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

PhD Pre-Dissertation Exam
The pre-dissertation exam consists of an oral defense of the written dissertation prospectus with members of the guidance committee. The student should complete the pre-dissertation exam within one year of completing the core and concentration exams.

The written prospectus should:

  • be no more than 20 double-spaced pages (or the equivalent), not including a bibliography of key works;
  • address a significant question or issue in the field;
  • include a timeline for completion of the dissertation;
  • include a table of contents with description of each chapter;
  • include sections which elaborate the dissertation’s theoretical and methodological frame;
  • include a rationale for how the dissertation will contribute to the field in which it is written and to the discipline Rhetoric & Writing;
  • include a process for communicating with, submitting chapters to and getting feedback from the guidance committee chair and members; and
  • be distributed to the guidance committee at least 2 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;
  • 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.

See Section 5.0 of this handbook for details on how the PhD Pre-Dissertation 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.

Each doctoral student is expected to produce a major piece of research or scholarship known as a dissertation. The dissertation:

  • is typically a book-length work that 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., it addresses questions of importance, it develops new avenues of thought, it challenges predominant assumptions); and
  • is of publishable quality–that is, the research, scholarship, and writing should be at a level where it is likely to be published as a book or as a set of articles.

Stage 1. Preparation, Planning, and Prospectus
Although formal preparation for the dissertation typically begins during the completion of students’ concentration exam, informal preparation for the dissertation begins when students begin the Rhetoric & Writing program. We do not expect students to arrive at the program with a fully formed dissertation focus. Instead, we realize that although many PhD students arrive with a specific area of focus in which they plan to organize their scholarship and write their dissertation, many don’t, and many who do change or shift that focus during their coursework. We encourage students to explore the breadth of our program’s offerings and to find an area of study about which they are passionate and committed.

As students prepare for the PhD concentration exam and think more concretely about a dissertation project, they will want to read widely in their area and stay in close contact with their guidance committee, especially their chair. This fairly nebulous planning stage 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 concentration exams and good support for their dissertation work.

Dissertation Prospectus
Successful completion of the pre-dissertation exam means the guidance committee has approved the dissertation prospectus, which (as detailed above) includes a timeline for completion of the dissertation, and a process for communicating with, submitting chapters to, and getting feedback from the guidance committee chair and members.

Although students are given a year after completion of the core and comprehensive exams to write and defend their PhD prospectus, we expect that most students will be able to do so within a few months of completing the exams. We believe spending time on the dissertation – researching and writing – is more valuable than perfecting the prospectus.

(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. The candidate should make sure to stay in regular contact with the chair, providing regular progress reports, asking questions, and meeting for discussion as needed. Candidates should expect to meet with the chair about once per month to analyze data, to discuss relevant readings, to go over rough drafts, to build chapter outlines, 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.

Stage 3. Submitting Chapters
The dissertation committee chair will advise the candidate how and when to send chapters to other committee members as they are drafted and completed. 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.

The chair and committee members should expect to take no more than one month per chapter to respond–perhaps longer if, as is often the case, this occurs during summer months. Candidates who plan to complete a dissertation during the summer should make sure to complete chapters well in advance of the summer to allow committee members enough time to respond, and should not expect committee members to be available during the summer to read chapters or hold a defense. Candidates wishing to graduate during the summer should make arrangements with the entire committee well in advance.

Stage 4. 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 candidate’s responsibility to schedule the defense (a two-hour block of time) at least one month in advance. The candidate delivers copies of the completed dissertation to each committee member no later than two weeks before the scheduled defense date.

If a committee member determines that there are significant problems with the dissertation, the dissertation defense should be cancelled. (Cancellation of a dissertation defense should be a rare occurrence. If the student delivers chapters well in advance of the defense and has been revising the chapters based on feedback, and if the committee members have been approving those chapters all along, there should seldom be need to hold up the defense.)

Traditionally, dissertations are “defended.” However the word “defense” has some unfortunate connotations, suggesting that the project will be under attack. That should 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, that will create new knowledge, that will lead to pedagogical innovations, that will help people become better writers (or understand writing better), and that will help the candidate’s professional development. Committee members also want candidates to produce dissertations that are publishable–if not as a book then as a series of articles or chapters.

To achieve these ends, committee members ask tough questions and raise critical points through the entire process, challenging the candidate in order to make the project better. By the time of the dissertation defense, however, the candidate should have already encountered all 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).
  • Each committee member has time to raise questions and make suggestions about the dissertation, allowing the candidate an opportunity to respond. Discussion of the dissertation might last 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) Is the dissertation document and the defense/presentation of it acceptable? (b) What revisions or editorial amendments are necessary? (c) How should the candidate think about preparing the dissertation for future publication (as a book or set of articles)? Typically this deliberation takes 15-20 minutes.
  • 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 publication.
  • All official university forms are signed by each member of the committee.

(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, AL 878 Composition Studies–part of the core requirement–could be waived if a history of rhetoric 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.