Ph.D. Requirements

Seminar Presentation
Qualifying Exam
UCB Graduate Division website


The Ph.D. program is designed towards developing within each student the ability to do creative scientific research. Accordingly, the single most important facet of the curriculum for an individual is his or her own research project. A graduate student spends a good deal of time during the first week of the first semester at Berkeley talking to various faculty members about possible research projects, studying pertinent literature references, and choosing an individual project. New graduate students meet shortly after their arrival with a faculty adviser. From the faculty adviser the student obtains a list of faculty members whose research may interest the student. After visiting these and additional faculty, if necessary, the student chooses a research director, with the consent of the faculty member and the graduate adviser. By the end of the first semester most students have made a choice and are full-fledged members of research group. Thereafter, all students become involved in library research on their projects and many begin actual experimental or theoretical work.

In keeping with the goal of fostering an atmosphere of scholarly, independent study, formal course requirements are minimal and vary among disciplines; advisor's tailor course requirements to best prepare the student for the chosen research field. For example, a student who chooses to specialize in physical chemistry is normally expected to take two courses per semester during the first year and one or two additional semesters of coursework sometimes during the second year. These may include topics such Quantum Mechanics, Statistical Mechanics, Group Theory, Interactions of Radiation with Matter, and many more. At the other extreme, a student specializing in inorganic chemistry will concentrate more heavily on special topics seminars and take fewer courses. The course offerings in the University are varied so that individual students have the opportunity to take other courses which serve their own needs. Such as, a student working on nuclear chemistry will probably elect additional graduate physics courses, while a student working on biophysical or bio-organic problems may take courses offered by the Biochemistry Department.

Seminars are an important part of the curriculum. Because of the size and diversity of the Berkeley faculty, there are many seminars on a variety of topics which students may choose to attend. There are regular weekly seminars in several major areas, including biophysical, physical, nuclear, organic, theoretical, solid state, and inorganic chemistry. These seminars are presented by members of the Berkeley faculty, as well as distinguished visitors to the campus. These seminars allow the students to become aware of the most important current research going on in the field. In addition to these regular seminars, there are several regular department seminars devoted to presentations by graduate students. One of the doctoral program requirements is that each student delivers a departmental seminar known as a graduate research conference during the second year. Individual research groups also hold regular research seminars. The format of these small, informal seminars varies. In some cases, graduate students discuss their own current research before the other members of the research group. On other occasions, the group seminars may be devoted to group discussions of recent papers which are of interest to the particular research group. In any event, small group seminars are one of the most important ways in which students learn by organizing and interpreting their own results before their peers.

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Registration requirements for Ph.D. students are relatively informal. Each student during their first year in the program must see an academic advisor during the Enrollment period each semester to work out a schedule that best suits the student's individual needs. There is flexibility in the choice of courses that a student may take, particularly after the first year. See suggested course sequences for first year students in various sub-disciplines of chemistry below. In addition to lecture courses, there are three kinds of courses you can get course credit for. These are:

Seminar (Chemistry 298- sections 1-8): Student can register for up to 3 seminars for 1 unit only, every semester. Enrollment in a seminar means regular attendance at (a) seminars given by outside speakers and Berkeley faculty appropriate to a student's area of specialization, (b) student seminars in at least one of the two divisions of the graduate program, and (c) group seminar organized by a student's research group. Enrollment is on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) basis.

Research (Chemistry 299): Since the Ph.D. is a research degree, each student in the Ph.D. program is expected to show progress in research every semester. In the first semester each student should choose a field of interest and a research director. Since new students do not have a research director when registering for the first time, they will normally sign up for research under the Department Chair's name. (Chemistry 299-section 1). Once a research director has been chosen, students should sign up for research units under their research advisor. Research is always variable in the number of units, ranging from 1-9 and must be taken for a letter grade.

A student's load of formal classes and seminars will determine the number of research units that he/she will sign up for each semester, i.e., sign up for formal classes and seminars, then fill up your schedule with as many Chemistry 299 units are you need to bring your schedule up to 12 units. All students are required to carry a total of 12 units each semester, while in the program.

Teaching (Chemistry 300): Students enroll for 2 units of Chemistry 300 during the semesters in which they serve as teaching assistants. Student must enroll for a letter grade in the Chemistry 300 section for the course they are teaching.

For a detailed list of graduate courses and their description, please see the online Berkeley Bulletin.

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Seminar Presentation

All second year graduate students are required to present a short seminar at the weekly Graduate Research Seminar (GRS) or Graduate Research Conference (GRC) about two to three weeks prior to their qualifying examination. The seminar is presented to a general audience of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Usually each student will give a 20-25 minute talk (including time for discussion /Q&A) on their PhD research project and its general chemistry background. The seminar is presented at a level that most of first- and second- year graduate students will not have difficulty following. The faculty serving on the qualifying exam will be present and will give written assessment of the seminar. This assessment will be considered in the graduate student's final evaluation at the time of their qualifying examination.

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Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Examination is one of the requirements for a PhD degree mandated by the UCB Graduate Division. The following are some excerpts from a document entitled: "Policy Statement Approved by the Graduate Council Regarding Qualifying Examinations for the Doctoral Degree". The full text of this document can be found at the following UCB web address:

The Purpose of the Examination: The examiners should satisfy themselves, by unanimous vote, that the student is clearly expert in those areas of the discipline that have been specified for the examination, and that he or she can in all likelihood design and produce an acceptable dissertation. The examination will ordinarily consider a number of studies and points of view and the criteria by which they may be evaluated.

The Oral Component: The oral examination of candidates for the doctorate serves important professional functions. Not only teachings, but the formal interaction with one's students and colleagues at colloquia, annual meetings of professional societies and the like, often require the ability to synthesize rapidly, organize clearly, and argue cogently in an oral setting. To fulfill his or her professional responsibility adequately, the holder of the doctorate will frequently be called upon to display these skills, and it is consequently necessary for the University to ensure that a proper examination is given incorporating them.

Consistent with these guidelines, our qualifying exams are oral. (In the Synthetic Program, a written proposal is also required.) Exams are taken in front of a four-member committee; no slides or overheads are allowed, but a chalkboard will be available. They consist of two parts (described in more detail below) in which student's knowledge of his/her major research area, and of an "outside area" in chemistry, are examined. To provide sufficient time to cover both areas, the exam is scheduled for 3 hours, but may take less.

The qualifying exam committee consists of three chemistry faculty members and one additional UCB faculty from another department who represents an area of science related to the research topic. According to the Department of Chemistry regulations, a student's research advisor cannot also be a member of that person's qualifying exam committee. Examination committees are appointed by the Vice-Chair in charge of the program (physical or synthetic) in consultation with the student. Specifically, students are asked to suggest the names of the four members of their examination committees. These suggestions should be made after consultation with the research advisor and should be guided, as much as possible, to achieve a good overlap between the suggested professors' research interests and expertise and the student's PhD research topic. This overlap is likewise the first criterion used by the Vice-Chair in considering these suggestions and appointing the qualifying exam committee.

Preparation for the qualifying exam should reinforce rather than interrupt your research. Disappearing from you research group for a long period of time to prepare for your exam is strongly discouraged.

In view of the guidelines of the Graduate Division, the goals of the qualifying exam can be summarized as follows:

  1. To test the student's understanding of the major scientific goals of her/his PhD project, and of the various strategies and approaches developed to achieve these goals. To this end, the student should be able to convince the committee that she/he is already in reasonable control of the major element of the PhD project.
  2. To test the student's understanding of the background materials at the level necessary to successfully continue her/his research. The student is expected to show good command of the material typically covered in undergraduate chemistry textbooks in the broadly defined area of their research. Naturally, the committee's expectations in regard to the quality of that command can be expected to increase with the proximity of the various background topics to the student's research area.
  3. To test the student's ability to discuss and debate, in a professional manner, a range of scientific issues related to his/her current and future research with the members of the committee acting in the role of professional peers. To paraphrase, the student is expected to demonstrate scientific maturity and to show his or her ability to organize, synthesize and articulate thoughts in a clear and precise manner; the student should also be able to argue and defend his or her own points of view in verbal exchanges with the committee members.

The two parts of the exam are:

(A) Candidate's Research Topic
The first part of the exam focuses on the student's research as described in his or her GRC or GRS presentation. The student should come to the exam prepared to provide a five-minute summary of their research project at the beginning of the exam. Following this, the questions generally focus both on detailed aspects of the research project as well as on the related background materials as discussed above. The student should discuss these areas with the committee chair well in advance.

(B) Outside Research Topic in the Physical Chemistry Program
In order to assess student's ability to critically evaluate the research literature and to encourage a broader approach to research, the students are required to present an appraisal of an outside research topic. "Outside" means that the topic should not be one that the student would not ordinarily encounter in her/his own research, although it may be in the same general research area (e.g., chemical physics, biophysical chemistry). Students generally choose a paper from a recent issue of a major journal as the centerpiece of this part of the exam. The selected paper should represent a thoughtful analysis and critique of the work. The resulting discussion during the exam can, and often does, go well beyond the specific research in the paper to examine, for example, student's background. Students are expected to be conversant with the general area of research the paper represents. It is anticipated that the outside topic appraisal will demonstrate the student's ability to think clearly and to be constructively critical. For example, students may be asked how they would improve on the research described in the paper. The choice of an appropriate outside topic must be discussed with and approved by the chair of the qualifying exam committee.

(B) Outside Research Topic in the Synthetic Chemistry Program
Students in the synthetic chemistry program are required to write and defend a research proposal. The goal of this exercise is to test the student's creativity and imagination, and to assess their ability to think critically in an area of chemistry outside of their own research. The idea behind the proposal must be novel and the student should avoid suggesting ideas that are simple derivatives of known chemistry.

What constitutes an appropriate research area? As a rule, the topic should not be in the same subdivision of chemistry that the student is conducting research. It should require the student to learn new chemistry, along with the techniques and methods appropriate to its study.

A few weeks before the examination, the student should discus potential ideas for the proposal with the Chair of his or her committee. The Chair's main responsibility is to ensure that the subject area is appropriate and, in particular, that it is not too close to the student's current research topic. Some Chairs will also comment specifically on the idea itself, and may offer suggestions for improvement.

The written proposal must be given to each member of the committee at lease one week in advance of the examination. Students will be provided with written guidelines regarding the length, format, and other particulars concerning the proposal before the start of their second year. Questions regarding any general issues should be addressed to the Vice-Chair for Synthetic Chemistry.

In the qualifying examination, after discussing their research, the student will usually be given 60-90 minutes to discuss the proposal. Questions from the committee may address issues specific to the proposed chemistry, but can also cover peripheral areas of chemistry of a more general nature.

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To be advanced to candidacy for the doctoral degree in chemistry, a student must:

  • successfully pass the Qualifying Examination;
  • have no more than two courses graded Incomplete;
  • have a minimum GPA of 3.0 in all upper division and graduate course work taken in graduate standing, as required to hold a GSR or GSI appointment.

Once a student has successfully passed their qualifying examination they will be given an "Application for Advancement to Candidacy". As a part of the advancement application, the dissertation committee must be chosen. In consultation with their research advisor, student's proposes three members of the Berkeley Academic Senate as readers of their dissertation. This committee is made up of the student's research advisor, as the dissertation chair, one other member in the students department, and one member from outside the student's department.

If committee co-chairs are requested and one of the co-chairs is outside the Department, a fourth committee member must be selected from outside the Department. Approval of this committee will be granted provided the qualifications of the proposed member satisfies the requirements of the Graduate Division

The application for advancement of candidacy should be filed by the end of the semester following the one in which the student passed the examination. This form can be found at the following Graduate Division Web Site ( or in the Chemistry Graduate Office, 419D Latimer Hall. The Chair of the Dissertation Committee and the Head Graduate Advisor (Chair of the Chemistry Department or his appointed staff) must sign the application. The application fee is $90 and is submitted to the Graduate Division Degree Office in 318 Sproul Hall.

For more information go to the UCB Graduate Division website

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