Dissertation Process and Guidelines

The dissertation is the culminating requirement for earning a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. Through the dissertation and the dissertation defense, students demonstrate that they are able to effectively conceptualize, design, and conduct a research project. In addition, students demonstrate that they can effectively communicate, both in speech and writing, about their research and related arguments to a scholarly audience. Dissertations in the English Department reflect a range of research methods, forms of argument, and engagement with various scholarly conversations. Ultimately, students who successfully complete the dissertation demonstrate their ability to make a scholarly contribution to the fields of rhetoric and professional communication.

Click here for a list of alumni dissertation titles.

The Doctoral Committee

The Doctoral Committee is the same as the Comprehensive Exam Committee. This committee must include at least four graduate faculty members. The committee is composed of three members of the graduate Faculty from the Department of English and one member of the graduate faculty from another department. The committee chair/adviser must be from the English Department. Students who wish to make changes to the committee should typically do so early in the process. If the student wants to make a substantial change to the make up of the committee (especially a change of adviser), a committee meeting should be held prior to the changes being made in order for the committee to provide guidance to the student. The student must submit a Change of Advisor Form and a revised Program of Study and Committee for Doctoral Students form. The student must also receive approval from the Dean of the Graduate School to make changes to the committee membership.

The adviser’s role in the committee is to work primarily with the student and to consult with committee members as necessary to best support the student and to ensure the quality of the student’s work. The student should work on the dissertation proposal, the dissertation, and related material (such as IRB approval) first with their adviser. The adviser should meet regularly with the student, provide substantive feedback, and approve the dissertation proposal, chapter drafts of the dissertation, and the full draft of the dissertation prior to the committee’s approval. The role of the rest of the committee is, then, to review drafts and to provide additional feedback to the student. The outside member functions as a Dean’s representative and, depending on his or her expertise, may have a larger role in consulting with the student. The committee is also responsible for evaluating the dissertation and dissertation defense. See Evaluation of Dissertation and Dissertation Defense below for more details.

The Dissertation Process

After passing the comprehensive exam, the student begins full-time work on the dissertation.

For the first stage of this process, the student and adviser hold a meeting with the committee to discuss the preliminary draft of the dissertation proposal. Next, the student, under the direction of the adviser, composes a dissertation proposal and submits it to the committee for review. Once the proposal is approved, the student then conducts the study and writes the dissertation. After the first full draft of the dissertation is submitted to the committee, the student then revises the dissertation and, once it is approved, defends the dissertation in the final oral exam.

To begin the dissertation process, the student drafts a preliminary proposal in consultation with the adviser. Generally only two to three pages, the preliminary proposal describes the proposed project, offers a rationale for its importance, discusses and justifies the methods the student will employ, and proposes a timeline for completion. Once the adviser has approved the preliminary proposal, the student submits it to all members of the doctoral committee and schedules the preliminary proposal meeting. The preliminary proposal should be circulated to the committee two weeks prior to the meeting. At the preliminary proposal meeting, the student will have an opportunity to discuss the planned dissertation research and to receive initial comments and suggestions from the committee. This is also a time for the student, adviser, and committee to agree upon a process for reviewing the dissertation proposal and dissertation drafts. All committee members should be present for this meeting with the exception of the Dean’s representative (who may or may not be asked to attend at the discretion of the adviser). This meeting should be scheduled within two months of the completion of the comprehensive exam. Typically, committee meetings are held during the academic year.

After receiving feedback from the committee on the preliminary proposal, the student develops the formal dissertation proposal. The dissertation proposal (25 to 30 pages exclusive of references) should include a definition of the problem to be explored, a literature review, a methodological or theoretical section, and a working bibliography. With the adviser’s approval, the proposal is submitted to all members of the doctoral committee. The proposal must be approved by all members of the committee, who then sign off on the proposal. In addition, the proposal must be approved by the committee before the student begins to collect any data for the dissertation. A copy of the sign-off sheet and the approved proposal are placed in the student’s departmental file. The sign-off on the proposal allows the student to begin the formal conduct of the study (i.e., collecting and analyzing data, interviewing subjects, recording field notes). The student should avoid moving ahead with a study if the committee has not agreed to the proposal. In this case, the student is encouraged to revise the proposal in consultation with the adviser who can assist the student in addressing committee members’ concerns. Pilot studies may be conducted before sign-off on the formal proposal, subject to human subjects review approval.

If human subjects are involved (e.g., as survey respondents, as writers under study, or as interviewees), the student must receive the necessary approvals from the university prior to using such subjects. Forms and instructions for human subjects approval are available through the Office of Research Compliance website.

Once the formal proposal has been approved, if a student for any reason needs or wishes to change the topic or method of the dissertation, that student must submit a revised proposal, or amendment to the proposal, which must be approved by the committee before the student collects data on the new dissertation project. If there is a change in the membership of the committee, the new member should receive a copy of the proposal and have an opportunity to comment and suggest changes to the student and the dissertation adviser. A copy of the newly approved, revised, or amended proposal should be added to the student’s departmental file. The student is responsible for filing the proposal, the signed approval, and any amendments or revisions with the Graduate Secretary in the English Department office.

Once the formal proposal is approved, the student conducts the study and writes the dissertation. During this time, the student should work closely with the adviser and consult with committee members as necessary. The student will maintain regular contact with the adviser, submit drafts in a timely manner, and revise work in progress based on adviser input. The adviser will provide substantive feedback on the drafts and assess the progress of the study. Once the adviser has approved these drafts the student may submit them to other members of the committee, following the process that was developed in the preliminary proposal meeting.

An additional meeting will be held with the student and the committee once the student has successfully drafted and revised – in consultation with the student’s adviser – the first full three chapters of the dissertation. This meeting will allow the student to receive substantive feedback from all committee members about the dissertation project in advance of the final defense.

The student then revises the dissertation in preparation for the dissertation defense. With the concurrence of the adviser, the student will submit the completed dissertation draft to the committee before scheduling the final exam. Students should allow the committee members at least two weeks to review the revised dissertation draft. Committee members will read this draft and certify it as being defensible or as being in need of further revision. If the draft is not defensible, the student will work with the adviser to address any concerns and resubmit the draft to the committee. When all members agree that the draft is defensible, then the student may schedule the final oral examination and submit the Doctorate of Philosophy Examination form. Note that the Graduate School requires that exams be scheduled ten working days in advance. The defense must also be scheduled at least one month prior to the end of a semester for the student to be eligible for graduation in that semester. Please see the Graduate School website for the specific deadlines for each semester.

A defensible dissertation may need further editing or minor revision, and one purpose of the oral defense is to hear the editorial and revision suggestions from committee members. If, at the close of the oral defense, the committee feels the dissertation is satisfactory, the adviser will be responsible for overseeing the changes suggested by committee members, whose work is done at the close of the meeting.

Students who successfully defend their dissertation have fulfilled the final requirement for the completion of the doctoral program. Upon a successful defense, the student should work with the adviser to make minor revisions and editorial changes to the dissertation. Once this process is complete, the student should then file the dissertation with the Graduate School. Please see the Graduate School website for specific requirements on formatting. One bound copy must be filed with the Graduate Secretary in the English Department. Typically, students also provide the adviser and committee members with copies of the final version of the dissertation, although these copies do not necessarily need to be bound.

Course Enrollment and the Dissertation Process

During work on the preliminary proposal, formal proposal and dissertation research/writing, the student enrolls in ENGL 700: Doctoral Dissertation; a minimum of 18 credits of ENGL 700 is required for the student to graduate. Students who achieve ABD (all but dissertation) status must register for a minimum of 3 credits of ENGL 700 each semester until they complete the dissertation and pass the final oral examination; students who complete their degree in the summer must register for a minimum of 1 credit of ENGL 700. The dissertation must be completed and approved within 5 years after the comprehensive examination. 

Evaluation of the Dissertation and Dissertation Defense

Successful students will demonstrate the ability to conduct original research and contribute to knowledge in a specialized area of the field as well as display a broad understanding of the field(s) of knowledge that make up the degree area. Students who fail the final examination (or defense) may be granted a second examination upon the recommendation of the committee and the approval of the Graduate Dean. 

After a successful defense and once students are prepared to begin the process for graduation, they will need to submit a Dissertation Title Submission form. Additional information and forms for completing and submitting the dissertation can be found here.

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