Understanding the Requirements of a Doctoral Dissertation

It is a requirement for every doctoral level student to complete a dissertation and to defend it successfully. In undertaking such a project, the student contributes to existing knowledge, which is also beneficial in terms of international relationship building. Dissertations have to be defended by way of an oral examination in front of a dissertation evaluation committee and other scholars.    

Dissertation Evaluation Committee

It is the student’s responsibility to put together a dissertation committee that, under current regulations, meets the criteria outlined below:

  • The number of members in a committee should be three at least, to include the chair of the committee. 
  • Each member of the committee is expected to have obtained a degree from a recognized and accredited academic institution while two of the members at least should be full-time employees and tenure-line members of a US university faculty, ideally associated with the same program the student has participated in.   
  • The chair of the committee should be a tenured member of the faculty in the School of International Service. It is possible to appoint untenured and tenure-line faculty members to co-chair the committee, but these should serve with a tenured member of the faculty.  
  • Each committee requires the approval of the University or College’s Dissertation Council as well as the SIS (School of International Service) Director of Doctoral Studies.

When the time comes to defend a dissertation, an external reader will be required to join the dissertation committee with the task of helping to review the candidate’s work. The external reader will take on an advisory position and their task involves determining whether the dissertation adequately meets the general regulations and standards for the field it relates to. Critiquing the dissertation in detail is not a specific requirement of this role. The external reader should possess a suitable degree and they must be knowledge in the subject area the dissertation belongs to. This person, however, should not be directly associated in any way with the dissertation writer. They are selected by the committee chair. 

At least one member of the committee (or even more) need not belong to the student’s university. They may come from outside. Where an outside member is chosen by the student to join their committee, it is the student’s sole responsibility to obtain comments on their work while it is in progress, and to make arrangements for outside members to be virtually or physically present at the time(s) of defending the dissertation and at the time of the prospectus.  

Once a committee has been proposed and assembled by the student, there is an approval form they must submit to the Director of Doctoral Studies. This should be accompanied with a description of the abilities and qualifications of the proposed members i.e. evidence they are capable of contributing to the work the student has done on his or her dissertation. Once the student receives word their proposed committee has been preliminarily approved by the Director, he or she should send the completed approval form by email to the Dissertation Council for review. This emailed form should be accompanied by the following documents:   

  • The dissertation proposal’s abstract.
  • Copies of any certificates of research assurance.
  • A written rationale justifying the appointment of each of the committee members.

The student is permitted to change/replace the members of their proposed committee whenever they please. However, changes need to be first approved by the SIS Director and next by the Dissertation Council at the student’s university. The student is required to submit a change approval form proposing any committee changes they wish to make.  

If it happens that any faculty member (from a US university) resigns from the university, they may remain on the committee subject to the permission of the Dissertation Council. In the event the chair of the dissertation committee leaves or retires from the university before completion of the dissertation, they may remain as chair, co-chair or ordinary member of the committee provided they obtain permission from the Dissertation Council. In the event a member of the faculty removes themselves from the student’s committee, the student is responsible for finding and confirming a replacement member. 

Writing of the Actual Dissertation

When a student has progressed to candidate status, their next step is to register for nine SIS-899 credits (doctoral-level dissertation credits) during each spring and fall semester until they have been successful in defending their dissertation, have had temporary leave approved, or they are dismissed from their course/university. Although every ABD student will have registered for nine credits and will be considered to be studying full-time, their registration will be posted at one hour of graduate-level credit. According to the regulations in the American university system, it is expected that doctoral-level student will complete all the requirements for their degree within nine years of commencing their program of study. Before this time limit expires, a student may submit a petition to have their candidacy extended. In the event a student’s circumstances are compelling, they can apply for 3 x 1-year extensions. They are required to submit a petition to the SIS Director for each one of these 1-year extensions. Every one of the extensions also needs to be approved by an SIS Associate dean and a Vice Provost.

Defending One’s Dissertation

When the student’s research work has been completed and their dissertation written, they need to submit it to their committee to be reviewed. It is expected the final version will adhere to the style and formatting requirements of the university.

It is a requirement that the completed dissertation – or final version – is submitted to the dissertation committee and to the external reader five weeks (at least) ahead of the date proposed for the defense. This gives members of the committee and the external reader three full weeks (at least) to read the student’s work. Within this three-week timeframe, the student will be informed by the dissertation committee if their work is ready to proceed to the stage of defense. If any revisions are needed, a detailed list of these will be provided to the student. If, however, no revisions are required and committee members feel things can move ahead, a date can be set for the defense.

The next task for the student is to identify a date and time where all members of the committee are available and to organize a suitable room in which to conduct the defense. The defense must involve all members of the committee – either physically or virtually - including those from outside the student’s university. The student is responsible for ensuring the attendance of all participating members and to put the technological arrangements in place for virtual participants. Unless the circumstances are out-of-the-ordinary, and subject to permission from the appropriate Doctoral Studies Director, it is imperative that the student is physically present to defend his or her dissertation work.

When all details – time, place, and date – are finalized, it is the student’s responsibility to provide the Doctoral Studies Director with at least two weeks’ notice of the event. This Director will then publicly announce the defense. The student’s next task is to submit a summary of around 300 words (or even less) regarding their dissertation’s topic and key findings. This will be included in the Director’s announcement. The following is the format that applies to a defense:   

  1. Twenty minutes is allocated to the doctoral student to summarize the findings of their dissertation to their audience.
  2. Fifteen minutes is allocated to each of the committee members to ask the student questions about their dissertation (other members of the committee can pose questions during a fellow members allocated time where the question is relevant to the matter in hand or clarification is required in respect of a particular response).
  3. Other attendees from the academic community are allowed a ten-minute period in which to ask questions.
  4. When the members of the dissertation committee start discussing the merits or otherwise of the student’s work, the remaining attendees (both student and other participants) are required to remove themselves from the room. Deciding the outcome of a defense is determined by consensus. 
  5. The student is usually required to come back into room after about half an hour when the chair of the committee then informs them of the committee’s decision.

The following are the potential outcomes of a defense meeting:

  • Fail: When this is the case, the student will be specifically told where their dissertation was deficient. This allows them to proceed with addressing these deficiencies in order to initiate another defense. 
  • A provisional pass: In this situation, the student will be informed about particular parts of their dissertation that must be revised or addressed before a pass grade can be awarded. It may be necessary to submit revisions to just the chair of the committee or to the entire membership. Information about the follow-on process will be given to the student during the defense meeting.
  • Pass: This means a dissertation receives submission approval subject (possibly) to final modifications.
  • Pass with distinction: This indicates a dissertation is considered to make a significant contribution – over and above the normal expectation – in its field, and it is given submission approval subject (possibly) to final modifications.  

When a student’s dissertation is awarded a pass grade or pass with distinction grade, a report called the defense examination report is submitted by the SIS Director to the dissertation committee for all members to sign. A final task for the doctoral student is the requirement to provide two photocopies of their dissertation’s title or cover page – correctly formatted – to every member of their committee, also to be signed by each one. Once all relevant signatures have been obtained, the student must then submit both of these copies to their PhD instructor/advisor.