4.0 PhD in Rhetoric & Writing: Pre-Dissertation Exam & Dissertation

PhD Pre-Dissertation Exam
The dissertation prospectus exam consists of an oral defense of the written dissertation prospectus with members of the guidance committee. The goal of the prospectus is to produce a working plan for the dissertation, not to mire the student down in needless planning that takes time away from actual dissertation research and production. The student should complete the dissertation prospectus exam as soon as possible after completing the core and concentration exams; in most cases, the prospectus exam should take place no later than one year after completing the core and concentration exams, preferably within 6 months.

The written prospectus should :

  • be 10-15 double-spaced pages, not including a bibliography of key works and required timeline for the process;
  •  address a significant question or issue in the discipline of Rhetoric & Writing, and include a written rationale for how the project will contribute to the specific field in which it is written;
  • include a timeline for completion of the dissertation (this is a Graduate • School requirement);
  •  for print-based dissertations, include a table of contents and a brief description of each chapter. For non-print dissertations, students should consult with their committee regarding how to best portray the sequence of their work in the prospectus;
  • include sections which elaborate on the dissertation’s theoretical and methodological frame, as well as forms & methods of data collection and interpretation;
  • include a rationale for making the project in a particular form or medium (traditional alphabetic print, video, multimedia, mixed media, performance, installation, software, website, etc.) as well as its genre (if applicable);
  • include a process for communicating with and getting guidance from the Committee chair and members – this includes details like submitting chapters or drafts of other media for from the guidance committee chair and members; and
  • be distributed to the guidance committee at least two weeks in advance of the oral defense of the prospectus.

During the oral defense of the prospectus, the guidance committee:

  • asks questions, poses solutions, and gives feedback to the student concerning the focus and scope of the dissertation;
  • provides comments about the proposed work schedule and the timetable for communications during the dissertation writing process;
  • sets goals for revision of the project’s scope and production;
  • informs the student at the end of the oral defense whether s/he has passed the pre-dissertation exam; and
  • signs the appropriate section of the Examination Record form.

During the process of the prospectus exam preparation, defense and follow-up, a number of issues should be clarified.

1. There should be a clear and do-able timeline for completion of the dissertation project.

2. The process for completing the dissertation should be discussed. Items to be discussed from this process should include plans for interacting with various committee members, as well as details like how often the student will meet with the chair, how the student is expected to interact with other committee members (via the chair or directly), expected response times for committee members to respond to drafts, etc.

3. Any necessary revisions to the plans for the project (theoretical frame for the project, methods & methodologies, rationales for making the project in a particular form or medium, timelines, processes, etc.) should be made in writing and agreed to by the committee in their written form.

See Section 5.0 of this handbook for details on how the PhD Dissertation Prospectus Exam is evaluated.

Upon successful completion of all three PhD exams, a doctoral student is considered to be a candidate for the degree and is ABD (all but dissertation). For ABD students, full-time status is defined as being enrolled in a minimum of 1 credit hour.


At MSU, each doctoral student is expected to engage in “original research upon which a dissertation which makes a significant contribution to knowledge is to be prepared and published.” The Graduate School further requires that each program define what constitutes an acceptable dissertation for their doctoral students.

The R&W program places responsibility for this decision with the student’s guidance committee and requires that decisions about the form, format, and media in which the dissertation is produced be finalized as part of the process of preparing the dissertation prospectus for the dissertation prospectus exam. These decisions should always be the result of informed conversations between the student and her/his committee, taking into consideration the form of production that will best suit the student’s intellectual goals. All expectations for the dissertation project should be documented carefully and in full detail as part of the prospectus defense process.

The dissertation:

  • is typically a 100-200 page (double-spaced) print work or its equivalent in non-print medium;
  • demonstrates in-depth knowledge of the field and discipline;
  • creates new knowledge within that field;
  • has the potential for significant impact on the discipline (e.g., addresses questions of importance, develops new avenues of thought, challenges predominant assumptions); and is produced at a level of quality appropriate for the public, either through traditional publication or through digital, performance, or other installation venues (this includes digital spaces where software or database projects would be available for viewing).

Production Guidelines for non-print dissertations

Students who are producing a dissertation a format other than traditional print should:

1. Compose a written project synopsis, which can resemble a dissertation chapter or take a different shape. The project synopsis can/should address some or all of the following issues: theoretical framework for the project; methodology; rationale for making the project in its particular medium; argument for the need of this project in our field; and a discussion of other projects in their field that it complements/competes with. For students who expect to go on the academic job market, the project synopsis can be sent alongside the dissertation artifact as a writing sample.

2. Create a plan for preservation of the artifact they produce. In considering how their dissertation project can be preserved for future viewings, interactions or uses, the student may want to create a written preservation rationale.

Stage 1. Preparation and Planning

We do not expect students to arrive at our program with a fully formed dissertation focus. Instead, we encourage students to take advantage of the many learning experiences available to them during their time in the program to craft a dissertation project about which they are passionate and to which they are committed. This takes time. And it is best accomplished through intellectual exploration and collaboration with faculty chosen to guide the larger process of dissertating and finishing the PhD. Staying in contact with guidance committees about reading and thinking processes also insures that students will have informed (instead of surprised) readers of their exams and good support for their dissertation work.

The role of the dissertation prospectus is, as outlined above, to engage members of your committee as a support network for producing a plan to accomplish your goals. Assembling a committee of faculty who can both support your work and help you accommodate the inevitable shifts that will occur during your research and production of the dissertation itself is critical to a student’s success–finishing on time, defending, and the job search.

As we say above, we believe spending time on the dissertation – researching and writing – is more valuable than perfecting the prospectus or over-performing in the exams.

(See “Maintaining Good Academic Standing” in Section 5.0 for details on assessment.)

Stage 2. Research and Drafting

During the research and drafting phase of the project, the candidate works primarily with her/his guidance committee chair, adjusting their plan for communication and interaction as is necessary for the candidate to successfully complete this phase of their degree. Candidates should expect to meet with the chair at least once per month, but preferably every other week, in order to discuss findings, to go over rough drafts, to build chapter outlines or map out process ideas for non-print dissertations, or to address questions or problems that come up during this phase of the project. It is certainly possible to consult other members of the committee as needed, but that consultation process should be worked out with the chair first.

Likewise, candidates should leave their prospectus defense with clear guidelines about the processes through which they’ll gain feedback on draft portions of the dissertation from their various committee members. Because this part of the process can work in many different ways, the chair and the student should work out a process that works best for the project and that also makes best use of committee members’ time and energy. In most cases, the chair and committee members should expect to take no more than two weeks to respond to a candidate’s draft. The exception is when drafts are circulated during summer months. It is the general policy of the R&W program that faculty are not available June 15-August 15; while there are exceptions to this policy in June and August, the month of July is inviolable. Candidates and their chairs should plan accordingly.

One of the most critical components during this phase of the project is finding a writing and/or feedback group of peers or colleagues who are NOT members of your guidance committee. Our most successful students find that working with their own writing/feedback group, as well as scheduling consultations at the Writing Center, help them produce drafts that the committee members can respond to more effectively. Because there is drafting and revision in every form/medium that a dissertation project can take, we encourage students to view these writing/feedback groups as central to the processes of scholarship and production regardless of their dissertation’s medium.

Stage 3. Dissertation Defense: Scheduling and Format

During the semester in which the candidate plans to complete the dissertation, s/he should schedule a dissertation defense with the guidance committee. It is the responsibility of the candidate’s chair to ascertain that all committee members agree that the dissertation is ready to be defended. If a committee member believes there are problems with the dissertation that are so significant that it will cause the candidate to fail the defense, the chair must work with the candidate until s/he produces a defensible draft of the project.

Once a defensible draft of the project is being produced, it is the candidate’s responsibility to schedule the defense (a two-hour block of time) at least one month in advance, and to deliver copies of the completed dissertation project to each committee member no later than two weeks before the scheduled defense date. Please note–the candidate must be enrolled in at least one credit hour in the semester in which s/he defends the dissertation. This is a policy of the University and it cannot be waived.

Traditionally, dissertations are “defended.” However the word “defense” has some unfortunate connotations, suggesting that the project will be under attack. That will not be the case. Committee members are committed to helping candidates develop a strong project, a dissertation that will have positive impact on the discipline, create new knowledge, lead to pedagogical innovations, help people become better writers and rhetoricians (or understand writing and rhetoric better), and/or substantially add to the candidate’s professional development. Committee members also want candidates to produce dissertations that are “publishable”–ready to be made available for public consumption and discussion. While committee members may raise hard questions that challenge the candidate’s thinking during the defense, the tone of this meeting is that of a conversation between peers.

If the process of drafting and response from committee members has been successful, by the time of the dissertation defense, the candidate should have already encountered the tough questions the committee has. If there has been a serious, critical dialogue through the dissertation process, a candidate will be more than adequately prepared for the dissertation “defense.”

The dissertation defense is structured as follows:

  • The candidate begins by delivering a short presentation about the dissertation (10-12 minutes maximum). This presentation should not be a summary of the project, but should address other issues and/or questions raised by the project itself, by the candidate’s engagement in the project, or that are anticipated in making the project available for public consumption and discussion.
  • Each committee member then raises questions and makes suggestions about the dissertation, allowing the candidate an opportunity to respond. Some chairs prefer to allocate a certain amount of response time to each committee member, others prefer that the response period operate like a conversation and simply makes certain that all committee members have an opportunity to engage the candidate. Discussion of the dissertation usually lasts about an hour.
  • When all the questions have been discussed and addressed, the dissertation committee chair asks the candidate to leave the room to allow time for the committee to deliberate about the dissertation and the defense. The committee discusses three questions in particular: (a) Are the dissertation project and the defense/presentation of it acceptable? (b) What revisions or amendments are necessary? (c) How should the candidate think about preparing the project for future public consumption and discussion? Typically this deliberation takes 15 minutes. (According to the policies of the Graduate School, the decision of the committee must be agreed upon by at least three-fourths of the committee members with not more than one dissenting vote among the MSU faculty on the committee.)
  • When the committee has concluded its deliberations, the committee chair invites the candidate back into the room to hear the decision, to discuss any needed revisions, and to get advice about future public circulation of the project.
  • All official university forms are signed by each member of the committee.
  • Note: it is up to the candidate and her/his chair whether guests will be invited to attend the defense. If guests are present, they should leave the room with the candidate so the guidance committee’s deliberations are private

(See Section 7.0 of this handbook for the guidelines concerning dissertation formatting and filing.)


Transfer Credits

Some credits may be transferred to the PhD program from other accredited institutions, with the approval of the graduate director. Students who have taken coursework in the program through Lifelong Education may transfer up to ten credits, with the approval of the director, after they are accepted into the regular degree program.

Petitioning for Course Waiver or Substitution
It is possible to petition to waive one of the course requirements or to substitute a different course for one of the requirements. Students who have already taken comparable coursework in an MA program may not need to retake a similar course at the PhD level. For example, WRA 878 Composition Studies–part of the core requirement–could be waived if an equivalent course was completed as part of MA degree work.

A waived requirement does not result in credit for the course. It is a course waiver, not a credit transfer. The student must still complete the entire number of course credits required for the degree.

To request a waiver, the student and guidance committee chair must:

  • write memo to the director of the graduate program, making the request and explaining the rationale for the waiver or substitution, and
  • provide copies of the syllabus(i) and reading lists for the course(s) comparable to one of the degree course requirements.

The director will consult the Rhetoric & Writing Graduate Committee to review the request and the instructor for the course in question, if possible.

Time Limit for Program
Completion of the PhD must occur within eight (8) years of entering the program. Completion of all comprehensive exams (core, concentration, pre-dissertation defense) must occur within five (5) years of entering the program. The clock starts ticking the semester of the first class that is counted toward the degree.

Career Services & Job Placement
The Rhetoric & Writing program runs a hands-on semester-long job placement workshop each fall. Participation in this workshop is mandatory for job-seeking Rhetoric & Writing doctoral candidates.

The Graduate School provides a variety of career services specifically designed for doctoral students. A listing of workshops and other career counseling activities can be found at http://grad.msu.edu/careerservices/. Additionally, MSU has partnered with the online credentials management service Interfolio, Inc. to manage distribution of credentials files during the job search.