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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

While earning a Ph.D. degree, students acquire an advanced level of knowledge in a specialty of atmospheric or oceanic sciences, and demonstrate an ability to conduct independent, novel research on current problems. They also refine their ability to present and defend their work both orally and in writing.


Steps necessary to complete this degree include: (1) Demonstrated potential to conduct independent research; (2) formation of a Ph.D. committee; (3) completion of general background in atmospheric/oceanic sciences; (4) broadening your educational experiences (two requirements: minor and supplemental); (5) acquisition of focused knowledge on the particular research topic; (6) preliminary examination; (7) original research; (8) dissertation writing; and (9) oral presentation and final defense.

A major professor guides the student along these steps. The major professor must be identified before the student can be admitted into our Ph.D. program.

The timeline for receiving a PhD degree is approximately 4-5 years.

Progress Guidelines

Students normally take a full time credit load of 8 to 12 credits each semester (maximum 15) prior to the preliminary examination. During this time they complete the minor course requirements, the ATM OCN 900 course requirements, and any other required courses. As time continues, a larger percentage of the credits each semester are research and/or seminar credits, as recommended by the major professor and Ph.D. committee.

After the preliminary exam, the student can take only 3 credits each semester as a dissertator.

Each Ph.D. student must meet annually with their committee to discuss degree progress. A written summation of the meeting should be given to the grad coordinator for the student’s file.

Each student must make satisfactory progress, as specified by the departmental and Graduate School satisfactory progress guidelines, which are available from the grad chair or grad coordinator. Failure to maintain satisfactory progress may result in probation, or dismissal from the department. The Ph.D. degree should be completed within five years. All grades must be C or better to count towards the degree. The cumulative GPA in Graduate School must be no less than 3.0.

A semester GPA below 3.0 will result in the student being placed on academic probation. If a semester GPA of 3.0 is not attained during the subsequent semester of full time enrollment (or 12 credits of enrollment if enrolled part-time) the student may be dismissed from the program or allowed to continue for 1 additional semester based on advisor appeal to the Graduate School. The Graduate School regularly reviews the record of any student who earned grades of BC, C, D, F, or Incomplete in a graduate course (300 or above), or grade of U in research credits. This review could result in academic probation with a hold on future enrollment or in being suspended from the Graduate School.

1. Formation of a Ph.D. Committee

The candidate, under the guidance of the major professor, must form a committee of five professors to supervise and evaluate their work. The committee must consist of the major professor, who is AOS faculty or AOS faculty affiliate, three other AOS professors or affiliate AOS faculty, and an outside member who can be a professor in another department, AOS adjunct faculty, academic staff (including emeritus faculty), visiting faculty, faculty from other institutions, scientists, research associates, and other individuals deemed qualified by approval of the other committee members and Graduate chair. Across the five committee members, at least one of the five must be a professor or faculty affiliate of a UW-Madison graduate department other than AOS. If the committee dissolves for any reason, the candidate cannot continue in the Ph.D. program unless a new committee is formed.

During this first meeting, the committee reviews the student’s professional history and general research plans, recommends any additional courses or activities that might be needed, agrees on a minor, specifies any additional or supplemental requirements, and sets a date for the preliminary exam. Results from this meeting are submitted in writing to the grad chair to be filed with the student’s academic record. This letter indicates that a committee has indeed been formed.

2. Completion of General Atmospheric or Oceanic Background

At the first Ph.D. committee meeting, the committee specifies how the following requirements are to be (or have been) met:

Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Breadth. Specific requirements are determined by the Ph.D. committee during its first meeting. Generally, atmospheric and oceanic sciences breadth includes a background in dynamics, weather and climate, physical meteorology/oceanography, and observation techniques, equivalent to that required by the M.S. core courses.

Credit Requirement.

Please see this link for the Graduate School catalog description of requirements.

The Graduate school requires 51 credit minimum, at least 32 of which must be earned while in residence at UW-Madison.

At least 15 credits are from lecture courses numbered 600 or above in the department. Seminars, research credits, and audited courses are not included.

An additional 9 (at least) credits are taken to satisfy the minor requirement (see below). These credits may be from the department, but cannot be used to satisfy the previous requirement (15 credits from lecture courses numbered 600 or above in the department).

Students are required to take the 1-credit Atm Ocn 900 seminar, typically offered in the spring semester.

The remaining credits can include courses (400-level or higher, 300-level with permission of advisor and/or Graduate Chair) in or outside the department, research seminars, thesis research credits, or independent study.

For these credits, half of degree coursework (26 credits out of 51 total credits) must be completed in graduate courses numbered 700 or above, or in courses 300-699 designated as graduate courses, have >50% graduate enrollment, or assess graduate students separately from undergraduates, including: Atm Ocn 500–507, 510–599, 600–680.

All grades must be C or better to count towards the degree. The Graduate School requires an average grade of B or better in all coursework (300 or above, not including research credits) taken as a graduate student unless conditions for probationary status require higher grades. Grades of Incomplete are considered to be unsatisfactory if they are not removed during the next enrolled semester.

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 19 credits of graduate coursework from other institutions. With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 7 credits of graduate coursework taken as an undergraduate at UW–Madison, as long as those credits were not applied toward an undergraduate degree. With program approval and payment of the difference in tuition (between Special and graduate tuition), students are allowed to count no more than 15 credits of coursework numbered 300 or above taken as a UW–Madison Special student. In all cases, coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

Courses Outside of AOS

Here is a listing of courses that students have taken outside of the department to satisfy degree requirements.

3. Broadening Requirements

At the first committee meeting, the committee specifies how the following two broadening requirements will be satisfied:

Minor Requirement. A minor program consists of Option A (external) 9 or more course credits in one discipline or Option B (distributed) 9 or more credits in one or more departments and can include course work in the major department. Selection of Option A requires approval of the minor department. Selection of Option B requires approval of the major department. The department monitors minor requirements.

Supplemental Requirement. The supplemental requirement is specified by the Ph.D. committee during the first Ph.D. committee meeting. Possibilities include:

- An augmented minor, consisting of more than the minimum number of courses required by the Graduate School;

- Substantial foreign language skill;

- Significant field or professional experience: or

- Inter-disciplinary courses, or other courses related to the Ph.D. research at the professional level.

Some of these possibilities can be met by prior experience.

4. Focused Knowledge, and the Research Proposal

The student conducts a literature search to gain state-of-the-art knowledge in the chosen research area. During this literature search, potential new research topics are identified. The student works with the major professor to focus this knowledge and define an appropriate research topic. This topic is written into a several page research proposal that is given to the Ph.D. committee members a few weeks prior to the preliminary examination.

5. Preliminary Examination

The Ph.D. committee administers an oral preliminary exam that is essentially a defense of the research proposal. It is normally taken within about one year after completion of the qualifying exam, which roughly coincides with the time when all of the other course requirements are completed. About three weeks before the exam, the candidate requests the Minor Agreement Form and the PhD. Preliminary Exam Warrant Application from the grad coordinator. After the forms are returned, the grad coordinator will request the preliminary warrant from the Graduate School. The candidate should bring the warrant to the examination.

During the examination, the candidate first gives a short presentation to the committee summarizing the proposed research. The committee then asks questions of the candidate to ensure that the problem is solvable within a couple years, and that the candidate has sufficient skill and background to solve it. If the committee wishes, it may administer a written portion of the preliminary examination in addition to, or instead of, the oral portion. If the student passes the exam, the Ph.D. committee members sign the warrant, and the student becomes a Ph.D. candidate. A letter summarizing the results of this examination is written by the major professor and given to the grad coordinator to be placed in the student’s file.

Dissertators must register each Spring and Fall for 3 credits of ATM OCN 990. Summer registration of 3 credits is required for research assistants, trainees, fellows and dissertators using university facilities. Dissertators cannot register for any courses without special permission. For more information about Graduate School Academic Policies and Procedures please visit

6. Original Research

After the preliminary examination and all course requirements are successfully completed, the student normally concentrates on conducting research, and is designated a dissertator. The research might continue for one semester to several years, depending on the project.

During this research, the student works closely with the major professor. The Ph.D. committee receives progress reports at least every year from the student, and offers advice where appropriate.

7. Dissertation

The results of the research are written into a report called a dissertation. This dissertation includes a statement of goals, literature review, list of methods and procedures, research results, conclusions, and other sections as appropriate. The major professor checks the dissertation closely, and recommends changes and corrections. When a semi-final draft of the dissertation has been completed and approved by the major professor, copies are given to each of the Ph.D. committee members. They might also recommend changes.

Graduate School format requirements must be followed. Our department does not have any formatting requirements. Information on these guidelines is available on the Graduate School’s web site. Information on deadlines, defending and depositing your dissertation is also available.

8. Oral Presentation and Final Defense

After the dissertation is accepted by all committee members, the student requests in advance a final Ph.D. warrant from the grad coordinator. The warrant should be ordered at least three weeks before the final defense. They present the research results at a public departmental seminar called a Ph.D. Seminar, typically held in conjunction with our Monday colloquium series.

The student schedules a time when all committee members can meet with the student for a final defense. At this final examination, the student gives a brief oral presentation summarizing the final results, and defends the research during oral questions from the Ph.D. committee. If the committee is satisfied with the defense, they sign the warrant.

Once the warrant and dissertation have been deposited with the UW-Graduate School according to their deposit guidelines, a pdf of the dissertation must be sent to the Graduate Coordinator to be deposited in the AOSS Library

If you have an assistantship, it will end either on the date you deposit your dissertation with the Graduate School or through the official graduation date of the term.