Ph.D. in Systems Engineering

The Ph.D. is an advanced graduate degree for students wishing to contribute to knowledge creation through independent, original, cutting-edge research. 

The PhD in Systems Engineering provides a springboard for careers as an academician, as a researcher, as a consultant or in management/leadership within a university, institute, industry or government setting. SIE doctoral programs include three components:

  • Coursework and Teaching to gain fundamental and advanced knowledge, as both student and GTA
  • Research conducted in a collaborative environment leading to a doctoral dissertation and scholarly papers
  • Engagement in UVA’s intellectual life

See below for information on the Systems Engineering PhD program, or download the SIE Graduate Handbook.

Admissions Criteria

The deadlines for PhD applications with financial aid requests are January 5 for fall semester and September 29 for spring semester. All SIE faculty are eligible to advise students enrolled in the SE PhD program. We accept applications from candidates with degrees from all engineering and some affiliated backgrounds. In some cases, candidates who do not have engineering or similar credentials will be offered conditional admission, which will require them to take selected undergraduate coursework in addition to the coursework required for their PhD. 

All candidates are evaluated by one or more of the SIE research subgroups. Some students are admitted directly into a specific research group with a specific advisor. Other candidates are admitted into a subgroup and are then connected with an advisor during the first year. 

Most accepted PhD students receive financial aid. Funding offers take the form of GRAs, GTAs and/or various fellowships. SIE is committed to acquiring the resources to fund PhD students for five years, contingent upon satisfactory progress toward the degree. The department’s default stipend for PhD students is $35,000 per year. 

Funded offers also include tuition and health insurance. Some PhD students are funded by third-party entities (e.g., their employer or government or military agencies), and a small number of students are self-funded. 

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Engineering School Requirements

Engineering School requirements for the PhD degree are described on the UVA Graduate School of Engineering’s information webpage. The page also addresses admission requirements, rules and regulations pertaining to financial assistance and outside employment, and other matters. The portion of the Engineering School’s website devoted to current graduate students contains many helpful resources, including required forms.

Time limit: All requirements for the PhD degree must be completed within seven years after matriculation to the program.

Coursework, Professional Development and Engagement

SIE has three general classes of PhD requirements: coursework, professional development, and academic engagement. These are described below. 

The SE program require relevant coursework to help students access foundational knowledge in their discipline while striking a balance between depth and breadth. All PhD students must take at least six credits of graduate coursework at UVA beyond the master’s degree. All PhD students, including those entering with an ME/MS from another institution, must complete at least six credits of SIE coursework. Students who earn an ME or MS degree at UVA en route to a PhD in SE may use SE credits from their master’s degree to meet this requirement. A minimum of 30 credits beyond the BS program is required for all Engineering School PhDs. The following requirements should be met: 

  • Mandatory Courses: SYS 6001 and 2 semesters of SYS 7096
  • Nine credit hours of foundation courses: 3 courses selected from SYS 6003, SYS 6005, SYS 6007, and SYS 6021.
  • Twelve credit hours of methodological courses: Students must take four courses from at least two of the methodological areas listed in the PhD Coursework document. The courses listed in each of the areas are only exemplars as course offerings change from year to year. Other courses in these areas may be used to fulfill methodological requirements as approved by the student’s doctoral advisory committee. Additionally, certain courses are listed in multiple areas. In these cases, the student must decide which area the course satisfies for their plan of study. Each course may only satisfy one area for the student’s plan of study.
  • Nine credit hours of research elective courses: These can be any 6000 and 7000 level courses that are chosen in consultation with the advisory committee to support the student’s research program.

Special Circumstances 

Prerequisites: The student who does not have the prerequisites (i.e., calculus, linear algebra, probability and statistics, computer programming) should take articulation courses. These courses cannot be used to satisfy the degree requirements. 

Equivalent Courses: The student who, prior to enrolling in our graduate program, has already taken a course equivalent to a core course may petition the graduate program director for the substitution of the core course by an elective course. Students that received automatic bulk transfer credits that are applied towards SEAS’s credit requirements must complete the SE Coursework Petition Form to receive credit towards their degree program requirements. The form will need to be completed to have graduate courses taken while enrolled in a previous graduate program evaluated towards SIE Foundations courses to determine if they can be used to fulfill any of your course requirements. Other transfer coursework taken in another STEM program will count towards the methodological and/or research electives. 

Transfer Credit: PhD students who have earned a master’s degree in a STEM field will receive an automatic bulk transfer of 24 graduate course credits toward SEAS’s total graded coursework credit requirement. PhD students who have earned a master’s degree in a non-STEM field will receive an automatic bulk transfer of 12 graduate course credits toward SEAS’s total graded coursework credit requirement. Students who receive a bulk transfer of credit may not transfer any additional credits toward the PhD degree. PhD students, that didn’t earn a master but took graduate level course, may transfer a maximum of 6 graduate course credits into their program of study. Only courses with a grade of B or better that have not been applied toward another degree may be transferred. The request for credit transfer must include the following documents: a completed Request Approval of Transfer Credits form, a description of course content and level, and an official transcript. The documents are provided to the SIE Student Services Coordinator to facilitate processing of the request. If the student is already admitted into a UVA program, then the request for credit transfer must be preapproved before the course is taken. 

The ultimate goal of an SE PhD is to give students the best possible preparation for their careers in research, government, or industry. The following professional training requirements help students prepare for the full spectrum of career choices: 

  • GTAs: Students typically serve as a GTA at some point over the course of their MS or PhD. GTAs will enroll for three credits (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, or S/U, basis) of SYS 6097 or SYS 9997 in a section corresponding to their supervising instructor. Receipt of one or more U grades for graduate instruction may endanger a student’s eligibility to serve as a GTA in future semesters. More information about the Engineering School’s language-skills requirements for international students serving as GTAs can be found on the Center for American English Language & Culture's Assessment website.
  • Research Dissemination: Students will disseminate their research via journal and conference papers. Before scheduling the final defense, students must have at least one first-authored paper with their research advisor published or accepted by a journal or peer-reviewed conference paper approved by their advisory committee. To aid in supporting student travel to conferences, all SIE PhD students are able to apply to receive a travel grant if their research adviser or fellowship is unable to fund their travel, conference registration, and lodging. To receive a travel grant, the student must be the primary author presenting a peer-reviewed publication. Additionally, their advisor must write a statement that there are no research funds to support travel. See the Doctoral Student Travel Grant section below for more information. 
  • Seminars and Defenses: SIE is committed to providing members of our community with the opportunity to learn from a wide range of scholars and practicing engineers through seminars. These seminars are organized as (a) our weekly Graduate Colloquium and (b) Distinguished Speakers invited by our faculty on an ad-hoc basis. As an essential component of graduate education, PhD students should register for at least two semesters (preferably in their first year) of SYS 7096 with zero credit hours. Students are expected to attend and participate actively in scheduled SIE and UVA seminars and student thesis/dissertation defenses. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, it is expected that seminars and defenses are held in person at the university. 
  • Academic Engagement: Doctoral students are valued members of SIE’s community of scholars. They are expected to be good citizens by engaging in departmental and school-wide events (e.g., milestone defenses, symposiums, workshops, social events). 

Each SIE PhD student is eligible to apply for a one-time travel grant of up to $1,500 to present their research at a peer-reviewed conference once during their tenure at UVA. To receive a travel grant, the student must be the primary author presenting a peer-reviewed publication. Additionally, their advisor must write a statement that there are no research funds to support travel. The one- time grant can be requested by using the SIE PhD Student Travel Fellowship Request Form. The request should be submitted at least 6 weeks prior to the conference date.

The three main milestones toward completion of an SE PhD are the qualifying exam, the dissertation proposal, and the dissertation defense. 

The typical timeline for the completion of the PhD in SIE is listed below. This timeline assumes that students enter the PhD after first completing a master’s degree. However, SIE also routinely accepts students directly into the PhD program without first requiring them to complete an MS. For these students, it may be valuable to extend the initial timeline by one year, in which case students can delay the qualifying exam until the end of their second year. The rest of the timeline then proceeds as shown below.

Engineering School policy allows a leave of absence (an action students can take after the completion of a semester, indicating that the student plans to be away from the university for at least one semester) for parental leave or serious personal or family illness; this requires notification to and approval from the appropriate department or program and the Office of Graduate Programs. When considering these options, students are urged to talk with their advisor, their program’s graduate director and the Engineering School’s graduate registrar. These individuals are committed to helping students find and navigate their best possible paths. Students must first obtain the approval of their advisor and the graduate director of the student’s program.

Typical timeline for doctoral students entering with a master’s degree. Students entering without an MS may need one extra year before taking the qualifying exam. Different research groups offer qualifying exams at different times of year.

Year 1

  • Establish a working relationship with the faculty advisor(s)
  • Begin coursework
  • Identify a research area and doctoral committee
  • Prepare a plan of study*
  • Pass the qualifying exam (August)

Year 2 

  • Finish coursework
  • Establish research
  • Present and defend dissertation proposal (March–June)

Year 3 

  • Continue research
  • Submit a paper for publication
  • Attend and present at a research conference

Years 4-5 (as needed)

  • Complete research
  • Publish additional papers or proceedings
  • Defend dissertation

*The plan of study form is for departmental use only. Students should file the form with an SIE student services coordinator and maintain a copy for themselves to access it whenever they convene their committee and/or complete a requirement. Official tracking for SEAS and SIE requirements are done using the student's academic requirements report in SIS.

Qualifying Exam

The principal objective of the qualifying exam (also referred to as the comprehensive exam and PhD exam) is to assess a student’s research aptitude and confirm that they have the skills necessary to make a substantive contribution in their field. The exam also provides an opportunity for students to receive early, individualized feedback regarding their strengths and weaknesses in research and foundational knowledge. 

The goal of the qualifying exam is not to directly assess any content in required courses but to provide a comprehensive use of the foundational principles and methods in research. Thus, students must have already specified the required coursework they will take for their program before taking the qualifying exam. Required coursework varies by concentration, the student’s anticipated dissertation topic, and the recommendation of the student’s committee members. 

Successful students will demonstrate that they can:

  • Understand, interpret and critically evaluate relevant literature.
  • Analyze data (via experiments, observations, surveys, simulation, etc.) and draw meaningful conclusions.
  • Apply technical/engineering tools, concepts, coursework and/or approaches to gain insight on real-world problems.
  • Effectively communicate results in both oral and written formats.
  • Answer questions and respond to critical feedback when sharing, defending and revising their ideas.

The examination consists of two parts, written and oral. The following guidelines apply.

The examining committee will include three to five members. At least two of the committee members must be from the candidate’s main research area. At least three of the members must be faculty members with non-zero percentage appointments in SIE. External (non- SIE) or courtesy faculty may be a part of the committee but do not count toward the program requirement. In most instances, the qualifying committee contains many of the same members as the student’s dissertation advisory committee. However, this is not mandatory. 

The chair of the qualifying exam committee should be from the student’s home program but cannot be the student’s advisor. The chair will be responsible for collecting and delivering feedback to the student, as explained below. 

Students should work with their advisor to identify a qualifying exam committee and schedule their exam to take place no later than the end of their second year in the SIE department. Some students may be ready earlier, and if the committee is amenable, they may take the exam after completion of the required coursework for their program. The student should send a completed Recommendation and Certification of Doctoral Advisory Committee form to SIE student services coordinator by the end of the semester preceding the examination. The form should be submitted no later than two weeks prior to the date of the written exam component. 

The faculty recognizes that preparing for and taking the qualifying exam can be one of the more stressful periods of the PhD program. However, framing the exam as a research aptitude assessment is intended to make it such that “preparing for the exam” and “doing research” can be one and the same. Students should meet with each of their committee members prior to beginning t

Students will work with their individual examination committees to identify dates for the written and oral components of the exam. They should then work backward from those dates to complete the activities summarized below. 

Once the written exam date has been selected, students should prepare a two-page document that (i)outlines their research area and explains how it will advance knowledge in their PhD discipline and (ii) provides a preliminary reading list (e.g., research papers, book chapters, policybriefs) organized by topic to be used in their qualifying exam. They should circulate thesematerials to their committee members no later than one month before their scheduled exam date.Committee members will have one week to respond to the student with suggested modificationsto their proposed reading list. The student will then circulate the final reading list to the wholecommittee no later than two weeks before the scheduled exam date. It is recommended thatstudents start this process early so they can have a thoughtful, engaged dialogue with thecommittee and prepare a comprehensive reading list.

The student’s examination committee will then prepare their questions based upon the research overview and finalized reading list. They will forward the questions to the advisor and other committee members before the exam with adequate time for everyone to evaluate the exam as a whole before it begins. 

The student will work on the exam for up to seven days; however, individual faculty may specify time limits for their own individual questions. Students will submit their solutions to the examination committee at the end of the exam period. Each committee member will score their own questions using the a-e criteria of the SIE Qualifying Exam Assessment Form. Each committee member should complete their own scoring prior to the oral exam. 

The oral exam will consist of two parts: 1) a brief prepared presentation summarizing the questions and the student’s responses to the questions and 2) follow-up questions from the committee. There is no stipulated duration for the oral exam. However, a one-hour oral exam period is recommended with approximately 30 minutes devoted to presentation and 30 minutes allotted for questions. Once the oral exam has concluded, each committee member will re-score their question, again using the a-e criteria and the SIE Qualifying Exam Assessment Form (see Table 4-4). The chair is responsible for collecting and organizing feedback from the committee and then communicating it to the student after the exam. A key objective for the exam is to give students individualized feedback on their unique strengths and weaknesses.

The outcome of the exam is determined collectively by the examination committee choosing from four options: pass with distinction, pass, pass with remediation, or fail. The committee weighs both parts of the exam (written and oral) at its discretion when determining the outcome. The chair is responsible for communicating the outcome of the exam and delivering feedback from the committee to the student after the exam. 

Students who do not pass, or pass with remediation, can retake the examination within six months. After two unsuccessful attempts, the student is dismissed from the PhD program. 

Note: A student must have approval from the academic advisor for forming their committee.

Dissertation Proposal

Formulation of a dissertation proposal is a key step toward completion of the PhD This milestone allows a student’s committee to make three important determinations:

  1. To assess whether the student’s knowledge of their chosen area and their understanding of relevant literature is adequate to complete a PhD.
  2. To recommend coursework, approaches/techniques and other resources that would facilitate or enhance the proposed work.
  3. To evaluate whether or not the proposed work, if completed, would constitute an acceptable basis for a doctoral dissertation.

Selection of a PhD committee is an important component of the dissertation proposal process, insofar as the committee is responsible for helping the candidate navigate their path to the PhD. The PhD committee approves a candidate’s plan of study, including coursework, teaching, dissertation proposal and the final dissertation. SIE faculty place high value on interdisciplinarity and crosscutting collaborative research. Accordingly, we are firmly committed to letting each student work with their research adviser to select a committee that best supports their scholarly and professional development. PhD candidates must adhere to both the committee composition rules set by SEAS as well as by the department. The requirements are outlined below: 

  • SEAS Requirements: The final dissertation committee must include a minimum of three Engineering School faculty with a minimum of four UVA faculty and a minimum of five total members; one of the UVA members (the external member) must be from outside SIE. At least three of the dissertation committee members must have non-zero appointments in SIE.
  • SIE Courtesy faculty member policy: Courtesy faculty members appointed by SIE may serve as the primary adviser of a PhD student. Courtesy faculty members that are not the primary adviser can count towards either an internal or external member.
  • SIE Committee composition rules: Final committee composition should consist of no fewer two SIE faculty members with greater than 50% appointment. The committee chair should also have a primary appointment in SIE.

Finally, it is strongly recommended that the dissertation proposal committee consist of all five faculty members that would be on the final defense; however, it is acceptable for a dissertation proposal committee to have four instead of five members, in which case the fifth person is added before the final defense. 

The dissertation proposal consists of both a written document and an oral presentation. The written document should discuss the proposed work, contributions, preliminary results to date, and research timeline in a concise manner. Proposal documents should not exceed 15 single- spaced pages (or 30 double-spaced pages). The bibliography and any appendices (appendices are not required to be read by the student’s committee) are not included in this page limit. Significant departures from these guidelines must be approved in advance by the student’s proposal committee. The written proposal document must be submitted to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the proposal presentation.

All members of the committee evaluate the proposal and generate a preliminary assessment of the candidate’s achievement of the following research skills: a) identifying relevant problems of interest, b) interpreting existing literature, c) generating hypotheses, d) collecting data (via experiment, observation, modeling and/or simulation), e) interpreting results and drawing conclusions, f) communicating results (in oral and written formats), g) answering questions and defending their work, and h) commenting/critiquing on the work of others. 

The oral defense of a dissertation proposal is advertised within SIE and Engineering School. All interested parties are welcome to attend. The candidate gives a brief overview (20 to 30 minutes) of their proposed dissertation research, then takes questions from the audience and their committee. The committee then deliberates and decides whether the candidate has passed. The committee also reviews the student’s transcript and plan of study to recommend additional coursework or other relevant training if necessary. In this way, the emphasis of the dissertation proposal will be on supporting student growth, rather than just deciding who passes/fails. Candidates who fail the exam must take it again within six months. The chair of the candidate’s committee takes the lead in identifying an appropriate format and timeline for the second-chance defense. Students who do not pass on their second attempt are dismissed from the PhD program. 

It is the candidate’s responsibility to email the SIE student services coordinator their announcement information which consists of the committee members list with the chair and advisor identified, the meeting date, time, and location information, and the dissertation proposal title and abstract at least two weeks before the proposal. The SIE student services coordinator will provide the chairperson with the relevant forms (Dissertation Proposal and Admission to Candidacy and Dissertation Proposal Assessment) for the proposal defense. It is the candidate’s responsibility to bring their transcripts and plan of study. Each committee member is responsible for completing a research skills assessment and submitting it to the committee chair. The chair collates the feedback, submits an aggregated assessment form to the SIE student services coordinator (who sends it to the Engineering School registrar) and circulates the feedback to the candidate and their advisor within two weeks of the proposal. 

Finally, reiterating from Section 4.4 and Table 4-2, SIE students typically complete their proposal milestone at the end of Year 2, or the end of Year 3 if they enter the PhD without an MS. A revised Recommendation and Certification of Doctoral Advisory Committee form should be submitted to the SIE student services coordinator no later than two weeks before the scheduled proposal if the student has revised their committee since their qualifying exam and/or have added the fourth committee member. Proposal defenses are typically scheduled from March through June. 

Final Defense

The final dissertation defense is the culminating step of the PhD process. The main objective of this milestone is to confirm that the completed research constitutes a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge in the student’s field of study. A secondary objective is to ensure that the written quality of the final document is adequate to highlight the value of the work and make it accessible for an educated audience. Often, there are intermediate meetings with the committee between the proposal and the defense to Students are eligible to defend their dissertation once they have completed all other requirements, including the publication requirement. The final defense committee must have five members (see Section 4.4.3). There is no required format for the dissertation. Rather, the candidate should work with their committee to prepare a satisfactory document. The candidate should circulate the final dissertation to their committee no later than two weeks before the oral defense date. Final defenses are advertised within the SIE and Engineering School. All interested parties are welcome to attend. The candidate gives a brief overview (30 to 35 minutes) of their dissertation research. The candidate then takes questions from the audience and their committee. The committee deliberates and decides about whether the candidate has passed. 

It is the candidate’s responsibility to email the SIE student services coordinators their announcement information which consists of the committee members list with the chair and advisor identified, the meeting date, time, and location information, and the dissertation defense title and abstract at least two weeks before the final defense. The SIE student services coordinators will provide the chairperson with the relevant forms(Report on Final Examination and Thesis and Dissertation Assessment) for the final defense. The chairperson will return the completed forms back to them after the final defense. 

PhD candidates must apply for graduation in SIS at the beginning of the semester in which they’re expected to graduate. In addition, after successful completion of the final defense, the candidate must submit the dissertation via Libra  (see Graduation Procedure) and complete the Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Administrative Forms

It is important that graduate students submit administrative forms related to degree requirements in a timely manner to the SIE student services coordinators. These forms can be found on the Engineering School’s webpage for current engineering graduate students.

The information contained on this website is for informational purposes only.  The Undergraduate Record and Graduate Record represent the official repository for academic program requirements. These publications may be found here.