Chemical Engineering Ph.D. Program

The Ph.D. degree includes the following major steps (typical deadlines are specified below):

  1. Securing an academic advisor
  2. Successful completion of program coursework
  3. Passing the qualifying examination
  4. Passing the dissertation proposal defense to obtain candidacy status
  5. Preparing, submitting and successfully defending a doctoral dissertation

KAUST requires a minimum residence time for Ph.D. graduates of 3.5 years for students entering with a bachelor’s degree, and 2.5 years for students entering with a master’s degree. Correspondingly, the required coursework may change, depending on whether or not students enter the Ph.D. with a bachelor’s or master’s in the chosen field of study at KAUST.

Designation of Ph.D. Academic Advisor

The academic advisor is assigned to students upon admission. Academic advisors must be fulltime program-affiliated assistant, associate or full professors at KAUST. Students may also select an advisor from another program at KAUST. This advisor can only become project-affiliated for the specific dissertation project with program level approval. Project-affiliation approval must be completed prior to commencing research.

Ph.D. Course Requirements

The required coursework varies for students entering the Ph.D. Degree with a bachelor’s degree or a relevant master’s degree. Students holding a bachelor’s degree must complete all program core/mandatory courses and elective courses outlined in the master’s degree section and are also required to complete the Ph.D. courses below. Students entering with a bachelor’s degree may also qualify to earn a master’s degree by satisfying the master’s degree requirements; however, it is student’s responsibility to declare their intentions to graduate with a master’s.

Students entering the Ph.D. degree with a relevant master’s degree must complete the requirements below, though additional courses may be required by the academic advisor. Students entering the Ph.D. degree with a master’s degree outside of chemical engineering must complete the requirements below, and all program core/mandatory courses outlined in the master’s degree section, as well as additional courses required by the academic advisor. Attendance to all scheduled CE seminars is mandatory.

Ph.D. Courses

  • Two 300-level courses in CE
  • Graduate seminar 398 (non-credit) – all students are required to register and receive a satisfactory grade for every semester the program requires they attend
  • Winter Enrichment Program – students are required to satisfactorily complete at least one full Winter Enrichment Program (WEP) as part of the degree requirements. Students who completed WEP requirements while earning a master’s degree are not required to enroll in a full WEP for a second time in the Ph.D. degree.

Students entering the program with an M.Sc. from KAUST may transfer unused coursework toward the Ph.D. program requirements, subject to program level approval. Students transferring from another university’s Ph.D. program may receive some dissertation research and coursework credit (not more than six credits) on a case-by-case basis for related work performed at the original Institution upon approval by the dean. However, such students must still satisfy the qualifying exam and dissertation proposal defense requirements at KAUST.

Ph.D. Candidacy

In addition to the coursework requirements, students must successfully complete the following required Ph.D. qualification milestones to progress towards Ph.D. candidacy status. These milestones consist of the subject-based qualifying examination and the Ph.D. dissertation proposal defense.

Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

Once students successfully complete the coursework requirements (typically within their first Ph.D.-year at KAUST), they can register for the qualifying exam (Q.E.).

The exam will be carried out twice a year. Typically, during the first week of the Fall semester, and the other at the beginning during the first week of the spring semester.

Ph.D. students with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree out of the CE program are recommended to take the Q.E. after one full academic year of studies, and must accomplish all three Q.E. exams at the end of their second academic year. Ph.D. students with a master’s degree in the CE program can take the Q.E. exam at any time when it is available, and must accomplish all three Q.E. exams at the end of the second academic year.

The Q.E. exam will be announced by the CE curriculum committee two months in advance. Students who wish to attend the exam need to register for the exam through their GPC and must be approved by the CE curriculum committee.

CE Q.E. exam includes three subjects: transport phenomena, thermodynamics, and reaction engineering. Students need to pass all three subjects.

In each subject, the format of the Q.E. exam is based on a two-hour written exam given by the CE faculty. Students are allowed to bring one A4 sized sheet of personal notes and a non-programmable calculator, but no electronic devices (such as computers or cell phones).

Outcomes of the Q.E. include (1) pass of all three subjects; (2) pass of two subjects; (3) fail of two subjects; (4) fail of all three subjects. Students in situation (2) have on chance to retake the failed subject. Students in situation (3) and (4) have one chance and are required/expected to retake all three subjects. All retakes must be completed before the end of the second year of studies.

Once students have successfully completed the qualifying exam, they work towards the dissertation proposal defense under the supervision of the academic advisor. It is highly recommended that right after the successful completion of the Q.E., the process of periodic review meetings begins, between student, academic advisor and a (small, possibly adhoc) faculty committee.

Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal Defense

The dissertation proposal defense is the second part of the qualification milestones that must be completed to become a Ph.D. candidate. Ph.D. students are required to complete the dissertation proposal defense within one year after passing the qualifying exam.

The purpose of the dissertation proposal defense is to demonstrate that students have the ability and are adequately prepared to undertake Ph.D.- level research in the proposed area. This preparation includes necessary knowledge of the chosen subject, a review of the literature and preparatory theory or experiment as applicable.

The proposal includes a written proposal and an oral presentation. The written proposal should be about ten pages, which include (1) background and motivation; (2) aims and objectives; (3) research plan and methodology; (4) significance and potential impact; and (5) time schedule. The duration of the oral presentation should be about 30-40 minutes followed by a 30 minutes Q&A session. During the Q&A session, the committee can ask questions related to the proposed work, but may also be related to general knowledge related to the field of studies.

The proposal defense is administered by GPC. Ph.D. students must submit a petition form to GPC that includes the list of faculties who will serve on the committee to take the dissertation proposal defense at the end of the semester preceding when they will defend their proposals. The petition must be approved by the dean.

The committee for the Ph.D. dissertation proposal defense comprises 1) the academic advisor(s) who will also serve as chair of the committee, one faculty member with primary affiliation to the program, one faculty member outside the program, and optionally an additional member from inside KAUST (faculty or a research scientist approved by the dean).

Member Role Program Status
1 Chair Academic advisor(s)
2 Faculty Within program
3 Faculty Outside program
4 Approved research scientist Inside KAUST

This committee should also make itself available for subsequent periodic review meetings with students (see below Section Ph.D. Evaluation Meetings). The composition of the committee could change upon the approval of both the academic advisor and the dean.

Outcomes of the proposal defense include (1) pass; (2) conditional pass with changes; (3) retake; (4) fail. Students in the second case should submit the revised proposal within one month from the presentation. Students in the third case should retake the presentation within the allowed time frame set by the committee. Students in the last case will be dismissed from the university. Student who successfully pass the dissertation proposal defense are deemed Ph.D. candidates.

Ph.D. Dissertation Defense

To graduate, the Ph.D. candidate has to form a Ph.D. dissertation defense committee, finalize the Ph.D. dissertation and successfully defend the Ph.D. dissertation. It is the responsibility of students to inform the dissertation defense committee on the defense arrangements and scheduling, to submit the complete dissertation at least six weeks prior to the defense date to the committee, and to meet all university or program deadlines for submitting graduation forms to the GPC.

Timing of Activities Prior to Scheduling the Defense

In the semester prior to the semester in which students plan to defend, the Ph.D. candidate should submit the dissertation defense petition to the GPC, along with (i) the list of proposed committee members, including the external examiner, (ii) a pre-proposal evaluation signed by at least three faculty members (two from students’ program) that outline if the dissertation research satisfies KAUST requirements for a Ph.D. dissertation, (iii) a current CV of the student, (iv) a current transcript, (v) a list of publications, and (vi) a final draft of the Ph.D. dissertation. The petition indicates the planned date of the defense, and needs to be submitted at the end of the semester prior to the semester in which the defense is planned. The petition is subject to the dean’s approval. 

Composition and Duties of the Dissertation Committee

The Ph.D. dissertation defense committee must be approved by the dean. The dissertation committee comprises at least four members with qualified positions and background; at least two should be faculty members with primary affiliation within CE program, and at least one from outside of CE program; one should be outside of KAUST (the external committee member).

Member Role Program Status
1 Chair Within program
2 Faculty Within program
3 Faculty Outside program
4 External examiner Outside KAUST
5 Approved research scientist Inside KAUST
6 Additional faculty Inside or outside KAUST

Academic advisors and students choose the external examiner, and supply supporting information (CV, publication record) to the dean for approval. The external committee member must be a leader in the field of the Ph.D. topic, and must agree to supply a written report on the Ph.D. dissertation. The external examiner should attend the dissertation defense in person; if this is not possible, a remote participation via video-conference is acceptable.

All committee members must approve in writing (to the dean; 1-2 paragraph letter or email) two weeks prior to scheduling the Ph.D. defense that the dissertation is of sufficient quality to be defended.

The chair of the dissertation committee can be any committee member suggested by the academic advisor and approved by the dean, but not the academic advisor(s). The chair of the dissertation committee manages the dissertation defense, introduces the Ph.D. candidate, the committee, and explains the rules for the dissertation defense. The chair guides through the Q&A session, defines the order in which the examiners ask questions, ensures equal time allocation for each examiner to ask questions, and is responsible for a fair, transparent, non-hostile, defense and scientific debate between the Ph.D. candidate and the examiners. After the defense, the chair reports to the dean on the process and outcome of the defense.

Expectations on the Ph.D. Dissertation

The written dissertation is required to comply with the University formatting guidelines, which are on the library website.

  • The complete version of the dissertation has to be sent to the dissertation defense committee at least six weeks prior to the targeted defense date.
  • The PhD. dissertation must be written in fluent high-quality English using proper language, style, and appropriate methods of scientific reasoning.
  • Parts of the dissertation research should have been presented at international conferences.
  • The dissertation research must lead to high-quality scientific publications in international peer-reviewed journals, ideally leading journals of the field. At least two such journal publications are expected for each Ph.D. graduate in the Chemical Engineering program.

Procedure and Expectations for the Ph.D. Dissertation Defense

The Ph.D. degree requires the passing of the defense and acceptance of the dissertation. The final defense is a public event that consists of an oral presentation followed by questions from the audience and the committee.

  • Ph.D. candidates present in about 35-40 minutes public presentation the key ideas, methods and results of the dissertation research, and puts into the context of previous work in this field. The presentation is followed by a 10-15 min Q&A session by general audience, after which the general audience leaves the room.
  • The closed-doors Q&A session is taken with the dissertation committee. During this Q&A session, the dissertation committee members take turns in asking their questions, moderated by the dissertation committee chair who ensures that all members have about the same amount of time for questions, and that all aspects of the dissertation defense occur in a fair, collegial, respectful and transparent manner.
  • For a successful defense, it is expected (i) that Ph.D. candidates clearly demonstrate deep knowledge and innovative research in the chosen field of research; (ii) that candidates can answer questions well, independently, with minimal help from committee members; (iii) that candidates are able to engage in a high-quality scientific debate with the committee and are able to truly defend the dissertation work.
  • The Ph.D. dissertation defense concludes if the committee chair calls it closed, after having asked all committee members if they had any further questions or comments. The chair then asks the candidate to leave the room. The committee then decides on the outcome of the defense, which the chair communicates to the candidate.
  • The outcome (pass, pass with conditions, retake, fail) is documented in the appropriate form, including a reasonably detailed description of the conditions (if any), which is then communicated to the candidate. The report of the committee chair (to be submitted to the dean within three business days) contains a summary of the defense procedure and further details on the conditions (if any) on dissertation improvements.

Outcome of the Ph.D. Dissertation Defense

  • Pass: minor modifications on the dissertation, as requested by committee, within one week.
  • Pass with conditions: extended modifications on the dissertation, as requested by committee, within four weeks.
  • Retake: additional research and major modifications on dissertation, as requested by committee, within six months.
  • Fail: dismissal from Ph.D. program according to the regulations of Graduate Affairs and the Registrar’s Office.