Ph.D. in Civil Engineering

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

The Ph.D. in Civil 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. ESE 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 Civil Engineering Ph.D. program, or download the ESE Graduate Handbook

Admissions Criteria

The deadlines for Ph.D. applications with financial aid requests are Jan. 6 for fall semester and Sept. 30 for spring semester. Applicants may apply to both the CE and SE programs concurrently. All ESE faculty are eligible to advise students enrolled in the CE and/or SE Ph.D. programs. 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 Ph.D.

All candidates are evaluated by one or more of the ESE 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 Ph.D. students receive financial aid. Funding offers take the form of GRAs, GTAs and/or various fellowships. ESE is committed to acquiring the resources to fund Ph.D. students for five years, contingent upon satisfactory progress toward the degree. The department’s default stipend for Ph.D. students is $30,450.

Funded offers also include tuition and health insurance. Some Ph.D. 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.

Engineering School Requirements

Engineering School requirements for the Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. degree must be completed within seven years after matriculation to the program.

Coursework, Professional Development and Engagement

ESE has three general classes of Ph.D. requirements: coursework, professional development, and academic engagement. These are described below.

  • Coursework

    The CE program requires relevant coursework to help students access foundational knowledge in their discipline while striking a balance between depth and breadth. All ESE Ph.D. students must take at least six credits of graduate coursework at UVA beyond the master’s degree. All ESE Ph.D. students, including those entering with an MS from another institution, must complete at least six credits of ESE coursework. Students who earn an ME or MS degree at UVA en route to a Ph.D. in ESE may use ESE 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 Ph.D.s. Each degree program has its own coursework requirements. 

    Civil Engineering Ph.D. Coursework Requirements: 

    • Two core courses from any CE ME framework* (EWRE, STR, TRN, ISE, CEM) 
    • Two additional courses selected from the core, SSRR and/or technical electives of any CE ME framework*

    *See this portion of the ESE website.

  • Professional Development and Academic Engagement

    The ultimate goal of an ESE Ph.D. 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 will serve as GTA for at least one semester. GTAs will enroll for three credits (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, or S/U, basis) of CE 8001 or SYS 6097 in a section corresponding to their supervising instructor. ESE students assigned as GTA for Applied Math (APMA) courses will register for APMA 8897, again in the section corresponding to their supervising instructor. A GTA assignment will not count toward the teaching requirement if the student does not receive an S grade. Receipt of one or more U grades for graduate instruction may endanger a student’s eligibility to serve as GTA in future semesters. More information about the Engineering School’s language-skills requirements for international students serving as GTAs can be found here. In special circumstances, a student may petition their committee to substitute a substantive alternative professional development and/or specialized training experience (e.g., externship) for one of the two required GTA experiences. This determination is at the discretion of the committee and approval of the graduate programs director.
    • Research Dissemination: Students will disseminate their research via papers and conferences. Before scheduling the final defense, students must have at least one “first-authored” paper with their advisor published or accepted by a journal or peer-reviewed conference paper approved by their advisory committee. In addition, students must have presented at least one paper at a conference. To support students’ travel, all ESE Ph.D. students are eligible to receive a travel grant. See the Doctoral Student Travel Grant section below.
    • Seminars and Defenses: ESE 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, led by our Graduate Student Council, and (b) Distinguished Speakers invited by our faculty on an ad-hoc basis. As an essential component of graduate education, Ph.D. students should register for at least two semesters (preferably in their first year) of CE 7001 or SYS 7096 with zero credit hours. Students are expected to attend and participate actively in scheduled ESE and UVA seminars and student thesis/dissertation defenses.
    • Academic Engagement: Doctoral students are valued members of ESE’s community of scholars. They are expected to be good citizens of ESE by engaging in departmental and schoolwide events (e.g., milestone defenses, symposiums, workshops, social events). Section 5 provides more information about the role of the ESE Graduate Student Council and opportunities for students to be involved in departmental leadership.
  • Doctoral Student Travel Grant

    Each ESE Ph.D. student is eligible for a travel grant of up to $1,500 to present their research at a peer-reviewed conference. This is for one time during their academic career, and approval from academic advisors is required. The one time grant can be requested by using the ESE PhD Student Travel Fellowship Request Form. The request should be submitted at least 6 weeks prior to the conference date.

  • Milestones

    The three main milestones toward completion of an ESE Ph.D. are the qualifying exam, the dissertation proposal and the dissertation defense. 

    The typical timeline for the completion of the Ph.D. in ESE is listed below. This timeline assumes that students enter the Ph.D. after first completing a master’s degree; however, ESE also routinely accepts students directly into the Ph.D. 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 ESE 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
    • Continue or complete teaching requirement (as a GTA)
    • Submit a paper for publication
    • Attend and present at a research conference
    Years 4-5 (as needed)
    • Complete research
    • Continue or complete teaching requirement (as a GTA)
    • Publish additional papers or proceedings
    • Defend dissertation

    *The PLAN OF STUDY FORM is for departmental use only. Students should file the form with an ESE 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 Engineering School and ESE requirements is done using the academic requirements report.

Qualifying Exam

The principal objective of the qualifying exam (also referred to as the comprehensive exam and Ph.D. 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 program and concentration. 

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.

  • Committee Composition

    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 ESE. External (non- ESE) 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.

  • Committee Creation and Preliminary Scheduling

    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 ESE 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 ESE student services coordinators 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 Ph.D. 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 their exam preparations so they can discuss how the candidate can best make use of their time.

  • Structure and Format of Exam

    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. It should be noted that some groups of faculty give their qualifying exams once a year at a particular time (e.g., TRN in August after the first year, EWRE in January of the second year). The ESE-wide exam structure is intended to be compatible with and accommodating to those practices.

    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, including in their PhD discipline (civil or systems engineering), (ii) describes how their past, current, and future coursework aligns with their research and career goals, and (iii) provides a preliminary reading list (e.g., research papers, book chapters, policy briefs) organized by topic to be used in their qualifying exam. They should circulate these materials 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 modifications to their proposed reading list. The student will then circulate the final reading list to the whole committee no later than two weeks before the scheduled exam date. It is recommended that students start this process early so they can have a thoughtful, engaged dialogue with the committee 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 question using the a-e criteria of the ESE Qualifying Exam Assessment Form. Each committee member should complete their 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. Once the oral exam has concluded, each committee member will rescore their question, again using the a-e criteria and the ESE Qualifying Exam Assessment Form. 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.

  • Exam Outcomes

    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 Ph.D. program.

  • Forms

    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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D.
  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.

The selection of a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. The Ph.D. committee approves a candidate’s plan of study, including coursework, teaching, dissertation proposal and the final dissertation. ESE faculty places high value on interdisciplinarity and crosscutting collaborative research. Accordingly, we are firmly committed to letting each student pick a committee that best supports their scholarly and professional development. Ph.D. candidates are not subject to any committee composition rules beyond the Engineering School requirements. The Engineering School rules are as follows: The final dissertation committee must include a minimum of three Engineering School faculty, 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 ESE; and at least three of the members must be faculty members with non-zero percentage appointments in ESE. It is ESE policy that graduate students may use a courtesy appointed faculty member as either an internal or external member. It is strongly recommended that the dissertation proposal committee consists 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 the ESE and Engineering School. All interested parties are welcome to attend. The candidate gives a brief overview (20 to 25 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 Ph.D. program.

It is the candidate’s responsibility to email the ESE 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 proposal title and abstract at least two weeks before the proposal. The ESE student services coordinators 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 ESE student services coordinators (who sends it to the Engineering School register) and circulates the feedback to the candidate and their advisor within two weeks of the proposal.

ESE students typically complete their proposal milestone at the end of Year 2, or the end of Year 3 if they enter the Ph.D. without an MS. A revised Recommendation and Certification of Doctoral Advisory Committee form should be submitted to the ESE student services coordinators 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 Ph.D. process. The main objective of this milestone is to confirm that the completed research constitutes a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge in our field. 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 discuss various topics from data to preliminary results.

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. 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 ESE and Engineering School. All interested parties arewelcome to attend. The candidate gives a brief overview (30 to 35 minutes) of their dissertation research, then takes questions from the audience and their committee. The committee then deliberates and decides about whether the candidate has passed.

It is the candidate’s responsibility to email the ESE 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 ESE 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.

Ph.D. 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 ESE student services coordinators. These forms can be found on the Engineering School’s webpage for current engineering graduate students.