The capstone, and most critical, project of the PhD program is the doctoral dissertation. The series of courses within the department dealing with professional development concludes with the dissertation prospectus seminar, which students take in the sixth semester, if they have passed their examinations.
The dissertation prospectus seminar provides a shared structure for the process of identifying viable dissertation projects, selecting a dissertation committee, articulating his/her project in the form of a prospectus, and, where appropriate, developing grant proposals based on the prospectus. The dissertation committee, the selection of which is a requirement of the course, consists of a director and two additional members. The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) will verify that the thesis director, who will normally also have been the supervisor of the student's major field examination, accepts the role of the student's major professor and dissertation advisor.
At the same time the DGS shall nominate, with their written approval, two other professors who have been agreed upon between the dissertation director and student. In case of disagreement, the choice will be made by the department. With the consent of the dissertation director and DGS, the dissertation committee may include a person from outside the Department. This committee will be responsible for evaluating the student's detailed written proposal, to be presented no later than the end of the sixth semester, and for approving the final version of the student's dissertation.
A dissertation prospectus should be divided into the following four sections:
- historiography -- setting the proposed study in the context of the relevant historical literature
- methodology -- outlining the approach the student proposes to take
- types of sources to be examined
- significance -- the historical importance of the work and why we need such a study.
In addition, there should also be a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. If deemed unsatisfactory, the proposal may be referred back for resubmission by the end of the summer following the sixth semester. Students who have not presented their thesis proposal to their dissertation committee by the end of the summer following the sixth semester shall be considered not in good standing and may be ineligible for further financial aid from the department.
Students must petition the department in writing for any postponement of the submission of their thesis proposal beyond the end of the sixth semester. Petitions must be accompanied by a recommendation of the student's dissertation advisor. Grounds for such an extension include protracted illness, teaching duties beyond those normally expected of second year and fifth semester students, or the discovery of unexpected difficulties with his/her thesis topic (e.g. a recently completed dissertation or book on the same subject).
Preparation and Examination
After passing the preliminary examination and obtaining approval of his/her dissertation proposal by the dissertation committee, doctoral candidates are encouraged to proceed with this research with speed and efficiency. As the research progresses, if unexpected discoveries about the nature of the sources or other unforeseen developments occur, the student and thesis director should confer in case redefinition of the topic seems necessary. During the research and writing of the thesis, it is the student's responsibility regularly to provide the thesis director with evidence of satisfactory progress towards completion. Such evidence will normally be provided in informal consultations between student and thesis director; if the student is absent from the campus, it should be provided by letter at least once each semester.
All students will normally be expected to give a presentation before the History Workshop (or other similar group) of all or part of the dissertation (or other research).
The doctoral dissertation should be completed within four years after the student passes the preliminary examination. Exceptions to this rule will be granted only upon a written petition by the student to the Department.
A faculty member has the right to refuse to direct a thesis without stating specific reasons. However, once he or she has agreed in writing to direct a thesis, the directorship may not be relinquished unless both the student and the Department are informed of the reasons in writing. A student may ask the Department to appoint a new thesis director at any time.
A thesis director leaving the University should state in writing whether he or she wishes to continue to direct doctoral theses already in progress. Even after leaving the University, faculty member is ordinarily expected to continue directing theses until their completion. But if the departing faculty member declines to continue the thesis direction, the student will be given every assistance in finding a new director.
The student shall present a penultimate draft of the thesis to the Graduate Advisor no later than the fifteenth day of March in the year the student intends to graduate. The Graduate Advisor shall then distribute the thesis draft to the members of the dissertation committee, who shall have one month to prepare their evaluations. If all members of the committee agree that the thesis is acceptable, the student will then prepare a final copy and arrange for a thesis defense.
If one or more members of the committee judge the thesis to be unacceptable, the student will be asked to rewrite the thesis so as to satisfy the objections of the disapproving reader(s). If all members of the committee are then agreed that the revised thesis is acceptable, the student will then prepare a final copy and arrange for a thesis defense.
If the revised thesis is deemed unacceptable by a majority of the entire committee, it is considered rejected. If the revised thesis is deemed unsatisfactory by a minority of the committee, then the Department may decide either to overrule the objection and recommend approval of the thesis, or it may appoint a fourth reader. If the fourth reader rejects the thesis, then it is considered rejected.
In the case of rejection, the Department may decide either to permit the student to undertake a new thesis, or it may terminate the candidacy of the student.
The Final Defense (optional)
The Department expects each student to have a Final Defense with the approval of the graduate advisor, although in exceptional circumstances the director of the thesis may waive the defense. The defense will normally be conducted by the dissertation director, the readers of the dissertation, and the Dean of the Graduate School or his/her representatives. If the candidate so wishes, other graduate students may attend and participate in the discussion.
The defense will focus on the problems and potentialities of the thesis. Its purpose is to provide a forum not for approving the thesis (which has already been done) but for a general discussion of the thesis as a contribution to knowledge for the benefit of the candidate.
Grievance Procedures and Appeals
The Department is bound by Graduate School procedures which are described in the Graduate School memorandum, "Resolution of Graduate Student Grievances."
Doctoral Dissertation Proposals
Proposals constitute a specific genre of academic writing. A proposal presents a brief but explicit argument or claim that a particular subject of inquiry has merit. It also implicitly argues that the author of the proposal has enough command of the subject to pursue it successfully. Scholars in the arts and humanities typically write short proposals to join conference panels and to place essays in journals and collections. In addition to the dissertation proposal, scholars write longer proposals to obtain grants and to persuade publishers to take an interest in a book-length project.
Proposals assume an audience of educated readers who are not necessarily specialists in the proposal's specific subject of inquiry. The author's aim is to persuade this audience that the project will make an original and valuable contribution to some already on-going discussion or problem in one or more fields, or that it will break entirely new ground and even revise the existing structure of disciplinary fields.
The dissertation proposal is thus a persuasive rhetorical form, one that seeks to gain readers' assent to the proposition that the proposed study is well-founded and will advance inquiry or discussion in some important way.
Proposals can take many forms but strong proposals share certain characteristics:
- A strong proposal makes a central claim and exhibits a clear focus.
- A strong proposal makes clear the scope of the project. Many, though by no means all, strong proposals do so early in the text.
- A strong proposal demonstrates both that the project grows out of rich scholarly, theoretical, and/or aesthetic grounds and that it develops these grounds in a new way or towards a new fruition.
These two elements together constitute what the guidelines refer to as a "literature review." That is, the purpose of mentioning the scholarly, theoretical, and aesthetic traditions within which the project is situated is not merely to show that the author of the proposal has undertaken a search of the relevant work in the proposed field(s). Rather it is to show how the current project fits within or contests an already on-going discourse and how it will contribute to, amend, or displace that discourse.
Thus the "review of the literature" and the "contribution to the field" are both parts of a single effort: to make and support the claim that the proposed project is worthwhile because it grows out of and then extends or revises work currently under way in the arts and humanities and related disciplines. A dissertation supports its claim to originality by positioning its argument both within and against prior scholarship and practices.
- A strong proposal integrates the discussion of its methods into its claims to be presenting a new or distinct approach to some material or issue. Keep in mind that a method is not a technique: a strong proposal suggests the intellectual or creative perspectives it will employ (for example, close readings of original texts, "thick description" of social phenomena, or elaboration of a genre of writing) not the procedures the author will need to use (for example, collection of data or the searching of bibliographic databases).
Sample Doctoral Dissertation Proposals
The following dissertation proposals have been selected and annotated by members of the Graduate Studies Committee to suggest the various ways in which a successful proposal can be formulated.
These sample proposals should be considered as resources or models rather than as templates. Note that the samples may not conform to the current 2500-word limit.
Additional proposals will be added periodically.
The Simpsons and American Culture
History of Ideas
Public Voices, Public Selves: Self-Fashioning and Gender in the Eighteenth Century
Studies in Literature
The Quest for a Home: Acculturation, Social Formations, and Agency in British Fiction, 1816-1911