The purpose of this page is to provide general guidelines for a typical graduate trajectory in the Environmental Science and Engineering (ESE) program. The focus is on the key milestones between matriculation and the thesis defense. There can be situations that cause an individual's timeline to differ, which is always possible if communicated and agreed upon ahead of time with the ESE option representative, the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC), and thesis adviser(s). Finally, this page should not be a substitute for open and frequent communication about your plans and progress with advisors and mentors in the ESE program.
Graduate student orientation occurs in mid- to late-September about a week before fall terms start. Prior to arriving on campus, students are assigned a first-year "buddy" (a current graduate student in the ESE program) who can provide informal peer mentorship. During orientation, the ESE option representative will meet with the incoming graduate students, share this timeline (posted on the ESE website), and address any questions. This is also the time when students can discuss course selection for the fall term. During this meeting, the ESE option representative should discuss their role as well as those of the Graduate Student Office, the Linde Center, GPS Academic Committee, ESE student representative, and faculty advisers. During the first year, the option representative is responsible for approving course selection (although students should consult potential thesis advisers as well) and serves as the overall adviser for all first-year graduate students. It is the responsibility of the ESE option representative to meet with the first year graduate students once per term in the first year to discuss progress.
During the fall term, students should identify at least one of their two proposition advisers. It is the responsibility of the student to independently, or in consultation with the ESE option representative, contact faculty members to initiate conversations about proposition projects.
Students should continue to work towards establishing two proposition projects. It is the responsibility of the option representative to contact each first-year student at the start of winter term to check on progress and provide advice on confirming advisers as needed. The ESE Core Committee will meet with the first-year students during winter term to discuss the format of and answer questions about the qualifying exam (held in September). At this time students should be made aware of resources available through Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS). It is the responsibility of the student to make the Core Committee aware of any accommodations that may be necessary during the qualifying exam.
First year students must submit tentative proposition titles and the names of proposition advisers to Julie Lee by the end of winter term. Proposition advisers must confirm/approve the project titles. The Core Committee will approve that the two projects are sufficiently different by the start of spring term. Students will be notified at this time if they can continue their two propositions or whether one needs to be adjusted. The ESE Core Committee may request additional clarification from students about research directions and analysis techniques in order to approve topics.
Students should now be advancing both propositions and must complete two short reports by the end of the spring term. A template will be provided, but the report should be no more than one page with 2-3 bullet points under the headings Project Motivation, Activities to Date, and Future Plans (to be completed by the student) and Recommendations (to be completed by the adviser). The report must be signed by both the student and project adviser, submitted to Julie Lee and will be reviewed by the Core Committee.
By the end of July, students and proposition advisers must meet and review progress based on the spring reports. Julie Lee will mail the spring reports to both student and adviser. The student and adviser should update plans, if necessary, and discuss whether progress has been adequate. Advisers should highlight aspects of the student's work that have been successful and areas where the student needs to improve; advisers should make concrete recommendations to address these issues.
At the end of summer term (during the month of September), qualifying exams will be held. See discussion below on the qualifying exam.
Upon successful completion of the qualifying exam, students should formalize their research adviser(s) by the end of fall term. Students are required to meet jointly with both proposition advisors and identify a short-term (6-12 month) research plan that may include completion of proposition projects or a new research direction. This meeting may also be a time to start identifying potential members of the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC). It is the responsibility of the student to organize the proposition adviser meeting; this meeting need not last long if the primary thesis adviser and short-term research plan is clear.
Students who do not pass the qualifying exam may petition the ESE Core Committee to retake the exam. These petitions are typically granted, but first-year spring reports may be considered by the Core Committee in this decision. Qualifying exam re-takes should be completed no later than the end of winter term, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Graduate students remain in good academic standing throughout this process.
Unlike in GPS, ESE does not have a formal academic adviser who is separate from the thesis adviser. This role can be filled by the ESE option representative or a member of the TAC, who is less involved in the research. Students are encouraged to identify a faculty member who is distinct from the primary thesis adviser and can provide advice on academic progress. This adviser should be asked if they would be willing to serve as a mentor with broad responsibility for a student's academic welfare throughout the graduate program.
We recommend that all graduate students organize their first Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting before the end of the second year, even if the TAC is not fully formed (additional members may be added at a later time). The student is responsible for initiating a conversation with their research adviser(s) on suitable TAC members before the spring term. The student must complete a short annual report before each TAC meeting; a template will be provided. The report should be a two-page summary of the student's research progress during their second year (~1.5 pages) as well as plans for the start of the third year (~0.5 pages). Reports should be sent to the entire TAC roughly a week before the meeting and should be submitted to Julie Lee after the meeting is over, if no major changes have been requested. It is the student's responsibility to organize the TAC meeting and submit the TAC report to Julie Lee; the ESE option representative will monitor whether TAC meetings are being held regularly.
At this point, most students focus primarily on their thesis research. Research progress can vary greatly during this period of your thesis work. This is an important time to keep open communication with your thesis adviser, your TAC, and other mentors regarding expectations about research results, experiments, publications, field work, summer schools, conference presentations/attendance, etc. It is primarily the student's responsibility to initiate conversations outside of TAC and candidacy meetings, but the ESE option representative and TAC members should be viewed as resources to help initiate these conversations.
We recommend that all graduate students advance to candidacy prior to the end of spring term of the third year. Details of what is required to advance to candidacy are listed below (note that there are differences in GPS and ESE candidacy requirements).
Students that have advanced to candidacy should continue to hold TAC meetings and submit a TAC report annually until the completion of the thesis. We appreciate that certain circumstances may lead students and thesis advisers to hold candidacy during the fall term of the fourth year. However, any student who has not advanced to candidacy by the end of the fall term of their fourth year must petition the ESE option representative and the GPS Academic Committee to complete this during the winter or spring term. In these cases, the student must submit a short written report that provides the reason for the delay in candidacy and proposes a plan to reach candidacy before the end of the spring term. Students who have not advanced to candidacy after their fourth year will have their registration put on hold and will need to petition the Academic Committee to continue in the degree program
Most students defend their thesis in their fifth or sixth year of graduate school. Starting from the beginning of the fifth year, it is important to hold regular discussions with your thesis adviser(s) and TAC about the timeline to graduation. It is the joint responsibility of the student and adviser to find a suitable time and date for graduation so that all members of the students' thesis committee can attend. Once a date has been decided, this should be communicated to Julie Lee who will help organize a seminar room and will advertise the defense to the Division.
The examination's purpose is to provide a structured and, as far as possible, objective basis for determining whether students can successfully complete the requirements of a PhD in a reasonable period of time. The examination is designed to be a challenging but fair opportunity for students to display both general knowledge in their field (based on first-year coursework and reading of relevant scientific literature) and their ability to motivate and develop research projects (based on the first-year propositions). The qualifying exam also provides an opportunity to identify areas where research skills and adviser-student mentoring can be strengthened.
The qualifying examination consists of an oral presentation of two research propositions, supplemented by a written description of one of them. Students will also be expected to relate these projects to more general aspects of their field, especially those that would have been covered in the students' first-year course work. Students are encouraged to consult with various faculty members concerning their ideas on propositions, but the proposition slides and written report must represent the work of the student. There must be a different faculty member associated with each of the two propositions. All propositions must have a Caltech faculty member as an adviser, although external scientists, e.g. JPL colleagues, may contribute or even lead the mentoring, if appropriate. In these cases, it is the responsibility of the student to discuss the mentoring plan with the ESE option representative for these propositions.
A student's propositions are based on research projects carried out during the first year of residence. It is important that the student demonstrates the ability to carry out meaningful research on a given topic, to place the work in the context of previous knowledge, and to recognize the implications and possible interpretations of the proposition.
It is not necessary to have final results, a working computer program, a functioning piece of equipment, or fully analyzed data in order to have a successful proposition. More often, the proposition will be a carefully-worded explanation of what has been learned up to the time of the examination, together with a discussion of the implications that might be forthcoming with either more data or more sophisticated analysis. Naturally the proposition may be supported by evidence: maps, figures, photographs, samples, etc., but these need not be in final form or represent the last word on the subject and should be limited in number.
The student must choose propositions dealing with subjects pertinent to more than one research area within the ESE program. Faculty from GPS, EAS, or other divisions may serve as proposition advisers. The student should demonstrate versatility by choosing proposition topics that will provide experience in different types of tools or methods. The propositions defined by the student should not deal with the same topic as investigated by different techniques, nor should they represent different research problems studied with the tools of a single discipline. In the course of developing successful propositions, it is essential that each student seek the advice of faculty. Consultation with postdoctoral scholars and senior graduate students is also encouraged. The name of the faculty member most closely involved should appear on the written abstract of each proposition. The same faculty member should not be the most closely involved with both propositions.
The timeline to the quals is as follows:
- Winter term: Students meet with ESE Core Committee; students communicate any requests for accommodations (potentially in consultation with Caltech Accessibility Services for Students); two proposition titles and adviser names are submitted to the Core Committee for approval. The Core Committee will provide notice to the students if these have been approved by the start of spring term.
- Spring term: Students submit two short reports to Julie Lee based on a provided template; the Core Committee reviews these reports.
- Summer term: Students and advisers should review spring reports and update plans as needed; qualification exam times and examination committee members are scheduled in early summer and communicated to the students. We aim to have most exams completed before the start of fall term.
The student's written abstract and the 12-minute presentation summarizing the proposition should be carefully designed by the student to concisely convey to the examining committee the motivation behind the research project, the results of the investigation thus far, and any implications for broader issues in climate science, environmental microbiology, atmospheric chemistry or geochemistry, etc. The organization of the presentation is up to the student, but the student should understand that the presentation is the principal vehicle by which most of the examining committee will be introduced to the proposition, and by which the initial questions are motivated.
Thesis Advisory Committee meetings
The purpose of the Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) is to establish a small group of faculty members and senior scientists that can provide mentorship to students on research, career paths, scientific communication, and other aspects of a successful scientific career. Students are required to meet with their TAC annually, but TAC members should be willing to provide advice and support to their advisees throughout their time in GPS. The purpose of the TAC meetings is to both assess student progress and to provide guidance on future research directions.
During the second year, students should consult with their academic adviser and thesis adviser (or a faculty proposition adviser if a thesis adviser is not yet determined) to select a TAC. The TAC should be composed of at least four members, three of which must be division faculty. We recommend that the student choose a TAC chair who is distinct from the research adviser and can serve as a broad academic mentor. Students are encouraged to invite specialists from outside the division or external to Caltech. This is an opportunity to include expertise and representation that may be lacking in the Division, but would be beneficial to the student, as well as to develop a broader network of mentors. TAC membership should be approved by the student's thesis adviser. TAC members may provide research feedback, contribute to building a student's scientific network, and offer career advice. TAC members should be kept informed about research progress. TAC membership may change if a student's research direction shifts or there is a need to bring in additional expertise.
Before each TAC meeting, the student should provide a written report to the TAC committee roughly a week prior to the meeting. This report should include:
(i) A one-page summary of the thesis research. This serves as a reminder to TAC members of the overarching scientific questions and objectives of the thesis research.
(ii) A half-page summary of accomplishments from the previous year;
(iii) A half-page description of research plans for the upcoming year.
When the student and thesis adviser have determined a realistic date for completion of the thesis dissertation, the TAC evolves into the thesis examining committee. Some advisory committee members may leave the committee, and GPS division policy may require that others be added.
Candidacy is a formal recognition of a student's completion of their qualification examination and course requirements, the identification of thesis research topic as well as one or more thesis advisers.
Advancement to candidacy, including all required coursework, should be completed before the end of spring term in the student's third year of residency, or the equivalent of 9 academic terms if the student has been on leave. Students are recommended to advance to candidacy following the successful completion of a candidacy exam with their Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC). The exam, consisting of both a written Ph.D. thesis proposal and an oral presentation supporting this plan is required. Both the written and oral exams must be approved by all TAC members to successfully advance to candidacy.
The primary objective of the oral presentation (about 20 minutes) is to present the thesis proposal and to receive direct feedback, thus not an "exam". Students should provide a brief outline of the general scientific motivation as well as work that has already been performed. However, the primary focus of the oral presentation is to describe the proposed research that will comprise the thesis. A timeline to completion should also be included.
Advancement to candidacy is not the same as the qualifying exam. If you have been having regular contact with your research advisers, then this is an opportunity to get feedback and agree upon a clear path towards the completion of your PhD. However, it is essential that all TAC members agree with the proposed plan of research. If you have not had communication with other TAC members and there are concerns about the research plan, then the student will be asked to revise the presentation and plan until it is deemed satisfactory. These requirements may include requirements that a baseline level of research is completed.