Preparation of the PhD Qualifying Exam Proposal

The Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) PhD Qualifying Exam is intended to allow the candidate to demonstrate depth of understanding in his/her chosen area of research, and to demonstrate the ability to use the scientific method to identify and solve research problems. The main elements of the examination process will be a Research Proposal and an Oral Defense of that proposal.

Research Proposal

The research proposal is intended to justify a body of research based in part on preliminary research during the first year in the PhD program. It should describe a specific novel scientific or technological objective and a program of research designed to achieve that objective. Examples of research objectives that are typically advanced in proposals include:

  • an improved understanding of physical phenomena
  • development of a new or improved measurement or analysis technique
  • investigation of an unknown structure-processing-property relationship
  • development of new technologies or devices

The proposal should include one or more clearly stated hypotheses related to the chosen research objective.

Design of the Research Program

The proposed research plan should clearly indicate how the proposed research will prove or disprove the stated hypothesis, thereby achieving the research objectives. Design of the research program should address the following questions:

  • How will high quality data relevant to the achievement of the research objective will be developed?
  • What are the important independent and dependent variables to be examined.
  • What experimental and/or computational techniques will be used?
  • Why are these techniques the most appropriate ones to use?
  • What are the errors and/or uncertainties associated with these techniques.
  • How will the results of the research be evaluated?
  • How will the uncertainties discussed above be evaluated.
  • How will the data analysis be used to support the research objective stated in the proposal?

The research proposal should be directly related to the ongoing graduate research program of the candidate, and the candidate should be familiar with the associated scientific and/or engineering concepts at a first year graduate student level. The proposed research may, or may not, coincide with research the candidate will actually perform in the PhD research program, and the proposal is not intended to constrain the candidate or advisor in the conduct of the doctoral research project.

Required Elements

Below are required elements. Other elements may be included at the candidate's discretion, but the total length of the proposal should not exceed the 15 pages discussed below under format.

  • Title page with Abstract: The title page should include the title of the proposed research project, the proposer's name and affiliation (Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Michigan Technological University), the date of submission, the organization to whom the proposal is submitted (MTU-MSE Graduate Program Committee). The abstract should clearly indicate the topic and objective of the proposed research. The abstract should be short enough that it will fit on the title page.
  • Research Objectives: A strong proposal is driven by clear research objectives and strong, solid hypotheses related to those objectives. The reviewer should clearly understand the thrust of the research after reading this portion of the proposal.
  • Background and Significance: This section should summarize the background essential to understand the research topic, and how the proposed research will achieve the objectives. It should also help the reader to appreciate the significance the proposed research. This section should critically evaluate relevant literature, explain what is not currently known about the topic and present hypotheses concerning what is unknown. Preliminary (unpublished) results may be presented here for the purpose of illustrating either the scientific background or the research objectives.
  • Proposed Research: This section should briefly, but clearly, describe the specific experiments or calculations to be performed in order to achieve the previously stated research objectives. It should state how the results each experiment or calculation will be interpreted to prove or disprove the hypotheses posed in the objectives. Preliminary (unpublished) results may be used here to illustrate the relevance of the proposed experimental approach(es) or their interpretation.
  • Summary and Significance: This section should briefly summarize the proposed research and the hypothesis that will be addressed. It should also expand on the new understanding that will result from the research, and its significance to the broader field of materials science and engineering.

Proposal format

The proposal length, not including the title page or the list of cited references should not exceed 15 pages.

  • Page format: The body of the proposal should have 1-inch margins at the top, bottom, and both sides. Type should be 12-point font, single space. The first line of each paragraph should be indented 0.5-inch, and body paragraphs should be single-spaced and left-aligned.
  • Headers and Footers: Each page following the title page should have headers and footer. The candidate's last name should be left-aligned in the header and the date of submission should be right-aligned in the header. The footer should show the page number and total number of pages.
  • Figures: Each figure must have a numbered caption that describes it and calls out any specific features that are discussed in the body of the proposal. The first line of the caption should be outdented (left hanging) approximately 0.75 inch to allow the figure number to be set to the left of the caption.
  • Tables: Tables should be numbered consecutively, with the table number and title centered above the table. Unless they exceed one page in length, page breaks should not occur within a table.
  • Equations: Equations should be presented as a separate line following their introduction in the narrative text of the proposal. Consecutive equation numbers should be provided in parentheses at the right margin.
  • Cited Literature: Literature cited in the proposal should be indicated by numbers in square brackets. Citation numbers should be introduced sequentially throughout the proposal, and correspond to a list of cited literature at the end of the proposal. The format for literature citations should follow those for author instructions to Metallurgical and Materials Transactions A.

Help available for development of research proposals

Candidates should feel free to ask others to read and comment on the clarity of their research proposals. They should also feel free to make use of the Michigan Tech Writing Center for help with grammar and style. Candidates should not, however, enlist advisors or colleagues as un-named second authors or editors of their proposals. The proposals are intended to represent the candidate's own intellectual product, and should not represent the writing of others.

Oral Defense of Proposal

The proposal must be submitted to the examining committee at least 2 weeks prior to the scheduled date of the oral defense. The oral defense itself will consist of a short presentation (25 minutes) of the proposed research, followed by oral examination of the student by the committee. The oral examination may address any topic related to the written proposal or the oral presentation.