Feb 07, 2023  
Graduate Catalog | 2021-2022 
Graduate Catalog | 2021-2022 Previous Edition

Geography, Ph.D.

Students in the Ph.D. in Geography program at UNC Charlotte graduate at the cutting edge of geographic knowledge, instruction, and practice, both within and beyond the academy.  Building on the expertise and research strengths of the graduate faculty in Geography and Earth Sciences, there are three areas of focus within the doctoral Geography program.

  1. Urban and Regional Analysis
  2. Earth and Environmental Systems
  3. Geographic Information Science

These concentrations serve as frameworks upon which to build a specialized degree but are complementary and can be integrated to suit individual student interests and supervising faculty expertise.  All three concentrations share a common set of required courses, offering students core training in the theoretical and methodological foundations of the discipline of Geography.  A strength of the program is its dual emphasis on academic and professional development.  Students contribute to faculty led research and outreach teams; cultivate relationships with partners in other disciplines and institutions; attend and present research at national and international conferences; and prepare to serve as instructors of their own courses prior to graduation.  Doctoral students in the program have established a tradition of professional engagement and leadership in the department, across campus, and within associations such as the American Association of Geographers, and its many specialty groups.


Urban and Regional Analysis

Cities and the regions in which they are embedded are complex, multi-scalar systems.  They consist of economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental sub-systems.  The Concentration in Urban and Regional Analysis emphasizes the theoretical and empirical analysis of cities and their broader regional, national and global linkages.  Students engage in coursework and research that lead to expertise in areas such as economic restructuring; urban planning and policy; quality of life; community health; smart community initiatives; geographies of consumption; central city revitalization; suburban, ex-urban and urban periphery development and change; immigrant settlement and economy; global and globalizing cities and systems; regional and global logistics systems; mobility and transportation; urban ecology; sustainability and environmental justice.  The city of Charlotte and its relationship with local, regional, and global urban systems is a common area of focus for graduate students.  As one of the most dynamic urban areas in the country, Charlotte offers an ideal context for examining urban complexity at both internal and external scales.  Scholarship in national and international comparative studies of urban regional systems is also fostered in this concentration.  Students concentrating in Urban and Regional Analysis receive rigorous training in the research approaches, mixed methods, and theoretical constructs necessary to shape urban dynamics through careers in public, private, and nonprofit sector leadership, as well as higher education.

Earth and Environmental Systems

Earth and Environmental Systems is a multidisciplinary concentration in physical geography dedicated to understanding the natural features and phenomena occurring at and near the Earth’s surface, as well as the human interactions with these connected systems.  Doctoral students have the opportunity to work with faculty on innovative research questions related to lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere systems at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.  Students develop an understanding of the Earth’s past, present, and future natural systems, their spatial distributions, and how human societies interact with and influence them.  This understanding may ultimately lead to the development of sustainable solutions that could address current or emerging issues of environmental concern.  The Department of Geography and Earth Sciences houses facilities and resources that enable students to pursue cutting-edge, impactful research questions using the latest field, laboratory, and computational methods, as well as Geographical Information Science (GIScience) and remote sensing technologies.

Geographic Information Science

Geospatial data used in research, public affairs, and private business is increasingly pervasive and traceable to geographic positions.  The Concentration in Geographic Information Science (GIS) examines the nature of geographic data and information, and methods of capture, measurement, analysis, and modeling of this information to advance our understanding of complex geographic phenomena.  Research is articulated around the representation, numerical modeling and dissemination of spatially explicit information with state-of-the-art computational analytics.  Ph.D. students in this rapidly evolving field at the interface of data, social, and natural sciences develop proficiency in state-of-the-art geospatial data analytics for an understanding of social and environmental processes of geographic systems across multiple spatial and temporal scales.  In conjunction with a critical awareness of the content of geospatial information, students can build expertise in several sub-areas spanning from geocomputational modeling and simulation, cyberGIS, big spatial data analytics, social network analysis, satellite/airborne remote sensing, spatial data mining and machine learning, spatial statistics and geovisual analytics.  The internationally respected GIS faculty are well engaged in research on urban and regional socio-economic systems processes, transportation analytics, landscape and environmental systems, public health, energy, land change, sustainability, and resilience.

Admission Requirements

In addition to the general requirements for admission to the UNC Charlotte Graduate School, the following are required for study to the Ph.D. in Geography.  Under most circumstances, students admitted to the program will have:

  1. Master’s degree in Geography or field related to the primary emphases of the program. While students may initially be enrolled in the program while finishing their master’s degree, documentation of master’s degree conferral from issuing university is required for continuation of Ph.D. in Geography enrollment beyond the first semester. 
  2. A master’s level GPA of at least 3.5 out of 4.0.
  3. In exceptional cases, students with only a completed baccalaureate degree may be admitted. However, this is rare and requires approval from the program Graduate Advisory Committee and the Graduate Program Director following written recommendation from faculty member who agrees to serve as the prospective student’s primary doctoral advisor, and who outlines why waiving the master’s degree requirement is justified. To be considered for admission with only a completed baccalaureate degree, a student must have an overall undergraduate GPA of at least 3.6, demonstrated research competency, and meet or exceed all other admission requirements.  Students without a master’s degree or prior master’s level coursework should be prepared to complete additional coursework to ensure they have met prerequisites and are ready to engage in Ph.D. level study. 
  4. Transcripts of all previous college coursework. Transcripts are evaluated on the basis the type and range of geographical, spatial, statistical, and technical courses attempted as well as the strength of performance in these areas, and on the depth and suitability of the applicant’s preparation for doctoral level coursework and research in the field of geography.
  5. Graduate Record Examination (GRE) with minimum scores of 150 on both the verbal and quantitative sections and a 3.5 or above on the analytical portions. Applicants must have taken the GRE; no other test is accepted in its place.
  6. For applicants whose native language is not English, an IELTS overall score of at least 6.5 or a TOEFL exam score of at least 84 on the Internet-based test.  The program expects a minimum score in the low to mid 20s on each of the components of the TOEFL.  In addition, international students who are supported through a teaching assistantship (TA) will be required to undergo evaluation by the English Language Training Institute (ELTI) at UNC Charlotte prior to beginning their assistantship. 
  7. Proficiency in quantitative methods at a minimum of the linear regression level is expected. If absent, other coursework, as determined by the program’s Graduate Advisory Committee, may be required depending on the background of the student.
  8. GIS proficiency at a minimum of the applications level is expected. If absent, other coursework, as determined by the program’s Graduate Advisory Committee, may be required depending on the background of the student.
  9. Three letters of recommendation, at least two of which must come from faculty in the student’s previous academic programs.
  10. A personal statement which directly addresses why the student wishes to do graduate work in Geography and why they wish to participate in the Ph.D. in Geography program at UNC Charlotte. The statement should address how the program at UNC Charlotte fits career and/or professional goals and how the applicant would benefit from and contribute to the Ph.D. in Geography at UNC Charlotte. This statement is very important in determining the applicant’s commitment to graduate education and to a professional career in geography or a related field.

Degree Requirements

51 credit hours of approved coursework is required, encompassing 15 credit hours of required courses, 18 credit hours of elective courses and 18 dissertation credit hours.  Students are also required to pass a three-part qualifying examination, as well as an oral defense of both the dissertation proposal and the final dissertation.  In addition to program requirements, all doctoral students are required to successfully complete a non-credit bearing course for academic integrity.

Academic Integrity Course

Required Courses (15 credit hours)

All core courses must be taken in residence at UNC Charlotte.

Elective Courses (18 credit hours)

In consultation with their Faculty Advisor, students select and successfully complete a minimum of 18 credit hours of elective courses that build towards measureable expertise in the discipline, the student’s chosen concentration and the methods and approaches central to the conducting of rigorous geographic research.  Of the 18 credit hours of elective courses, no more than 9 credit hours can come from outside the department (GEOG or ESCI).

Dissertation Research (18 credit hours)

Degree Total = 51 Credit Hours

Grade Requirements

All graduate students are subject to academic suspension and/or termination.  Department academic standards deviate slightly from University policies stated in appropriate catalogs.  A student must maintain a cumulative average of 3.0 in all coursework taken in the program.  An accumulation of one (1) marginal (C) grade results in the student being placed on probationary status within the program and could lead to the student being required to re-take the course, and a potential loss of funding if the student is receiving University-sourced funding.  An accumulation of two (2) marginal (C) grades results in suspension of the student’s enrollment in the graduate program.  A graduate student whose enrollment has been suspended because of grades is ineligible to register in any semester or summer session unless properly reinstated through the suspension appeal process.  A maximum of one (1) C grade can be applied towards the PhD.  As such, if a student is reinstated following a grade related suspension, they must retake at least one of the courses for which the C grade was initially issued and achieve a grade of B or above.  An accumulation of three (3) marginal (C) grades or one (1) unsatisfactory (U) or one (1) NC grade results in termination of the student’s enrollment in the graduate program.  Furthermore, a second failure in the qualifying examinations; the dissertation proposal defense; or final dissertation defense also results in dismissal from the program.  In order to continue a program of study, the student must pursue reinstatement through the termination appeal process or wait a period of two years before applying for readmission to the program.

Transfer Credit

A maximum of 9 credit hours or three courses of Ph.D.-level elective coursework can be transferred from a graduate program from a college or university accredited by an accepted accrediting body as part of the 51-credit hour requirement.  This includes credit hours earned in a master’s program at UNC Charlotte.  All transfer credit requires Advisor recommendation and Program Director approval, and must be in compliance with program and Graduate School policy.  Internship, dissertation, thesis, or capstone research hours are not eligible for transfer.

Qualifying Examination

Following successful completion of all required core courses (with the exception of a student’s 2nd enrollment in GEOG 8632 ) and at least 15 credit hours of elective coursework, and upon the recommendation of the Faculty Advisor, students sit for a three-part, written, qualifying examination.  For full-time students, this generally occurs no later than the end of the 4th semester or early in the 5th semester of enrollment in the program.  Part I of the qualifying examination addresses the theoretic and contemporary literature of geography generally covered in the required coursework.  Part II assesses student competency in research methods and techniques.  Part III evaluates student competence in his/her sub-field of research specialization.

The qualifying examination is set and graded by an Examination Committee composed of faculty who teach in the doctoral program and from whom the student has taken coursework relevant to the exam.  More specifically, Part I is set and graded by the instructor of GEOG 8124 ; Part II is set and graded by the instructor(s) who taught the student one or more of their core methods or techniques courses; and Part III is most commonly set by the student’s primary advisor with whom the student has most closely worked to develop her or his primary area of sub-disciplinary expertise.  The Examination Committee is appointed by the Geography Doctoral Program Director in consultation with the student’s Faculty Advisor.  All three components of the examination must be completed within a one month timeframe.

If a student fails the qualifying examination or any portion of the exam, he/she must wait until the next semester to retake the failed part or parts of the examination.  During the interim period, the student may be required to retake courses in which the Examination Committee determines there is a deficiency.  If a student fails the qualifying examination or any portion of the exam a second time, the program will request termination of the student’s enrollment for a lack of satisfactory academic progress.

Faculty Advisor and Dissertation Committee

All students in the program have both a Faculty Advisor and Dissertation Committee.  The Faculty Academic Advisor is assigned upon admission to the program and assists the student in formulating a Program of Study, including a potential dissertation topic.  The Faculty Academic Advisor often continues to serve as Chair of the Dissertation Committee who must be a member of the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences.  The Dissertation Committee should have at least three additional members, two of whom are chosen by the student and are usually members of the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences.  The final member of the Dissertation Committee is a Graduate School representative appointed by the Dean of the Graduate School.  All members of the Dissertation Committee must be members of the Graduate Faculty.

Dissertation Proposal and Advancement to Candidacy

Advancing to candidacy requires that the student pass the qualifying exam and write and successfully defend a dissertation proposal. The proposal must be submitted to the student’s Advisory Committee for preliminary approval and then to the Program Coordinator and the Dean of the Graduate School. Successful defense of the dissertation proposal is followed by advancement to candidacy.


The culminating product of the program is the student’s dissertation.  Each dissertation is expected to be based on independent and original research which contributes to the body of knowledge in the discipline of Geography and to the student’s sub-field of study.  Dissertations are to be prepared and submitted in monograph format.

Candidates must supply a copy of their dissertation to their committee at least three weeks prior to the final defense.  The document is evaluated through an oral defense with the student’s dissertation committee and other graduate faculty as per Graduate School guidelines.  Only after all recommended changes flowing from the oral defense are made and approved by the faculty advisor and dissertation committee may a student submit her/his final dissertation to the Graduate School.  The final defense must be held on campus at UNC Charlotte.  Candidates must publically announce the date and time for the final defense at least two weeks prior to the event.

If a student fails either the written or oral portion of the dissertation defense, he/she must wait until the next semester to redefend.  During the interim period, the student works closely with her/his Advisor and Dissertation Committee to address areas where deficiencies were identified.  If a student fails the dissertation defense a second time, the graduate program will request termination of the student’s enrollment for a lack of satisfactory academic progress.

Time Limits for Completion of the Degree

It is generally expected that full-time students complete coursework within a two-year timeframe and the dissertation completed one to two years later.  Students must achieve admission to candidacy within six years after admission to the program.  Regardless of whether a student has proceeded through the program full-time or part-time, all courses applied towards the doctoral degree must have been taken within nine years after first registration as a doctoral student (regardless of whether courses were taken at UNC Charlotte or another institution).  Further, the oral examination in defense of the dissertation must be passed within five years after being advanced to candidacy.

Residency Requirements

Residency requirements for the program include completing 21 credit hours of continuous enrollment, either as coursework or dissertation credits.  Residence is considered to be continuous if the student is enrolled in one or more courses in successive semesters until 21 credit hours are earned.

Assistantships and Other Support

The Ph.D. in Geography program at UNC Charlotte endeavors to secure funding support for our most competitive students in one of three ways:  1) externally funded Research Assistantships (RAs) offered by faculty through their granting activity and research programs; 2) program or university funded Graduate Assistantships (GAs) that can be teaching focused; research focused; administration focused or a combination thereof; or 3) externally funded scholarships, fellowships, or internships. 

Many of our doctoral program faculty have active and externally funded research programs that are core sources of funding support (and training) for doctoral students.

For students not supported through advisor-funded RAs, the program offers a number of competitive Graduate Assistantships (GAs) which are awarded for a single semester or for an entire academic year (2 semesters or 9 months).  Program Assistantships are renewable (based on academic and assistantship performance; advisor recommendation and program director approval) but generally only up to the end of the 8th semester or 4th academic year dated from a student’s initial semester of enrollment in the program.  Such GAs are normally scheduled for 16 weeks per semester and require the student to work for 20 hours per week.  Graduate Assistantship assignments range from support of departmental teaching in which as student serves as either a teaching assistantship to faculty or, for more advanced students, as instructor of record for their own course; to support of faculty led research projects, outreach endeavors or other professional activities; to administrative support of departmental or programmatic initiatives.  University policy dictates that acceptance of a Graduate Assistantships prohibits students from working for more than 20 hours per week in any paid activity on or off campus.

Students funded through faculty-supported RAs or awarded one of our program’s competitive GAs are nominated for UNC Charlotte’s Graduate Assistant Support Plan (GASP).  GASP is a competitive support package used to attract top doctoral students to UNC Charlotte.  If successful in the competition, doctoral students supported on a GA (or other qualifying award) receive tuition and health insurance for the academic year (fall and spring semesters). GASP is renewable for a limited number of semesters as per Graduate School guidelines.  In addition to GASP, the UNC Charlotte Graduate School administers a number of philanthropic fellowships and awards for which eligible students are encouraged to apply.

Our doctoral students have a strong record of success in fellowship and scholarship competitions at the national level.  Working in partnership with their academic advisors, Geography doctoral students are strongly encouraged to apply for external support from agencies such as, but not limited to, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Society of Women Geographers, United States Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Association of American Geographers.  Professional development is an important cornerstone of the doctoral program. As such, Ph.D. in Geography students are encouraged to present their independent and assistantship research at regional, national, and international academic and professional conferences.  Financial support for these presentations is often available from the program (subject to budget conditions).  Additionally, many of our doctoral students are offered opportunities to work with faculty over the summer months as Graduate Assistants supporting research, teaching and/or outreach initiatives that are either funded through faculty grants or contracts or through the awarding of a competitive summer GA offered through the Ph.D. in Geography program itself.