General Examination

The purpose of the General Examination is to assure the Department that its graduates have both a broad background in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, and a firm understanding of the student’s chosen specialty in the department. All students are expected to take the General Examination before the start of the fifth academic term, or before the fourth academic term if they already have an EAPS master’s degree. (Summer and IAP are not, for these purposes, considered academic terms.)

Structure and Scheduling of the Exam


  • Students in all programs submit their General Examination Proposal which includes the proposal form and two project abstracts by the Add Date on the Registrar’s Academic Calendar in the term prior to the one in which they take the exam. For most students this will be the Add Date in the fall term with the exam occurring in the spring term.
    • G3, Geophysics and Planetary: students submit their General Exam Proposal form to the Education Office for the Committee on the Education Program (CEP) to review and approve.
    • PAOC: students submit the PAOC General Exam Proposal form to the PAOC administrator (Daisy Caban) for the PAOC General Exam Committee to review and approve.

Committee Membership

The exam committee consists of at least four members from the EAPS faculty, lecturers, and senior research staff (Principal and Senior Research Scientists). Members should include:

  • Student's research advisor
  • Second paper advisor
  • One member must be from a specialty different from that of the student
  • A predominate number of faculty from EAPS

The chairperson for the examination committee will be named by the examination committee and will be someone other than the primary research advisor The committee should represent a sufficiently broad spectrum of research specialties to ensure a “general” rather than “topical” examination.

Scheduling of the General Examination

G3, Geophysics and Planetary:

By the Add Date of the term in which the student is taking the exam (spring term for most students) students will submit their scheduling form to the EAPS Education Office. Once a student has scheduled a date and time for the exam with their committee, the Administrative Assistant in the Education Office will help the student schedule the room for the exam.


The exams are scheduled by the PAOC administrator and occur in the second half of May. The PAOC examination committee establishes an ad hoc committee for each student that includes one member of the PAOC examination committee. The composition of the ad hoc committee is communicated to the student in February. Final decisions on the General Examinations are made at a PAOC faculty meeting at the end of May.


The General Examination consists of written and oral parts. The written part requires the student to prepare two formal research reports. The written material should describe a significant new problem, outline the present state of knowledge in the appropriate field, propose an approach for addressing the problem, and discuss progress made towards reaching a solution. Usually, the first paper, which is advised by the student’s academic advisor, is on the topic the student intends to use for the doctoral thesis. The second paper is advised by an EAPS faculty member or senior research staff member (Senior Researcher or Principal Research Scientist). Exceptions in which the second-paper advisor is from outside EAPS must be petitioned for to the CEP prior to submitting the General Examination Proposal. The two papers must address problems in significantly different specialties. It is not acceptable to submit two papers in the same specialty where one paper is a field study and the other paper is a laboratory or theoretical study. The total length of the two papers combined should not exceed 40 pages (typed, double-spaced), including figures and references.

The oral part of the exam consists of short (20 minutes maximum) presentations by the student on the research papers. Each presentation is followed by an oral questioning period in which committee members question the candidate in depth about the paper, about important aspects of the student’s field of specialty, and about the general topics in related fields. The scope of general knowledge questions will be guided by the student's chosen discipline(s) and the subject areas of classes the student has taken at MIT. Three hours should be scheduled for the exam.

In special circumstances, PAOC students may petition the PAOC General Examination Committee to do a written exam in lieu of the second paper (e.g., if more course work than normal is needed). This will be decided on a case-by-case basis by the advisor and the PAOC General Exam Committee.

General Examination Outcomes:

There are four possible outcomes of the exam: Pass, Conditional Pass, Deferred Decision or Fail. Each outcome is detailed below.

Pass: in this case the student will enter into the final phase of the doctoral program upon submission of an approved thesis proposal.

Conditional Pass: in this case the examination committee gives conditions to the student that must be met before the student passes the examination. Conditions may include but are not limited to: completions of incompletes in coursework, taking additional classes to increase knowledge in a particular area, writing a more detailed paper, etc. The student must complete any requirements involving coursework as soon as possible. For any conditional pass requirements other than coursework, the committee will meet with the student no later than 6 months after the examination to determine if the student has met the Conditional Pass requirements. If conditions have successfully been met then the conditional pass will be replaced with a Pass. If conditions have not been met the Conditional Pass will be changed to a Fail.

Deferred Decision: in this case the committee feels that a special circumstance has affected the outcome of the exam and they recommend redoing all or part of the exam. The re-examination is to be scheduled with the approval of the CEP and should take place within three months of the original exam.

Fail: in this case the committee is not satisfied with the student’s progress toward the doctoral degree or their performance in the examination. Receiving this grade officially terminates the student’s participation in the doctoral program. The committee has the option of recommending a student for a Master’s degree. If a Master’s degree is recommended the student will still need to meet all the requirements for the Master’s degree including a thesis to receive the degree. Master’s degree requirements are found here.

Delay of the Exam

If a student finds it impossible to complete the exam on schedule, the student must petition the CEP for an extension at least one month prior to the deadline (start of fifth academic term, or fourth academic term for those with an EAPS’ Master’s degree). The petition must include a detailed statement of the reasons for failure to take the exam on time, a supporting letter from the faculty advisor, and a firm timetable for completing the exam. No extensions will be given unless there are compelling reasons (e.g., unplanned absence of the faculty advisor, personal tragedy), and all extensions will include a time limit for taking a rescheduled exam. If a student does not take the examination on time and has not received an extension, CEP may recommend to the Institute Committee on Graduate Programs that the student be denied further registration. If this occurs, the student must apply formally to the Admissions Committee for re-entry into the doctoral program.

Last Updated: August 2019