Exams & Dissertation

Placement Exam

All incoming doctoral students must complete placement examinations. As your performance on these exams will influence your graduate courses, it is important to prepare sufficiently for them. It is strongly suggested that you study your class notes and texts so that your scores reflect your knowledge as accurately as possible. You should also review our recommended topics.


Following the placement exams, you will meet with a member of the Chemistry Department faculty to review the results and discuss the classes you need to take during your first year.

Placement exams: Incoming graduate students are expected to pass four placement exams in Analytical, Inorganic, Physical, and Organic chemistries. If a student does not pass all placement exams in a second attempt by May 31 (Fall admits) or August 31 (Spring admits), they will be subject to a Graduate Affairs Committee review and may be asked to leave the program.

Analytical Chemistry Review Topics

General Principles of Analytical Chemistry; Spectrochemical Analysis: Molecular spectroscopy: UV/visible absorption, IR absorption, etc.; Atomic spectroscopy; Electroanalytical Chemistry: Potentiometric methods (pH, ISE); Voltammetry (DC Polarography, Pulsed polarography, Stripping analysis); Coulometry; and Chemical Separations: HPLC, GC, TLC, CE and CEC.

Inorganic Chemistry Review Topics

Atomic Structure; Symmetry and Group Theory; Molecular Structure and Bonding; Acid-Base and Donor-Acceptor Chemistry; The Crystalline Solid State; Chemistry of Main Group Elements; Oxidation and Reduction; and Coordination Chemistry.

Organic Chemistry Review Topics

Nomenclature; Structure, Hybridization, Resonance, Aromaticity; Acids and Bases; Stereoisomerism; Nucleophilic Substitutions and Eliminations; Electrophilic Additions; Nucleophilic Addition at Carbonyl Groups; Nucleophilic Substitution at Carbonyl Groups; Enols and Enolate Ion Reactions; Electrophilic and Nucleophilic Aromatic Substitution; Free Radical Substitutions and Additions; Oxidations and Reductions; Spectroscopy; Synthesis and Analysis

Physical Chemistry Review Topics

Thermodynamics. Equations of State. Laws of Thermodynamics and State Functions. Mathematical Relationships in Thermodynamics. Chemical and Phase Equilibria Dynamics. Kinetic Molecular Theory; Chemical Kinetics. Mechanisms. Reaction Dynamics. Statistical Mechanics Quantum Mechanics. Quantum Chemistry: History and Concepts. Modern Quantum Mechanical Problems: Atomic systems. Symmetry. Molecular Orbital Theory.


Cumulative Exam

PhD students must take a cumulative exam starting at the beginning of the third semester in the program, although they may begin earlier if desired. Students choose one of the subdisciplines for their exam: analytical, organic, inorganic or physical (though they may elect, in consultation with their adviser, to take exams in more than one of the four subdisciplines). Each subdiscipline has its own testing guidelines.


Examination points are assigned according to three categories:

  • Pass — two points
  • Low pass — one point
  • Fail — zero

The student must accumulate a total of 10 points in seven examinations or 12 points in 10 examinations in order to satisfy the requirement. Students are disqualified from the PhD program if they accumulate less than 12 points after 10 exams.

Analytical Chemistry Exam

Format: Closed book; three hours

Topics Covered

  • Optical spectroscopy
  • Mass spectroscopy
  • Separation methods
  • Surface analysis
  • Electrochemistry
  • Electronics

Part 1: Recent Literature

  • A-Page articles in Analytical Chemistry in the prior six (6) months
  • Recent papers (published in the prior twelve (12) months) related to Major Topics in major analytical chemistry journals

Part 2: Basic Texts on Major Topics

It is assumed that students are familiar with the contents of basic undergraduate/graduate texts for courses offered in this Department in analytical chemistry/instrumentation.

  • Text for CHEM 2122 (D.C. Harris, Quantitative Chemical Analysis, published by Freeman, New York, NY, 4th ed., 1995, 812 pages)
  • Text for CHEM 4122 (D.A. Skoog and J.J. Leary, Principles of Instrumental Analysis, published by Saunders, 4th ed., 1995, 700 pages)
  • Text for CHEM 4113 (A.M. Halpern and G.C. McBane, Experimental Physical Chemistry: A Laboratory Textbook, published by W.H. Freeman, 3rd ed., 2006, 608 pages)
  • Text for CHEM 6221 (J.D. Ingle and S. R. Crouch, Spectrochemical Analysis, published by Prentice Hall, Englewood, N.J., 1988, 589 pages)
  • Text for CHEM 6222 (C.M.A. Brett and A.M.O. Brett, Electrochemistry: Principles, Methods, and Applications, published by Oxford University Press, 1993, 464 pages)
  • Inductively Coupled Plasmas in Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, A. Montaser and D.W. Golightly, 2nd ed., 1992 VCH, 2027 pages

Problem-solving skills will be regularly tested by selected problems in the outlined areas.

Inorganic Chemistry Exam

Part 1: Evaluation of Core Knowledge

The student should have a good working knowledge of advanced inorganic chemistry at the level of Chemistry 235/236. In addition, a knowledge of subject areas not covered in depth in these courses (e.g., periodicity) is also expected. For example, students should be able to answer questions covered in the exercises of these texts:

  • Inorganic Chemistry, Huheey, Keiter and Keiter
  • Inorganic Chemistry, Shriver, Atkins and Langford

Part 2: Evaluation of Inorganic Literature Through a Current Article

The student should be able to read and understand an article or communication from the recent inorganic literature and determine the following:

  • Why the work was performed
  • Experimental methods used in the investigation
  • Analysis of the results and conclusions

Articles will be extracted from the following journals and will have been in print for no longer than six months: Journal of the American Chemical Society, Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics and The Chemistry of Materials.

Organic Chemistry Exam

Format: Closed book, two hours

Part 1: Evaluation of Core Knowledge

The student should have a deep knowledge of and ability to recall from memory the basics covered in standard first-course texts like Solomons, McMurry or Wade. Student should also demonstrate a more sophisticated and detailed understanding of material at the level of advanced texts like March and/or Carey & Sundberg as well as Silverstein, et. al.

Part 2: Evaluation of Organic Literature Through a Current Article

The student should be able to read an article from the organic and related literature critically and determine the following:

  • Purpose or intent of the investigation the methods used to study the questions
  • Results obtained
  • Analysis of the results
  • Conclusions drawn
  • Validity of the results, ascertained by reading through the experimental section

Articles will be drawn from the recent literature (six to eight months) found in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Journal of Organic Chemistry and Tetrahedron.

Each examination will pose questions from at least two of these four general areas:

  • Structure determination
  • Reaction mechanisms
  • Synthesis
  • Fundamental store of knowledge
Physical Chemistry Exam

Format: Closed book (an hour to an hour and a half) or open book (four to six hours)

Assessment Areas

  • Basic knowledge of physical chemistry
  • Creative problem-solving abilities in topical areas
  • Ability to critically evaluate specific papers found in the literature
  • Competence with error analysis, math tools, physical chemistry tools, computer programming and/or literature searching

Major Topics to Be Covered

  • Thermodynamics and statistical thermodynamics
  • Kinetics and dynamics
  • Spectroscopy
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Tools: error analysis, computer programming, literature searching and basic math skills


  • Students sitting their 7–10 exams should take exams covering all areas.
  • A record will be kept of the topic and type of exam taken by each student.
  • A schedule of all students and exams should be developed in October for the year.


Candidacy Exam

All PhD Students should complete the candidacy exam prior to the end of the sixth semester in the program. The examination committee should be composed of the members of the student’s doctoral committee: the research advisor and two other faculty members. A research summary document no longer than 10 pages plus references and figures (Times font, 12pt, 1.5 spaced, 1” margins) should be submitted to the examination committee at least one week before the date of the exam.

Research Plan

All PhD students must write a research plan prior to taking the candidacy exam.

  • Plan should include the research objective, results of other current related research or literature, a detailed description of the experimental or theoretical work to be performed, preliminary results and an indication of how the research objective will be fulfilled.
  • Format must be Times New Roman size 12, 1.5-spaced, with one-inch margins.
  • The research adviser must approve the plan before submission to the Examining Committee (consisting of, at minimum, the research adviser and two other faculty members).
  • Plan must be electronically transmitted to the Chemistry Department and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the Examining Committee as a PDF document at least seven calendar days before the scheduled oral examination.
  • The Chemistry Department office will notify faculty members when plan has been submitted and will forward it upon request.
Exam Format

The candidate begins the exam with 10-15 minutes of oral presentation to the Examining Committee with supporting media to explain the research and results. The committee then has the opportunity to ask questions and open up discussion.


The committee will assign either a pass or fail grade. In the case of a fail grade, the committee may opt to allow the student to rewrite the plan or repeat the examination within one month.

Regardless of the outcome, the committee may require additional coursework or other appropriate requirements to ensure a student’s preparation for dissertation research.


Doctoral Committee

Upon entering candidacy, you are expected to work closely with the DGS and your Doctoral Committee. The doctoral committee consists of your director/co-director and two readers. The director or co-director must be a member of the department/program in which you are pursuing a PhD.


You will register for Dissertation Research credits while working on the dissertation, and until the required 72 credits are completed. If you are still working on your dissertation, have completed 72 credits, and are within the degree deadline, you may register for 1 credit of Continuing Research (CCAS 0940) until you have completed the Ph.D.

Workflow and Timing for your Dissertation Preparation

As you begin to prepare the written document that is your dissertation, please keep the following in mind:

1. Make an appointment with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), Dr. Zysmilich, to make sure you have completed all other departmental requirements.

2. In consultation with the DGS and your PI, assemble a dissertation committee.  This will include: 

            a) Two readers—The readers should be the two faculty members that served on your candidacy committee.

            b) Two to three examiners—The examiners must include at least one faculty member who is external to GW Chemistry. 

Note: Examiners and Readers are NOT the same people.

3. Determine a defense date far enough in advance (See below). The DGS will both communicate with the dissertation committee and scheduling the defense.  Once the defense date and the composition of the dissertation committee are finalized, fill out and submit to CCAS ([email protected]) a Dissertation Examination/Defense Form.

4. Work with your advisor to produce a final draft of your thesis to go out to the readers.  Do not submit to readers without the approval of your advisor.

5. The draft of the dissertation goes to the readers AT LEAST FIVE WEEKS before the dissertation date.  The readers have TWO WEEKS to return an edited copy to you.

6. Tidy up what they send back. This should not take more than one week.

7. The updated draft should be sent to ALL committee members at least TWO WEEKS before the dissertation defense.

Keep in mind that some faculty may want an electronic (PDF) copy, while others may want a printed copy. Generate the PDF in Word directly and NOT by scanning.  PDF editing software prefers the former.

It is critical that you develop and cultivate relationships with researchers outside of GW Chemistry. Besides being important for your career, you will need an external committee member (see #2, above). Do not wait until you are writing up your dissertation to figure out who this will be.  ‘External’ means a member of another department on this campus or outside the University.  The person can be from another department at the University, such as Physics or Math or Biology or Forensic Sciences or Elliot or SEAS.  Or you can go outside of the University to NRL (for example) or another University.  But keep in mind that the external examiner cannot be someone who has any connection to the candidate (coauthor, former mentor, employer), etc.

Final Examination

When the dissertation is complete and approved by the Doctoral Committee the student takes the Final Examination or Defense. The Final Examination or Defense is designed, scheduled and administered by your department. It is an oral examination conducted by the Final Examination Committee, which consists of your Doctoral Committee (director and two readers at a minimum) and two other examiners, at least one of whom must come from outside your department or outside GW. Your current or prospective immediate supervisor of employment is not permitted to be an examiner.

Completed Dissertation Submission

Once you have successfully completed the Final Examination and the committee has verified that any required revisions to the dissertation have been made, you must submit: 

See the CCAS Graduate Student Handbook for more details.