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College of Arts & Sciences
Department of Geography

Ph.D. Program Requirements

I. Coursework, Course Load, and Coursework Planning 

II. Admission to Candidacy

III. Comprehensive Examination

IV. The Dissertation

V.Teaching Experience

VI. Presentation of a Full-Length Research Talk

VII. Academic Progress

VIII.Student Rights and Recourse Student Rights and Recourse


Coursework, Course Load, and Coursework Planning

The doctoral degree requires a minimum of 33 post-master’s-degree credit hours. This includes a minimum of 21 hours of coursework plus a minimum of 12 hours of dissertation preparation (GEOG 899). At least one-half of the credit hours listed in the student’s Doctoral Program of Study, exclusive of dissertation credits hours, must be in courses numbered 700 or higher.  Students should be aware that courses more than 10 years old must be re-certified for inclusion on the Doctoral Program of Study. Students wishing to re-certify courses or to transfer credit from another program to their Doctoral Program of Study should consult the Graduate Bulletin

The 21 credit hours of coursework requirements include:

1. GEOG 801 — Contemporary Approaches to Geography (3 credit hours)

2. An advanced techniques course, taken at the 700 level or above, appropriate to the student’s specialization and dissertation topic and selected with advisor approval (3 credit hours).  Students may use a course outside of Geography to fulfill this requirement.

3. An 800-level advanced seminar in area of specialization (3 credit hours).  Students may use an 800-level course outside of Geography to fulfill this requirement.

4. Additional courses at the graduate level including at least one course outside of Geography (12 credit hours).  No more than than 6 credit hours of independent study in Geography (GEOG 705, 706, or 805) may appear on the Doctoral Program of Study.  No more than 9 hours of independent study with any designator may appear on the Doctoral Program of Study.

Please note the following: 

  • Doctoral students must have completed a statistics course (GEOG 531 or the equivalent) either at the Master’s or the Ph.D. level, in order to advance to candidacy.
  • Doctoral students who did not complete a thesis as part of a master's degree program are strongly encouraged to take GEOG 740: Research Trends in Geography (1 credit hour).
  • Students may not enroll in dissertation credit hours (GEOG 899) until they have successfully defended a dissertation proposal and completed any remediation of the proposal required by the committee (see details below).

The University considers 6 credit hours to be a full load for PhD students holding an assistantship, and 9 credit hours for students who do not hold an assistantship (see information below under 'The Dissertation' about special enrollment status for students nearing the completion of their degrees).  Ph.D. students on assistantships during the summer must be enrolled in at least one credit hour. The doctoral residency requirement is satisfied with 18 hours of coursework taken in 3 consecutive major semesters. Enrollment in a summer term is not required to maintain continuity, but credit hours earned during summer terms will count toward the 18 hours required for residency.

In planning coursework each semester, students should consult with their advisors using a Doctoral Program Worksheet. Students and advisors should keep a copy of the worksheet and should update it each semester.  Each semester, students will fill out an Advisement Form with the advisor in order to register for the next semester’s courses.  Students will not be cleared for registration until the advisement form has been filled out and submitted to the graduate program coordinator (Mr. Capers Stokes). The advisement form must be signed by the student and the advisor.  

Within the first 24 months of full-time enrollment, students must complete and submit a Doctoral Program of Study Form (D-POS). The D-POS is a list of courses that satisfy degree requirements. This form requires the signatures of the Department Chair, the student's advisor, the Graduate Director, and the Dean of the Graduate School. If necessary, an approved program of study can be modified with a Request for Program Adjustment Form (POSA). 

Admission to Candidacy

Three conditions must be met to be admitted to candidacy: 1) full admission to the doctoral program; 2) Graduate School approval of Doctoral Program of Study; and 3) the successful completion of GEOG 801, GEOG 531 or its equivalent, and completion of the advanced techniques course requirement with a grade of B or better.  Students must submit the PhD Qualifying Exam Form (the D-POS may be submitted with this form).  The date on the PhD Qualifying Exam Form should be the last day of the semester in which the student completes the three courses required for admission to candidacy. The admission to candidacy is normally completed within the first year of enrollment in the PhD program. 

Comprehensive Examination (including written exam, dissertation proposal, and oral defense of proposal)

Having advanced to candidacy, the Ph.D. student begins preparation for the comprehensive examination.  The comprehensive examination consists of a written exam (i.e.'comps'), the written Ph.D. dissertation proposal, and the oral defense of the proposal. Students may elect to do the proposal and the written exam concurrently or separately.  However, if done separately, the proposal defense and the written exam must take place within one regular semester (or the equivalent) of each other.  Students who elect to do the components of the comprehensive exam separately typically do the proposal first in order to qualify for enrollment in dissertation credit hours (to reiterate, students may not enroll in dissertation hours (GEOG 899) until they have successfully defended a proposal and completed any remediation required by the comprehensive examination committee).

The comprehensive examination committee is responsible for evaluating the quality of the student's dissertation proposal and for administering the written exam.  This committee must include at least four faculty members, including the student’s advisor, though PhD committees typically consist of only four faculty members. One committee member, but no more than one, must come from outside the Department of Geography.  Regular Graduate Faculty of any rank may serve on or chair comprehensive examination committees.  Research faculty who have been appointed to associate membership in the Graduate Faculty may also serve on or chair a doctoral committee.  Faculty members with term appointments to the Graduate Faculty may serve on, but may not chair, a comprehensive examination committee.  Once the comprehensive examination committee members have been selected, the student must complete a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request (G-DCA) and submit this form to the graduate program coordinator.

The dissertation proposal should be of a quality commensurate with a funding proposal to a nationally recognized funding agency and should include a clear set of research questions, a thorough literature review, an explanation of methods and data sources, and an explanation of how the dissertation research will make a meaningful contribution to relevant fields of study.  Normally the dissertation proposal defense takes place by the fourth semester of enrollment.  Students should allow their committee members at least two weeks (preferably three weeks) prior to the scheduled defense date to read the proposal.  The proposal defense is open to the public and should be announced to Geography faculty and graduate students via email at least one week ahead of time. The student, as well, should place a copy of the proposal in the departmental office at least one week ahead of the scheduled defense.  The defense typically involves a short public presentation (around 20 minutes) followed by a closed session with the committee.  In scheduling a defense date, students should be mindful of their committee members' availability to attend a defense, especially if the defense is to take place between terms or during summer terms.  Students should avoid scheduling a defense the first or last week of classes.  Students must bring a copy of the Dissertation Proposal Defense Form to the defense.  This form should be signed and submitted to the graduate program coordinator following successful completion of the proposal defense, including the completion of any required remediation.  Committees can allow the student a maximum of one month following the defense to complete remediation of the proposal. Students have ONE opportunity to remediate their proposals.  For more information about the proposal defense, please click here

The written exam normally occurs after students have completed their coursework or during the final semester of coursework.  The written exam gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their foundational knowledge of themes, concepts, and debates in particular fields of study.  Students should realize that while their written exam can overlap with coursework they have taken, the knowledge tested is intended to be broader than any single course.  In choosing fields of study for the written exam, students might want to consider how they wish to identify themselves as scholars in the future and which competencies will provide them with fruitful avenues of research and teaching in the future.  Fields of study can include any of the following:

  • Well established systematic areas of study within Geography, like fluvial geomorphology, cultural geography, economic geography, hazards, biogeography, microclimatology, cartography, and remote sensing;
  • Regional specialties like Latin America, the Middle East, or Europe;
  • Methods, techniques, applications, and methodological approaches, like spatial statistics, quantitative methods, or qualitative GIS;
  • Philosophical/theoretical approaches, like feminist geography, Marxist geography, humanism, time-space theory, or post-colonial theory;
  • Broad disciplinary themes, like the History of Geographic Thought or Space and Place. 
  • Broad interdisciplinary fields of study, like climate-change adaptation, social movements, water resources, food systems, gender and sexuality, aeolian processes, environmental history, youth studies, migration studies, and development studies. 

After selecting fields of study, the student works with the committee to compile reading lists corresponding to each, with each committee member 'representing' a particular field of study.   The reading lists must be finalized at least 3 months prior to the written exam.  Each reading list should be composed of references, including classic and contemporary selections, appropriate to the field of study to be tested.  The advisor compiles exam questions with the assistance of each committee member.  Students should not expect that their written exam will be the same as other students' written exams.  Written exam formats and requirements, as well as the length of reading lists, will vary across the department reflecting different disciplinary norms and traditions.  However, all written exams must follow these basic guidelines:

  • Students should be required to answer no more than three questions for each designated field of study
  • Students must have between 5 and 8 hours to complete the exam for each designated field of study
  • The examination commitee must inform the student of the exam format and requirements no less than three weeks prior to the exam.  This includes information about the number of questions and question options; whether the exam will be open-book/note or closed-book/note; whether the exam will be given on consecutive or alternating days; whether there will be any word-length requirements; and whether format and requirements will vary between each component of the exam.

Each committee member is responsible for evaluating written exam responses corresponding with his/her area of expertise within two weeks of the student's completion of the written exam.  Each committee member will assign a grade of Pass, Conditional Pass, or Fail.  A Conditional Pass indicates that a student must take remedial work on the exam response.  Any required changes must be completed and submitted to the examination committee within one month, except under exceptional circumstances, before a Pass can be awarded. The student must pass each section of the written exam in order to pass the exam as a whole.  The committee can allow a maximum of one month for the student to complete remediation.  The student has ONE opportunity only to remediate exam responses.

Students must submit a Doctoral Comprehensive Examination Verification Form to the graduate program coordinator after successful completion of both the written exam and the proposal defense.

 The Dissertation

The dissertation is a substantial written analysis of the doctoral student's original research.  Twelve dissertation credit hours (GEOG 899) are required for graduation. Students are advised that they must be enrolled for at least 1 credit hour of GEOG 899 during any semester in which dissertation progress is made and such university resources as the library, computer facilities, or faculty time are used. Students on assistantships who are nearing completion of their dissertations may qualify for special enrollment status ('Z-status') that allows them to maintain full-time student status while enrolling in fewer than 6 credits.  Students working part-time off-campus may also qualify for special enrollment status.  Students should consult the Graduate Bulletin for further information about special enrollment status

The dissertation is completed under the direction of a dissertation committee.  The dissertation committee may or may not consist of the same members as the comprehensive examination committee. The rules for dissertation committees are the same as those for comprehensive exam committees (see above).  Once dissertation committee members have been selected, the student must complete a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request (G-DCA). Even if the composition of the two committees is the same, the student must fill out and submit separate forms for each one.

The dissertation may follow the traditional style, which typically includes separate chapters for the introduction, literature review, methodology, data analysis, discussion, and conclusion.  Or it may follow a manuscript style, which includes at least three free-standing manuscripts that can be submitted for publication to an academic journal.  Regardless of which style is followed, all dissertations must follow the dissertation formatting rules defined by the Graduate School.  Students should familiarize themselves with these rules before beginning to write the dissertation. 

The defense of the dissertation involves a 25-30 minute public presentation of the doctoral research, followed by a closed session before the dissertation committee. The dissertation defense should be scheduled no fewer than 30 days before the intended date of graduation. Students are advised again to be mindful of their committee members' availability when scheduling a defense date.  This is especially true during the summer months.  Students are asked not to schedule a defense in the first or last week of classes.  The student should submit a complete draft of the dissertation to his/her committee at least two weeks prior to the scheduled defense date. The student must make a copy of the dissertation available for public view in the departmental office at least one week prior to the defense. The Graduate School requires that the dissertation defense be publicly announced via submission of a Dissertation Defense Announcement Form (G-DDA) at least 14 days prior to the defense (log-in to Graduate Management System is required to retrieve this form).  Additionally, the advisor should announce the defense to department faculty and graduate students via email at least one week ahead of time.  Students must bring a copy of the Dissertation Defense Form to the defense.  This form is submitted to the graduate program coordinator following the successful defense of the dissertation, or following successful remediation as may be required by the committee.  The committee can allow the student  a maximum of one month to complete remediation.  Students will have only ONE opportunity to remediate the dissertation.  Students are advised that they must submit the completed dissertation to the Graduate School for a format check in advance of graduation.  Following the format check, students will submit a Graduate School Dissertation Signature Form to the Graduate School along with the final, revised dissertation.  Students intending to graduate in a given semester must also complete an Application for Graduation.

In general, when planning out their graduation timetable, students must allow themselves plenty of time to complete each step of the process.  To reiterate, the dissertation defense should be scheduled no more than 30 days before the intended date of graduation, but students might require more than 30 days depending on committee members' availability.  Students must be aware at all times of university deadlines.  Students, in particular, must consult the university's academic calendar and the Graduate School website for deadlines relating to the application for graduation and the format check.  Students should also allow time (up to one month) for the completion of remediation to the dissertation that may be required by the committee.  As a general rule, students should have a complete dissertation document ready to distribute to committee members no later than the midpoint of the semester in which they intend to graduate.  

Please note that students must be enrolled in at least 1 credit hour during the term of graduation. However, students who miss the submission deadline but who complete all graduation requirements — including the dissertation defense, the dissertation format check, and submission of the final document — by the end of the semester may graduate the following semester without enrolling in additional dissertation credits or paying tuition fees.

Please see Graduate School instructions and deadlines for further information.   


Teaching Experience

As part of their doctoral program, Ph.D. students must have at least one semester’s worth of experience either as an instructor of record or as a teaching assistant. Upon their entry to the program, all graduate students must complete the TA training workshops and orientations offered by the University. Currently, this includes a two-part training workshop held before the start of the academic year, plus a zero-credit GRAD 701 course. International students, in addition, must attend an International Teaching Assistant orientation at the start of the academic year, regardless of how long they have lived in the U.S. International students for whom English is not a first language must also complete the International TA language assessment organized through the English Programs for Internationals office (assessments take place at the start of each semester). International students for whom English is not a first language may not serve as a TA or as a graduate instructor of record until they have passed their language assessment and completed all required TA training. 

Presentation of a Full-Length Research Talk

Prior to commencement, Ph.D. students must present their doctoral research in a public, full-length talk (i.e., 45 minutes + 15 minutes for questions) to the department. This typically takes place in an informal 'brown-bag' setting.  The event should scheduled and announced at least one week ahead of time by the student and advisor.  Students planning an August graduation should be aware that most faculty members and graduate students are absent from the department in the summer. Those intending to graduate in August are therefore strongly encouraged to present their research talk prior to the end of the regular academic year.  All students should be aware that the research talk does not need to wait until the dissertation is complete.  Students who are developing particular themes in the dissertation for an article manuscript or a conference presentation may use the research talk as an opportunity for feedback from colleagues.

Academic Progress

A student must demonstrate satisfactory academic progress to continue in the program.  It is the mutual responsibility of the advisor and the Graduate Director to monitor student progress. To aid in the process of evaluation, continuing students must submit a Professional Development Plan (PDP) near the end of each academic year.  The PDP requires students to list their achievements over the past academic year and to state their aims for the coming academic year. The PDP will include a compilation of instructor evaluations of students' performance in courses and seminars.  The PDP is intended to provide students and advisors with a clear picture of the student's overall performance (both strengths and weaknesses) and to assist in the setting of target dates to reach program milestones.  By helping students to keep track of conference presentations, article submissions, grant applications, and awards, the PDP also helps students to create and to update a curriculum vitae.  The PDP must be signed by the student and the advisor following a end-of-academic-year advisement meeting to discuss its contents.  The advisor specifies at this time whether the student is maintaining adequate progress.  The PDP is then reviewed and signed by the Graduate Director and filed in the graduate program coordinator's office.  Students and advisors should retain an electronic or paper copy of the PDP.

Students are advised that departmental guidelines for academic progress are more stringent than those set by the university. At the time of graduation, the student's graduate cumulative grade point average (GPA) must be at least 3.00 on a 4.00 scale. Additionally, the grade for any course listed on the Program of Study must be at least a B.  Graduate degree-seeking students whose cumulative grade point average drops below 3.00 (B) will be placed on academic probation and allowed one calendar year in which to raise the grade point average to at least 3.00.  Financial assistance may be terminated or reduced for a student who is on probation.  Students who do not reach a cumulative 3.00 grade point average during the probationary period will not be permitted to enroll for further graduate coursework and may be terminated from the program. 

Other causes for termination may include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) failure to complete all requirements for previous degree by the end of the first semester; (2) failure to have an approved dissertation proposal by the end of the fifth semester for full-time students; (3) failure of the written comprehensive exam; (4) failure to produce a defensible dissertation; and (5) acts of academic dishonesty. A student will be notified of termination, in writing, prior to the beginning of classes for a semester.


Student Rights and Recourse  

All students are assigned an advisor upon admission to the graduate program.  The first meeting between student and advisor should include a thorough review of graduate program requirements and a discussion of student and advisor expectations.  Students and advisors should complete and sign the Advisor-Student contract [create link].  The contract template can be modified by the advisor to reflect his/her particular expectations and requirements. 

All students from the start of their program should be aware of their rights vis-a-vis their advisors and other faculty members.  The rights of graduate students in the Department of Geography include:

  • The right to meet face-to-face with the advisor at least once a month to discuss the student's progress
  • The right to timely (within 2 weeks under normal circumstances) feedback from the advisor and course instructors on written work, including seminar papers, proposal drafts, thesis/dissertation drafts, and written comprehensive exams;
  • The right to professional advice relating to conferences, grant opportunities, publication activities, and other aspects of academic life; 
  • The right to confidentiality and privacy (i.e. faculty members should not share the details of a student's academic record or personal matters with other students)
  • The right to be treated in a professional manner and not to be harassed or bullied by any faculty member (see USC Policies and Procedures for definitions of harassment and bullying).
  • The right to request a different advisor.

Students have avenues of recourse if they feel that they have been evaluated unfairly or that their progress in the program has been hindered by the actions or inactions of faculty members.  A student who feels that his/her rights have not been respected by a faculty member and who is not able to resolve the problem directly with the faculty member should consult with the Graduate Director, the Department Chair, the Department Ombudsperson, and/or the Graduate School Ombudsperson.  Students should note that the role of the Department or Graduate School ombudsperson is not to advocate on behalf of a student, but to evaluate the situation at hand in an impartial manner and to propose a fair resolution to whatever problem exists between the student and faculty member.  For the graduate student who has not reached a satisfactory resolution to the problem, the ombudsperson can explain University grievance procedures.  The ombudsperson can also assist a student who feels that he/she has been unfairly put on probation or terminated from the program.