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The Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Doctoral Program (CCR)

Current Students: Dissertation

There are four "stages" to the dissertation process: the committee, the prospectus, the project itself, and the defense. Each stage involves procedures and/or policies with which you should familiarize yourself as you embark on the dissertation.

Constituting the Dissertation Committee

Upon passing all qualifying exams, the student is formally admitted to Ph.D. candidacy and chooses a Dissertation Director--a tenured or tenure-track, full-time member of the department faculty. The candidate and the Dissertation Director work together to develop a topic for the dissertation. Candidates constitute the majority of their dissertation committees prior to the writing and defense of the prospectus, but the specific structure of the dissertation committee becomes more significant after the prospectus process.

As the committee is assembled, the following guidelines are relevant:

  • At least three of the five total committee members (and two of the three Core Committee members) must be from CCR. (For the purposes of this policy, former CCR faculty are considered to be members of CCR, as opposed to "outside," while affiliate faculty are considered to be "outside.")
  • Faculty from other departments and/or institutions may be asked to serve on the committee, in such cases where their expertise will contribute to the dissertation project.
  • All faculty serving on the dissertation committee must agree that the project is workable.
  • Each member of your committee should be clearly and explicitly named either as a member of the Core Committee (the 2nd or 3rd reader) or as a Reader (the 4th or 5th reader). If the status of a committee member changes (from Reader to Core Committee, e.g.), the entire dissertation committee, as well as the Director of Graduate Studies, should be notified.
  • Graduate School policy allows for no more than one committee member to be physically absent from the dissertation defense; candidates who intend to constitute their committees with more than one "distant" member (including former CCR faculty) should take this into account.

The dissertation committee is distinguished by the following structure:

The Director: The Director works most closely and directly with a candidate, and should be chosen with both content expertise and interpersonal compatibility in mind. The Director functions as the candidate's advisor during this final stage of the doctoral degree, and often plays an important role beyond the scope of the dissertation (vetting job search materials, for example). The Director serves as the first reader for the dissertation, and works closely with the candidate to determine timelines and procedures for distributing chapter drafts to the remainder of the committee.

The Core Committee: The Core Committee is composed of the Dissertation Director and two other faculty members with knowledge and/or interest in the candidate's dissertation topic. The Dissertation Director will advise the candidate on all aspects of the dissertation; other members of the Core Committee will provide feedback on drafts of the dissertation. As soon as possible, the Dissertation Director and the Ph.D. candidate, in consultation with the Core Committee, should develop a realistic and workable plan for distributing dissertation chapters and receiving feedback on those in-progress chapters of the dissertation. The Dissertation Director and candidate should keep in touch with the Core Committee about changes or revisions to that schedule. Before proceeding to the oral examination, the Director and the Core Committee should agree that the dissertation is ready for defense. Core Committee members should be given time to read the dissertation and have their comments addressed within reason before the defense is scheduled.

The (Outside) Readers: The fourth and fifth members of the committee are designated Readers and their role is to provide feedback on the dissertation in its later stages. Where appropriate and agreed upon, readers may respond to early drafts of chapters. The Dissertation Director and candidate will work with the outside readers to specify when they will receive the completed draft of the dissertation.

The composition of each dissertation committee, as well as the quantity and quality of its members' interactions, depends upon the committee members themselves, and upon the candidate. Most faculty will have particular ideas about how such committees operate; processes, procedures, and timelines must be negotiated by the candidate and the Director. 

Dissertation Prospectus

Under the Dissertation Director's supervision and in consultation with the other readers, the candidate prepares a detailed prospectus for the dissertation. A dissertation prospectus is a research proposal providing a rationale for the proposed research, an outline of the proposed research, a discussion of the scholarship that is expected to ground the study.

The purpose of the prospectus is to provide a solid foundation for the dissertation, show persuasive evidence that the project is both well conceived and significant, demonstrate the student's growing expertise on the subject area.

Typically, a prospectus will be 10 to 15 double-spaced pages (readable font), plus a preliminary bibliography. While the list below indicates separate and essential elements for the prospectus, each research project has its own logic and should be presented so as to make its claims most powerfully.   The components specified below need not be presented in this order, nor need they be rigidly separated in the organization of your prospectus.

A dissertation prospectus usually includes the following:

  1. A clear discussion of the purpose of the research. This may involve a statement of the problems being investigated, research questions being probed, claims needing proof, discourses being studied, etc.

  2. A clear discussion of the rationale. Indicate why the research should be considered significant for the field. How will this research contribute to knowledge? In what ways are the questions fresh, interesting, or new? 

  3. Briefly summarize what is already known about the major problems, questions, claims, or discourses to be investigated. What scholarship will your dissertation build on, and connect with? You need to situate your own study in the larger scholarly context and indicate where your work will follow existing scholarship and where it will break new ground. You are here convincing your readers that you know the pertinent literature and that your project is distinctive and significant.

  4. Show how you plan to proceed. What methodology or conceptual tools will you use to investigate your subject? Show why this is an appropriate method. Present your provisional thinking about the structure of the dissertation, perhaps offering an overview of the chapters, indicating what each chapter will cover. If your dissertation requires the permission of the Institutional Review Board, please include the appropriate correspondence indicating approval from the IRB.

  5. A preliminary bibliography that includes the major works you will be drawing on for your project.

The Dissertation Prospectus Hearing

Prior to the prospectus hearing, the candidate must submit a completed Program of Study form to the CCR Coordinator of Graduate Studies (if an official transcript of the candidate's MA coursework is not already on file with the Graduate School, it should be included with this form).

To schedule the prospectus hearing, the Dissertation Director (in consultation with the candidate) must confer with the members of the Committee and the Director of Graduate Studies (or appointed Graduate Studies representative) about the scheduled date for the hearing. Once a probable date and time is set, the Dissertation Director (not the candidate) must, two weeks in advance of that date:

  • Notify the Coordinator of Graduate Studies so that Room 020 or another seminar or conference room can be scheduled.
  • Submit a copy of the prospectus to the Coordinator of Graduate Studies to be copied and circulated to the committee, the Graduate Director, and to all CCR Graduate faculty.

CCR faculty not serving on the committee may provide written responses (advice, suggestions, help) to the dissertation director who will transmit those comments to the candidate after the hearing. These comments, however, do not have a direct bearing on the hearing's outcome.

The panel for the hearing consists of the following people:

  • the Dissertation Director (who conducts the hearing),
  • the other 2 to 4 readers selected by the student as specified above, and
  • the Director of Graduate Studies, who participates in the Committee's deliberations as a representative of the Committee on Graduate Studies.

If the Graduate Director is also a member of the student's dissertation committee, the Department Chair, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, will appoint a substitute from the Graduate Studies Committee. Note that it is not necessary that the entire dissertation committee be constituted prior to the prospectus hearing, but the Core Committee must be in place.

The prospectus hearing lasts approximately 1-1 1/2 hours, with the candidate present for the first 20-30 minutes to discuss the prospectus and answer questions. The dissertation committee and the Director of Graduate Studies or the Graduate Committee representative will deliberate and call a vote.

The hearing panel may approve the prospectus as it stands, require changes, or disapprove it. The Dissertation Director will notify the candidate of the outcome of the prospectus hearing and will provide the candidate with a written copy of the decision and recommendations of the panel.

(The Dissertation Prospectus Guidelines approved by the Graduate Studies Committee and the CCR Graduate Faculty, May 2001.)

The Dissertation

Dissertations come in such a range of shapes, sizes, lengths, and focuses that it is difficult (if not impossible) to speak of hard-and-fast rules for the dissertation itself. One of the most important functions of your dissertation director is as a source of advice and guidance for the project itself. There is a page on this site devoted to frequently asked questions about the dissertation, but the information on that page should only be a starting point for further discussions with your director and committee.

One common feature to all dissertations written in the CCR Program is that they must follow the Graduate School's Thesis Format Guidelines. We strongly recommend that you download a copy of these guidelines from the Graduate School's website, and read them thoroughly at the outset of your project. It is easier to work in the proper formats from the start than it is to retroactively apply them at the end of the process.

Dissertation Defense

Much like the formatting guidelines, procedures for defending and submitting your dissertation are the province of the Graduate School, and they are located in a document entitled "STEPS: Your Final Semester", available in PDF form at the Graduate School's site. Hard copies are also available from he Coordinator of Graduate Studies in the CCR office.

Although you should consult STEPS well in advance of your planned defense date, here are some key deadlines and procedures to bear in mind as you near the end of the dissertation process. Please note that, in some cases, these procedures deviate from the deadlines outlined in STEPS; in such cases, CCR policies have been designed to meet (and exceed) the Graduate School requirements, and thus take priority.

Setting a Defense Date. Under no circumstances should a defense date be set unless the entire Core Committee has seen (and had time to respond to) a full draft of the dissertation. It is not unusual for dissertators to ask their committees to commit to tentative defense dates well in advance, as a means of setting up a long-term timetable for the project. This is acceptable; less so is the practice of pushing the timetable back and expecting committee members to adhere to those tentative commitments. It is ultimately the dissertator's responsibility to ensure that all committee members receive the dissertation with sufficient time to respond to it. Each member of the Core Committee must agree that the dissertation is ready to be defended before a date is set.

Setting the date for the defense also involves the coordination of committee schedules and space requirements. Dissertators must complete a Request for Examination form and submit it to the CCR office, and should do so no later than a month in advance of the expected date. If there are members of your committee who are not SU faculty, you must also submit a Petition to the Faculty (with cv's attached) requesting permission for their presence on your committee.

Appointing a Defense Chair. Graduate School policy dictates that a faculty member from SU, but from outside CCR, be appointed to chair the dissertation defense. Ideally, this would be a faculty member with whom the dissertator has a prior relationship and/or shared interests. The Chair is a voting member of the defense committee, and is expected to read the dissertation. In other words, this is not simply a ceremonial appointment. As such, you should make every effort to appoint and involve the defense chair in the late stages of the process. You should not schedule a defense date before you have successfully determined the Chair of the defense, and that person's schedule should be given equal weight with those of the rest of the committee when the defense is scheduled.

Outside Readers. The fourth and fifth members of your committee may not be as involved in the drafting/revising process as your core committee; they may only wish to see the dissertation when there is a complete draft. At the very least, the entire committee (including outside readers and your defense Chair) should receive a full, revised copy of the dissertation no less than one month prior to the defense. A copy should also be placed in the CCR office. Outside readers who have not been involved in reading individual chapters should respond to the dissertation in writing no less than one week prior to the defense. This allows the candidate time to read and address their responses at the defense itself.

Ordering Copies. When you file your dissertation with the Graduate School, you will have the opportunity to order copies of it at a discounted price.