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Doctoral Requirements

The Ph.D. degree is the highest degree conferred by the University. It is a research degree, not conferred solely as a result of any prescribed period of study. The degree is granted on evidence of general proficiency, distinctive attainment in a defined academic field, and ability to carry out independent investigation as demonstrated in a dissertation that presents original research or creative scholarship with a high degree of literary skill. The following minimum requirements for the Ph.D. degree apply to all students. For more information, contact Graduate School Doctoral Service Representative Patricia Hayes, at 229-6263 or hayes@uwm.edu.

Major Professor as Advisor

You must have at least a temporary advisor when you first enroll in your doctoral program. You must select a permanent advisor no later than the proposal hearing or the preliminary examination, whichever comes first (See Milestones of Doctoral Study below).

Your advisor is responsible for overseeing your transformation from apprentice to professional. Selecting your advisor is one of the most important decisions you will make in graduate school. This person will be your mentor—helping you shape your dissertation proposal, guiding you through the writing and defense of your dissertation, and often employing you as a research or teaching assistant. Your relationship with your advisor will directly affect the quality of your graduate school experience.

Credits and Courses


Your academic unit may apply any prior graduate-level courses that it deems appropriate to your program of study. The rest of the program of study contains the graduate courses, including research/dissertation credits, to be taken in doctoral status at UWM. Your academic unit verifies completion of these requirements when you apply for dissertator status.


The Graduate School requires a minimum of 54 graduate credits beyond the bachelor's degree. Some programs have a higher minimum credit requirement. The Graduate School monitors only completion of credit, not individual course requirements.

Grades for Doctoral Students in Dissertation/Research Courses

Doctoral students in research courses are assigned grades of S (satisfactory progress) or U (unsatisfactory progress). The U grade may be a result of a lack of progress in the dissertation or a lack of communication with the major professor regarding this progress.

Research course grades are permanent and are not changed upon completion of the dissertation. The satisfactory credits are added to the total required for the degree, but are not calculated in the GPA.

Foreign Language/Research Skill

Each unit administering a doctoral program may establish foreign language and/or research skill requirements for its doctoral students. Inquiries on specific requirements should be addressed to your graduate program unit.


Residence requirements cannot be met at the master's level, and must be fulfilled before you can achieve dissertator status.

Continuous-year requirement

You must complete 8 to 12 graduate credits in each of two consecutive semesters, or 6 or more graduate credits in each of three consecutive semesters, exclusive of summer sessions. This requirement is intended to provide immersion in the chosen discipline and foster participation in the community of scholars.

50% of credits requirement

At least half of the graduate credits required for the Ph.D. must be completed at UWM in doctoral status.

Some program units have different residence requirements. See individual doctoral program descriptions for additional residence information.

Time Limit

All requirements for the doctoral degree must be completed within 10 years from the date you first enroll in a doctoral program at UWM. This includes all coursework, the dissertation, and examinations required for the degree. Students entering doctoral programs in the fall of 2000 or later must pass doctoral preliminary examinations within five years of initial doctoral program enrollment. Some programs may have shorter time limits.

Transfer Credit

If you wish to transfer graduate credits into your doctoral program, contact your program's doctoral advisor or the Graduate School doctoral specialist.

Doctoral Committee

You will need to assemble a doctoral committee consisting of graduate faculty to guide your studies and research. This committee will also approve your dissertation proposal and serve as the doctoral examining committee for your dissertation defense. The committee is chaired by your major professor.

Following are the general Graduate School regulations for formation of the doctoral committee:

  • By the time of your dissertation proposal hearing (Milestone 4 below), the committee must have at least three UWM graduate faculty members, including your chosen major professor.
  • By the time you are ready to defend your dissertation (Milestone 6 below), the committee must have at least five graduate faculty members, including your major professor. The dean may consider allowing one non-UWM graduate faculty member to sit on the committee at this stage.

Your graduate program unit may have more specific requirements for committee formation and membership.

When forming your committee, keep in mind that you will be working closely with its members for an extended period of time. Make sure to assemble a cohesive group; choosing members with similar research methods and approaches may be just as important as choosing people with closely compatible research interests. Your advisor or other mentors may provide ideas for possible committee members.

Maintain frequent contact with your committee members. If they hear from you often, they will be more likely to keep you in mind and advise you of new developments in your field or valuable research opportunities.

Replacement of Major Professor or Doctoral Committee Members

At any time, you may request that your advisor or members of your doctoral committee be replaced. Your advisor and committee members may also request release from their duties, with your consent. Ask your graduate program representative for more information.

In some cases, your advisor or committee members may remove themselves without your consent. These cases include:

  • The advisor or member is involved in a conflict of interest.
  • The advisor or member leaves the University.
  • You change your dissertation topic or substantially change your dissertation proposal.

Once your dissertation proposal has been approved by the advisor and dissertation committee, your advisor or committee members cannot normally remove themselves if they become dissatisfied with your progress.

Research subject to institutional approval

All students, faculty, and staff who engage in research activity must be aware of the following requirements.

  • If your research involves human subjects, you must have prior approval from the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research (IRB).
  • If your research involves radioactive materials, biohazards, or vertebrate animals, it must be completed under the protocol or authorization of a principal investigator and/or faculty member. University Safety and Assurances coordinates research compliance for these activities.

You must certify the receipt of any required approvals when you submit your dissertation. The Graduate School will not accept a dissertation containing research data collected without required approvals.

Milestones of Doctoral Study

1. Program of Study

The student and advisor prepare a Program of Study, which specifies all required and elective coursework, completed and proposed, that will be offered in fulfillment of degree requirements in the major field and in the minor. The Program of Study also specifies the foreign language, technical, or research skill requirements, if any, that will be offered in fulfillment of the program requirements.

Each academic unit has its own deadline for submitting the program of study. Submitting a copy to the Graduate School is not required, although in some cases it is helpful.

2. Doctoral Preliminary Examination

Doctoral preliminary examinations, or “prelims,” as they are commonly called, are designed to assess a doctoral candidate's mastery of subject knowledge and application skills, and ensure adequate preparation for individual dissertation research. The Graduate School requires that you pass your prelims within five years of initial enrollment in your doctoral program.

Some program units require two or three prelims. Some may be written, others are oral, and many are a combination.

Your graduate program unit establishes the timing and structure of the prelims, as well as specific requirements and eligibility. Be sure to find out how preliminary exams are handled within your program unit. It may be helpful to ask other graduate students in your department about their experiences with prelims.

At the beginning of the semester that you are eligible to take the prelims, you must complete the electronic Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination, located in the online Doctoral Milestones System. After you electronically submit the form, your program unit will be notified to submit their approval, then eligibility is validated by the Graduate School. After the exam, the program unit will enter the results and submit their approval online. It then goes to Graduate School for final processing.

Online Doctoral Milestones SystemUsing the System

If you fail the prelim, your graduate program unit must provide you with its written policy regarding continuation. If you miss the scheduled prelims, you must file a new application for the next semester.

Test results are kept in your graduate record. After you pass the prelim(s), you are considered ready to undertake independent research.

One-credit exemption

During the semester that you are preparing for doctoral prelims, you may enroll for a minimum of 1 graduate credit and still be considered full time for financial aid or grant purposes. International students should check with the Center for International Education for more information. This status is available for one semester only, and does not fulfill residence requirements. To request this option, you must have already submitted your online Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination.

3. Dissertator Status

You are eligible to become a dissertator when you have:

  1. Completed all major and minor course requirements.
  2. Passed the doctoral preliminary examination.
  3. Submitted an online dissertation topic summary or online proposal hearing form in the online Doctoral Milestones System.
  4. Met residence requirements.
  5. Cleared incomplete and "progress" grades/reports in non-research courses.
  6. Achieved a 3.0 or higher cumulative GPA.
  7. Completed the language requirement (if required).
  8. Completed other departmental requirements (if any).

You must submit an online Application for Doctoral Dissertator Status, located in the online Doctoral Milestones System, for this information to be verified and approved by the Graduate School and your graduate program unit. You must submit the online form before the semester begins.

Online Doctoral Milestones System

Your dissertator status is confirmed with an e-mail from the Graduate School doctoral specialist to you and your department's graduate representative.

Continuous Registration

Doctoral students with dissertator status must maintain continuous registration.

  • A dissertator must register for 3 graduate-level dissertation or research credits (at the current per-credit dissertator rate) each semester until the dissertation is accepted by the Graduate School. During any summers in which you use University facilities or faculty time, are a fellow or research assistant, or plan to graduate, you must register for 3 graduate-level credits (dissertator rate) in the regular eight-week summer session. Three is the minimum (and the maximum) number of graduate credits required per semester.
  • The Graduate School will monitor your registration every semester to be sure that you are registered properly. The Graduate School has the authority to remove you from dissertator status if you are not in compliance with dissertator regulations. The Graduate School will notify you and your program unit of dissertator status requirements and of any registration problems. If you do not maintain continuous registration, you will be placed in a default status.
  • Default status: If you break the continuous registration requirement after attaining dissertator status, you will be assessed a completion (dissertator default) fee of 12 credits. After re-entry, the 12-credit completion fee is reduced by 3 credits per semester for each consecutive semester of enrollment. If you return for at least 4 consecutive semesters following a break in registration, the completion fee is not assessed.
4. Dissertation Proposal Hearing

The dissertation proposal must be approved by your doctoral committee. Committee approval of the dissertation proposal establishes agreement on your chosen research and indicates that you have adequate preparation to complete the research.

Complete the online Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing Form, located in the online Doctoral Milestones System. The form is forwarded to Graduate Student Services for final processing.

Online Doctoral Milestones System

You can hold your proposal hearing before or after you achieve dissertator status.

Changes to Proposal

Any significant changes to the dissertation as presented in the proposal hearing must be approved. A new proposal and proposal hearing are required.

5. Dissertation

The dissertation is the report of an original investigation you have carried out under the direction of your major professor. The dissertation must be your own work. Although it may be the result of collaboration with others, it must reflect your own style, and a substantial portion must represent your own creative contribution.

Dissertation format requirements are published in Master's Thesis and Doctoral Dissertation Format Requirements. Also, every semester the Graduate School holds a workshop on thesis/dissertation formatting and graduation requirements.

6. Dissertation Defense & Graduation

First, complete and submit Part I of the Application for Doctoral Graduation, no later than the end of the second week of the semester you expect to graduate. You must also pay a non-refundable $40 graduation processing fee, which will be billed by the Bursar's office during the semester. If you do not graduate when anticipated, another application must be submitted; an additional fee is not required. The Graduate School then completes Part II of the application and sends it to your program unit for completion of Part III.

At the same time you submit Part I of the application, send a draft of the dissertation to your major professor, who is responsible for determining the readiness of your dissertation for defense and scheduling a tentative defense date.

In order to graduate in the semester you applied for, the dissertation defense must be held at least two weeks before the graduation ceremony date. The Spring and Fall semesters are the best for scheduling defenses; scheduling during the summer may be very difficult.

Committee evaluation

Next, submit a draft of the dissertation to each of the five members of the doctoral examining committee, which is your doctoral committee. All committee members must read the dissertation in its entirety. The time allowed for members to read the dissertation is determined by the individual program units. A member cannot keep the dissertation for an inordinate amount of time because of the press of other duties. Service as a doctoral committee member is an integral part of a faculty member's teaching assignment, fully comparable to conducting classes.

After the committee members have read the dissertation, they advise your major professor on its readiness for defense. If substantial revisions are necessary, they must be completed before the defense date is confirmed. Your major professor contacts you to confirm this date.

Defense readiness confirmation

By mid-semester, the defense date should be set. Your major professor returns the application for defense and graduation to the Graduate School, confirming the date.

Before your defense, send an e-mail attachment of the draft version of your dissertation to our doctoral student specialist, Pat Hayes (hayes@uwm.edu).  She will review your dissertation for the necessary formatting requirements.

Readiness for defense does not indicate acceptance of the dissertation; it means the committee agrees that you have met the terms of your proposal and that the dissertation is defensible. The decision to hold a doctoral defense, moreover, is not solely that of the committee. If you insist on defending the dissertation before the committee believes it is ready, you may defend.

At least a week prior to the defense, the Graduate School sends a warrant to your department's graduate representative. This is the document the committee will sign on the day of the defense. If committee membership or the defense date changes, the Graduate School must be notified, and a new warrant will be issued.


The subject of the doctoral defense is the dissertation itself. The dissertation defense provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate your expertise after several years of preparatory coursework, research, and writing. You also will demonstrate your ability to explain ideas and methods embodied in the dissertation and to defend the implications and conclusions of your research.

The defense allows your committee members to verify your independent scholarly contributions. They may offer guidance regarding publication possibilities for the dissertation, and encourage further research efforts in your area of academic specialization.


All committee members are responsible for reading and voting on the dissertation.

At the conclusion of the defense, the committee may vote either pass or fail, or it may decide to defer the decision. The warrant (indicating pass or fail) or the deferral form must be returned to the Graduate School within 10 working days of the defense or a deferral is automatically assigned.

Pass. To pass the defense, a simple majority of the committee must vote to pass—in this case three out of five. No absentee ballots are allowed.

Fail. If you fail the defense, you may re-defend once after a waiting period, to be determined by the committee and communicated to you in writing. The Graduate School requires that this second defense take place within one calendar year of the original defense. A new application and warrant are required for the second defense.

Defer. If the committee determines that you need more than 10 working days to complete revisions to the dissertation, a deferral form must be so marked and submitted to the Graduate School within 10 working days of the defense.

Your major professor must notify you and the Graduate School of the specific reasons for the deferral action and the completion date required by the committee (not to exceed 4 months from the original defense date). If satisfactory changes are not made within 4 months, the deferral turns into a fail. You then have 8 months from the deferral deadline to pass a second defense.

You cannot graduate in deferral status and must register for the next semester if the deferral is not changed to a Pass by the Graduate School dissertation submission deadline.

The entire committee is responsible for verifying that the dissertation revisions have been made to their satisfaction. At this point, the committee passes or fails the dissertation and the major professor returns the signed warrant to the Graduate School.

7. Graduation

To graduate in the semester you applied for, you must meet these deadlines:

  1. During the first two weeks of the semester: Submit the Application for Doctoral Graduation to the Graduate School.
  2. At least two weeks before the graduation ceremony date: Hold the dissertation defense.
  3. Submit your final dissertation by the posted submission deadline. Submission to the Graduate School must include:
    1. An electronic submission of the thesis through ProQuest ETD Administrator. More information on the submission process found on the UWM ETD Web site.
    2. Thesis & Dissertation Approval and Publishing Options Form with an original signature from you and your major professor.
    3. Complete the online Survey of Earned Doctorates

If any of these deadlines are not met, you must apply and graduate in the next semester. You will not be required to register for the next semester if the dissertation has been defended, passed, and accepted by the Graduate School before the first day of classes for the next semester. The date of graduation, however, will be the next semester.

If you want your name to appear in the commencement bulletin, be sure that your directory information with the University is not restricted. If you restricted the release of your address, phone number, and other limited information, contact the Registrar's Office Information Center, Mellencamp 274. This should be done by the second week of the semester in which you expect to graduate to ensure that your name will appear in the bulletin.

Removal of the restriction will allow your directory information to be released for all publicity purposes, as well as the commencement booklet.


Graduation ceremonies are held in May and December. August graduates attend the December graduation ceremony.

About one month before graduation, all eligible degree candidates will receive a letter from the Secretary of the University's office containing the date, location, and time of the ceremony, as well as information on ordering caps and gowns. Any questions about the commencement ceremony should be directed to the Secretary of the University.

Page last updated on: 05/20/2015