MSE Graduate Program Policy (Current)

Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This is the CURRENT graduate policy which applies to students who enter the program on or after Fall 2022.

Graduate Students Matriculation Requirements and Financial Aid Policy

MSE graduate students should take courses and perform research in compliance with the following:

  1. PhD-intended students, and well as MS and MEng students contemplating doctoral studies, must pass the Doctoral Preliminary Examination to be declared a PhD candidate.
  2. Financial support (e.g., fellowship, graduate research/teaching assistantships) may be available, but will be subject to the following requirements:
    1. PhD students will not receive any departmental financial support beyond 60 months after starting their graduate studies at RPI (approved leave of absences excepted). This will include support obtained while pursuing an MS or MEng degree at Rensselaer.
    2. MS students will not receive any departmental financial support beyond 24 months after starting their graduate studies at RPI (approved leave of absences excepted).
    3. Only PhD candidates (ones who pass the Doctoral Preliminary Examination) are eligible for departmental financial support beyond 24 months (approved leave of absences excepted).
    4. For the PhD students that entered the program in the Spring semester, the first Spring, and the following Summer semesters are not counted towards the time limits listed above.
    5. The Department Head may evaluate, adjudicate and/or authorize deviations from these policies under extreme, unusual, special, or mitigating circumstances.

Course and Research Credit Requirements

PhD degree (minimum 72 credit hours)

  1. Course credits (minimum 29 credits)
    1. Three 4-credit MTLE core graduate courses: Advanced Structure and Bonding, Advanced Thermodynamics, and Advanced Kinetics.
    2. For each of these advanced core courses, it is expected that the students have had prior undergraduate-level preparation on these topics. Students who lack such exposure should consult their advisor (or the graduate program director, if an advisor has not yet been chosen) to get themselves up to speed, e.g., through self-study and/or auditing/taking the undergraduate courses in their first semester.
    3. At least nine (9) additional credits must be from 6000-level MTLE (MSE department) coursework, of which at least three credits must be coursework on materials characterization or computational materials science.
    4. The remaining course credits must be from 6000-level courses offered by the School of Engineering and/or the School of Science.
    5. The course selections must be approved by the student’s academic advisor prior to the enrollment in the courses.
  2. Research credits
    1. All PhD-intended students should register for PhD dissertation credits.
    2. The minimum number of research credits is determined by complementing course credits to 72 total credits required for PhD degree.

MS and MEng degrees (minimum 30 credits)

  1.  Course credits
    1. At least three of the five following 4-credit MSE graduate courses, namely, Advanced Thermodynamics, Advanced Mechanical Properties, and Advanced Structure and Bonding, Advanced Electronic Properties and Advanced Kinetics.
    2. At least 6 additional course credits must be from 6000-level MSE department courses.
    3. The remaining course credits must be from 6000-level courses offered by the School of Engineering and/or the School of Science.
    4. The course selections must be approved by the student’s academic advisor and graduate curriculum coordinator prior to the enrollment in the courses.
  2. Research/Capstone credits
    1. MS degree: at least 6 MS dissertation credits. No more than 9 research credits will count towards fulfillment of the MS thesis requirements.
    2. MEng degree: A one-semester 3- or 4-credit capstone independent study project.
  3. The above requirements will apply to students pursuing co-terminal MS or MEng degrees.

M.S. Thesis

MS degree students should form a Thesis Advisory Committee consisting of three faculty members including the thesis advisor, who will chair the committee. Upon approval by the thesis advisor and the MSE Department Head, the Thesis Advisory Committee will be appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School. The Committee's responsibilities include ensuring the suitability of the thesis topic and scope, and certifying that the quality of the work meets MS degree standards. While the advisor will provide primary guidance, and supervise the research work, the student is encouraged to regularly consult and communicate with the Committee members for advice and feedback. Before graduating, the student is required to deliver a public presentation of the thesis work. This can be a talk at a conference or a workshop, or a seminar at RPI.

Doctoral Qualifying Examination (DQE)

The purpose of the DQE is to formally evaluate the preparedness of the student for pursuing doctoral studies. This examination will test the student’s ability, approach, and command to apply knowledge in topic areas represented by the three MTLE graduate core courses. Only upon passing this examination will the student be referred to as a PhD degree candidate. The following regulations apply to all students intending to pursue doctoral studies.

  1. Students intending to pursue doctoral studies will take their DQE during the first scheduled examination period in late May after their second semester. Postponement is generally not permitted, and may entail immediate termination of financial aid.
  2. A minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 is required to be able to take the preliminary examination. If this requirement is not met, financial aid may be terminated.
  3. The DQE will consist of a 2-hour oral examination, administered collectively by a 3-member faculty committee appointed by the Department Head. The Department Head will appoint the examination committee chair.
  4. The committee will collectively test the student’s ability, approach, and command, to apply their knowledge in the three graduate core course areas (Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Structure).
  5. The students are also expected to exhibit an introductory undergraduate-level knowledge on all topics in materials science and engineering, broadly defined (e.g., ENGR-1600 or equivalent).
  6. The questions in the examination:
    1. may not be necessarily be a repetition of the questions covered in the core courses;
    2. can be open-ended, and may require the student to identify, draw upon, and apply knowledge of multiple concepts across the three courses and the broader field of materials; and
    3. will test the depth of understanding of key concepts in materials science and engineering.
  7. Based upon the overall performance on the entire examination, the committee will assign either a Pass or Fail.
  8. With a Pass, the student advances to the status of Doctoral candidate with no further action.
  9. If the student does not pass the examination:
    1. The committee chair will provide a written synopsis of the student’s performance in the examination to the thesis adviser (or graduate program director, if an advisor has not been chosen) for review, consultation, and determination of whether remedial actions could address weaknesses, where applicable.
    2. The committee may, at its discretion, require the student to retake the exam at a specified time.
    3. The committee may, at its discretion, prescribe a remedial action plan with a clearly specified timeline and performance requirement, the fulfillment of which would earn a Pass without retaking the examination.
    4. The action plan will be communicated to the student and the advisor in writing no later than two weeks after the first attempt. The timeline for completing the remedial actions cannot exceed one year from the first exam attempt.
  10. If a student who fails the first time does not pass (either by a retake or remedial action) within one year from the first attempt, the student will exit the doctoral program and financial aid may be terminated thereafter.
  11. Extreme, unusual and mitigating circumstances may be brought to the attention of the Department Head for consideration and evaluation.

The Candidacy Examination

The Candidacy Examination is meant to provide advice on topics related to thesis scope, plan of activities, timeline, quality, and timely completion. The PhD candidate should propose a Thesis Advisory Committee chaired by the advisor. Upon approval by the thesis advisor and the Department Head, the Thesis Advisory Committee will be appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School. This Committee's responsibility is to ensure that the thesis topic is suitable for doctoral work and is sufficiently focused such that a reasonable and sustained effort by the student should result in successful completion of the thesis in a reasonable period of time, which is generally approximately four years from the time the student entered the graduate program. In addition, the Committee is responsible for determining that the student's knowledge in the thesis topic area is adequate in scope and depth for pursuing the proposed research, and recommend necessary remedial actions. Although the thesis advisor provides primary guidance, and supervise the thesis work, the student is encouraged to regularly consult and communicate with the Committee members, either singly or collectively, for advice and feedback. The Committee should be viewed as a resource for obtaining timely research guidance and assistance prior to the final thesis submission. The following regulations will apply to all PhD candidates.

  1. The Candidacy Examination should be taken within one year of the date of passing of the Doctoral Preliminary Examination.
  2. The student, in consultation with the thesis advisor, shall recommend to the Department Head, no later than three months prior to the Candidacy Examination, those faculty members who might best serve on the PhD Thesis Advisory Committee.
  3. Besides the thesis advisor, the PhD Thesis Advisory Committee must contain at least two additional full-time faculty members from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and at least one additional full-time faculty member from another Department within Rensselaer. Generally, a Committee consisting of four or five members is sufficient, but the Committee may have more members when warranted by the thesis topic, e.g., committee members from industry or external academic or research institutions (e.g., national laboratories). In the event that a student has two or more advisors, their presence on the committee will be treated as a single entity. That is, two additional departmental faculty members must serve on the committee.
  4. The Materials Science and Engineering Department Head will schedule the Candidacy Examination and recommend a Committee to the Graduate School for final approval.
  5. The graduate student will prepare a Candidacy Proposal that clearly delineates the thesis topic, provides a comprehensive literature review, and details the rationale and approach of the proposed research activities, along with preliminary results, anticipated outcomes and their impact on the field. The document length should be about fifteen to thirty pages. All figures, captions, headings, and references should follow the thesis formatting guidelines at Rensselaer. This document should be distributed to the Committee members at least one week prior to the Candidacy Examination.
  6. The PhD candidate will provide a 30-minute oral presentation on the proposed research in the context of prior works and anticipated outcomes and impact on the field of study. The student should expect questions throughout the presentation, which typically results in an overall presentation time of about one-hour. This presentation is followed by detailed questions by the committee members. Typically, the total duration of the Candidacy Examination duration is about two hours. In this examination, the student is expected to demonstrate the background knowledge and skills deemed essential for conducting the proposed research.
  7. The Committee will vote “Acceptable” or “Unacceptable” on the Candidacy Examination and make recommendations regarding both the chosen topic and its scope (appropriate, too wide or too narrow), as well as the student's preparedness in the field of study.
  8. If the student’s performance is found to be unacceptable, a second examination must be repeated with the same Committee within six months after addressing the objections raised by the Committee.
  9. In the event that a second examination is also unacceptable, the student will leave the PhD program.
  10. The Candidacy Committee serves as the Final Examining Committee.
  11. After the Candidacy Examination, the student is expected to meet regularly with the Committee members at least once a semester either individually or collectively, per the advisor’s advice. Such active and continuous interactions are highly beneficial for efficient progress and thesis completion. The lack of such interactions may result in severe difficulties during the final Thesis defense.
  12. Under extenuating circumstances, the Department Head will determine any exceptions to the rules.

The Thesis Defense

The final examination for doctoral studies is the Thesis Defense, which represents the culmination of a substantial amount of scholarship and effort by the student. The Thesis Defense will be conducted only after the thesis advisor has approved the student’s draft of the thesis document, and then submitted it to the Thesis Committee for their evaluation. The student should regularly and properly consult with the Committee throughout the conduct of research to obviate any major objections to the work and/or its conclusions during the Defense. Experience has shown that problems often arise when the student has not had regular, adequate and meaningful interactions with the thesis advisor and the Committee on a continual basis during the course of the work. Simply put, the student should strive to ensure that there is no reason for unexpected objections at the Thesis Defense. The Thesis Defense is a mechanism for disseminating the research work to the scientific community at large. Following a tradition traceable to Martin Luther who posted his thesis on the church door for all to read and criticize, the Thesis Defense will be open to the public. This session will be followed by a private session between the Committee and the Doctoral candidate. The following regulations apply.

  1. The Defense can be scheduled only if the student has co-authored at least one scholarly paper with the thesis advisor based on the thesis research. The paper must be published, or at least under review in a refereed journal or refereed conference proceedings. The manuscript(s) must be made available to the Committee.
  2. The student must submit a thesis draft to the thesis advisor no less than 30 working days prior to the proposed Thesis Defense date. However, it is general practice that the student and thesis advisor collaborate continually for several months on the thesis draft.
  3. A thesis draft approved by the thesis advisor must be submitted to the Committee no less than 15 working days prior to the proposed Thesis Defense date. The student must insure that the Committee will be available for both reviewing the thesis and attending the defense.
  4. Upon receipt of the advisor-approved thesis draft by the Committee, the Department Head will post notices regarding the time, date and location for the Thesis defense, which will be open to the public. No defense will be scheduled unless all conditions of candidacy, submission of a manuscript to a refereed journal, thesis advisor approval of the thesis draft, and timely distribution of the draft thesis to the Committee have been met.
  5. The thesis advisor will chair the Thesis Defense meeting.
  6. The student should prepare no more than a one-hour oral presentation of the thesis emphasizing the relevance and principal achievements of the work. It is common for the Committee members to ask short questions of a clarification nature throughout the presentation, and the student should be prepared to answer these questions accordingly.
  7. Following a period in which all attendees may ask questions of any nature relevant to the thesis, the meeting will be limited to the student, thesis advisor and Committee members during which time additional questions of a more comprehensive nature may be asked.
  8. The Committee will vote to accept or reject the PhD thesis document. Tentative approval of the thesis document may be given if revisions are required. These revisions may include changes in grammatical, organizational and/or scientific content and conclusions, generally requiring as few as one to two days to complete. The student should not expect to obtain immediate acceptance of the thesis solely because a Thesis Defense has been conducted. In a more serious situation, substantial revisions involving additional laboratory work or computations, for example, may be involved. The need for substantial additional work or revision is often a consequence of insufficient interaction between the student and Committee members prior to the thesis defense.
  9. The Committee has the authority and responsibility to request confirmation and inspection of all revisions to the thesis, especially if substantial revisions are required. In the event that the requested revisions are minor, the Committee may elect to have the thesis advisor act on their behalf in reviewing and approving the changes to the thesis. A unanimous vote of the Committee is required for all actions, including signing the thesis by the individual members.
  10. In the unlikely event that the Committee is unable to reach a unanimous decision regarding acceptance of the thesis, after revisions, the Committee shall meet with the Department Head and an ad-hoc committee of department faculty assigned by the Departmental Head to resolve the issues involved. If a resolution cannot be obtained, the final authority for adjudicating the disputed actions rests with the Departmental Head, who may, for example, elect to replace a Committee member.
  11. The final thesis must conform and adhere to all rules and requirements of the Rensselaer Graduate School, especially insofar as typing, formatting, acid-free paper, etc. are concerned. It is the student’s responsibility to meet these requirements. Acceptance of the thesis content is the responsibility of the student’s Committee, but this acceptance does not imply conformity of the thesis document to the Graduate School rules and requirements.
  12. The student must provide the Department a copy of the committee-approved thesis in its final form.


  1. The regulations contained herein shall pertain to all students whose enter the MSE graduate program in Summer 2022 and later.
  2. Graduate students enrolled prior to Summer 2022 will be examined or re-examined according to the old rules pertaining to Doctoral Preliminary Examination.
  3. The Candidacy Examination and Thesis Defense rules and regulations apply to all PhD students.