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Doctoral Program

Information and processes for the Mechanical Engineering doctoral program.

Selecting a Principal Advisor

It cannot be overemphasized that it is your responsibility to find a principal advisor. The availability of faculty members to serve as principal advisors on dissertations limits the number of students who can be recommended for candidacy. Even an award of financial support (research assistantships, traineeships and teaching assistantships) for the second or third year of graduate study does not assure that the faculty will recommend approval of your application for candidacy.

  • Obviously, faculty members are more likely to accept the responsibility of supervising the research of a student whose abilities, initiative and originality are fairly well known to them. You should appreciate that both you and your principal advisor incur some serious commitments in agreeing to work together on a dissertation research project.

Change of Advisor or Reading Committee Member

If you must change your advisor or reading committee member, inform the department's Student Services Office by filing the appropriate form. Failure to do so may result in a delay of approval for the dissertation until student records are correct.

Entering Candidacy: Qualifying Exam (Quals)

Admission to Stanford University for study beyond the master’s degree does not imply that you have been admitted to candidacy for the PhD—that special designation is reserved for students who have passed the department’s PhD Quals. After passing the exam, the student will then need to submit an approved program of PhD course work on an Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree to the Student Services Office.

The purpose of the PhD Quals is to evaluate your capacity to perform outstanding research and that you are adequately prepared to undertake the research. The goals are:

  1. To motivate you to review and synthesize course work and research material.
  2. To determine your creative potential to pursue doctoral research.
  3. To determine your ability to understand and apply fundamental concepts.
  4. To test your oral communication skills and your ability to respond to questions.
  5. To identify areas that need strengthening as you work towards the doctorate.

Exam Structure

Exams are given during the third week of the fall and spring academic quarters. Exams will be based on three topics from the list below. The exam will usually consist of 30-minute topical exams in three subjects chosen by the student in consultation with their advisor from the list below.

Each topic will be offered by a pair of approved examiners, and that pair of examiners will give all the exams in that topic during that season. The exam performance will be scored on a simple scale by each of the examiners, and the scores will be submitted to the graduate curriculum committee. Final determination of pass or fail will be made by the graduate curriculum committee on the basis of the scores.


You need a minimum graduate Stanford GPA of 3.5 to be eligible for the exam. Students are encouraged to work together to prepare for the exam. Typically the exam is taken shortly after earning the master's degree. Students with MS degrees from elsewhere are expected to take the qualifying exam during spring quarter of the first year, or autumn quarter of the second year of the PhD program.

Preparing for the Quals

To assist your examiners in assessing the adequacy of the proposed plan of course work in supporting your proposed topics, submit the following for use during the Quals:

  • A copy of your unofficial Stanford transcript
  • Curriculum vitae including standardized examination scores prior to admission
  • A preliminary PhD dissertation proposal (two to three pages) providing a rationale and methodology for proposed research
  • *A copy of your Program Proposal for a Master’s Degree
  • Any additional materials that the committee can review


Quals Procedure

Choose an academic quarter for the examination. Exams must be taken in the third week of the autumn or spring quarters. The application folder must be submitted first to the faculty advisor for approval on the date indicated below. Approximately two weeks later, the folder is due to the Office of Student Affairs.

Choose three subjects. Together with your faculty sponsor, choose any three subjects from the list below. For each topic, the student will list the two or more course numbers within that topic area that they will prepare to be examined on. For each of the subjects, descriptions of the materials to be used as a basis for the exam will be provided. Individual topic descriptions are being drafted by the GCC with support of the faculty likely to be involved in those topics. Note : these topic descriptions are not final.

Math: Exam is based on ME300A/ME300B/ME300C (Linear Algebra/PDEs/Numerical Methods). Please select two out of three of these classes, or indicate two other classes.;

Automatic controls: This exam will be based on the content normally offered in E105 + ME205, with some practical content from ME206 if appropriate.

BioMechanical Engineering: BME exams are based on one of these focus areas :

  • Option 1: Biomechanical Dynamic: ME281, ME386 Neuromuscular Biomechanics, ME331A Classical Dynamics. (Cannot take with Dynamics exam topic)
  • Option 2: Cardiovascular Biomechanics: ME284A Cardiovascular Bioengineering, ME284B Cardiovascular Bioengineering, ME287 Soft Tissue Mechanics.
  • Option 3: Cell and Tissue Mechanics : ME239 Mechanics of the Cell, ME287 Soft Tissue Mechanics, ME338A Continuum Mechanics. (Cannot take with Mechanics exam topic)

Mechatronics: This exam will be based on ME218AB or ME210+ME220.

Design Methodology: This exam will be based on ME310AB

Design for Manufacturing: This exam will be based on ME317AB

Fluid Mechanics: Based on two of ME351A, ME351B, {ME355 or AA210A}

Energy Systems: This exam is based on 370A-C. Taking 370A and either 370B or C should prepare the student for this exam.

Reactive Gas Dynamics (formerly HT Gas Dynamics): This exam is based on ME362A, ME362B, ME364, ME371 and ME372. The student will be examined on material covered in any two courses selected from this sequence.

Heat Transfer: This exam is based on ME 352 A, B, C and ME 358. The student will be examined on material covered in any two courses selected from this sequence.

Solid Mechanics: This exam is based on {ME333 and 338A or 340A}, or {335A and 335B or 335C}.

Dynamics: This exam is based on ME331AB.

MEMS and Devices: This exam is based on content in E240, E341, ME414 and ME457, based on the courses indicated.

Robotics and Kinematics: This exam is based on CS223A plus one of CS225A, ME322 or ME326.

Materials and Stress Analysis: Exam based on any two courses selected from ME345, MatSci270, ME309, ME348.

Examiners for exams for the standard topics will be selected by the Graduate Curriculum Committee. The selections will be made on the basis of the faculty expertise and experiences with the courses that are the basis of the topical exams, and with a goal of distributing workload evenly where possible. It is possible that the advisor for a PhD student will be one of the examiners on a single topical exam on occasion. The curriculum committee will insure that the advisor is not the examiner for more than one topic for one of their own PhD students, and that they are not the examiner for the custom topic exams. The assignment of faculty to examination topics will be announced before the second week of the quarter.

Custom Subject

This exam may consist of a research exam with a presentation, or a topical exam in a topic not represented above. It is important for the Custom Subject Proposal to describe how the content of the Custom Exam is distinct from the content of the two topical exams already being selected.

Custom exams are private events, and may be attended by other faculty, but not by students, family and friends. If the examination consists of a presentation followed by Q&A, the advisor may attend the entire session as a “silent observer.” Other faculty are excused after completion of the presentation portion of the examination.

Detailed proposals for a Custom Exam topic are to be prepared with and signed by the research advisor, and will be approved or rejected by the Graduate Curriculum Committee within three days of submission of the application. The Graduate Curriculum Committee will select two examiners from the list of three or more names provided in the application.

The recommended format for custom research exams is based on a 20-minute presentation related to the PhD research that the student is working on, followed by up to 40 minutes of questions by two examiners.

Looking ahead, we would like to offer additional guidance on the format and execution of these custom exams:

  • The goal of the presentation is to demonstrate that the student can explain some specific key issue in their proposed research, and describe the work that they are doing to resolve this issue. The content of the presentation should be accessible to faculty with modest expertise in the PhD research topic. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the student to prepare a presentation that is clear and informative, and which can serve as the basis for rigorous questions by many faculty in our department.
  • It is the responsibility of the student and advisor to define a custom examination specification that is clearly distinct from the content of the two topical examinations. Specifications that do not address this distinction in detail will be rejected.

Submit the Examination Application. The research advisor is required to sign the PhD Quals application. The advisor-signed application is due to the Student Services Office no later than the last day of the quarter before the exam is planned. The examiners for each exam topic will be determined by the graduate curriculum committee no later than the third week of the quarter in which the exam is offered.

Take the Exam. The time and location for the topical exams will be arranged by the ME Student Services Office no more than two weeks prior to the exam.

Examination Outcomes

If a student receives a passing score from the examiners on a topic, that topic is considered passed on the exam.

At the completion of the first attempt at the exam, students who have passed all three topics are considered to have passed the exam.

Students who did not pass one or more topics on the first attempt may retake the exam one time, during the next offering of the exam, subject to support of their advisor. Students may retake the failed subjects, or select new subjects.

If the student passes the remaining subjects during the retake, the student is considered to have passed the exam.

Outcomes for students who do not pass one or more subjects during the retake will be determined by the graduate curriculum committee.

Application for Candidacy

To become an official candidate for a doctorate, you must complete and submit the final version of your Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree after passing the department’s Qualifying Examination. During the Quals, your advisor may recommend adjustments to the proposed programs of study, which should be discussed and incorporated into this final version.

The proposed program of courses must be typed or clearly printed using supplemental sheets as necessary. List only the 45 units of Post-MS course work. Be certain to indicate on the form the quarter in which you will complete the teaching requirement. Even though it often changes, an estimated date for completion of the PhD degree should also be given.

Changing your PhD Formal Coursework

If your actual course work changes after submitting the Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree (and it probably will), you must submit an Academic Program Revision.

This form is typically submitted only once, by the end of the third week of the final quarter of your program of study, when all changes to the proposed course work have already been made. If you make any further changes in your program, no matter how minor, you must submit another form. When your principal advisor and the department chairperson have approved this form, the revised list of courses becomes your official program for the PhD degree.

After obtaining your principal advisor’s signature, submit the form to the department’s student services office, for the department chairperson’s signature.

Dissertation Topic

An acceptable research dissertation must be presented for the PhD. Because development of a dissertation is usually an intense and personal process involving you and your research advisor, it is not possible to abstractly define an acceptable dissertation. You should be very careful to reach a clear understanding of your advisor’s expectations and standards before embarking too far into the research project.

30 to 45 units are typically allowed for dissertation preparation; these units may be included in the department’s post-MS 90unit requirement, but may not be counted toward the required post-MS 45 coursework units. Your dissertation research must be conducted while registered at Stanford.

The Dissertation Reading Committee

A dissertation reading committee consists of three members: your principal dissertation advisor and two other readers. At least two of the members must be Stanford Academic Council members. At least one member must be from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. A reader may not be a University Chair for the candidate’s oral exam committee.

On occasion, the department may approve permission for appointment of one of the three members who is not on the Academic Council if that person is particularly well qualified to consult on the dissertation topic. Approval is requested on the Petition for Non-Academic Council Doctoral Committee Members form. The reader must have a PhD or foreign equivalent. Guidelines for committee members requiring a CV are listed at the top of the reading committee form. Petitions are not required for former Stanford Academic Council members. All members of the reading committee must sign the signature pages of the completed dissertation.

As soon as your dissertation reading committee is established, you should submit a Doctoral Dissertation Reading Committee Form. After obtaining each reading committee member’s signature, submit the completed form to the department’s Student Services office, for the department chairperson’s signature.

Terminal Graduate Registration

As soon as you qualify, you’ll want to apply for Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status to reduce your tuition payments. To be eligible for TGR status, you must have:

When you’ve fulfilled all preliminary requirements, complete a Request for TGR Status. Submit this request well in advance of the posted deadline for your first quarter as TGR status. After obtaining your principal advisor’s signature, submit the form to the department’s student services office.

NOTE: students with “required” or “strongly recommended” remedial linguistics courses may not include those credits in the 45 units of coursework required for the degree; however these courses may be counted as part of the overall cumulative units toward residency. They must be completed or waived before the TGR status is requested.

Enrolling in 802

Students who register for TGR should enroll in the course ME802 each quarter until the final quarter of degree conferral. Courses taken for credit during TGR require payment of tuition at the appropriate unit rate.

Your principal advisor will evaluate your thesis work as a measure of continued academic progress, and you’ll receive as grade either

  • “N” or “S” indicating satisfactory progress, or
  • “N-” or “NC” indicating unsatisfactory progress (no credit).

If you receive “NC” grades for two consecutive quarters, you should meet with your advisor and work out a satisfactory plan for completing degree requirements. Subsequent “NC” grades may be grounds for dismissal.

Extension of Candidacy

If you will be unable to complete the requirements of your PhD program of study within five years after admission to candidacy, you must complete an Application for Extension of Candidacy.

Review your situation with your advisor as soon as you realize that you will be unable to complete your PhD program within the specified time limits. Submit this form before your candidacy expires. If you allow your candidacy to expire, your registration privileges will cease and you must apply for reinstatement to continue with your program.

This form may be used to extend the time limits for completion of your PhD program for up to one year. Extensions require a review of your academic progress and approval from the department chairperson.

After obtaining your advisor’s signature, submit all forms to the department’s student services office, for the chairperson’s signature and processing.

The University Oral Exam

Passing a University Oral Examination is a requirement of a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. It will be a dissertation defense, presented either upon completion of a substantial portion of the dissertation work or upon completion of a pre-final draft of all dissertation work.

The candidate and the advisor prepare for the examination by identifying a committee chairman (faculty from another department) and four examiners. In most instances, all five members are on the Academic Council (at minimum four out of five). The participation of a single non-academic council member as an examiner may be approved by the department chairman (Petition for Non-Academic Council Doctoral Committee Members) if that person contributes an important area of expertise not readily available from the department faculty.

Other Conditions

Candidacy must be valid and the student must be registered in the quarter in which the University Oral Examination is taken. At least two weeks prior to the exam date the candidate should submit a University Oral Examination Schedule to the department's Student Services office, Building 530, room 125. The department will provide the exam chairman with a folder which includes the exam schedule, ballots, and department and university guidelines for the exam. The student must provide draft copies of the dissertation to members of the examination committee at least one week before the exam.

The examination normally begins with a presentation by the PhD candidate during which clarifying questions may be asked. This part of the examination is typically open to the public. After a brief recess, the examination continues in private session, with only the candidate and members of the examining committee in attendance. The exam should not exceed three hours in length.

The examination is intended to verify that the research represents your own contribution to knowledge and to test your understanding of the research.

Your principal advisor and dissertation reading committee have the responsibility of supervising your research work and insuring that high standards of performance are maintained. Conversely, it is your responsibility to keep your reading committee members informed about your research progress. The signatures on your dissertation represent the final certification of its adequacy.

NOTE: Students must be registered during the quarter in which the oral exam is taken.

Dissertation Submission

Be sure to obtain a copy of Directions for Preparing Doctoral Dissertations, which outlines the University guidelines for preparing a PhD dissertation, either from the website or the Office of Graduate Degree Progress (GDP), in the Registrars Office. When you are ready for a final draft of your dissertation, make an appointment to consult with the graduate degree progress officer there to go over a review of the completion of your PhD program and the strict formatting requirements for the dissertation.

Submit the final version of your dissertation to the GDP no later than the posted deadline.

PhD Qualifying Examination Committee Petition