PhD in Chemistry


GW chemist in an orange-lit lab wearing a mask and white coat


Doctoral students perform original research in one of five fields: analytical chemistry, biochemistry, inorganic (materials) chemistry, organic chemistry or physical chemistry.

Faculty are deeply invested in helping PhD students develop their professional portfolios, offering ample opportunities for research presentations, publications and awards. Our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio offers students close access to faculty and mentorship opportunities, while our vibrant community of 40–50 PhD students fosters strong peer connections.

Doctoral students begin with core courses in focus areas and quickly move on to join research groups that match their interests. Most students spend about five years in the chemistry PhD program. Many enrich their program through consortium classes or collaborations with peers in medicine, engineering and nearby federal research laboratories — including the National Institutes of Health, Naval Research Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"The faculty had a profound impact on my life and opened many doors for me. … In a few short years since graduating, my career has already far exceeded the goals I set as a graduate student and I feel this is largely due to the result-based education I received at GW.” 

Keegan M. Caldwell

PhD '14
Managing Member of Caldwell Intellectual Property

Degree Requirements

Whatever their focus, all doctoral students must complete a set of core courses, a series of cumulative examinations, a candidacy exam and a dissertation and must present at required seminars.

Note: For students who matriculated prior to spring 2014, see the former PhD requirements.

All incoming PhD students must take the American Chemical Society Graduate Level Placement Examinations, given by the Department of Chemistry, prior to course registration. 

These exams serve two purposes:
(1) to help determine your courses for Year 1, and
(2) to satisfy the departmental requirement ensuring all students have knowledge across analytical,
inorganic, organic, and physical chemistries. The exams are based on the undergraduate curriculum
endorsed by the American Chemical Society.

Guidelines for Placement Exams

All students develop a plan of study in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). The plan must include the following:

  • At least five graduate courses (6000-level and above)
  • Three of theses courses would be core courses, (6000-level or above), at least one from each of the following core categories (A/B/C):

Course #



Chem 6221

Spectrochemical Analysis


Chem 6277

Chemical Bonding


Chem 6278

Molecular Spectroscopy


Chem 6350

Organometallic Chemistry


Chem 6251

Advanced Organic Chemistry I


Chem 6235

Advanced Inorganic Chemistry I


Chem 6259

Polymer Chemistry


Chem 6222

Biomedical Mass Spectrometry


Chem 6238

Chemistry of Inorganic Materials


Chem 6257

Physical Organic Chemistry


Chem 6273

Chemical Thermodynamics



Students with less than 48 credit hours must register for Advanced Reading and Research (Chem 8998). The Graduate Affairs Committee may require up to nine additional semester hours of formal courses in chemistry or related fields. Students should take nine credit hours each semester between regular classes and research and must receive at least an average B grade (GPA of 3.0) in core courses in order to advance to candidacy. Read more in the Graduate Student Handbook. 

Prior to the second semester of study, a Doctoral/Examining Committee must be formed. At least three members of the department, including the research advisor and ideally one faculty member from within the chosen division and one faculty member from another discipline.

Before the second semester of study, the advisor will report the committee members to the DGS.

The advisor should schedule the first committee meeting during the second semester of study. Thereafter the group should convene at least annually in the presence of the student. Second and subsequent meetings should focus on the dissertation progress and implement suggested changes to the course of study as needed.

Student progress will be characterized by majority vote as excellent, good or failing. Should a failing mark be given, the committee must choose one of two options: probation with further guidance or recommendation for termination from the PhD program. This evaluation, or any changes to the course of study, should be reported in a document signed by all committee members to the Graduate Affairs Committee and the student following each meeting.

Students must present at least two seminars. The first takes place prior to the start of the fifth semester. It should be 25–30 minutes long, covering either a topic from the literature or preliminary research results. The second usually takes place in the summer prior to dissertation defense. It is an hour-long seminar on the research. Students should write an abstract (about 50 words) to advertise each seminar.



Cumulative examinations determine whether students have reached a particular level of understanding and application of their chosen subdiscipline (analytical, inorganic, organic or physical chemistry). The exams also test familiarity with the current literature of the chosen subdiscipline.

Guidelines for Cumulative Exams



All PhD students must complete their candidacy exam before the end of their sixth semester.

The candidate begins the exam with 20-30 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.

Candidacy Exam Guidelines

Students who do not show satisfactory progress might be either placed on probation with further guidance or recommended for termination from the PhD program.  The GW Chemistry Department defines satisfactory progress in the PhD program as:
1) Research group: The student should formally choose and be accepted into the research group of a full-time professor in our department prior to the start of the student’s 2nd semester in the program. Thereafter, the student must continuously maintain membership in a chemistry
department research group. Research advisor consent is required to join a research group. A “Join/Exit Research Group” form must be signed by the student and the research advisor and
submitted to the Chemistry Department Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) by the deadline to
initially declare membership in a research group (or to exit/change research groups at a later date). Please note that students who fail to achieve satisfactory progress in their research
programs can be removed from their research group at the discretion of the research advisor, in which case the student must join another chemistry department research group within 30 days.
2) Grades: The student should achieve an average grade of “B” (3.0) or higher in all core courses taken by the end of the student’s second semester in the program and continuously maintain that cumulative average each term thereafter.
3) 30-min seminar: The student should present a 30-minute seminar to the department prior to the candidacy exam, typically before the start of their fifth semester.
4) Cumulative Exams: The student should accumulate 10 points in 7 exams or 12 points in 10 exams prior to the end of the sixth semester in the program.
5) Candidacy Exam: The student should complete the candidacy exam prior to the end of the sixth semester in the program.
6) Teaching duties: The student should satisfactorily carry out GA duties as determined by the
chair-person and/or laboratory supervisors/instructors.
7) Chemistry seminars: The student should show regular attendance to chemistry seminars
(80% or higher per semester) and participate in other departmental activities, such as the
annual retreat, poster sessions, and other duties required by the research advisor.  Students are encouraged to regularly check their progress in the program on DegreeMap.  Reasonable exceptions to the above may be considered by the DGS in consultation with Graduate Affairs 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 Ph.D. 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.

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. 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 the following:


● Your dissertation through the Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) website,

● The completed ETD Approval Form;

● The Survey of Earned Doctorates.


See the Graduate Student Handbook for more details.

All graduate students must display competency in scientific writing. Periodically, student’s research reports, examinations, papers for classes, seminar abstract and other material will be reviewed for writing competency. In the event of inadequate performance, a student may be required to take a course in scientific writing.

Visit the GW Writing Center

GW belongs to the Consortium of the Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. This means students are invited to take graduate-level courses at fellow consortium member schools: American University, George Mason University, Georgetown University, Howard University and the University of Maryland.

The director of graduate studies must approve consortium courses, and approval will normally be limited to courses not offered or available at GW or cases in which scheduling problems prohibit a student from taking the equivalent course(s) at GW. Once approved by the Chemistry Department, consortium classes must be submitted through a form from the Office of the Registrar. All approved consortium courses must be added to the student’s program of studies and approved prior to enrolling in the class.

PhD Students in the Lab

Sylwia Stopka of the Akos Vertes lab, outside in Kogan Plaza

Sylwia Stopka

Sylwia Stopka (PhD ’17) of the Vertes group ​​​​​​​was the driving force behind an exciting project to develop new tools for the study of biological nitrogen fixation. In fall of 2017, the Chemistry Department received funding from the National Science Foundation as part of an interdisciplinary team formed with two other universities. The project explored plant-microbe interactions in biological nitrogen fixation using analytical tools developed in the Vertes laboratory. Combining a dual-channel microscope, capable of bright field and fluorescence imaging, with a laser ablation electrospray ionization system for the mass spectrometric analysis of single plant cells offered new insight into the biochemistry of self-fertilizing plants such as soybean.


Course Requirements

The following requirements must be fulfilled:

The general requirements stated under Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate Programs.

The requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy Program.

72 credits in a program of study developed in consultation with the doctoral committee.

Students develop their program of studies in consultation with their doctoral committee, subject to the approval of the department’s Graduate Affairs Committee. The program of studies must include coursework in a minimum of five graduate-level courses; at least three of the courses must be core courses as defined in the department’s Guide for Graduate Students; at least three must be offered by the Chemistry Department. These course requirements cannot be fulfilled by achievement on placement exams. At least two graduate-level courses must be taken outside the student's subdiscipline and in at least two other subdisciplines/disciplines. Equivalent courses offered by another university may be substituted at the discretion of the Graduate Affairs Committee. Students must pass a cumulative examination system and an oral defense of the doctoral research plan.

Research fields

  • Analytical chemistry—analytical neuroscience, analytical spectroscopy, biomedical analysis, chemical imaging, chemical instrumentation, chemical separations, electrochemical analysis, electrospray ionization, lab-on-a-chip devices, high-performance liquid chromatography (LC), laser–material interactions, mass spectrometry, nanophotonic structures, nmr spectroscopy, post-translational modifications, proteomics and metabolomics, single cell analysis;
  • Biochemistry—biological sensing via nanoparticles, biomaterials, biomolecular analysis, biophysical topics, enzymology, lipids chemistry, proteomics and metabolomics, enzyme expression and inhibition, structural biology;
  • Inorganic (materials) chemistry—battery chemistry, coordination chemistry, f-element chemistry, green chemistry, hydrothermal chemistry, mineral surface geochemistry, magnetochemistry, molecular spintronics, nanoscale and nanostructured materials, organometallic chemistry, small-molecule crystallography, solid-state materials;
  • Organic chemistry—biomaterials and lipids, catalysis, computational docking and ligand design, green chemistry, heterocyclic chemistry, molecules of biological interest, synthesis;
  • Physical chemistry—CO2 removal, combustion chemistry, elemental and molecular spectroscopies, fuel cells, laser analytics, renewable energy conversion, solar chemical syntheses, surface chemistry, theoretical chemistry, thermochemical energy cycles.

PhD students in chemistry may substitute up to 12 hours of Dissertation Research in the form of coursework jointly approved by the Chemistry Department and the Forensic Sciences Department, the Environmental Resource Policy Program, or the International Science and Technology Policy program. The 12 hours may be selected from specified courses offered by Forensic Sciences, Information Systems and Technology Management, Political Science, Public Policy and Public Administration, and the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Note: All entering students in graduate chemistry programs are required to take the American Chemical Society Graduate Level Placement Examinations, given by the Department of Chemistry, prior to matriculation. The four placement examinations (in the disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry) are designed to cover the subject matter in the disciplines generally taught in undergraduate programs preparatory for graduate work in chemistry, and the results are used by the department to advise the individual student in planning a program of courses appropriate to the student’s background. All graduate students are required to participate in the seminar and colloquium programs. Upon consultation with course instructors, specific course prerequisites may be waived.

With permission, a limited number of upper-level undergraduate courses in the department may be taken for graduate credit; additional coursework is required. See the Undergraduate programs for course listings.

 Visit the program website for additional information.