Jul 21, 2024  
2023 - 2024 Graduate Catalog 
2023 - 2024 Graduate Catalog

Marine Science, PhD

The Ph.D. in Marine Science degree program is designed to prepare students for advanced marine science-focused careers in academia, government agencies or other employment sectors. Students complete fundamental and advanced marine science coursework and a dissertation based on original research. The required core curriculum is designed to help students achieve a broad understanding of the essential processes that define oceanic, coastal, and estuarine environments. Advanced courses allow students to explore areas of specialization that align with research and professional interests. There is considerable latitude to design an advanced course of study that ranges from highly disciplinary to highly interdisciplinary.

Ph.D. Program Admission Requirements

Students interested in pursuing marine science as a profession should consult with their academic advisor, or the Office of Academic Studies (admissions@vims.edu) at the School of Marine Science, early in their college careers to identify an academic program that will prepare them for graduate study in marine science. Applicant review is holistic. We look for previous coursework, training, and experience that demonstrate preparedness for a science and research-focused curriculum, as well as an applicant’s interest in pursuing a career path that will benefit from advanced training in marine science. All applicants to the Doctoral (Ph.D.) program at the School of Marine Science should have a strong background in basic science, including physics and chemistry (through organic), mathematics through calculus, and contemporary biology courses. The prospective chemical, geological or physical oceanography student should have degrees with appropriate coursework in chemistry, geology or related geophysical science, physics, meteorology, mathematics or engineering, and a solid quantitative background. Coursework in statistics is highly recommended for all students. Applicants for the Ph.D. program will usually have achieved degrees in the sciences or engineering.

Applicants for the Ph.D. program should identify and contact faculty of interest when applying. Students pursuing the Ph.D. typically receive assistantship (stipend and tuition) support through faculty grants and contacts; offers of admission are therefore connected to a faculty member agreeing to serve as an advisor. Review current faculty research  to identify your areas of interest and contact faculty early in the admissions cycle to determine if space is available.

For matriculation as a Regular degree-seeking graduate student, an applicant must have completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree (either a B.A. or B.S. are considered) from an accredited college, identify their faculty advisor(s) of interest, be recommended for admission by the SMS Admission Committee and their faculty advisor, and be approved for admission by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the School of Marine Science.

A student without an M.S. degree enters the program as a M.A. or M.S. student; however, those wishing to continue directly to the Ph.D. degree may apply to bypass the M.S. degree, provided they meet the criteria for the bypass (see M.S. Bypass Option ). Students entering the M.A. program are not eligible for bypassing directly into the Ph.D. track.

In unusual circumstances, an applicant judged deficient in preparatory studies or other areas may be admitted as a Provisional student. A Provisional student may petition for Regular student status after successful completion of those requirements stipulated in their notification of admission. Petition for change in status shall be reviewed by the Academic Status and Degrees Committee (ASDC), using as criteria overall academic performance and performance standards previously specified on the student’s notification of admission. If recommended by ASDC, the petition must be approved by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Graduate credit earned by a Provisional student will be applied toward the graduate degree upon successful conversion to Regular student status.

For additional School of Marine Science admission information, important dates, and the on-line application, please visit our website.

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Required Coursework

SMS Core Curriculum

Specific objectives of the SMS core course curriculum are to:

  • Educate students in the fundamentals of marine science in a way that fosters interdisciplinary and synthetic understanding of oceanic, coastal and estuarine systems;
  • Provide students with an appreciation for the integration of marine science and its application to complex environmental problems;
  • Ensure that students have the methodological, quantitative, communication and professional skills needed to pursue successful careers in marine science.

Students must pass all required SMS core courses with a grade of B- or better by the end of their second year following matriculation. Students are required to choose courses as follows:

Fundamentals Core Courses: Complete (4) courses from the following menu: MSCI 501A MSCI 501B MSCI 501C  (or MSCI 521 ), MSCI 501D MSCI 501E MSCI 501F  

Quantitative Core Courses: Complete at least (1) course from the following menu: MSCI 504 , MSCI 554 , or MSCI 556  

Interdisciplinary Core Course: Complete MSCI 503  

Seminar Course: Complete MSCI 515  - (2) credit hours

Note: Ph.D. students are expected to register for seminar (MSCI 515) every fall and spring semester; however, only (2) credit hours will be applicable to the degree.

Advanced Electives

Complete at least (15) credit hours in courses numbered MSCI 550 or above.


Dissertation: Complete MSCI 699  - (9) credit hours minimum or up to (12) credit hours maximum will apply to degree.

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Other Requirements

Credit Requirements

At least (42) credit hours of advanced work, of which at least (15) credit hours have been earned in courses numbered MSCI 550 or above with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or better, are required for the Ph.D. degree. In addition, a student must have registered for dissertation credit (MSCI 699 ) for at least one semester. At least (9) dissertation credits but no more than (12) credits may be counted toward the minimum (42) credits required for the degree.

Residency and Enrollment Requirements

To fulfill the full-time academic residency requirement a student must successfully complete the core course requirements and be a full-time student in academic standing for two consecutive semesters.


Full-time degree-seeking students in the Ph.D. program who have not been granted leave must enroll for at least (9) credit hours of approved coursework for both the fall and spring semesters, and (3) credit hours each summer. Students must maintain continuous enrollment during the summer and also be registered in the semester of graduation. Students holding assistantships must register full-time during the summer. Coursework that is not being used to meet Marine Science degree program requirements and overload coursework are not covered by an assistantship award unless you have the permission of the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Part-time students not supported by an assistantship register for (1) credit hour during the summer.

Research Graduate Status | Registration Requirements

Upon the recommendation of the major professor and approval by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, a full-time graduate student in the Ph.D. program who is engaged primarily in dissertation research and has achieved candidacy may apply for Research Graduate Status. For doctoral students, Research Graduate Status will commence in the first full semester (e.g., Fall or Spring semester) following admission to candidacy and will continue through a student’s normative graduation date (i.e., graduation milestone) as determined by the faculty of the School of Marine Science. 

Awarding of Research Graduate Status is contingent on the availability of funds. In addition, the following conditions must be met:

  • The student has completed all SMS required coursework other than dissertation.
  • The student has passed the qualifying examination and the prospectus has been approved.
  • The student has passed the Comprehensive Examination.
  • The student is not employed significantly in any activity other than research and writing in fulfillment of degree requirements.
  • The student is present on campus or is engaged in approved fieldwork related to his/her dissertation.

While classified as Research Graduate Status, a student should register during the fall or spring semester for (9) credit hours of dissertation for which there will be (3) billable credit hours at the part-time rate. The student may elect to utilize up to (2) of the (3) paid credit hours for formal coursework and may register for additional coursework only upon payment of the generally applicable additional part-time tuition. During the summer term, a student should register full-time for (3) credit hours, for which there will be (1) billable credit hour at the part-time rate.

A student with Research Graduate status is not eligible for services (e.g., student health and athletic events) unless required fees are paid.

Part-Time Student Status | Registration Requirements

Students in the Ph.D. program who have achieved candidacy, and completed course work and on-campus research, are allowed to finish the degree program in a special part-time registration status. These off-site degree-seeking students are not eligible for VIMS assistantships, fellowships, or workship funding and are not making use of on-site resources of VIMS or the W&M campus in Williamsburg.  Depending on domicile, a part-time student pays for (1) credit hour at the out-of-state rate or (3) credit hours at the in-state rate during fall and spring semesters. During the summer, part-time students are required to register for (1) credit hour in order to maintain continuous enrollment.

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Milestones for the Ph.D. Program

In addition to completing degree requirements, School of Marine Science Ph.D. students are expected to adhere to the following timeline for completion of milestones in the degree program.

Milestone No. of Months for Completion
Major Professor 8
Committee/Research Topic 9
Pre-Qualifying Interview 18
Comprehensive Exam 21
Qualifying Exam/Prospectus Defense 30
Admission to Candidacy 34
Seminar Presentation/Dissertation Defense 1-3 months prior to degree completion
Completion of Degree Requirements 48-72 (see below)

Major Professor - The student selects a School of Marine Science faculty member as a major professor. The major professor, co-advisor (when applicable), and advisory committee direct the student’s program. When appropriate, the student may select a co-advisor who is a VIMS faculty member or a VIMS Research Scientist. Research Scientists must hold a Ph.D. and be approved as a co-advisor by the Academic Council and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Should a student’s major professor retire or leave VIMS before the student completes the degree, the student is required to select an appropriate on-campus advisor or co-advisor from the VIMS faculty.

Advisory Committee - The advisory committee, chosen by the student in consultation with the advisor, consists of at least five members and must be approved by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. A majority of the committee members must be from the SMS faculty. The committee must include at least one SMS faculty member who is within a different discipline from the student’s research discipline. At least one committee member with appropriate qualifications must be from outside of the School of Marine Science and William & Mary faculty. The committee must be approved by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs before the comprehensive and qualifying exams are scheduled.

Note: An M.S. program student who plans to petition to bypass the M.S. must constitute an examination committee in accordance with the requirements for a Ph.D. program advisory committee. This should be done prior to the scheduling of the comprehensive exam. Refer to M.S. Bypass Option  for more details. 

Pre-Qualifying Interview - The student is expected to schedule a meeting early in the program to discuss academic preparation and research ideas with the Advisory Committee. Doctoral students should have their pre-qualifying interview before the end of the second fall semester (for students matriculating in Fall).  

Comprehensive Exam (M.S. Bypass and Ph.D.) - A written exam is administered by the student’s advisory committee and must be passed before the qualifying exam. The comprehensive exam allows a student to demonstrate comprehension and integration of material from the disciplines of marine science that are relevant to the student’s area of specialization. The objective of the written exam is to ensure that the student has an appropriate general understanding of the field as well as the specific knowledge needed to undertake their research project. Successful completion of a rigorous comprehensive exam signals that a student is ready to pursue advanced training and original scientific research. The comprehensive examination milestone is (21) months. The exam must be passed within 6 months, i.e. before (27) months. After the initial exam, Ph.D. students are allowed one exam retake for any sections that were not passed. At a minimum, a student must pass all but one of their exam sections to be allowed to proceed in the Ph.D. program to the qualifying exam. Students who fail more than one section will be given an option to enroll in the M.S. degree program. A student who seeks to bypass the M.S. degree has one opportunity to take the comprehensive exam.  If they pass all but one section, they may apply to bypass to the Ph.D. program. There is no appeal of this policy.

The exam will be created, administered, and graded by the student’s advisory committee. For a student pursuing a M.S. bypass, the examination committee must satisfy the requirements for a Ph.D. advisory committee. The student’s advisor will notify the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of the outcome of the pass/fail exam and if any remedial action is needed. Following the exam, a copy of the questions, as well as the graded exam with the questions and student responses will be submitted to the SMS Registrar. The questions will be maintained electronically in the Office of Academic Studies. The graded exam will be maintained in the student’s file.

Qualifying Exam and Prospectus Defense - The qualifying examination must be passed and a prospectus must be accepted by the student’s committee. The qualifying examination and prospectus defense gauge a student’s progress early in the research program. The qualifying examination milestone is at (30) months for a Ph.D. track student and the exam must be completed within (12) months of the milestone deadline.

The qualifying examination is an oral exam designed to test a student’s scientific competence and ability to pursue the research project. The exam consists of two components: (1) questions that address knowledge specific to the proposed research project and (2) questions concerning the general knowledge in the student’s field of study. The qualifying examination will be administered by the student’s advisory committee and chaired by a moderator who is not a member of the student’s advisory committee. The moderator must be identified at least three weeks prior to the examination. It is expected that the committee members will attend in person. Should a committee member need to participate remotely, the advisor should alert the moderator and confirm the availability of adequate means of communications, both at VIMS and at the remote location. Students must file appropriate paperwork for the scheduling and announcement of the qualifying examination with the Office of Academic Studies. The approval of the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs is required in the event that more than one committee member needs to participate remotely. Consistent with SMS procedures, the examination will be advertised and open to all faculty members. The examination allows a student’s advisory committee to identify any deficiencies in a student’s preparation to successfully conduct and complete the degree program. The minimum elapsed time between successful completion of the qualifying examination and the final defense must be no less than one year for Ph.D. students. SMS policy prohibits audio or video recording of exams, although exceptions may be made for students with documented disabilities.

The prospectus is a formal written presentation of the proposed research. Its purpose is to present the rationale for selection of the hypotheses, objectives and methodology to be used in the research. It must include a problem statement, review of current literature in the area of study, and a detailed plan of study, as well as a summary of preliminary research conducted by the student. The prospectus must also provide a detailed rationale for the proposed work, clearly stated objectives, and testable hypothesis(es) when appropriate, consistent with the problem statement, and a description of research design, field and laboratory studies, methods and data analysis intended to test the hypothesis. The prospectus must be formally approved by the committee; members participating remotely can sign the milestone form digitally or give the qualifying exam moderator the authority to sign this form.

A student who fails to meet the Qualifying Examination and Prospectus Defense milestone within the timeframe specified will be placed on academic probation. A student on academic probation will have one calendar year to satisfy any outstanding deficiencies. Failure to do so will result in automatic termination of the student’s degree program.

Admission to Candidacy - A student may apply for candidacy when they have completed all SMS required coursework other than dissertation, passed the comprehensive and qualifying exams, and have an approved prospectus. The student must also have achieved a grade point average of B (3.0) or better, averaged over all courses taken for credit at the time of application for admission to candidacy. The student will be admitted to candidacy upon a favorable recommendation of the student’s advisory committee, followed by a majority vote of the Academic Council, and the approval of the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

Seminar and Defense - The dissertation defense consists of two parts. All students are required to present a seminar to the marine science faculty, staff and students on their dissertation research. The seminar will be advertised and open to any interested individuals. Immediately following the seminar, the student will undergo an oral examination, the defense of the dissertation, by the student’s advisory committee. The defense is chaired and administered by a moderator who is not a member of the student’s committee. It is expected that committee members will attend in person. Should a committee member need to participate remotely, the advisor should alert the moderator and confirm the availability of adequate means of communications, both at VIMS and at the remote location. The approval of the AD-AS is required in the event that more than one committee member participates remotely. Any interested W&M faculty members are invited to attend. SMS policy prohibits audio or video recording of exams and defenses, although exceptions may be made for students with documented disabilities.

At the conclusion of the defense, the student’s advisory committee will vote on a pass/fail decision, and indicate this on the Defense Acceptance form. Unanimous committee approval is necessary for satisfactory completion of both the dissertation defense and the final version of the dissertation. Following the student’s defense, the SMS Registrar will initiate the Dissertation Final Acceptance form and send it electronically via DocuSign to the committee in the routing order established by the moderator at the student’s defense. Once final edits following the defense have been incorporated, the advisor and student will also sign this form. 

Submission of Dissertation - All Ph.D. students are required to submit an electronic-only dissertation to the William & Mary Institutional Repository via the ProQuest ETD Administrator website no later than 11:59 p.m. on the deadline date listed on the academic calendar in this catalog. Bound print copies of dissertations are no longer submitted to the Swem and Hargis libraries. Refer to the SMS Student Handbook for additional guidelines.

Completion of Degree Requirements - The requirements for the degree, including submission of the approved dissertation must be completed within specified timelines as follows:

  • 48 months - students pursuing a Ph.D. who enter the program with a SMS M.S. degree
  • 60 months - students pursuing a Ph.D. who enter the program with a M.S. degree or equivalent from another institution
  • 72 months - students pursuing a Ph.D. who bypass completion of a SMS M.S. degree

School of Marine Science (SMS) students generally are bound by the requirements stated in the catalog for the academic year stated in their Notification of Admission letter. A student’s advisory committee may prescribe additional requirements for the student.

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