PhD in Chemistry

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

The PhD in Chemistry program offers a small student-to-faculty ratio, close access to research and mentorship opportunities and a vibrant community of 40–50 peers. Faculty are deeply invested in helping PhD students develop their professional portfolios, offering ample opportunities for research presentations, publications and awards.

In addition to research in their focus area of choice, many students 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.

Doctoral Exams & Dissertation


"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

Research Areas

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

Explore Graduate Research


Degree Requirements

All doctoral students must complete a set of core courses, cumulative and candidacy examinations and a dissertation. They must also present at required seminars. For more questions, please contact the Director of Graduate Studies.

Doctoral Committee

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.

Seminar Presentations

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.

Satisfactory Progress

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. 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 placements 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Candidacy Exam: 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.
  7. Teaching duties: The student should satisfactorily carry out GA duties as determined by the chair-person and/or laboratory supervisors/instructors.
  8. 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.
Writing Skills

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

PhD Students in the Lab

Sylwia Stopka



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

Pre-matriculation requirements

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.

PhD program of study

Students develop a program of study in consultation with their doctoral committee, subject to the approval of the department’s Graduate Affairs Committee. The program of study must include coursework in a minimum of five graduate-level courses; at least three of these courses must be core courses as defined in the department’s Guide for Graduate Students and at least three must be offered by the Department of Chemistry. 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/discipline. Equivalent courses offered by another university may be substituted at the discretion of the Graduate Affairs Committee.

Required coursework
CHEM 6221Spectrochemical Analysis
CHEM 6222Biomedical Mass Spectrometry
CHEM 6233Organometallic Chemistry and Catalysis
CHEM 6235Advanced Inorganic Chemistry I
CHEM 6238Chemistry of Inorganic Materials
CHEM 6251Advanced Organic Chemistry I
CHEM 6257Physical-Organic Chemistry
CHEM 6259Polymer Chemistry
CHEM 6273Chemical Thermodynamics
CHEM 6277Chemical Bonding
CHEM 6278Molecular Spectroscopy
Dissertation research
CHEM 8999Dissertation Research
Students may substitute up to 12 credits in CHEM 8999 Dissertation Research with coursework jointly approved by the Departments of Chemistry and Forensic Sciences, the Environmental Resource Policy Program, or the International Science and Technology Policy program. These credits may be selected from specified courses offered by the information systems and technology management program, public policy and public administration program, Departments of Forensic Sciences and Political Science, and the Elliott School of International Affairs.

General examination

Students must successfully complete the program's general examination, which consists of three parts: a 30-minute seminar, cumulative examinations, and a candidacy examination. To pass the general examination, students must present a 30-minute seminar covering topics from the literature and preliminary research results, prior to the start of their fifth semester in the program. They must also successfully complete their cumulative examinations and candidacy examination no later than the end of their sixth semester in the program.

Students also must present a 60-minute seminar on their research prior to the dissertation defense.