Jul 13, 2024  
2023 - 2024 Graduate Catalog 
2023 - 2024 Graduate Catalog

Marine Science, MS


The Master of Science degree in Marine Science is designed to prepare students for marine science-focused careers in academia, government agencies or other employment sectors. The M.S. degree is a suitable program for those who wish to later pursue doctoral studies. Students complete fundamental and advanced marine science coursework and a thesis based on original research. The required core course curriculum is designed to help students achieve broad understanding of the essential processes that define oceanic, coastal, and estuarine environments. Advanced course electives allow students to explore areas of specialization that align with research and professional interests. There is considerable latitude to design a course of study and conduct research that ranges from highly disciplinary to highly interdisciplinary. 

M.S. Program Admission Requirements

Students interested in pursuing marine science as a profession should consult with their academic advisors, or the Office of Academic Affairs (admissions@vims.edu) at the School of Marine Science, early in their college careers to identify an undergraduate 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 Master of Science (M.S.) program of 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 an undergraduate degree 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 M.S. will usually have majored in science or engineering as undergraduates.  

Applicants for the M.S. program should identify and contact faculty of interest when applying. Students pursuing the M.S. often receive assistantship support (stipend & tuition) 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 an 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 (3) 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: M.S. 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 (9) credit hours in courses numbered MSCI 550 or above.


Thesis: Complete MSCI 599   - (6) credit hours

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Other Requirements

Credit Requirements 

At least (32) credit hours of advanced work, of which at least (9) 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 M.S. degree. In addition, a student must have registered for thesis credit (MSCI 599 ) for at least one semester. No more than six (6) thesis credits may be counted toward the minimum (32) 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 M.S. 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 M.S. program who is engaged primarily in thesis research and has achieved candidacy may apply for Research Graduate Status. M.S. program students are eligible for a single Fall or Spring semester, usually the semester of graduation.

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 the thesis.
  • The student has passed the qualifying examination and the prospectus has been approved.
  • 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 thesis.

While classified as Research Graduate Status, a student should register during the fall or spring semester for (9) credit hours of thesis, 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 following a student’s one full semester of RG status, 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 on 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 M.S. 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 M.S. Program

In addition to completing degree requirements, School of Marine Science M.S. 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 12
Qualifying Exam/Prospectus Defense 18
Admission to Candidacy 24
Seminar Presentation/Thesis Defense 1-3 months prior to degree completion
Completion of Degree Requirements 36

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 four 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. A fifth committee member with appropriate qualifications from within or outside of the SMS may be included but is not required unless a student is considering the bypass. The committee must be approved by the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs before the qualifying exam is 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. Master of Science students should have their pre-qualifying interview before the beginning of the second fall semester (for students matriculating in Fall). 

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 (18) months for an M.S. student and the exam must be completed within (6) months of the milestone date.

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 Affairs. 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 six months. 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 milestones 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 thesis, passed the qualifying exam, 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 thesis defense consists of two parts. All students are required to present a seminar to the marine science faculty, staff and students on their thesis 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 thesis, 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 thesis defense and the final version of the thesis. Following the student’s defense, the SMS Registrar will initiate the Thesis 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 Thesis - All M.S. students are required to submit an electronic-only thesis 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. Bound print copies of theses 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 thesis must be completed within (3) years of matriculation.  

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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M.S. Bypass Option

With the concurrence of the major advisor and a student’s committee, a student originally accepted to the M.S. program may petition to bypass the M.S. and proceed directly toward the Ph.D. A student who is interested in the bypass option should file a Notification of Intent to Bypass M.S. Degree form as early as possible and in all cases prior to taking a comprehensive examination at the Ph.D. level, which must be passed by no later than the end of the second calendar year following matriculation. An M.S. student who plans to petition to bypass must constitute an examination committee in accordance with the requirements for a Ph.D. program advisory committee prior to the comprehensive exam. Following the successful completion of the comprehensive exam, and by the start of the third calendar year at the latest, the student may submit an Application to Bypass the M.S. Degree to the Academic Status and Degrees Committee.  The application package will include:

  • An approved Notification of Intent to Bypass M.S. Degree form;
  • A CV and 1-2 page statement by the student describing the student’s achievements and demonstrated potential to conduct independent research;
  • A 1-2 page statement by the student’s advisor describing the student’s achievements and demonstrated potential to conduct independent research;
  • A recommendation by the advisory committee that the student be allowed to bypass the master’s degree.

The SMS Registrar will provide evidence that the student is in good academic standing, has completed the SMS core course requirements for the M.S. degree and successfully completed the comprehensive exam.  Evidence of scholarly potential in the form of independent research, professional presentations, submitted or accepted manuscripts and research proposals will strengthen a student’s petition for the bypass. The Academic Status and Degrees Committee will recommend to the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs whether or not permission to bypass should be granted. Approval of the bypass represents a change in funding obligations for most students and, for that reason, the advisor must provide a statement on funding availability to support the student’s doctoral program to the Office of Academic Affairs prior to review of the bypass request by the Associate Dean. Appeals of an adverse decision of the Academic Status and Degrees Committee may be made to the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. In order to apply the doctoral program milestones equitably, the Academic Status and Degrees Committee will determine an “effective completion date” for the doctoral program, which normally will be designated as (72) months from the date of matriculation.

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