Defending My Dissertation Proposal

As students work on completing their field statements and finishing up their coursework, they should also work on developing a proposal for Ph.D. field research.  Students are expected to successfully defend their proposal before the end of their third year in the program (or second year if they entered with an M.A. degree). A good dissertation proposal typically includes a review of the literature, an explication of how or why the student's specific subject or approach will constitute a significant contribution to the anthropological literature, a methodological section, a tentative timetable for research, and, if appropriate, a budget. 

A dissertation proposal committee normally consists of the student’s principal advisor and at least three additional members of the Graduate Faculty of Anthropology.  However, because of the interdisciplinary nature of much anthropological research, the Graduate School will also allow dissertation proposal committees in this program to include only three members of the Graduate Faculty in Anthropology and one person from another graduate program at Rutgers or from another university.  Independent scholars deemed qualified by the Graduate School may also serve as outsiders.  Once these requirements are met, additional members of the graduate faculty and/or outside members may also serve.

Dissertation Proposal Defense:  Dissertation proposals are evaluated in an oral dissertation proposal defense conducted by the student’s dissertation proposal defense committee.  A dissertation proposal defense may only take place after the student has completed at least 48 credits of coursework and had their two field statements approved by the Graduate Faculty.  At the defense, students should be prepared to discuss their research proposal, to relate their intended research to wider anthropological scholarship, and to make informed responses to any relevant critiques. The committee may require the student to make further revisions to the proposal, and sometimes even to defend it in another proposal defense. Other faculty may attend the dissertation proposal defense, but the members of the student’s dissertation proposal committee make the final decision on a candidate.  Students will be permitted to defend their dissertation proposals no more than twice.  If a student fails his or her defense twice, his or her enrollment in the graduate program will be terminated.  A student’s second proposal defense shall occur no later than one calendar year after the first.

On successful completion of the proposal defense, the members of a student's dissertation defense committee sign the Application for Admission to Candidacy Form, after which the student is officially admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D.  A final copy of the dissertation proposal must be submitted to the Graduate Director for placement in the student’s files. Although many students find it useful to do some preliminary data collection before their dissertation proposal defense, students are normally expected to wait to conduct the bulk of their dissertation-related data collection until after they have successfully defended their proposals and thus become Ph.D. candidates.

This expert advice comes from Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation

Sonja Foss would say that the defense begins as soon as you start working on your dissertation (Foss & Waters, 2007). Defense in the context of the dissertating process refers to the presenting, explaining and defending of your ideas. It also includes laying out the rationale behind your choices and decisions, for example, regarding theory selection and research methods. Efforts to recruit your chair and other committee members will entail some of this communication behavior. Seeking approval for your dissertation proposal, the foundation of all your research activities, will also entail a bit of defense.

Throughout the course of the project many exchanges with your chair and other committees will involve explaining and defending your ideas and decision. However, the most important defense is the dissertation defense which comes at the end of a long and arduous process and which may have unfolded over a number of years. The dissertation defense is a significant milestone signaling closure on your graduate student career.

The dissertation defense can be divided into three distinct components (Foss and Waters): the preparation, the defense, and follow-up. A few brief comments about all three follow and a very helpful resource provided a thorough discussion of all three components.

PREPARATION:

  • Attend the defenses of some of your departmental colleagues or attend defenses in other departments.
  • It is very important to adhere to graduate school rules and deadlines covering the scheduling of a defense.
  • Begin very early to schedule and coordinate the date, time and place for the defense. Committee members and chairs have very busy schedules.
  • Have your manuscript reviewed before the defense to be sure it is consistent with formatting requirements. You want to present a polished document for the faculty to work with in preparation for the defense.
  • Maximize your opportunity in the pre-defense meeting to raise any issues or concerns. Or ask your chairs what questions and issues might be raised during the defense. Prepare to address them.
  • Organize you material for presentation. Create flawless presentation of the material you will be covering on the defense. Finally, practice presenting the material and answering questions.

DEFENSE MEETING:

  • Meetings may begin with brief comments by the chair followed by your comments thanking advisors and committee members for their time and efforts on your behalf.
  • Your presentation material should briefly cover the research question, literature review as it relates to your theory, methods and analysis, major findings and recommendations for future research.
  • During the defense, the faculty may take turns asking you questions and discussing among themselves points of interest or disagreement.
  • Two questions to anticipate include identifying the weaknesses of your study and post-dissertation research plans.
  • When all questions have been asked and answered, you will be asked to leave the room while the committee deliberates. At this time faculty will be deciding by vote whether to pass you on your defense and dissertation.
  • The desired outcome of this meeting is the chair's greeting you with the statement "Congratulations, Dr. _." (Foss and Waters, 2007). The defense was successful and the committed has passed your dissertation.

POST DEFENSE:

  • You may plan a small reception for the committee, friends and family. Check to see what the norms are in your department on post-defense celebrations.
  • Next day attend to the revisions the committee asked you make to the work.
  • You may want to provide bound copies of your work to your chair, committee members, family and friends. You may also be required to provide copies to your department and library. Create a budget for handling the incidental related to publishing and ordering additional copies of your manuscript.

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About the Authors: Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver, and Dr. Waters is an assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown, They are co-directors of Scholar’s Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis or writing project. 

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