Gunsch and MOrey in lab

PhD—Doctoral Study

Earn Your Doctorate from a Globally-Ranked Program

The Duke Civil Engineering & Environmental Engineering PhD program offers you opportunities to develop your research skills in close collaboration with our world-renowned experts in:

  • Environmental toxicology
  • Computational mechanics
  • Geomechanical modeling and characterization
  • Risk engineering

And, it's all just a part of Duke's uniquely interdisciplinary environment.

Excellent Outcomes

Our graduates go on to great things. About 34% of Duke CEE PhD grads go on to academic careers, many at some of the world's pre-eminent research institutions. About 44% go on to careers and leadership roles in industry and government.

More about where Duke CEE PhD grads go »

Study Tracks

At Duke CEE, you can choose your path from among these study tracks:

Degree Requirements

  • 30 units of coursework
  • 2 semesters of teaching assistant experience
  • Dissertation and defense
  • Final examination

How to Apply

By choosing Duke, you join an engaged, diverse and welcoming community that values and supports you. Apply online:

How to apply

Program Details

Those considering a PhD in civil and environmental engineering should be individuals interested in specialized research. We provide opportunities for students to publish with their faculty adviser, to present research at professional conferences, and to explore their field in a highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary working environment.

Doctoral (PhD) students admitted to the program can expect to have tuition and stipend support for the duration of their studies, contingent on demonstrated progress toward their degrees. The typical doctoral program is five (5) years.

Through programs like PhD Plus, students learn essential skills for their professional careers. Professional interests most often are realized through research and technology development careers.

Benefits for PhD Students

  • Direct admission to a research group
  • 100 percent financial support during the duration of your studies, plus national and international travel opportunities
  • Dedicated career development support, such as our innovative PhD Plus program
  • Representation in SAGE, our graduate student association

Day One Mentorship

Advising and early introduction to research and to your research community are hallmarks of the Duke CEE PhD experience. We believe in mentorship from Day One!

The process of finding your research adviser begins before you are admitted. Once you apply, our faculty may contact you. We then invite highly qualified applicants to interview. You'll meet our faculty and see their labs before a formal offer is made.

Once you are admitted, we help you assemble your Advising Team. Your team will include your research adviser, your departmental adviser, the director of graduate studies, a five-member dissertation committee, and the department chair.

Our Day One matching of students with research advisers and our strong mentorship program helps to keep the time to Ph.D. at an average of 4.5 to 5 years, while giving you a team of expert collaborators to guide you toward your goals.

Authentic Opportunities to Learn Mentorship Through Mentoring

In preparation for your role as a research mentor, Duke Engineering actively encourages and supports efforts by its PhD students to mentor undergraduates in research work.

Our PhD students can register to serve as a mentor and post a research project to a university-wide directory of research opportunities for undergraduates: Muser.

As mentors, our PhD students build professional mentoring relationships with undergraduates, while increasing undergraduate involvement in research—one of the hallmarks of a Duke Engineering education.

Welcoming, Inclusive Community

By choosing Duke, you join an engaged, diverse and welcoming community that values and supports you. You'll notice the importance we place on faculty-student interaction. And you have representation in SAGE, our graduate student association.

World-Class Research

Duke CEE faculty members are engaged in a wide range of efforts to improve the resilience of engineered structures, develop advanced computer models of complex natural phenomena and investigate approaches to predicting, monitoring and managing human impacts on air, water, land and global cycles--and environmental effects on human health.

Our faculty engineering researchers work closely and collaboratively other Duke faculty in physics, chemistry, computer science and in the nearby Duke University Nicholas School of Environment. This breadth of expertise is reflected in all our research programs listed below. Click to find out more and read researcher biographies:

Research Areas

A Great Location

Our engineering campus is next to one of the nation's leading academic medical centers. Plus, the Duke campus is just miles from Research Triangle Park (RTP), home to more than 200 major private tech companies and public agencies – including a large U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laboratory, a USDA Forest Service research station, and a location of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Plus, you'll enjoy a mild climate, acclaimed restaurants, a thriving arts scene and an affordable cost of living. Your Duke degree can take you anywhere in the United States and beyond. Some students choose to remain in our Research Triangle region, which is consistently ranked among the best places to live in the United States.

Visit Duke's website dedicated to all things Durham.

We Accept Students Without CEE Undergraduate Backgrounds

Admitted students with academic backgrounds outside of civil and environmental engineering may need to take some CEE undergraduate level courses in order to be prepared for graduate level coursework. Some of these courses may be counted towards the MS or PhD degree requirements. Please consult with the director of graduate studies.

Study Tracks

This department offers study tracks across both civil and environmental engineering. Each track is associated with a sequence of regularly-offered core courses that parallel the research interests of our faculty.

Degree Requirements

Duke CEE provides a customized, flexible educational experience tailored to meet your needs in your chosen sub-discipline. In our program, you will progress from introductory classes to specialized coursework. As you learn, your focus will gradually shift from coursework to learning important leadership and research skills.

In addition to fulfilling departmental course requirements, students are encouraged to take advantage of the variety of courses across the university to broaden their education. Such courses do need to be approved by a preliminary exam committee before the preminary exam is taken, and by the adviser after this exam. 

Students who are pursuing a PhD may, after completing the credit requirements for the MS degree, formally apply for an MS degree. Typically an MS thesis, a defense and an MS exam are required. Full tuition payment for a total of five (5) or six (6) or semesters is required.

Students Entering with Master of Science (MS) Degree Completed

Students entering the PhD program with an MS degree, can, with approval of the Preliminary Exam Committee (PEC), the director of graduate studies, and the dean of The Graduate School, transfer up to 12 relevant course credits from the previous institution. Full tuition payment for a total of five (5) semesters is then required.

Admissions Profile

The Pratt School of Engineering requires a minimum GPA of 3.2 from an undergraduate program in order to gain admission to the PhD program. A minimum TOEFL score of 90 on the Internet-based test is also required. Average GRE scores and UGPA from recent admitted applicants are:

  • GRE Quantitative: 161
  • GRE Verbal: 160
  • UGPA: 3.7

Preliminary Examination

The format for the preliminary exam is the following:
  • A written test based on core courses taken by the student
  • A five-page minimum written research based proposal by the student, on a topic of their choice, which can be started at any time during their stay at Duke
  • An oral defense of the research proposal and follow-up questions to their answers on the written exam   

The Preliminary Exam Committee (PEC) of three (3) faculty members meets with the student during their first few semesters to review their background, and make certain that they take courses such that they are prepared for the written portion of the preliminary exam. The preliminary exam itself is administered by faculty members in the student's study track.

The oral examination will normally be held before the end of the student's third semester from matriculation.   

Students must ultimately pass each of the three (3) components of the preliminary exam, but are allowed to retake any portion of the exam, depending on the support of the faculty.

Students become PhD candidates upon passing a Preliminary Exam, to be administered by their PhD Committee.

Graduate Colloquium

In addition to the course credits listed and discussed above, each graduate student in the department is encouraged to participate in the departmental seminar called Colloquium on Mechanics and the Environment.

A colloquium consists of a series of seminars and is offered in both the fall and spring terms. The faculty of the university, visiting scientists, and senior graduate students give the seminars. Additionally, workshops for PhD students focused on helping them prepare for the preliminary exam may be organized as part of these colloquia.

The faculty strongly encourages all graduate students to attend as many Graduate Colloquium seminars as possible, as exposure to novel ideas, research methodologies, and results from broadly or even remotely related fields is enriching and stimulating, and develops a critical sense of what constitutes an effective presentation.

Research Proposal Defense

The purpose of this defense is to evaluate a student's readiness before proceeding with doctoral-level research.

A committee must be identified and approved by the director of graduate studies and The Graduate School at least 30 days in advance.

Parts of the Defense


Part 1: Research Proposal

The student must submit a Research Proposal, in written form, to all members of the committee.  This document:

  • Defines the objectives of the proposed research
  • Includes a survey and analysis of pertinent literature, with a focus on what is apparently missing in the literature and the student's anticipated contributions
  • Describes the research tasks to be completed including theory development, data collection, analysis, and documentation
  • Suggests a schedule for completion of the research

The goal of this proposal is to successfully provide the groundwork for all future doctoral research. This Research Proposal should be made available for review by members of the committee at least seven (7) days prior to the scheduled oral presentation.

Part 2: Oral Defense

The student must provide an oral defense of the Research Proposal detailed in Part 1. This should take the form of an oral presentation given to all members of the committee, with the presentation designed to take approximately half an hour. The committee will evaluate the oral defense, as well as the student's readiness to undertake the proposed research.

The committee will rely on both parts of the Research Proposal Defense, as well as grades in graduate courses at Duke, to evaluate the student's potential to successfully complete the doctoral research program.

The outcome of Part 2 of the Research Proposal Defense is to be determined by vote of the members of the PhD Committee. Only two outcomes are possible: 1). The student passes and may continue with the proposed doctoral research; or, 2). The student fails. Students who fail the exam may apply, with the consent of the committee and the director of graduate studies, for the privilege of a second examination to be taken no sooner than three (3) months after the date of the first exam. Successful completion of the second exam requires the unanimous vote of all PhD Committee members.

Failure on the second examination renders the student ineligible to continue in the PhD program.


Teaching Assistantships – Training Provided

All PhD students complete two semesters of Teaching Assistantship (TA) prior to graduation. We provide training before you enter an undergraduate classroom for the first time.

It is expected that you will complete this requirement during your third (3rd) through eighth (8th) semesters. TA assignments will be based on your background and interests, and department needs.

Teaching Assistantships require 10 hours per week on average, and may involve organizing and leading discussion sections, grading homework and quizzes, assisting in the development of course materials and supervising laboratory sessions. More information

Final Exam

The final examination is normally administered by the same committee as the Research Proposal Defense, and successful defense of the dissertation requires at least four (4) affirmative votes, including the affirmative vote of the dissertation advisor. A negative vote by the dissertation advisor means that the student fails.

Details concerning important dates and deadlines, format of the dissertation/thesis, filing of intention to graduate, committee approval, and additional details may be found in the Graduate Bulletin or at The Graduate School website.