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Graduate Degree Requirements

We make every effort to keep these guidelines current. Be sure to check with your advisor or the Graduate Program Assistant for up-to-date information.


Entering students are referred to the Graduate Bulletin for details regarding registration and degree requirements. The following information pertains to requirements and procedures within the Department of Geological Sciences. Initial Counseling and Orientation
Prior to their initial registration, entering graduate students should report to their faculty advisor for counseling.  Contact the Graduate Program Assistant if your faculty advisor is unavailable.  The department holds an orientation meeting for incoming graduate students and runs a two day field trip to local mountains as an introduction to the department and local geology. Advisory Committee
During the first semester of residence, students should consult with faculty members who relate to their field(s) of interest and choose a faculty advisor. The faculty advisor will assist in planning a degree program and in choosing an appropriate advisory committee. The committee should be formed during the first semester, and Master's students must file an Advisory Committee form at this time (see below).  Most students, in particular doctoral students have already determined who their major advisor will be prior to admittance.


Doctoral degree candidates will begin the selection of a research problem during the first semester of residence. Formal consideration of the research proposal will constitute the Comprehensive Examination (see Ph.D. section). Master's degree candidates will select thesis or independent study topics before the end of the second semester. Thesis topics will be selected in consultation with the advisory committee. The Department regards a 5-hour course load as average for graduate students. Programs should be designed with this in mind. Students will maintain at least a "B" average in all work attempted. Graduate students should attend and participate in the Departmental colloquium. A graduate student in geology who changes, or adds to, their degree objective must consult with his advisory committee and then obtain written approval from the Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs. The Department admits applicants directly into the doctoral program depending on their record and potential for future work but requires approval by the major advisor and the graduate admissions committee. Some applicants with only a bachelors degree can choose, however, to first enter the Masters program and then transfer into the doctoral program after their first year. No final oral exams will be given and no theses will be read during the last 2 weeks of the Spring semester or during the Summer without the prior written consent of the advisory committee. At the time of graduation, the student should return all University property, including keys, and give the Department office manager a permanent address. Important Records
To insure that their degree programs will be completed on schedule, students are responsible for making certain that the following documents are in their office file and that required information is kept up-to-date:
  • Transcript: An official transcript of all academic work must be on file in the Department office.
  • Admission to Candidacy: The student must file an Application for Admission to Candidacy with the office of the Graduate Dean at least 10 weeks before the date of the comprehensive exam for Plan II Masters (defense of Thesis for Plan I) or two weeks before the comprehensive examination for the Ph.D. degree. Students should submit their Application for Admission to Candidacy to the Graduate Program Assistant in the Department of Geological Sciences, who will review the application and forward it to the Graduate School.
  • Report of Residence Credit: At the end of the Spring semester the student working toward the Ph.D. degree shall request their advisory committee Chair to record, with the approval the Chair of the Department, or the Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs, the amount of residence credit he has earned during the year.
  • Additional documents (depending upon the degree program) must be kept in the student's file:
    • Approved thesis proposal
    • Plan II Master's independent study report.
    • Research proposal for Ph.D. preliminary examination.


The minimum requirement for the masters degree is 30 credit hours. A student may complete a Plan I (thesis) option, or a Plan II (course work) option. At least 24 hours must be completed at the 5000 level or above; these 24 hours may include a minimum of 4, but not more than 6, thesis hours for those students completing a Plan I degree. A maximum of 6 credit hours may be completed at the 3000 or 4000 level at the discretion of the academlc department and the principle advisor. Advisory Committee
The advisory committee for a Master's candidate will consist of three persons selected by the student and approved by the Department Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs. The person designated as first advisor will serve as Chair. The Chair of the student's committee must have regular membership on the graduate faculty. During the first semester in residence, the student will obtain the signatures of the committee members using the Advisory Committee Form, signifying their willingness to serve. One copy of the form should be placed in the student's Departmental file and the other given to the Chair of the committee. Comprehensive Examination
All candidates must pass a comprehensive examination as part of a formal thesis defense.  The examination will be conducted by a committee consisting of the student's advisory committee. In determining whether this examination has been passed, the examining committee will consider the student's academic record together with the results of the examination. Notice of the oral examination and defense must be filed in the graduate dean's office by the Department Graduate Program Assistant at least two weeks in advance of the examination. It is the student's responsibility to notify the Department Graduate Program Assistant of the date, time and committee members at least two weeks prior to the examination.

Plan I Candidates -- (Thesis)

The candidate must demonstrate an ability to conduct original research and present the results in a meaningful fashion by submitting a thesis that is considered by the examining committee to be a worthwhile contribution to knowledge.  Plan 1 candidates typically take 24 credits of formal coursework and 6 units of thesis credits Prior to undertaking this research, the student will submit a thesis proposal to their principal advisor outlining the nature of the problem, its relevance to earth science, and techniques proposed to solve it. The proposal should be documented by references to literature wherever applicable. After initial consideration of the proposal the principle advisor and the student should meet informally to discuss the thesis proposal. When the committee is satisfied that the thesis proposal is appropriate and that the student fully understands the scope of the problem, a copy of the proposal will be placed in the student's Department file. The final draft of the thesis must be approved at least 10 days before the date of the oral comprehensive examination and must be available for inspection by members of the examining committee prior to the examination. Students must register for thesis (GEOL 6950) for a minimum of 4 or a maximum of 6 semester hours. The student may register for any specific number of hours in any semester of residence but the total number of hours for all semesters must equal the number of credits the student expects to receive for the thesis. The final grade will be withheld until the thesis is completed. If the thesis is not completed at the end of the term in which the student is so registered, an "In-Progress" (IP) will be reported. (The student may not register again for any portion of thesis credit on which an IP grade has been submitted.)  A formal grade is given for thesis credits once the defense is successfully completed. A first draft of the thesis should be submitted well in advance of the defense to the principle advisor for initial evaluation. A subsequent draft is then submitted to the full examining committee prior to the defense upon approval by the principle advisor. The completed thesis is then approved by the examining committee upon successful completion of the defense and fulfilling of any additional requirements. This should be completed at least 30 days prior to the commencement date which the degree is to be conferred.  The thesis must conform to Graduate School specifications available from the Graduate School. Thesis Defense
Candidates will take an oral comprehensive examination when the thesis is completed and will be examined primarily over the thesis and topics related to it. Thesis defense will also include general questions related to coursework as part of a broader comprehension examination.

Plan II Candidates -- (No Thesis)

Independent Study
Candidates will be required to complete 3 hours of Geology 6960 (Plan II Master's Research) under the supervision of her or his advisory committee. A written report on a mutually agreed topic will be required which will be retained in the student's permanent Departmental office file.   Plan II candidates typically complete 30 credits of formal coursework. Comprehensive Examination
Students will take written and oral comprehensive examinations as part of a Plan II Thesis. The written part will consist of questions(s) of broad scope provided and evaluated by the student's examining committee. The questions will be designed to test the student's ability to synthesize, in a critical and perceptive manner, previously completed course work, ideas from the literature, past experience, and original thoughts as outlined in the written report. A formal written examination will be administered once coursework is completed. Answers shall not exceed 3000 words and shall be submitted within two weeks. Questions in the formal written exam are administered by the thesis committee. The student is expected to present her or his ideas in a clear, professional manner. The results will be judged in relation to the general performance expected from a student at the Master's level. The oral examination will be held as soon as it can be arranged after the student has submitted his written examination. It will be administered by the examining committee and will include topics covered by the written examination and fields related to the general area of interest.


General Statement
The Doctor of Philosophy Degree is the highest academic degree conferred by the University of Colorado. Students who hope to earn this degree must demonstrate by periodic examinations and by continuing performance that they are proficient and well-informed in some broad field of learning and that they can intelligently evaluate the works of others in this field. The Doctor of Philosophy degree is awarded only after an individual has demonstrated an ability to work independently and productively in a chosen field of specialization within a broader field and has made an original contribution of significance to the sum of knowledge in the field. To earn the degree, the student is required to meet certain standards and to fulfill certain formal requirements within the broader framework at the University and also within the Department of Geological Sciences. University Standards and Requirements
The student is expected to be fully acquainted with all of the requirements for a Ph.D. degree set forth by the Boulder campus Graduate School. Minimum Course Credits
Thirty semester hours in courses numbered 5000 and above. Most students will be required to take courses in excess of the 30 hour minimum requirement. Ph.D. Dissertation Credit
Student must register for 30 hours credit for dissertation research, in addition to credits in formal course work. Quality of Work
Only A or B grades will be accepted toward the Ph.D. degree. Residence Requirement
At least six semesters of scholarly work beyond a Bachelor's degree. Transfer of Credits
The Graduate School states that up to 21 semester hours of coursework may be transferred to CU Boulder and be applied toward the Ph.D. degree. The Department of Geological Sciences permits 10 hours of coursework to be transferred; however, an exception may be made (under certain circumstances) to transfer up to the maximum allowed by the Graduate School at the time of transfer. A letter from the student's committee Chair to the Department Chair should accompany the transfer request. Examinations
The following outlines general procedures for doctoral students as they are admitted and advanced to candidacy

Guidance Interview: Incoming doctoral students will be interviewed by a group of 4 professors, including the primary advisor to evaluate their core knowledge in the Earth Sciences. The interview is intended to serve as a guidance tool for planning a course of study in the Department of Geological Sciences and will be held early during the student’s first semester. Students are not expected to study for the interview nor will they be graded on their performance. The interview is designed to determine the breadth of incoming doctoral student’s knowledge in basic aspects of the Geosciences, including the record of events on Earth and fundamental processes that control its history. Faculty examiners will represent a range of expertise in the department and will serve on the committee for a period of three years. The interview is aimed at identifying strengths and weaknesses of individuals from a diverse applicant pool, and to provide guidance and written recommendations for determining a suite of courses appropriate for a chosen field of study. Incoming doctoral students will gain early experience in responding to scientific query in an oral setting, as a prelude to the comprehensive exam taken midway through their degree program. The interview replaces the formal written component of the comprehensive examination, in order to identify incoming student’s strengths and weaknesses and facilitates future focus on dissertation research after completing appropriate coursework.

Comprehensive Examination Timing: For students with a masters degree in geological sciences or a closely related field (geophysics, geochemistry, etc), the comprehensive examination should be taken by the end of the 4th semester after at least 24 credits of formal coursework has been completed while maintaining a 3.0 grade point average. For students who do not hold a masters degree in geosciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, liberal arts, etc.), the examination should be taken by the end of the 5th semester of study. Formal advancement to candidacy by the Graduate School occurs after a student completes 30 units of formal coursework and successfully passes the comprehensive exam.

Comprehensive Examination: Format: The comprehensive examination will first consist of a proposal that outlines the Ph.D. research, written in the style appropriate for a major funding agency such as NSF, NASA, DOE, ACS-PRF, etc. An oral examination will follow two weeks after submission of the research proposal when the candidate is required to present their proposal and respond to questions by committee members. The goal of the oral examination is to provide an opportunity for the dissertation committee to evaluate the candidate’s general knowledge base, their understanding of research methods, and the significance and feasibility of their proposed research to advancing knowledge in the Earth Sciences. While questions posed by the committee to the candidate may be from any general topic in the Earth Sciences, the focus will be on topics related to the candidate’s chosen field of study. Final Examination: An examination on the Doctoral dissertation and related topics, a so-called "dissertation defense." Upon recommendation of the examining committee, a doctoral student who fails the final examination may retake the examination (see "Outcomes" in following section). A student in a program may not take more than two final examinations. Time Limit
Ph.D. students have six years, from the beginning of course work after admission to their Ph.D. graduate program at the University of Colorado, to complete all requirements including the filing of the dissertation with the Graduate School. The point in the graduate career at which the student passes the comprehensive examination is not relevant in determining time remaining for completion of the degree. Continuous Registration
Doctoral students who have passed their comprehensive examination are required to be continuously registered for 5 dissertation hours each Fall and Spring semester including the semester of the thesis defense. Students not making use of campus facilities may choose to register for 3 dissertation hours. Such students will be considered "part-time" students and all CU - Boulder considerations for part-time status apply. Doctoral students must be registered as full time students (5 dissertation hours) during the semester in which the dissertation defense is passed

Internal Requirements and Procedures

Within the framework of the general standards and requirements for the Ph.D. degree established by the University and the Graduate School, the Department administers policies, procedure, and requirements that specifically apply to students undertaking a program leading to a Ph.D. in the geological sciences. Advisory Committee
During the first semester in residence with regular status in the Graduate School, the student should contact the faculty member assigned as Chair of her or his committee. In consultation with the student and the Department Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs, four additional faculty members will be added to the committee. The committee shall be constituted so as to represent a broad spectrum of related academic interests as well as the special interests of the students. Students should be aware that the comprehensive exam committee must include a regular faculty member whose expertise lies outside of the student's primary research interests. This committee shall guide the student throughout her or his graduate study. The members of the advisory committee may be changed if it becomes appropriate. The committee will have the authority to establish formal course requirements as well as to request other special efforts by the student to remove apparent deficiencies in her or his educational background. The Chair of the student's committee must have regular membership on the graduate faculty. Matters under debate within the committee shall be resolved by a majority vote. Committee Requirements: A total of five faculty or research scientists shall serve as members of the comprehensive examination committee. Three committee members must be faculty at the University of Colorado-Boulder; additional members may be from other universities, research agencies and museums, etc. At least two committee members must be regular tenure track faculty from Geological Sciences, while one of these must be from outside the candidate’s general field of study. All committee members that are not members of the CU faculty must be active in research (criterion: minimum of one peer-reviewed publications on average in the last four years prior to appointment to the dissertation committee) and must be formally appointed as temporary members of the graduate faculty. This process takes several weeks.  Please plan accordingly.

The dissertation committee should be constituted before the end of the third semester and is required to meet as a group in the semester prior to the anticipated administration of the examination so that they can discuss the candidate’s progress, skills, preparation for the examination, etc. The committee is required to meet with the candidate on a yearly basis thereafter to discuss their progress towards the degree.

Outcomes: The outcome of the committee’s decision on the comprehensive examination is decided by majority vote whereby 3 of 5 committee members and 2 of 3 CU faculty must agree to advance the student to candidacy.

Possible outcomes of the comprehensive examination include:
1)    Unconditional Pass. (student passes both the proposal and oral components to the satisfaction of the majority of committee members)

2)    Conditional Pass. (student passes most of examination, but has significant deficiencies). In this case, the committee shall decide upon a course of action (additional coursework, preparation of a research paper, rewriting the research proposal, etc) to be completed within 6 months of taking the examination (excepting further required coursework which may not be offered in the following semester).

3)    Failure of the comprehensive examination. In this case the committee is required to determine by majority vote whether a) the PhD candidate is unlikely to complete the doctoral degree in a satisfactory fashion, or b) the student should be allowed to retake the examination. In case a) the student will be awarded a Plan II masters degree, assuming they have completed 30 credits of graduate coursework and asked to leave the graduate program, whereas in case b) the student will be allowed to retake the comprehensive examination within the following 12 months. If the second option is undertaken, the dissertation committee shall define major deficiencies and suggest means for improvement.
Responsibility of Major Advisor:The major advisor acts as a mentor to guide the doctoral candidate through their program of study. It is the advisor’s responsibility to: inform the student of the standards expected for the comprehensive examination, review the student’s proposal and suggest improvements in format, focus, etc. This should not include extensive editing or rewriting of the research proposal by the advisor. The advisor is also responsible for first discussing and formulating coursework necessary for the degree in consultation with other committee members. The advisor also serves as the lead committee member for the comprehensive examination, sets its format and reviews initial drafts of the research proposal and the dissertation prior to its submission to the committee for review. Comprehensive Examination
The comprehensive examination will be administered by the student's five-member advisory committee with the approval of the Dean of the Graduate School. Notice of the oral examination must be filed in the Graduate Dean's office by the Department Graduate Program Assistant 2 weeks in advance of the examination. It is the student's responsibility to notify the Department Graduate Program Assistant of the date, time and committee members at least two weeks prior to the examination. Doctoral degree candidates must meet the University residency requirement before taking the comprehensive examination, unless they already have a masters degree and take the exam in their fifth semester. Application to Candidacy
The candidate must make formal application to candidacy on form supplied by the Department office at least two (2) weeks before submitting an answer to the written comprehensive examination. The candidate will be admitted formally to candidacy when she or he has passed the comprehensive examination, has earned at least four (4) semesters of residence. Dissertation
No final oral exams will be given and no dissertation will be read during the last 2 weeks of the Spring semester or during the Summer without the prior written consent of the candidates advisory committee. The candidate must demonstrate an ability to conduct original research and present results in a meaningful way by submitting a thesis that is considered by the examining committee to be a worthwhile contribution to knowledge. Following the Preliminary Exam the advisory committee and the student will meet informally and discuss the dissertation proposal. When the committee is satisfied that the thesis proposal is appropriate and that the student fully understands the scope of the problem, the Chair will present it to the Department faculty. A student must be registered for "thesis" for a specific number of hours (up to 10) in any term of residence in which she or he is engaged in dissertation work, the number of hours to be approved by his advisory committee. A minimum of 30 credits must be earned for the doctoral dissertation but no more than 10 until the student's application to candidacy has been approved. A first draft of the dissertation should be submitted well in advance of the date on which the degree is to be conferred. The final draft of the dissertation must be approved at least 10 days before the date of the final oral examination and must be available for inspection by members of the examining committee prior to the examination. The final copy must comply with specifications available at the Departmental office or the Graduate School. The format used by the Department is the same as the format used by the U.S. Geological Survey. The student must file one copy of the thesis including abstract (not to exceed 350 words) plus one additional copy of the title page and abstract in the Graduate School office according to graduation deadlines. Thesis binding and copyright fees must be paid at the time the thesis is turned in to the Graduate School. (Orders for reprints of the abstract or UMI copies of your dissertation are extra charges that require checks made payable to University Microfilms - discuss this with the Graduate School.) Final Oral Examination
The final examination will be conducted by the five members of the candidates dissertation committee. The committee members will be approved by the Dean of the Graduate School and must have either regular or special graduate faculty status. The non-Departmental member must have regular faculty membership on the graduate faculty. The final examination is an oral defense of the candidate's dissertation and related topics. Upon the recommendation of the examining committee, a doctoral student who fails the final examination may retake the examination. A student in a program may not take more than two final examinations. Department Keys and Specimen Collections
All keys must be returned and verified by appropriate signatures before the final thesis grade will be sent to the Graduate School. Students must be aware that failure to turn in keys could prevent graduation. In some fields of study (paleontology, etc.) the Department may require that a representative suite of properly documented specimens be archived in the Department or museum. The principal advisor has final authority regarding the size and type of collection to remain. At the conclusion of the final oral examination the principal advisor will confer with other members of the examining committee and will sign an approval form, to be included in the student's file. This must be done before a final grade is sent to the Graduate School.

Graduate Degree Program | Current Grad Course Offerings | Graduate Fellowships

Important Forms

PhD Deadline Sheet | MS Deadline Sheet | Candidacy Application | Doctoral Defense Leaflet | Request for Transfer of Credit | Time off Program | Letter of Completion

Geological Sciences
University of Colorado Boulder
UCB 399
Boulder, CO 80309-0399