Ph.D. Requirements

The doctorate is a specialized, research-oriented degree for both academic and professional careers. Individualized programs of study are developed under the direction of a your advisor and other appropriate members of the faculty who overlap with topical and regional research interests.

See the Geography Graduate Student Handbook for full details about the Ph.D. program.

Overall Requirements

Doctoral students in Geography must already have a master’s degree, whether from our own program or from a different program or university. Continuing students must meet all requirements for the master’s degree in geography (i.e., 33 credits, including a maximum of nine units of thesis, internship, and/or independent studies).

In addition, a minimum of 18 units of coursework in geography and related programs at the University of Arizona is mandatory (not including the dissertation and the minor); at least 12 of these units must be in courses or seminars exclusive to graduate students.

Additional coursework may be necessary to ensure proficiency in specific areas. Graduate credit earned for a master's degree counts towards the Graduate College requirement of 36 graduate credits in the Ph.D. major field. In addition, you are required to register for one unit of GEOG 695A (Colloquium) during each semester in residence (although these units do not count towards degree requirements).

After advancing to Ph.D. candidacy, all students must register for a total of 18 dissertation credits (GEOG 920), of which up to nine credits are allowed per semester. (You may register for more than 18 dissertation credits over time, but only 18 are counted towards the degree.)

The Director of Graduate Studies may approve exceptions to the above requirements.

The Ph.D. degree must be completed within five years of passing the comprehensive examination. If this deadline is not met, the School may allow the student to retake the comprehensive exam in order to regain eligibility to finish the dissertation.

Core Courses

Students who do not hold an M.A. in geography from the University of Arizona must complete the following core course requirements: 

A reading and discussion seminar concerned with major changes in the structure of geographic thought, with an emphasis on developments in the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to surveying major trends in paradigmatic approaches, the course also provides students with the conceptual tools to evaluate these trends relative to cross-cutting issues of epistemology, ontology, and methodology.

A course aimed at developing student research agendas and programs through rigorous proposal writing. The course takes the form of a collaborative workshop to familiarize students with identifying research problems, framing questions, reviewing literature, selecting methodologies, and presenting research in light of its intellectual contributions and broader impacts. The course seeks to encourage students to interact with their advisors, plan a course of research, and focus their reading and thinking, whether in human geography, physical geography, spatial techniques, or any other specialty. The result of the course is a draft proposal.


Credit for these courses may be applied towards fulfillment of the 18-unit minimum requirement. Students who have M.A. degrees from other universities can transfer some or all of those credits towards their Ph.D.

Advanced Methods

As part of the core requirements, you must also complete six units (two courses) of advanced methods in your area of study. These methods units should be tailored to your needs  and can include regular graduate or jointly convened courses or independent study, within or outside the School as appropriate.


Doctoral students must achieve a high level of competence in at least two fields of specialization. These fields are identified and described by the student in discussions with his/her advisor and advisory committee, as part of planning for the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam (sections 3.8, 3.9). A student’s fields may include, for example, topical, theoretical, methodological, and/or area studies expertise, as approved by the advisor and committee. (“What are a student’s key words?” is another way to think about fields of specialization.)

Foreign Language

A doctoral student who proposes to undertake research in or on a non-English speaking area is required to demonstrate the necessary language skills before taking the comprehensive exam (section 3.9). A language test will normally be arranged by the student's advisor, and be approved by the student's advisory committee (section 3.8).

Research Methods

Proficiency in at least one scholarly research method is required for the Ph.D. degree. Normally this proficiency will be acquired and demonstrated through the successful completion of specialized methods coursework, which count as part of the Core (section 1.1.1). The appropriate mix and sequence of courses must be approved by the student's advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies.

The Minor Program

The School requires all Ph.D. students to have a Ph.D. minor in another department or program on campus. The minor should be complementary to the your chosen specializations and is subject to approval by the your advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies. In special circumstances, typically for students with strong previous qualifications in another discipline and insufficient background in geography, a Geography Ph.D. student may minor in geography in order to acquire necessary breadth and depth. This depends on the recommendation of the student's advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies.

The department or program administering the minor specifies its required content and participates in your comprehensive exam. The minor department may choose to waive its portion of the written examination, but must participate in the oral examination. The Ph.D. minor in most disciplines involves a minimum of four courses (12 units) of graduate work. At the discretion of the minor department, appropriate courses taken in the your master's program may be included. The minor department is not required to be represented on your dissertation committee.

Plan of Study

The Graduate College requires that a Plan of Study be filed no later than the third semester in residence. The Plan of Study should identify courses you intend to transfer from other institutions, courses already completed at University of Arizona which you intend to apply towards a graduate degree, and additional courses you plan to complete to fulfill degree requirements. The Plan of Study must have the signature approval of the your committee chair and the Directors of Graduate Studies of both major and minor programs before it is submitted to the Graduate College.

Ph.D. Advisory (Comprehensive Exam) Committee

Following a student’s completion of the core courses, and in consultation with your advisor, other faculty, and the Director of Graduate Studies, an advisory committee will be proposed to the School Director. The Director will then appoint the committee (with modifications, as appropriate, after discussion). This committee will be charged with guiding you in the selection of appropriate coursework leading to the comprehensive exam and with conducting and evaluating that exam. 

Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam

Before admission to candidacy, and after all (or almost all) coursework is completed, you must pass a general exam in geography. This exam is intended to test your fundamental and comprehensive knowledge of the field of geography and the chosen minor field of study. The exam includes written and oral portions, whose timing and format are governed by the School and the Graduate College. Results from the written portion of the exam are reported to you before the oral exam. Students intending to take the comprehensive exam should consult with their advisory committee about preparation for the exam, and with the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate College about filing deadlines, procedures, and forms required. (You are advised to bring key forms to their oral exam, in order to get signatures from all committee members.)

Dissertation Committee

Once the comprehensive exam has been completed successfully, you form a dissertation committee whose members are formally appointed by the School Director. Although the composition of this committee may be the same as the advisory (comprehensive exam) committee, it need not be. This committee will be charged with guiding you through the preparation of the dissertation proposal, the subsequent research and writing, and the final dissertation defense. The rules for composition of the dissertation committee are similar to the advisory (comprehensive exam) committee. 

Dissertation Proposal

You must submit a dissertation proposal to all members of the dissertation committee, based on previous discussions with each member. The specific format of the proposal is determined by the dissertation chair and committee. It is strongly recommended that you meet with the entire committee to discuss the proposal and suggest changes. You are also encouraged to present the proposal in an informal setting (e.g., brown-bag seminar) to inform the School of your work and get feedback. The committee must approve the dissertation proposal for you to advance to candidacy.

Advancement to Ph.D. Candidacy

After passing the comprehensive examination and receiving approval for the dissertation proposal, you advance to doctoral candidacy (also known as ABD, “all but dissertation”). You must follow Graduate College rules and procedures, as updated on the Graduate College website. At this point you may register for Dissertation credits (GEOG 920).

Oral Dissertation Defense Examination

The Oral Dissertation Defense Examination consists of two parts, one open to the public and one confined to the dissertation committee. In the public part, the you must present the dissertation to the dissertation committee and to interested members of the School and University, both faculty and students. This presentation must be announced publicly and in advance. The presentation should not exceed an hour and may include a question-and-answer period. The second part of the defense follows immediately after the presentation and entails an oral examination by the dissertation committee. This examination is not open to the public.

The committee members must each be given a copy of the dissertation (electronic or paper) with sufficient time for review prior to the exam. The advisor and committee members should provide feedback on the draft in a timely manner (before, or as soon after the defense as is possible). The committee decides to pass or fail. A grade for dissertation credits is awarded after any changes suggested by the committee are made and committee members have signed the final copy of the dissertation. Complete, signed and bound copies of the dissertation must be filed with the School and the dissertation advisor; electronic copies should be submitted to the School and the Graduate College.

Ph.D. Minor in Geography

The doctoral minor in geography (for Ph.D. students majoring in other disciplines at UA) consists of a minimum of 12 units of graduate coursework in geography, including a maximum of 3 units of independent study. The program must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies and an appropriate SGD faculty member, who is named to supervise the student’s geography minor and to serve on the student’s comprehensive exam committee.

Students considering the Ph.D. minor in geography should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies and with potential SGD committee members at an early stage about coursework and preparation for the comprehensive examination. The participation of the SGD committee member must be agreed to by mutual consent through discussion with the student. The School does not require that an SGD faculty member serve on the student’s dissertation committee. See section 5.

As noted above, geography Ph.D. students can also minor in geography under special circumstances. These geography students must meet the requirements of the preceding paragraph, including an SGD faculty member to represent the minor on the student’s comprehensive exam committee.