PhD in Chemistry


GW chemistry student in an orange-lit lab


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

Chemistry, 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 students develop a plan of study. The Graduate Affairs Committee serves as adviser to doctoral students until placement exam scores have been processed, at which point the student will seek a research adviser. The program of studies (as well as any later changes to it) must be approved by the Chemistry Department director of graduate studies and the Graduate Affairs Committee. The plan must include the following:

  • Five graduate courses (6000-level and above)
  • Three core courses (6000-level or above)
  • At least one course 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, an Examining Committee must be formed. At least three members of the department, including the research adviser and ideally one faculty member from within the chosen division and one faculty member from another discipline.

Before the second semester of study, the adviser will report the committee members to the Graduate Affairs Committee.

The adviser 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.

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

Should be no more than 10 pages including figures and appendices, not including references. Format must be Times New Roman size 12, 1.5-spaced, with one-inch margins.

Research adviser must approve the plan before submission to the Examining Committee.

Plan must be electronically transmitted to the Chemistry Department and the Examining Committee (consisting of, at minimum, the research adviser and two other faculty members) as a PDF document at least seven calendar days before the scheduled oral examination.

Chemistry office will notify faculty members when plan has been submitted and will forward it upon request.

After reaching 48 credit hours, students will register for a dissertation research course (CHEM 8999).

Follow the Doctoral Student Handbook guidelines on dissertations.

Format must be Times New Roman size 12, 1.5-spaced, with one-inch margins.

Style should follow the ACS Style Guide, which offers chemistry-specific guidelines on chemical nomenclature, copyright policy, format for reference citations, oral presentations and more.

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.

Entrance Exam

All prospective PhD students must take the American Chemical Society Graduate Level Placement Examinations, given by the Department of Chemistry, prior to matriculation. Students are expected to begin their research work within six months of admission to the program.

Cumulative Exam

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


Candidacy Exam

Within three years of completing the written dissertation examination (four years for part-time programs), students will complete an oral presentation.

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

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.

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 four 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.