Mechanical 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 (earned) 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

Students are expected to complete the PhD program in 8 semesters and 4 summer sessions. A maximum of three extensions (two semesters and one summer session) can be approved by the  PSE Dean with proper justification. The PhD program includes the following steps: 

  • Securing a Dissertation Advisor*
  • Successfully completing the program coursework 
  • Passing the Qualifying Exam 
  • Passing the Dissertation Proposal Defense to obtain PhD candidacy status 
  • Preparing, submitting, and defending the dissertation

*Students currently enrolled in a Master’s program at KAUST and wishing to continue with PhD studies must obtain the consent of a Faculty member to supervise their PhD work. Only after securing a Dissertation Advisor, can they submit an application to the University Admissions Office.

PhD Course Requirements

Students entering the PhD Program must complete the requirements below:

  • Two 300-level ME courses* (6 credits)
  • One 200/300 level course from the AMCS or STAT program (3 credits)
  • One Elective Course- a 200/300 level from any program at KAUST 
  • Graduate seminar (non-credit)
  • Winter Enrichment Program (non-credit) 

The Academic Advisor may request the completion of additional courses. 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. 

* The following alternative courses may be used to fulfill the ME 300-level requirement; AMCS 329, AMCS 370, ECE 245, ECE 372, ErSE 304, MSE 318

Graduate Seminars (non-credit)

Students must register for 5 ME Graduate Seminar Courses (ME 398) and receive a satisfactory (S) grade in all. 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.

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 Courses Certificate

On the way to graduation, students often avoid the opportunity to dive deeper into subjects they are interested in. It may be because they have already completed their mandatory course requirement and their thesis work is demanding. The lack of recognition of their courses beyond the PhD course requirements goes unnoticed and is challenging to share with future employers.

The ME Program offers many courses on the cutting edge of research in many areas, and it encourages students to deepen their understanding of multiple areas of mechanical engineering. Therefore, the ME Program has developed certification tracks that students can pursue in addition to their degree requirements. Once a student completes the requirements of a specific track, the student will be awarded an official certificate signed by the chair of the program. Students who complete the certifications are better prepared to discuss, research, review, and teach in those areas. Students must take 4 courses in a track, of which at least 3 must be taken for credit and no more than 1 as an official audit. Students must maintain a B average with no one course scoring less than a B- within the certification. The seven tracks and the courses included therein are given here.  

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

PhD students must pass an oral comprehensive subject examination (also known as the qualifier). The qualifier will be given twice a year during a single time window. This window is approximately a week in length: the first week of Spring and Fall semesters (exact times will be confirmed by the program). PhD students must pass the qualifier by the end of their third semester. Students should, therefore, plan to make their first attempt within the first year of their PhD studies. 


The exam will comprise of one oral examination in mathematics and two oral examinations in any of the following areas: (a) fluid mechanics, (b) solid mechanics, (c) control and dynamics, and (d) heat transfer and thermodynamics. The exam in each area will include common questions for all students who have selected that area. In addition, the examination will extend beyond the common questions to test students’ ability  to answer questions on their feet. Students may petition the ME program to replace one of the specified areas (other than mathematics) with an area that is not on the list and is not a subspecialty of one of the listed areas. Examples of "other areas" that might be appropriate are biomechanics and scientific computation, to mention only two. 

Multiple Attempts 

At the first attempt, students must take the exams in all three subjects simultaneously. In the event a student fails the qualifying examination in one or more subjects, then at most one additional attempt (in the failed subject) will be allowed at the discretion of the ME Program. 


All examinations will be closed book and closed notes. The exam is forty-five minutes in length, preceded by a thirty-minute period during which students will be allowed to review the written questions for that exam. The thirty-minute period is for students to collect their thoughts. Students may write notes during this time to bring them to the exam. The examiners will probe more deeply into the issues raised in the questions. At least one month prior to the examination, students must notify the GPC in writing of their choice of the two subject areas (other than mathematics) for the exam.

Subject Contents 

While the exam in each subject area need not be limited to the content of any course, the nominal level of preparation for the exam is suggested by the courses appearing opposite each area listed as per the below table:

Subject Area:
Mathematics AMCS 201  AMCS 202
Fluid Mechanics ME 200A ME 200B
Solid Mechanics ME 211A ME 212
Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer
ME 241 ME 242
Control and Dynamics
ME 221A ME 221B

Subject area descriptions which detail the topics from which exam questions may be drawn are available on the ME website. 

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 literature review, and preparatory theory or experimentation.

The Dissertation Proposal Defense is the second part of the qualification milestones that must be completed to become a PhD candidate. PhD students must successfully defend the Dissertation proposal by the end of their fifth Semester after commencing the PhD program.

The exam consists of two items: 

  • Students must submit a 10-page proposal document (note: the number of pages is a recommendation and not a strict requirement) to the three members of the committee at least 10 days before the examination. The proposal should describe the proposed research topic, relevant literature survey and any preliminary results or laboratory preparation. 
  • Students must make a 30-minute oral presentation of the research proposal, followed by questions from the committee consistent with the scope of the examination. The examination is expected to last approximately one hour. The exam is not open to the public. 

It is not necessary to have results, a working computer program, a functioning piece of equipment or fully analyzed data. It is also not necessary to present a definitive dissertation outline. The student must include a tentative timeline for the completion of their PhD which should be consistent with the overall PhD duration. Students should schedule the examination at a time acceptable to the committee and within five semesters of their PhD studies.  

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

Within program

2 KAUST Faculty Within program
3 KAUST Faculty Outside program
4 Research Scientist Inside or outside KAUST


  • Members 1-3 are required; member 4 is optional 
  • Academic Advisor may serve as chair 
  •  Faculty members holding secondary affiliation with the ME Program may serve as member 1 or 2 but not as member 3 
  • Adjunct Professors and Professor Emeriti may retain their roles on current committees but may not serve as chair on any new committees 
  • Professors of Practice and Research Professors may serve as members 2 or 3 depending upon their affiliation with the ME program; they may also serve as co-advisor 

Proposal Defense Results

The examination committee can make one of four recommendations. These must be recorded on the PhD Proposal Evaluation form. 

  1. Pass. This recommendation is made if the student satisfies the criterion that forms the scope of this examination. 
  2. Pass subject to remedial action. This recommendation is made if the student satisfies the criterion that forms the scope of this examination except for an isolated deficiency. No further examination is required. The examination committee will propose remedial action, specify criteria to demonstrate that students have taken this action, and a timeline to complete this action. Examples include but are not limited to (a) taking an additional course or (b) conducting an additional literature survey in a specified area.
  3. Fail with an option for re-examination. This recommendation is made if the student fails to satisfy the criterion that forms the scope of this examination, but the committee judges that the student may be able to do so in the future with additional study. The examination committee will propose when the re-examination is offered; this date cannot be later than six months from the first examination and must be before the end of the fifth Semester 
  4. Fail. This recommendation is made if the student fails to satisfy the criterion that form the scope of this examination and if the examination committee judges the deficiencies are so serious that the student is unlikely to be able to do so in a re-examination. 

The chair of the examination committee will notify the GPC of the recommendation. The Associate Dean will make the final decision. If the decision of the committee is 

  1. Pass, then the student will be accepted to PhD candidacy on fulfillment of the remaining requirements. 
  2. Pass subject to remedial action, then the student will be accepted to candidacy on fulfillment of remaining requirements and the remedial action. 
  3. Fail with an option for re-examination. Then the committee will specify the timeline for the re-examination; this cannot be later than six months from the time of the first examination. Further, the associate dean will suggest a faculty member (chair of the examination committee, academic advisor or another faculty member, as appropriate) to provide feedback to the student regarding the examination and to counsel the student regarding the re-examination. The result of any re-examination can only be a Pass or Fail (with no further re-examination). 
  4. Fail, students will not be allowed to continue in the PhD program. 

After passing the subject- and research-components of the qualifying exam, students become PhD candidates. It is the responsibility of students to keep making steady and timely progress towards the goals set forth for PhD dissertation work. Progress is overseen regularly by the academic advisor. It is recommended (not required) that students update, typically every semester, the PhD Proposal Committee members concerning their progress. If students have serious problems with dissertation work and the issues are not resolved by the academic advisor, students must inform the GPSA and seek help from other members of the Proposal Committee and/or the Associate Dean. 


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

Dissertation Document

Students must follow the Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines available from the KAUST Library when they write their Dissertation. The PhD dissertation must contain original results demonstrating the student’s scholarly activities during the course of the PhD. The student must be fully aware of what is considered plagiarism and must avoid all forms of plagiarism. 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. The ME program requires that at least one such journal publication has appeared in print (or accepted for publication) before scheduling the PhD dissertation defense. In the introductory part of the dissertation, the student must list all scientific publications coming out of their work. For each publication, the student must indicate the contributions made by the key co-authors. 

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 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, which must be approved by the Dean, must consist of at least four members and typically includes no more than six members. At least three of the required members must be KAUST Faculty, and one must be an external examiner who is external to KAUST. The Chair, plus one additional Faculty member must be affiliated with the student's Program. The external examiner is not required to attend the Defense but must write a report on the Dissertation and may attend the Dissertation Defense at the discretion of the Program.

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


  • Members 1-4 are required; members 5 and 6 are optional 
  • PhD advisor cannot serve as the chair 
  • Faculty members holding secondary affiliation with the ME Program may serve as member 1 or 2, but not as member 3  
  • Adjunct professors and professors emeriti may retain their roles on current committees but may not serve as chair on any new committees 
  • Professors of practice and research professors may serve as members 2, 3 or 6 depending upon their affiliation with the student’s program; they may also serve as co-advisors 
  • Visiting professors may serve as member 6, but not as the external examiner. Co-supervisors can be considered one of the above members, provided they come under the categories listed 

View a list of faculty and their affiliations here.

External Examiner 

The Academic Advisor is responsible for nominating a well-qualified, objective, and experienced individual who is not a Faculty at KAUST. The specific qualifications of the external examiner are: 

  • Holds a PhD 
  • Has previous experience with supervision and examination of doctoral students 
  • Has an established reputation in the area of the dissertation research and is able to judge whether a dissertation is acceptable 
  • Should be of either Full or Associate Professor rank at a university or have comparable expertise and standing if not at a university. Assistant Professors may be considered in exceptional circumstances and must be approved by the Associate Dean.  
  • Attachment of a bio/web link for the Associate Dean to approve 

Proposed external examiners must not be closely associated with PhD candidates as a research collaborator, co-author, previous supervisor, through family ties, or the like. External examiners must evaluate the PhD dissertation and inform the chair if the thesis is not ready for defense. In such a case, the defense will be canceled and rescheduled at a later date. The external examiner must submit their report to the GPC at least two weeks before the scheduled defense. The coordinator will pass this report on to the chair of the dissertation defense committee. The chair may share this report with other committee members. The attendance of the external examiner at the oral defense is encouraged but not required. If the external examiner cannot be present, video conferencing is required. If the external examiner chooses to attend the PhD defense in KAUST, then travel and lodging costs will be taken care of by KAUST. 

Chair of the Dissertation Defense Committee 

The Chair of the Dissertation Defense Committee must be from the ME program but not the Academic Advisor. The responsibilities of the Chair are: 

  • Introduce the PhD candidate and the committee members 
  • Outline the process followed for the Dissertation Defense 
  • Moderate the Q&A session with the general audience during the open session 
  • Organize the Q&A session with the committee members during the closed session 
  • Take votes and recommendations of the committee members for the final decision 
  • Write a short report (1 page) about the PhD dissertation and defense for review by the Associate Dean within three days of the defense 

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. 

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 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.