GEOG PhD Handbook

The Geography Doctoral (PhD) Degree provides training for those seeking to advance their understanding of concepts and methodologies to the standards of professional geographers.


1. Academic Objectives

Objectives are rigorous and doctoral students are expected to develop the following during their course of study:

  • Basic understanding of the discipline of geography, its relationship with cognate fields, and its contribution to knowledge. This entails gaining a working knowledge of general geographic literature, familiarity with the structure of the discipline and sub-disciplines, and principal philosophical approaches and concepts.
  • Detailed understanding of at least one specialty within the discipline of geography. This entails gaining a thorough knowledge of the specialty’s historical development, associated literature, main theories, and empirical findings.
  • Ability to conduct independent research of a professional quality. This entails gaining theoretical and practical knowledge of specific research techniques and demonstrating this knowledge in the conduct of original research.
  • Ability to communicate the results of research in both oral and written forms. This entails demonstrating skills in oral presentation and the writing of formal papers during coursework, and ultimately, a dissertation.
  • Familiarity with and adherence to the codes of practice established for academic study at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM) including Campus Policies, Academic Policies, and the Student Code of Conduct.

2. Degree Requirements

While advisory services are available, responsibility for familiarization with, and adherence to, University and Departmental regulations ultimately rests with the doctoral student. For University regulations, consult the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) as needed. For Departmental regulations, consult the Graduate Chair as needed.

A. Departmental Public Lectures

Attendance and participation in the Fall/Spring Public Lectures is required by all doctoral students in residence.

B. Coursework

Each doctoral student is required to complete a minimum of three semesters of full-time work, or the equivalent in credits for part-time students. OGE defines each eight credit hours completed as a classified graduate student as equivalent to one full-time semester. Students must consult with their Advisory Committee before registering for courses each semester and maintain a Synopsis of PhD Program form. Upon completion of coursework, including any pre-program deficiencies, a completed Synopsis of PhD Program form must be submitted to the Graduate Chair for final approval.

I. Pre-Program Deficiencies

Incoming doctoral students will meet with the Graduate Chair to review the student’s previous record to determine whether any significant gaps exist in basic geographical knowledge. This will apply especially to students holding undergraduate degrees other than geography, and those who did not take undergraduate geography courses. The program requires students to have basic cartographic and quantitative skills, and basic knowledge in both human and physical geography. Courses identified as applicable to fulfill pre-program deficiencies may be taken as credit/no credit (with credit being defined as grade of C (2.0) or better) or for grade (A-F). Students receiving a B (3.0) or better in coursework taken to remove a pre-program deficiency may apply this towards fulfillment of their Research Skill requirement if approved by the student’s Advisory Committee.

II. Core Courses

The two core courses are designed to introduce doctoral students to Department faculty and to professional geography:

  • GEOG 692, Faculty Seminar Series (1 credit)
    Introduces the profession of geography through seminar-style presentations by faculty members. Faculty generally assign readings of their own work and present their research. Students are expected to participate in discussions and complete short papers. The course runs concurrently with GEOG 695 in the fall semester.
  • GEOG 695, Concepts and Theories of Geography (3 credits)
    Covering major concepts, theories, epistemological and methodological approaches to geographic research, and major intellectual debates within the discipline of geography since its inception into universities in the late nineteenth century. The course runs concurrently with GEOG 692 in the fall semester.

The two core courses are required of all incoming doctoral students and should be taken during the first fall semester in residence, although it is recognized that this is not always possible. These courses may be waived if previously taken during a student’s MA program at UHM. GEOG 695 may be waived by petition to the Graduate Chair if a similar course was taken at a previous institution (an associated course syllabus must be supplied). Students must obtain a B (3.0) grade or better in both core courses to satisfy the requirement.

III. The Specialization

A minimum of 15 credits of graduate-level coursework in a specialization is required. Courses must be approved by the doctoral student’s Advisory Committee. Course work taken at the MA/MS level, either at UHM or elsewhere, may be used in partial fulfillment of this requirement with approval of the Advisory Committee. Students, in consultation with their Advisor, should devise a program of courses that together constitute a coherent specialization.

These specialization credits must:

  • Include a minimum of nine course credits offered by the Department of Geography; and,
  • Come from courses numbered 600 and above. Standing exceptions to this requirement include GEOG 309, GEOG 402, GEOG 403, GEOG 405, GEOG 409, GEOG 455, GEOG 488, and other 300 or 400-level courses approved by petition to the Advisory Committee and Graduate Chair.

IV. Research Skills

A minimum of six credits of coursework in research methods or techniques is required. Courses must be approved by the doctoral student’s Advisory Committee. Students must take one course in research techniques appropriate to their specialization which may include statistics, cartography, remote sensing, GIS, quantitative or qualitative methods, field methods, experimental methods, and laboratory techniques, or bibliographic techniques.

In addition to the research skills requirement, the doctoral student’s Advisory Committee may require competency in a foreign language if a foreign language is essential to the student’s dissertation research. Competency in a language other than English may be demonstrated by passing the foreign language proficiency examination administered by their respective language department. In some cases individuals can also be certified competent in their language by a qualified instructor or examiner. The department will also accept the completion of the second semester of 300-level language instruction with a grade of B (3.0) or better.

C. Written and Oral Comprehensive Examinations.

Comprehensive exams are required. Comprehensive exams assess whether the doctoral student has attained an adequate level of geographical knowledge to continue with dissertation research, and are taken after the student has completed their coursework requirements. The exams consist of questions directly related to the student’s specialization, but may also test a general understanding of the history of geographic thought, the nature of critical inquiry, and research methodologies appropriate to the student’s field.

Each doctoral student will begin the comprehensive exams with the development of a bibliography. The bibliography will be generated by the student in consultation with each Advisory Committee member, and constitutes the core knowledge upon which the written and oral examination will be based.

I. Written Exam

The Advisory Committee will determine the format and content of the written exam. Each Advisory Committee member may ask a question or a series of questions that require no more than four hours to complete. The exams may take no more than five consecutive workdays for a five member Advisory Committee to administer to a doctoral student.

II. Oral Exam

The oral exam will be a maximum of three hours in length. The Advisory Committee will determine the format and content of the exam. Students will be asked to clarify and elaborate on written exam answers, and may also be asked other questions on their specialization, or general questions on philosophy or methodology in the natural or social sciences.

D. The Dissertation

The dissertation must demonstrate the student’s ability to formulate a research problem, to assemble and analyze relevant data, to draw appropriate conclusions, and to express findings clearly and concisely. It should be of publishable quality as judged by the Advisory Committee. Students should consult the OGE regarding the document formatting and submission requirements. Students should consult the Graduate Chair regarding document submission to the Department. Copies of past dissertations which can be used as guides to length and style may be obtained from the University and Department.


3. Graduate Advising

A. Role of the Advisor

All incoming doctoral students will be assigned an Interim Advisor based on information provided at the time of application. It is recognized that this information may not always be an accurate reflection of the student’s interest which can change during the first few semesters. The function of the Interim Advisor is, therefore, to direct and guide the student’s program of courses and research until a Permanent Advisor and Advisory Committee is appointed, which typically occurs by the end of the second semester. In many cases the Interim Advisor will become the Permanent Advisor, but students should always try to identify faculty with interests that most closely relate to their intended research.

The Permanent Advisor will serve as Committee Chair of the doctoral student’s Advisory Committee. The Chair is primarily responsible for directing the dissertation research, scheduling all formal Advisory Committee meetings, and communicating decisions for the Advisory Committee to the student, Department faculty, Graduate Chair, and OGE. The Chair must be a full member of the Graduate Faculty, and have a tenure-based appointment in the Department of Geography. Additionally, the Chair is usually the faculty member with the greatest expertise on the student’s dissertation topic, and will work most closely with the student on research proposal development, and completion of the research.

B. Role of the Advisory Committee

The Advisory Committee consists of five or more members of the Graduate Faculty, with least three members from the Department of Geography. The outside member of the committee must be a full member of the regular UHM Graduate Faculty and can not be a member of the Graduate Faculty in the doctoral student’s specialization. The student, in consultation with the Advisor, proposes an Advisory Committee to the Graduate Chair, and if approved, the Graduate Chair will seek approval of the Advisory Committee from the Associate Dean, OGE. The Advisory Committee should consist of the best-qualified faculty to guide and evaluate the proposed dissertation research. The Advisory Committee should be selected as early as possible, ideally by March 1st for students entering the program during the previous fall semester. It is possible to change the composition of an Advisory Committee if required (e.g., if a committee member is on sabbatical) but any changes must be approved by the Graduate Chair.

The Advisory Committee and doctoral student will meet to review progress, typically when the student and Permanent Advisor decide that the student is ready to begin dissertation research. At this point the Advisory Committee will review the Synopsis of PhD Program form and discuss the dissertation proposal. The Advisory Committee must approve the proposal in order for the student to advance through the program, and this can often require multiple revisions. Once approved there should be regular consultation between the Advisory Committee and student concerning progress in the dissertation research. The Advisory Committee approves the final dissertation and it is strongly recommended that students maintain consistent communication and inform them of any significant deviations from their approved proposal.


4. Annual Review of Doctoral Student Progress

In the spring semester, the progress of all doctoral students will be reviewed, except those students on leave of absence or those that have had a recent degree check completed by the Graduate Chair. The review requires students to consult with their Advisory Committee who will report to the Graduate Chair. The report will consist of an up to date Synopsis of PhD Program form together with a brief statement by the Primary Advisor. This review process insures that students are progressing satisfactorily and is a useful tool for recognizing and solving problems. The Graduate Chair may require further action in problematic cases and the report may be referred to the Graduate Program Committee which can place the student on Departmental probation if the student’s performance is deficient.


5. Time Limits

It is in the interest of all parties to have doctoral programs completed within timely fashion to make the most efficient use of University, Department, faculty and student resources. Doctoral students should be aware of the various University and Departmental policies that have been instituted to ensure that students maintain a reasonable rate of progress in completing their degree requirements. The doctoral program should take between 48-60 months (4-5 years) to complete including coursework, fieldwork, and the writing of the dissertation. In practice, time taken will vary according to the prior experience of the student and the nature of the dissertation research project. The Office of Graduate Division (OGE) requires students to complete all requirements within seven years of entering the program. Candidates who fail to complete all requirements within the specified time are subject to academic action, including being placed on probation or dismissal. Reinstatement for a limited period of time is only possible upon approval of the Dean, OGE. Recommendation for approval will be made by the Graduate Chair only if the student submits an acceptable degree plan and time line for completion of all requirements endorsed by their Primary Advisor. Failure to comply with this plan will usually result in the student being dropped from the program. Students pursuing a doctoral degree who are not on an approved leave of absence must maintain continuous registration during the academic year. Students failing to meet this requirement are considered to have voluntarily withdrawn from the program and must petition for re-admission should they wish to return. International students must be registered as full-time students during their doctoral degree program. This typically requires registration in at least 8 credits of coursework, or registration in GEOG 800.


6. Progress Guide

  1. Preliminary Conference [First semester]
    Doctoral students meet with their Interim Advisor and Graduate Chair upon entrance into the program. A broad outline of the program is discussed and specific courses are suggested.
  2. Appointment of Permanent Advisor [Second semester]
    The Permanent Advisor, who may have been the initial Interim Advisor, should be selected by the second or third semester of residence.
  3. Advancement to Candidacy [Second/Third semester]
    Students are advanced to candidacy when they have resolved any pre-program deficiencies, and if required, satisfactorily completed the foreign language requirement.
  4. Appointment of the Advisory Committee [Third semester]
    The doctoral student, in consultation with their Permanent Advisor, should select an Advisory Committee. The committee should be selected to support the student’s specialization and intended dissertation research. The committee must contain at least three members from the Geography Graduate Faculty and at least five members overall.
  5. Comprehensive Exams [Third/Fourth Semester]
    The written and oral exams are scheduled as soon as degree doctoral candidates have completed their preparation for mastery of their specialization. Students who fail the comprehensive examination may repeat it once. A student who fails the second examination is dropped from both the graduate program and by OGE.
  6. Approval of Dissertation Topic [Fourth Semester]
    Upon passing the comprehensive exams, the doctoral student prepares a formal dissertation proposal for review by the Advisory Committee. Students are required to orally present their proposal before the Department.
  7. The Dissertation [Fifth to Eighth semesters]
    The dissertation is the capstone of the PhD degree and is a demonstration of the student’s ability to make a significant independent contribution to knowledge. Students normally register for GEOG 800 (Dissertation Research) while collecting data and writing the dissertation.
  8. The Defense [Eighth semester]
    The formal defense may be held after the Advisory Committee has read a draft of the dissertation and given preliminary approval. The event must be publicly advertised according to OGE guidelines and must be approved by the Graduate Chair. Departmental faculty and graduate students must receive an invitation that is distinct from any other public notice.
  9. Final Approval [Eighth semester]
    After all required revisions to the dissertation have been completed, Advisory Committee members and the Graduate Chair sign appropriate documents.