The primary objective of the PhD degree program is to educate students to the highest levels of their chosen field in order to make lasting and significant impacts to fundamental knowledge, technology, and society through research. PhD students are expected to become domain experts and complete research that can withstand the rigorous test of external peer review. Graduates from the PhD program go on to careers in industry, academia, and the public sector and become leaders in their respective fields. 

The PhD program is available to students who are entering graduate studies for the first time as well as to those who already have an MS degree. A PhD student who joins the program without an MS degree typically earns one on the way to their PhD degree. Many incoming PhD students will have prior degrees in some type of engineering, although students from other fields, such as physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry are also routinely admitted and can acquire any missing background material during the course of their PhD studies at CU Boulder. Students graduating with a PhD from Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering gain extensive fundamental and foundational knowledge in their field of study in addition to research expertise. 

To find out more information about applying to the PhD program, please visit the PhD admissions webpage

PhD Degree Requirements

1. Course Requirement

PhD students must complete a minimum of 30 graduate-level credits at the 5000 level or higher. Of these 30 credits, at least nine must be mechanical engineering department courses. All PhD students are required to take the following courses:

  • MCEN 5020: Methods of Engineering Analysis I (3 credits)
  • MCEN 5028: Introduction to Research (3 credits)

Note: Some faculty research advisors will require that their students complete more than 30 course credits. The department recommends that students consult with both their graduate program advisor and faculty research advisor for guidance on coursework recommendations or requirements.

At the time of application, PhD students choose from seven focus areas to guide their selection of courses and research. Within each area, PhD students have access to top experts in their field and conduct research that has direct impact on human health and safety, the environment, and technology development. They work alongside and learn directly from faculty members doing both fundamental and applied research that harnesses state-of-the-art experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches to expand the frontiers of technology in the following areas:

  • Air Quality
  • Biomedical
  • Materials
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Micro/Nanoscale
  • Robotics and Systems Design
  • Thermo Fluid Sciences

Please review our Research Overview Slides for a quick look at faculty members and their unique capabilities and areas of expertise. 

Research Overview Slides

In order to receive credit toward the PhD, students must receive a grade of at least B- in each course taken. Courses in which a grade below B- is achieved cannot be counted towards the PhD course requirement. Courses taken on a P/F basis cannot count towards the PhD course requirement. Students must have a cumulative 3.0 GPA in order to be eligible for graduation. However, a 3.25 GPA is required for students to be eligible for Teaching or Research Assistantships.

2. Mathematical Proficiency Requirement

All PhD students are required to take MCEN 5020 Methods of Engineering Analysis and to pass with a grade of B- or higher. Students receiving a grade below B- in MCEN 5020 must retake the course. PhD students will not be able to advance to post-prelim status until the mathematical proficiency requirement has been completed. Failure to complete this requirement by the end of the second year of the PhD may result in removal from the PhD program.

3. Oral Preliminary Exam

All PhD students must successfully pass the oral preliminary exam, which is intended to assess the potential to successfully complete a PhD in mechanical engineering. It is designed to evaluate analytical skills, appraise knowledge of mechanical engineering fundamentals, and to gauge potential for creative independent research. The exam requires students to consolidate their grasp of the fundamentals of mechanical engineering and to demonstrate an aptitude for communicating knowledge during an oral presentation. The content of the examination reflects consensus across the department faculty. The examination is administered by the Graduate Committee, acting on behalf of the entire faculty.

4. Research Preliminary Exam

The research preliminary exam is an oral presentation of research to a committee of three that must include a PhD student’s research advisor and at least one other faculty member from mechanical engineering. Students should view this as an early thesis proposal. At least one week prior to the exam, students must send a 250-word presentation abstract, including title and any relevant references, to all committee members. 

5. Comprehensive Examination

Students must complete a comprehensive exam between 6 and 12 months prior to defending their PhD dissertations. At the time of the comprehensive exam, the dissertation committee will be formed and given preliminary approval by the Department and Graduate School. A mechanical engineering PhD degree requires depth of knowledge in the dissertation/research area, as well as breadth of knowledge across the mechanical engineering curriculum. Consequently, the comprehensive exam is designed to test student knowledge of their proposed research area, and any general knowledge in the field. It is also intended to evaluate whether a student’s proposed research project is original and creative work, whether it will make a significant impact in the field, and whether it will qualify for publication in quality peer-reviewed journals. The exam is also an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to present scientific concepts orally. In short, the comprehensive exam serves as the gateway to the next phase of the doctoral program: completion of a dissertation.

6. Dissertation Hour Requirement

​In addition to coursework, you are required to complete 30 dissertation hours. Students are not able to register for thesis credits on their own and should schedule an appointment with their graduate advisor to be registered. Students must continuously enroll in five dissertation credits in the semesters following passing the comprehensive exam.

7. Written Dissertation

The written dissertation must comply with Graduate School rules and procedures in terms of format and submission. The dissertation title appears on official university transcripts and must be submitted to the Graduate School in addition to the physical signature page from the dissertation. Students are also required to submit the full written dissertation electronically at the ProQuest website.

8. Dissertation Defense

Before completion of the PhD degree, students must have their dissertation accepted for defense by the review committee. The dissertation defense may occur before or after the final electronic submission of the written dissertation to the Graduate School, but must take place prior to the end of the final semester of enrollment. Students must then pass a dissertation defense, which is a final examination on the dissertation and related topics. In the defense, students are expected to explain their research clearly and concisely, and to discuss how it relates to other research in the field. This is an opportunity for recognition of completed doctoral work. It is also an opportunity for discussion and formal evaluation of the dissertation.

How long will it take to complete my degree?

A PhD student entering without prior graduate coursework will typically take five years to complete the PhD degree. However, it is not uncommon for students to finish both earlier and later than this five-year average. A student entering the PhD program with prior graduate coursework from another university may be eligible to transfer up to 21 credit hours to CU and can typically finish in three to four years. Regardless of the time taken to complete the PhD, the primary emphasis is on remaining at CU Boulder long enough to complete high-quality research that satisfies the requirements of the PhD dissertation and defense.