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How Long Does it Take to Earn a PhD in Meteorology?

by Elissa Hansen

Most doctoral programs in meteorology are designed to be completed in five or six years, although many students take longer to graduate: The average time to degree in the earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences is 7.5 years, according to the National Science Foundation. Before entering a Ph.D. program in meteorology, students should prepare by cultivating strong science, math and computer skills. Undergraduate and master’s degrees that provide good preparation for a doctorate in meteorology include chemistry, physics, earth science, engineering, environmental science and, of course, meteorology.

Coursework

The coursework phase of a meteorology Ph.D. takes about two years. Most universities -- such as Florida State University, which has the largest meteorology Ph.D. program in the country -- give students a high degree of flexibility in choosing their coursework, but students generally take courses in atmospheric and systems theory and research methods in addition to pursuing courses in their specific area of interest. Some schools also allow students to transfer a portion of their coursework from master’s programs, which can decrease the time spent on coursework by one or two semesters.

Exam and Prospectus

To advance to doctoral candidacy, Ph.D. students must pass a comprehensive examination, sometimes called a qualifying examination, after completing their coursework. The typical exam has both written and oral components. Some schools ask students to create a literature review in their area of interest for their written exam; others have students draft a dissertation prospectus; still others have a set of prepared questions about the field that students must answer in essay form. The oral exam is administered by the student’s doctoral committee and can involve answering general questions about meteorology as well as defending the prospectus. Most students are ready to take this exam at the end of their second year.

Thesis Credits

After passing their comprehensive examination and having their prospectus approved, students can take their thesis research credits. These required credits, which don’t have any coursework associated with them but allow students to begin focusing completely on their dissertation research, usually take a year to complete. After that, most schools have students enroll in a “supercredit,” a one-unit course that gives them full-time status but makes them less expensive for the department to maintain, since it's no longer paying full tuition for them. Students continue registering for this credit until they defend their dissertation.

Dissertation

The vagaries of scientific research make the dissertation phase of the program open-ended. Students work with their adviser and research group to answer the research questions that they posed in their prospectus. Factors that can increase time to degree include academic ones, such as experimental failures, getting “scooped” by another researcher investigating the same problem or having a time-consuming research or teaching assistantship, and personal ones, such as family responsibilities. Ideally, students defend at the end of their third or fourth year after completing coursework.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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