Doctor of Philosophy

Our PhD program requires a commitment of typically five years and consists of coursework, a preliminary coursework examination, a preliminary research examination, and original research guided by one or more faculty advisors that culminates with an oral defense and published dissertation.

Fully Funded

The program is fully-funded, which means that subject to satisfactory progress, the student receives full coverage of tuition and mandatory student fees, as well as a yearlong monthly stipend. These funds come from a combination of faculty research funds, departmental fellowships, and instructional funds if the student assists in teaching during certain terms. Students are encouraged to apply for outside funding, particularly merit-based fellowships, as having external support will typically provide the student with more flexibility in projects.

PhD Advisor

Regardless of the ultimate source of funding, the student is advised by a faculty member who supervises and guides the research. These faculty advisors participate in the admissions process by selecting students that are appropriate for available projects. Therefore, every student admitted into the PhD program has already been selected for a project by one or more faculty members at the time they are admitted.

Prospective Students

Prospective PhD students seeking admission are encouraged to review the research of the faculty and initiate contact with them directly, via email, to assess the availability of potential research projects.

The following information pertains to students admitted into the PhD program.

Required Background

A master’s degree is not required to be admitted to the PhD program. However, our graduate program is very selective, with approximately 10% of the PhD applicants to our program finally admitted.

Learn about the academic background of students admitted to consider whether our program is a good fit.

Degree Requirements

The PhD degree requires a sound background in fundamental aerospace engineering courses which is assessed by the preliminary examinations. These examinations are typically completed after the second or third semester in the program. The PhD dissertation requires a student to demonstrate their ability to pursue and solve an original research problem, which implies the ability to carry out independent research.


  • Preliminary Examination coursework: To qualify for the preliminary examination, a student must achieve a GPA of at least 3.5/4.0 in five core doctoral courses selected by the student and approved by the student’s research advisor. The five courses consist of three courses from Category 1 doctoral courses and two courses from either Category 1 or Category 2 doctoral courses.
  • Additional coursework: Courses selected to prepare for the preliminary examination do not alone constitute sufficient preparation for doctoral research. Each doctoral student is urged to select additional courses, beyond what is required for the preliminary examination that provides suitable background for the doctoral research specialization that the student intends to pursue. The selection of suitable courses should be made in consultation with the doctoral advisor.

Cognate Requirement

Rackham recognizes the value of intellectual breadth in graduate education and the importance of formal graduate study in areas beyond the student’s field of specialization. Cognate courses are those that are in a discipline or area different from a student’s field of study but are related or connected with some aspect of this field. All cognate coursework must be approved by the graduate program.

The cognate requirement may be satisfied in two ways:

  • By completing three credit hours of cognate coursework in approved graduate-level courses with a grade of B or better. Cognate courses may be AEROSP courses as long as they are cross-listed as a course in another program.
  • By completing graduate coursework at another institution that meets the expectation of the cognate requirement. These courses do not apply toward the minimum credit hours required for the degree, do not appear on the U-M transcript and must be completed no more than five years before admission to the current Rackham graduate program. The student must provide Rackham Academic Records and Dissertations (OARD) with an official transcript from this other institution, and the graduate program should notify OARD that the coursework fulfills the cognate requirement.

Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship Requirement

The College of Engineering’s Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship program  is designed to engage students to be able to recognize, address, and resolve ethical issues in classroom, professional and research settings. The program consists of four mandatory two-hour workshops. Workshops are offered once in the fall and once in the winter. The student must complete all four workshops before advancing to candidacy.

Preliminary Examinations

The preliminary examinations (prelims) consist of two tests, both oral, and both administered by faculty committees: the oral coursework examination, typically taken at the end of the second or third semester; and the oral research examination, typically taken in the second or third year.

A full description of both exams is given in the Doctoral Graduate Student Handbook.

Oral Coursework Examination

This is an oral examination that covers material taught in the five courses (noted above in “preliminary examination coursework”). It is administered by a three-member committee over 90 minutes.

The preliminary examination is scheduled twice each academic year, once in early December and once in early May. To sign up please complete the Coursework Examination Sign-up form (PDF) and share it with the department’s graduate office.

Oral Research Examination

This is an oral examination that consists of a research presentation followed by questions from a committee, which is typically the student’s thesis committee. It is administered over one hour, at a time mutually agreeable to the student and committee. 

Scheduling the exam is the responsibility of the student and can be done at any time in the year. The student must also provide a research document to the committee at least one week in advance of the exam, in the form of a conference paper approximately 10 pages in length.


Pass, fail or retake decisions for the coursework examination are made in a faculty meeting at the conclusion of the examination period. 

Each coursework examination committee (CEC) presents a summary of the test performance and states the decision. All department faculty are invited to discuss and vote on the outcome. Students will receive written feedback about their coursework examination performance on a standardized form completed by their CEC. Students who do not pass the coursework examination may be permitted to take the exam one additional time.

For the research exam, the research examination committee makes a pass, fail or retake decision and communicates the outcome to the student with feedback on performance. If deficiencies are found, students will be encouraged to retake the exam when appropriate. There is no limit to the number of retakes of the research exam, but failing the research exam is grounds for dismissal from the PhD program.

Advancing to Candidacy

A student becomes a PhD candidate once they:

  • pass the oral coursework examination;
  • complete the Rackham cognate requirement;
  • attend all four Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) workshops;
  • and accumulate at least 18 credit hours of coursework at the University of Michigan.

Students should contact the graduate office once they have completed the candidacy requirements to ensure forms for advancing to candidacy are completed properly.


Dissertation Committee

Doctoral research is carried out under the supervision of a faculty advisor and a dissertation committee; the dissertation committee should normally be formed within one year after the student has achieved doctoral candidacy status. The student should expect to meet with their dissertation committee immediately after it is formed and at least on an annual basis up to the PhD defense.

Dissertation Defense

Each student must initiate research activity with their advisor in the first year of graduate study at U-M. In order to complete the PhD degree, the student must carry out original and publishable research, present the results in a written dissertation, defend the dissertation at a final oral defense, and complete the final post-defense (see Rackham’s Dissertation Handbook  for additional details) tasks.

The oral defense presentation represents the culmination of the student’s research and is given to the committee and other faculty and students. The student must be able to clearly and concisely present their research and must be able to answer questions from the committee and others in attendance.

PhD candidates should download the AERO defense flyer template and update it with their own photo, dissertation abstract and event details to spread the word to their research group and other colleagues who would like to attend.

Please save the flyer as a PDF and send it to [email protected] at least two weeks before your event to have it shared it with the department through standard department channels.


Familiarize yourself with the department PhD handbook to understand the policies and procedures that will impact your doctoral education.

woman working on small electronic device
Headed by associate professor, James Cutler, in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, the team is in the process of assembling the Tandem Beacon Experiment (TBEx), consisting of a tandem pair of CubeSats, seen here being inspected by Research Assistant, Emanuela Della Bosca.