Dissertation Prospectus Defense

Students are required to write and successfully defend a Dissertation Prospectus that outlines a plan for the Ph.D. dissertation. Students ordinarily develop their dissertation prospectus by working closely with their Supervisory Committee Chair. When the dissertation prospectus is close to completion, all members of Ph.D. Supervisory Committee meet to consider it for approval during a General Examination or dissertation prospectus defense.  Passing the General Examination is a major milestone in the student's academic career and results in a change of status to Ph.D. Candidate.

Procedures Associated with the General Examination

Requesting an Exam

In preparation for scheduling your General Exam, and to make sure that minimum departmental requirements have been met, request your current degree audit by emailing the Graduate Program Advisor.  This process usually takes at least a few business days, unless your audit was very recently updated.  If you need it very urgently, please inform the GPA.

Additionally, if you have not yet filed your Ph.D. Training Plan*, this needs to be submitted and processed before you can take your General Exam.  The coursework doesn't need to be finished yet, but you do have to have declared your plan.  The coursework itself must be completed before you take your Final Exam. (*Applies to cohorts 2014 and newer, and all students from prior to Cohort 2014 who have the Training Plan as part of their individualized program requirements.)

When the Supervisory Committee determines that the student is ready to defend the dissertation prospectus, the student contacts all members of the supervisory committee (including the Graduate School Representative) and schedules the datetime, and place of the General Exam.  If you or a committee member will be away from campus when you defend, please be sure to read the next section on this page about using videoconferencing and doctoral exams.

  • The request to schedule the exam must be submitted at least 3 weeks in advance of the exam date.
  • After date and time have been determined, the student reserves the room for the exam, using the Sociology department room reservation procedure.
  • The student must notify all committee members of the final date/time/room, and ask that they confirm via email stating "I agree that the student [student's name] is ready to schedule the General Exam, scheduled for [date/time] and [location]. I agree to attend the exam as scheduled".  ALL members of the Supervisory Committee including the GSR, regardless of whether or not they intend to attend the exam, must agree to the scheduling of the exam and will need to confirm their agreement via email.  If a committee member is planning to remote in, or will not be in attendance, please have them indicate this in their email.  Note that the GSR can not remote in per Graduate School rules, and must be physically present at the defense.
  • Forward all committee confirmation emails to the Sociology Graduate Program Advisor, and state the exam date, time and location of exam.
  • Schedule the exam using the Graduate School online form using the MyGrad Student View: http://www.grad.washington.edu/mygrad/student.htm
  • The Graduate Program Advisor will put the warrant in the supervisory chair's department mailbox.

The Exam

  • At least four members of the supervisory committee (including Chair and Graduate School Representative) must be present at the General Examination.  The GSR must be physically present and cannot remote in.
  • The supervisory chair brings the warrant to the General Exam where, providing the committee approves the prospectus, the warrant is signed by the committee members and returned to the Graduate Program Advisor.
  • The GSR completes a separate form, and returns it directly to the Graduate School.
  • If a General Examination is unsatisfactory, the supervisory committee may recommend that the Dean of the Graduate School permit up reexamination (up to a maximum of two additional exams).

Videoconferencing For This Exam:

If you or one of your committee members are going to be away from campus and need to videoconference into the exam, Graduate School special rules apply.  You must also coordinate with the Graduate Program Advisor to make arrangements.  The GSR committee member is not allowed to remote in for the exam, and must be physically present.

Completion of the Exam Process

After a successful exam, the student provides the following items to the Graduate Program Advisor to be filed in their student file:

  • Email an electronic copy in Word of the approved prospectus.  This can be submitted by email attachment to the Graduate Program Advisor.
  • Give the original warrant with original signatures of all committee members to the Graduate Program Advisor.

The Graduate Program Advisor will then record the results in MyGrad and take care of any other additional administrative steps required at that point.

This is a guest post by George McHendry. George is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Utah. You can reach him at his twitter handle @AcaGuy and his website georgefmchendry.com

In reflecting on my own experience in my dissertation prospectus meeting I realized how little is known by graduate students about what these documents look like and what happens in these meetings. Here are a few thoughts on getting from post-comps to post-prospectus.

A few months ago I found my efforts to write my dissertation prospectus grounded by a frustrating set of attempts to gain site access for my dissertation research and a kind of lingering insecurity over what this document was supposed to be about anyways. While coping with site access ultimately shifted my dissertation content, my anxiety over the actual document was something I had to get over and do so quickly. Thankfully, my committee is incredibly attentive and one of my committee members happened to drop The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Demystifying the Dissertation Proposal,” in my mailbox. Leonard Cassuto’s advice is succinct and was helpful. Cassuto lays out a series of descriptive points that establish what a proposal is not:

  • A dissertation proposal is not an essay.
  • A dissertation proposal is not a mini-dissertation.

He also offers suggestions on what a dissertation proposal is:

  • A proposal puts forth your argument.
  • A proposal describes how your argument will fit together.
  • A proposal outlines methodology.
  • You need to show the place of your dissertation in the critical field.

I found his advice to be enormously helpful, but there is a glaring caveat that Cassuto recognizes in the form of a commandment, “Consult your adviser as you develop your proposal. The myth of the writer as solitary genius striving away in the garret has surprising persistence.” The fact is that a dissertation prospectus can be many things, including the mini-dissertation or essay Cassuto urges you not to write.

For example, as I wrote my prospectus I consulted with a number of my colleagues who had recently written or were writing a prospectus. I discovered that their chairs had advised them to write everything from a fifteen page overview to a two-hundred page proposal with one or two sample chapters. Even more harrowing was that in many cases the chairs demanding these documents happened to be on my committee. Meaning, that even writing my prospectus under careful guidance from my chair, I knew walking into my defense that at least two-fifths of my committee advise their doctoral students to write their documents in radically different ways from what I had written (A 34 page overview of my research orientations, justification for the study, theoretical insights, and chapter overviews).

In the end my document served me well because it accomplished what Cassuto describes as the main purpose of the dissertation prospectus:

The purpose of the dissertation is for it to be approved. Only then can you start writing. A lot of misunderstanding swirls around dissertation proposals. One foundational fact cuts through it: A dissertation proposal has no independent existence. It’s a provisional document, a way station to an eventual goal.

My document accomplished just that. From here, my dissertation is able to get moving. However, it is worth noting that in the actual defense meeting many of the questions that were asked of me called me to answer for what some committee members would have asked their advisees to write in the first place. For example, my theoretical insights, though provisional, were heavily featured in the document. Two committee members needled me with questions about how those insights specifically connect with the actual analytical work with texts I would be doing. These questions could have been nullified had I written a mini-dissertation or provided a sample chapter of some kind. I do not regret writing the proposal I wrote, however, I do find that the document I wrote did as much to determine the tone, pace, and content of the defense meeting as the documents I chose not to write.

Here, as my last point, I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.

In the end, learn to trust your chair’s intuition about the process but remember that they cannot anticipate everything that can happen in the meeting. As such, prepare by talking with your colleagues and gauging their perceptions of the styles and postures faculty have taken in their meetings. This can provide enormous insight that helps you get past the last hurdle before you write your dissertation (Which is, of course, an entirely different set of anxieties).

For another look at defense meetings see Daren Brabham’s recent post on these meetings

[Image by Flickr user Lovelorn Poet and used under Creative Commons License]

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