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PhD Degree Requirements

Formal Requirements

The formal requirements for the doctoral (PhD) degree are as follows:

  • Payment of six semesters of full-time tuition (or five semesters if credit for previous graduate work has been approved)
  • Major and related courses
  • Foreign language(s) in many departments
  • Training in the Responsible Conduct of Research
  • A supervisory committee for the student’s program of study
  • Continuous registration
  • Prelim examination
  • Dissertation
  • Application to graduate
  • Final examination

Major and Related Work

The student’s program of study normally demands substantial concentration on courses in the major department, plus coursework in related minor fields as determined by individual programs. If there are deficiencies in a student’s undergraduate program, departments may also require certain undergraduate courses to be taken. In all cases, the student’s supervisory committee will determine if the student must meet requirements above the minimum.

Foreign Languages

The Graduate School has no foreign language requirement for the PhD, but individual departments may have language requirements. For specific departmental requirements, see program description or contact the department.

English Language Proficiency

All international students whose native language is not English must enroll in English language courses as determined by the English language placement exams administered during orientation, unless formally waived from this requirement by The Graduate School upon certification of competency in English. These courses must be taken during students’ initial year at Duke. For more information, see the English for International Students section.

Responsible Conduct of Research

All doctoral students at Duke University are required to complete a series of training sessions in the Responsible Conduct of Research. This requirement consists of two components:

  1. All students must attend a mandatory fall workshop. All incoming students in the biomedical sciences will attend a required introductory workshop at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and students in the humanities and social sciences will attend a similar introductory workshop on the main campus, as will students in non-medical biological sciences, physical sciences, and engineering programs.
  2. To meet the number of hours required for RCR training, all PhD students will subsequently attend a minimum number of supplementary and more focused workshops in individual topics related to Responsible Conduct of Research over the course of their first four years at the University. The number and content of such workshops will be published at the beginning of each semester.

Committee to Supervise the Program of Study

The director of graduate studies in the major department will nominate a supervising committee for the approval of the associate dean of academic affairs as early in the student’s career as possible. The preliminary examination committee must be appointed and approved by the associate dean at least one month (30 days) before the preliminary examination can take place.

The committee consists of at least four members, with one member designated as chair. This committee should include at least three graduate faculty members of the major department and usually at least one from outside the department. For programs in which approval has been granted for related work from a clearly differentiated division within the department, one member of the committee may be chosen from that division. This committee, with all members participating, will determine a program of study and administer the preliminary examination.


The minimum residence requirement is one academic year of full-time registration at Duke (that is, two consecutive semesters of full-time tuition).

Time Limits

Preliminary exam: Ordinarily a student registered for full-time study should pass the preliminary examination by the end of the third year. A student who has not passed the examination by this time must file a statement with the dean of The Graduate School, approved by the director of graduate studies in the major department, explaining the delay and setting a date for the examination. Except under unusual circumstances, extension beyond the middle of the fourth year will not be granted.

Dissertation: The doctoral dissertation should be submitted and accepted within two calendar years after the preliminary examination is passed. Should the dissertation not be submitted and accepted within four years after the examination, the candidate may, with the approval of the committee and the director of graduate studies, petition the dean of The Graduate School for an extension of up to one year. If this extension is granted and the dissertation is not submitted and accepted by the new deadline, the student may be dropped from candidacy. The student must then pass a second preliminary examination to be reinstated as a candidate for the degree. In such cases, the time limit for submitting the dissertation will be determined by the dean of The Graduate School and the candidate’s committee.

Courses and exams: Ordinarily, credit is not allowed for graduate courses (including transfers) or foreign language examinations that are more than six years old at the date of the preliminary examination. Similarly, credit will not be allowed for a preliminary examination that is five years old at the date of the final examination. In cases of exceptional merit, however, the dean of The Graduate School may extend these limits. Should the five-year limits be exceeded, the student’s department must submit specific requirements to the dean for revalidating credits or examinations.

Preliminary Examination

A student is not accepted as a candidate for the PhD degree until the preliminary examination has been passed. The examination ordinarily covers both the major field and related work, although some departments cover such field expertise in a separate qualifying examination. Consult the department for individual department procedures.

Scheduling: In the summer a preliminary examination may be scheduled only between the opening and closing dates of the summer session. A student must be registered during the term in which he/she takes the preliminary examination.

Passing: Successful completion of the preliminary examination requires at least three affirmative votes and no more than one negative vote. The sole exception to this policy is that a negative vote cast by the chair of the examining committee will mean a failure on the examination.

Failing: A student who fails the preliminary examination may apply, with the consent of the full supervisory committee and the dean of The Graduate School, for the privilege of a second examination to be taken no earlier than three months after the date of the first. Successful completion of the second examination requires the affirmative vote of all committee members. Failure on the second examination will render a student ineligible to continue a program for the PhD degree at Duke University.

Using the exam for a master’s: The qualifying and/or preliminary examination may also be used as the completion exercise for awarding a master’s degree, either for a terminal master’s or, where appropriate, for awarding a master’s en route to the PhD.

The Dissertation

The dissertation is expected to be a mature and competent piece of writing, embodying the results of significant and original research. For requirements and all information for submitting an electronic dissertation, visit the Electronic Theses and Dissertation section. The dissertation must be completed to the satisfaction of the professor who directs the dissertation, members of the student’s advisory committee, and the dean of The Graduate School.

Review the current semester graduation deadlines for the semester in which you plan to graduate. Electronic dissertation must be submitted to UMI/ProQuest and the format accepted at least two weeks before the scheduled date of the student’s examination.

All doctoral dissertations are published electronically through University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Authors may copyright them if they wish. Abstracts are published in Dissertation Abstracts International.

If copyright is desired, an additional fee of $65 is charged.

Apply to Graduate

Students must apply to graduate in ACES one month before the dissertation is presented and no later than the dates listed below:

  • January 25 for receiving your degree in May
  • June 15 for a receiving your degree in September
  • October 15 for receiving your degree in December

This application should indicate the approved title of the dissertation and be approved by both the director of graduate studies of the student’s major department and the professor who directs the dissertation.

The Final Examination

The final examination is administered by all the members of the supervising committee, and the committee must contain a minimum of four graduate faculty members. The final oral examination shall be primarily on the dissertation, but questions may be asked in the candidate’s major field.

Scheduling: Except in unusual circumstances approved by the dean, a final examination must be scheduled when the university is in session. A student must be registered during the term that he/she takes the final examination.

Passing: Successful completion of the final examination requires at least four affirmative votes and no more than one negative vote. The sole exception to this policy is that a negative vote cast by the chair of the examining committee will mean a failure on the examination.

Failing: A student who fails the final examination may be allowed to take it a second time, but no earlier than six months from the date of the first examination. Permission to take the second examination must be obtained from the professor who directed the dissertation and from the dean of The Graduate School. Failure to pass the second examination renders the student ineligible to continue work for the PhD degree at Duke University.

Deposit of Electronic Dissertation

After passing the examination, candidates make changes requested by the examining committee and formatting changes requested by The Graduate School to the electronic dissertation that was submitted initially. The Graduate School will be notified that you have revised your dissertation and you will receive an e-mail when your dissertation has been accepted. All dissertations must be accepted before the final submission deadline for the semester in which the student intends to graduate, or 30 days from defense date, whichever is sooner.


Graduation exercises are held once a year, in May, when degrees are conferred on and diplomas are issued to those students who have completed requirements by the end of the spring. Those who complete degree requirements by the end of the fall or by the end of a summer term receive diplomas dated December 30 or September 1, respectively. There is a delay in the mailing of September and December diplomas because diplomas cannot be issued until they are approved by the Academic Council and the Board of Trustees.