Chemical Engineering PhD Program

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree is designed to prepare students for research careers in academia and industry. The PhD degree is awarded upon successful completion of a minimum of 72 credits. A minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 must be achieved to graduate. Individual courses require a minimum of a B- for course credit.

Duration of Study

The expected length of the PhD program is 8 Semesters and 4 Summer Sessions. The PhD degree includes the following steps:

  • Securing an Academic Advisor
  • Successful completion of program coursework
  • Passing the qualifier
  • Passing the Dissertation Proposal Defense to obtain Candidacy status
  • Preparing, submitting, defending, and archiving a Doctoral Dissertation

Securing an Academic Advisor

The PhD Academic Advisor is assigned to students upon admission. Academic advisors must be full-time (primary) 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 the approval of the CE Program Chair. Project-affiliation approval must be completed prior to commencing research.

PhD Course Requirements

Students entering the PhD degree with a relevant MS degree must complete the requirements below, though additional courses may be required by the Academic Advisor. Students entering the PhD degree with an MS degree outside of chemical engineering must complete the requirements below, and all Core/mandatory courses outlined in the MS section and additional courses required by the Academic Advisor. Students must complete the requirements below:

  • 300-level courses* (6 credits)
  • Graduate Seminar (non- credit)
  • Winter Enrichment Program (non-credit)

Courses taken while pursuing the KAUST MS degree cannot be counted towards the PhD course requirements. Courses must be technical courses and cannot be substituted with Research, Internship, or Broadening Courses to fulfill degree requirements.

*Approved by PhD Advisor

Graduate Seminars (non-credit)

All students must register for 5 semesters and receive a Satisfactory grade. Students must attend a minimum of 8 Graduate Seminars to receive a Satisfactory (S) grade. The seminars can be chosen from any Graduate Seminar series offered by the PSE division. Attendance of additional seminars in other KAUST programs is highly encouraged. 

Winter Enrichment Program (non-credit)

All students must register for WE 100 and successfully complete one Winter Enrichment Program (WEP), usually taken in the first year of study. Students who completed WEP as part of their KAUST MS must take the program again.

PhD Candidacy

In addition to the coursework requirements, students must successfully complete the required PhD candidacy milestones to progress toward PhD candidate status. These milestones are as follows:

  • A subject-based qualifier
  • PhD Proposal Defense

Once students have advanced to candidacy, students are designated as PhD or Doctoral Candidates.

Qualifying Exam

Once students successfully complete the coursework requirements (typically within their first year at KAUST), they must register for the qualifier. The qualifier will be carried out twice a year. The CE qualifier will be usually carried out twice a year, i.e., during the Fall and Spring Semesters. Students must pass the qualifier by the end of their third semester. The qualifier schedule will be announced by the CE Curriculum Committee at least one month in advance. Students who wish to attend the exam must register through their GPC and be approved by the CE Curriculum Committee.

The exam includes three subjects: (i) transport phenomena, (ii) thermodynamics, and (iii) reaction engineering. Students need to pass all three subjects. In each subject, the format of the exam is based on a two-hour written exam given by the CE Faculty. The exams will be based on CE 201, CE 202 and CE 203 course contents. Students can use a non-programmable calculator but no electronic devices (such as computers or cell phones). If required, the CE Faculty will provide notes (equations etc.).

Outcomes of the qualifier 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 one chance to retake the failed subject. Students in situation (3) and (4) have one chance and are required/expected to retake all three subjects. Once students have successfully completed the qualifier, they work toward the Dissertation Proposal Defense under the supervision of the Academic Thesis Advisor. It is highly recommended that right after the successful completion of the qualifier the process of periodic review meetings begins, between the student, academic advisor, and a (small, possibly ad-hoc) Faculty Committee. 


Dissertation Proposal Defense

The Dissertation proposal defense aims to demonstrate that students have the ability and are adequately prepared to undertake PhD 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. Students must pass the Proposal Defense by the end of their fifth semester.

The Proposal includes a written proposal and an oral presentation. The written proposal should be about ten pages, including (1) background and motivation; (2) hypotheses 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 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 organized by the GPC. PhD students must submit a petition form to the 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 Proposal Defense Committee, which must be approved by the Dean, must consist of at least three members and typically includes no more than six members. The Chair, plus one additional Faculty member must be affiliated with the student's Program. The Committee is as follows:
Member Role Program Status
1 Chair Academic Advisor*
2 KAUST Faculty Within program
3 KAUST Faculty Outside program
4 Faculty or approved Research Scientist Inside or outside KAUST


  • *If the Academic Advisor is not a primary CE Faculty, one additional primary CE Faculty needs to be appointed to the Committee. 
  • This Committee should make itself available for subsequent periodic review meetings with students (see below Section PhD Evaluation Meetings). The composition of the Committee could change upon the approval of both the Academic Advisor and the Dean.

Proposal Defense Results

The 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 after the presentation. Students in the third case should retake the presentation within the allowed time frame set by the Committee, but within a maximum of 6 months. Students in the last case will be dismissed from the university. Students who successfully pass the Dissertation proposal defense are deemed PhD candidates. 

Students who successfully pass the Dissertation proposal Defense are deemed PhD Candidates. At the end of the proposal Defense, a PhD Proposal Results Form must be completed and submitted to the GPC. 


The Dissertation is the final milestone of the PhD program. Students must complete the following:

  • Petition to Defend Dissertation/ Form Dissertation Defense Committee 
  • Defend Dissertation 
  • Archive Dissertation

It is the responsibility of students to keep making steady and timely progress towards the dissertation work. Progress is overseen regularly by the Dissertation Advisor. It is recommended (not required) that students update, typically every semester, the Proposal Committee members concerning their progress. If students have serious problems with Dissertation work and the issues are not resolved by the Dissertation Advisor, students must inform the GPC and seek help from other members of the Proposal Committee and/or the Associate Dean. 

Petition to Defend Dissertation

Students must determine the Defense date with the agreement of all members of the Dissertation Defense Committee. It is the sole responsibility of students to submit the required documents in consultation with the GPC and the Dissertation Academic Advisor by the deadline published in the Academic Calendar and at least 2 months prior to the Defense date. The required documents include: (i) a list of proposed committee members (including a CV of the external examiner), (ii) a current CV of the student (including a list of publications), (iii) a current transcript, and (iv) the dissertation.

Students must defend their Dissertation and obtain the final approval of the Dissertation Defense by the end of their fourth year (8 Semesters and 4 Summer Sessions). Students must follow the Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines available on the KAUST Library webpage when they write their Dissertation.

Formation of Dissertation Defense Committee

The PhD 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 the CE program, and at least one from outside of the CE program; one should be outside of KAUST (the external Committee member). 

Member Role Program Status
1 Chair Within KAUST
2 Faculty Within program
3 Faculty Within program
4 External examiner Outside KAUST
5 Faculty Inside KAUST


Dissertation 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 PhD topic and must agree to supply a written report on the PhD Dissertation. The external examiner should attend the Dissertation defense in person; if this is not possible, remote participation via videoconference is acceptable. 

All Committee members must approve in writing (to the dean; 1-2 paragraph letter or email) two weeks prior to scheduling the PhD 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 PhD 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 PhD candidate and the examiners. After the defense, the Chair reports to the dean on the process and outcome of the defense. 

View a list of faculty and their affiliations here.

Dissertation Defense

The Dissertation Defense is a public presentation followed by a Q&A and an oral Defense. It should last three hours at most. Expectations for the document are as follows:

  • The written Dissertation is required to comply with the University formatting guidelines, which are on the library website.
  • The complete version of the Dissertation must 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 PhD graduate in the Chemical Engineering program. 

Procedure and Expectations for the PhD Dissertation Defense include:

  • The final defense is a public event that consists of an oral presentation followed by questions from the audience and the Committee. 
  • PhD candidates present in about 35-40 minutes a public presentation of the key ideas, methods, and results of the Dissertation research, and put into the context of previous work in this field. The presentation is followed by a 10-15 min Q&A session by the 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 that (i) PhD candidates clearly demonstrate deep knowledge and innovative research in the chosen field of research; (ii) candidates can answer questions well, independently, with minimal help from Committee members; (iii) candidates are able to engage in a high-quality scientific debate with the Committee and are able to truly defend the Dissertation work. 
  • The PhD 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 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. 

A Pass is achieved when the Committee agrees with no more than one dissenting vote. In the case of a Pass, the Dissertation must be archived within 2 weeks. In the instance of a Pass with conditions, the entire Committee must agree on the required conditions and if they cannot, the Dean decides. The deadline to complete the conditions is three month after the defense date, unless the committee unanimously agrees to change it. If the conditions will take more than three months, or more than one member casts a negative vote, one retake of the defense is permitted. The deadline to complete the retake is decided by the Committee with a maximum of six months after the Defense date, unless the Committee unanimously agrees to reduce it. Students who have exceeded their duration of study must apply for an extension as per the Time Limit and Extension Policy. All conditions must be met by the end of the extension period which prevails over the date set by the Committee. In the instance of a Fail without retake, the decision of the Committee must be unanimous. Students who fail without retake or who fail the retake will be dismissed from the University.

The outcome of the Dissertation Defense must be recorded by submitting the Dissertation Defense Evaluation Form within 2 days after the Defense to the Office of the Registrar.

Dissertation Document

Students must follow the Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines available from the KAUST Library when they write their Dissertation.

Dissertation Archiving

Students must archive the Dissertation in the KAUST Library two weeks from the final result form. This must not exceed the deadline published in the Academic Calendar. The required form is available from the Office of the Registrar.