financially support the student in the program for the retake of the RFE and for the duration of the student's studies.


Advancement to Candidacy

Advancing to Candidacy is a prestigious milestone on the way to the PhD. Rackham stipulates that from the time of initial enrollment, Candidacy should be achieved within 3 years. There is reduced tuition associated with candidacy as well as registration constraints. 

Semester deadlines for completing the requirements to advance to candidacy are found here.

Requirements to advance to candidacy:

    • Pass the Qualifying Examination (RCC and RFE)
    • Completed at least 18 credits of letter-graded (including the grade S - Satisfactory) graduate coursework registered as a Rackham student while in residence on the Ann Arbor campus. Credits elected as visit (audit) do not meet this requirement, nor do any ME990 or ME995 credits.
    • Of the 18 credits, 4 must be cognates.
    • Completed RCRS training requirement.  Workshop Schedule can be found here.

Upon successful completion of the RFE, students will automatically be advanced to candidacy if they have met all of the requirements listed above.  If a student does not wish to advance to candidacy, they should note that on the RFE registration form or notify the Graduate Coordinator in advance ( 

Rackham's Free Course Policy:

"Ph.D. candidates register in the fall and winter terms for 995, “Dissertation/candidate,” which consists of 8 credit hours for a full term or 4 credit hours for a half term. No part-time enrollment is possible. A student who defends in the spring/summer term must register for 8 credit hours of 995 for the spring/summer full term.

Candidates who register for a course should seek prior approval from their faculty advisors. Candidates may elect either one course per term or more than one course for a total of no more than four credits without paying additional tuition beyond candidacy tuition. Courses may be taken for credit or as a visit (audit). A candidate who does not elect a course during a term of 995 enrollment may, in the next term, either register for courses for no more than 8 credits or register for no more than two courses that total more than 8 credits. An additional course may not be taken in anticipation of taking none in a future term of 995 enrollment. Candidates who choose to take more courses than those for which they are eligible will be assessed additional tuition per credit hour." Original Source.


GSI Oral English Test (OET) Requirements for International PhD Students

GSI Oral English Test (OET) is used to review the English proficiency of international students.  Passing the exam is a requirement for international PhD students and is necessary to ensure satisfactory progress while simultaneously confirming the ability of that student to be an effective GSI. All international students must pass the OET by the end of their 3rd academic term after admission (e.g., by the end of F12 for students who entered in F11) in order to be considered making satisfactory progress toward their degree. International students whose undergraduate education was taught exclusively in English may be exempt from the OET. Additional exemption criteria can be found here.

  • Upon successful completion of this requirement, the student will then be eligible to hold a GSI position (see the English Language Proficiency Requirements section).
  • If the student does not hold a GSI position within the next 18 months after passing the exam, the student must check in with the English Language Institute (ELI) to extend or renew their exam results. In order to continue making satisfactory progress, a PhD student must maintain valid exam results throughout their academic tenure. Please contact the English Language Institute to schedule a renewal interview.
  • The ELI will evaluate the student's English skills and determine if the student is qualified to extend the exam results or is required to retake the exam. It is the student's responsibility to contact the ELI to maintain valid exam results.


Dissertation Proposal Exam (DPE)

The DPE is an oral exam that provides an early assessment of the feasibility of a student's proposed research topic for his/her dissertation. In particular, the exam is intended to assess the suitability of the topic and the student's academic background for carrying out the proposed research. The exam is administered by a student's Dissertation Committee. It is strongly recommended that this is taken within one year of RFE completion. 

The Dissertation Committee

Students will assemble their dissertation committee prior to taking the DPE. The Dissertation Committee oversees the student's research outcomes. Through the dissertation proposal exam, committee meetings, and the thesis defense, the committee tracks the student’s progress and provides feedback and guidance. At each of these meetings the student presents his research and responds to the committee members’ questions. The purpose of the committee is to provide an outside perspective on the student’s research, helping the student to structure his/her work and identify opportunities. The committee is responsible for approving the student’s research plan via the DPE and signing off on the final dissertation and defense.

Dissertation Committee Requirements: 

A committee must have a minimum of 4 members:

    • The chair or one of the co-chairs should be a member of the faculty in the Mechanical Engineering department.
    • Three members must be from a Rackham Doctoral Program and be considered a member of "The Graduate Faculty", this generally means a Professor at the University of Michigan.
    • Two members must be from the Mechanical Engineering department.
    • One member must have a 50% appointment in a Rackham doctoral program, other than the Mechanical Engineering department (except Interdisciplinary programs) - otherwise known as your cognate member.

The committee may include a University faculty member who is not a member of "The Graduate Faculty", a University staff member, or a qualified individual outside the University who to provide expertise in the candidate's discipline. Any non faculty member must be approved by the Graduate Program.  These special members require additional documentation to be submitted.  The student should submit these documents to the Graduate Coordinator ( prior to the DPE.

The Rackham Graduate School has also developed a Quick Reference Chart for Eligibility to Serve on Dissertation Committees.

Once the committee is formed, the DPE is scheduled as the first meeting of this committee. The student will prepare a written thesis proposal for the committee to review and give an oral presentation to the committee. The format of the written thesis proposal as well as the timing of the exam is at the discretion of the committee chair.

Upon completion of the DPE, the committee chair prepares a memorandum addressed to the ME Graduate Program Chair. The memo should state the outcome of the DPE and list the dissertation committee members. (Example memo here) The signed memo is submitted to the Graduate Coordinator ( This information will be used to formally process the student's dissertation committee with the Rackham Graduate School.

After the Graduate Coordinator has submitted the dissertation committee to Rackham Graduate School:

    • The student and committee chair will receive automatically generated emails to approve of the committee submission.  
    • Rackham will then approve of the dissertation committee ensuring that all requirements are met.
    • Once approved by Rackham, the student and the Graduate Coordinator will receive confirmation that it has been approved.  At this time the committee information will be visible in the student's record in Wolverine Access.


Dissertation (Written) and Defense (Oral)

The official guidelines for the dissertation and defense are established by the Rackham Graduate School. In addition, the Rackham Graduate School publishes annual deadlines by which a candidate must defend a dissertation and complete all degree requirements as set forth by Rackham. Doctoral students are expected to complete the degree within 5 years of achieving candidacy, but no more than 7 years from first enrollment.

Dissertation (Written). The dissertation is the most important aspect of the students PhD program experience, since it documents the original contributions made by the candidate as a result of independent research. In advance of graduation, the dissertation must be approved by all the members of the student's dissertation committee. The student will prepare a rough draft of the dissertation and provide it for all the committee members for their comments before preparing the final draft. Students must provide the rough draft to the committee at least 10 days before the Defense.

Defense (Oral). The defense examination will be given after the thesis has been formally completed. This examination will be a defense of the doctoral thesis and a test of the candidate's knowledge in the specialized field of research. The format of the examination will be a public seminar presented by the candidate, with an open question period, followed by a private examination by the Dissertation Committee.

Thesis Dissertation and Defense Timeline (abbreviated):

Note: A more detailed timeline can be found here.

After the dissertation committee gives preliminary approval to the final draft of the dissertation, it must be formatted to meet the standards of Rackham Academic Records and Dissertations (OARD) found here. Support for thesis formatting is available from the Knowledge Navigation Center in the Graduate Library, which offers tutorials, template assistance, guides, and resources for dissertation preparation.

Before the oral defense, students are required to set up a pre-defense meeting with the Rackham Graduate School. In this meeting, students will be instructed on the process and be given Dissertation Evaluation Forms. When the final draft is distributed to the committee members together with Dissertation Evaluation Forms, a defense (oral) is scheduled for a date approximately two weeks later. Dissertation Evaluation Forms must be completed by all Dissertation Committee members at least three working days prior to the oral defense. The defense is public, and a notice is posted on the Rackham Graduate School website, and the Academic Services Office will send an email announcement to the ME students and faculty. After the oral defense, the student or committee chair should submit the Final Oral Examination Report within 48 hours of the defense. The student should then attend the post-defence meeting with the Rackham Graduate School. 

Rackham also provides a host of useful resources to plan and execute your dissertation activities. The following list should help:

As of August 1, 2012, The Rackham Graduate School is introducing some changes to procedures and policies that will make it easier for doctoral students to submit dissertations and for faculty to submit associated forms. Highlights include:

  1. Deadlines for completing requirements so that the degree may beconferred in the same term have been extended by about a month. This will allow more students who finish in the second half of the term to take part in Commencement.
  2. All students will submit dissertations electronically to the University Library without being charged a fee; bound paper copies (which required a fee) will no longer be accepted. Your program will no longer automatically receive a bound copy of the dissertation. Students are also strongly encouraged, but not required, to submit their dissertation electronically and without charge to ProQuest/UMI.
  3. Students may choose to place an embargo on access to their dissertation by restricting its release for one year to the U-M community only. The UM-only embargo may be extended for a total of up to three years with the approval of the dissertation chair and the Graduate School.
  4. Under limited circumstances, students may request a full embargo on all access to the dissertation for one year.
  5. See Rackham's FAQ for further details, or the Rackham Disseration Handbook (above).