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."
My teaching break between Christmas and the university’s snowy reopening in January followed in the footsteps of Goldilocks and the three bears. I examined three PhDs: one was too big; one was too small; one was just right. Put another way, one was as close to a fail as I have ever examined; one passed but required rewriting to strengthen the argument; and the last reminded me why it is such a pleasure to be an academic.
Concurrently, I have been shepherding three of my PhD students through the final two months to submission. These concluding weeks are an emotional cocktail of exhaustion, frustration, fright and exhilaration. Supervisors correct errors we thought had been removed a year ago. The paragraph that seemed good enough in the first draft now seems to drag down a chapter. My postgraduates cannot understand why I am so picky. They want to submit and move on with the rest of their lives.
There is a reason why supervisors are pedantic. If we are not, the postgraduates will live with the consequences of “major corrections” for months. The other alternative, besides being awarded the consolation prize of an MPhil, is managing the regret of three wasted years if a doctorate fails. Every correction, each typographical error, all inaccuracies, ambiguities or erroneous references that we find and remove in these crucial final weeks may swing an examiner from major to minor corrections, or from a full re-examination to a rethink of one chapter.
Being a PhD supervisor is stressful. It is a privilege but it is frightening. We know – and individual postgraduates do not – that strange comments are offered in response to even the best theses. Yes, an examiner graded a magnificent doctorate from one of my postgraduates as “minor corrections” for one typographical error in footnote 104 in the fifth chapter of an otherwise cleanly drafted 100,000 words. It was submitted ten years ago and I still remember it with regret.
Another examiner enjoyed a thesis on “cult” but wondered why there were no references to Madonna, grading it as requiring major corrections so that Madonna references could be inserted throughout the script.
Examiners have entered turf wars about the disciplinary parameters separating history and cultural studies. Often they look for their favourite theorists – generally Pierre Bourdieu or Gilles Deleuze these days – and are saddened to find citations to Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari.
Then there are the “let’s talk about something important – let’s talk about me” examiners. Their first task is to look for themselves in the bibliography, and they are not too interested in the research if there is no reference to their early sorties with Louis Althusser in Economy and Society from the 1970s.
I understand the angst, worry and stress of supervisors, but I have experienced the other side of the doctoral divide. Examining PhDs is both a pleasure and a curse. It is a joy to nurture, support and help the academy’s next generation, but it is a dreadful moment when an examiner realises that a script is so below international standards of scholarship that there are three options: straight fail, award an MPhil or hope that the student shows enough spark in the viva voce so that it may be possible to skid through to major corrections and a full re-examination in 18 months.
When confronted by these choices, I am filled with sadness for students and supervisors, but this is matched by anger and even embarrassment. What were the supervisors thinking? Who or what convinced the student that this script was acceptable?
Therefore, to offer insights to postgraduates who may be in the final stages of submission, cursing their supervisors who want another draft and further references, here are my ten tips for failing a PhD. If you want failure, this is your road map to getting there.
1. Submit an incomplete, poorly formatted bibliography
Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.
The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located.
If examiners find ten errors, then students are required to perform minor corrections. If there are 20 anomalies, the doctorate will need major corrections. Any referencing issues over that number and examiners question the students’ academic abilities.
If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.
2. Use phrases such as “some academics” or “all the literature” without mitigating statements or references
Generalisations infuriate me in first-year papers, but they are understandable. A 19-year-old student who states that “all women think that Katie Price is a great role model” is making a ridiculous point, but when the primary reading fodder is Heat magazine, the link between Jordan’s plastic surgery and empowered women seems causal. In a PhD, generalisations send me off for a long walk to Beachy Head.
The best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.
Invariably there is a link between a thin bibliography and a high number of generalisations. If a student has not read widely, then the scholars they have referenced become far more important and representative than they actually are.
I make my postgraduates pay for such statements. If they offer a generalisation such as “scholars of the online environment argue that democracy follows participation”, I demand that they find at least 30 separate references to verify their claim. They soon stop making generalisations.
Among my doctoral students, these demands have been nicknamed “Kent footnotes” after one of my great (post-) postgraduates, Mike Kent (now Dr Kent). He relished compiling these enormous footnotes, confirming the evidential base for his arguments. As he would be the first to admit, it was slightly obsessive behaviour, but it certainly confirmed the scale of his reading. In my current supervisory processes, students are punished for generalisations by being forced to assemble a “Kent footnote”.
3. Write an abstract without a sentence starting “my original contribution to knowledge is…”
The way to relax an examiner is to feature a sentence in the first paragraph of a PhD abstract that begins: “My original contribution to knowledge is…” If students cannot compress their argument and research findings into a single statement, then it can signify flabbiness in their method, theory or structure. It is an awful moment for examiners when they – desperately – try to find an original contribution to knowledge through a shapeless methods chapter or loose literature review. If examiners cannot pinpoint the original contribution, they have no choice but to award the script an MPhil.
The key is to make it easy for examiners. In the second sentence of the abstract, ensure that an original contribution is nailed to the page. Then we can relax and look for the scaffolding and verification of this statement.
I once supervised a student investigating a very small area of “queer” theory. It is a specialist field, well worked over by outstanding researchers. I remained concerned throughout the candidature that there was too much restatement of other academics’ work. The scholarship is of high quality and does not leave much space for new interpretations.
Finally, we located a clear section in one chapter that was original. He signalled it in the abstract. He highlighted it in the introduction. He stressed the importance of this insight in the chapter itself and restated it in the conclusion. Needless to say, every examiner noted the original contribution to knowledge that had been highlighted for them, based on a careful and methodical understanding of the field. He passed without corrections.
4. Fill the bibliography with references to blogs, online journalism and textbooks
This is a new problem I have seen in doctorates over the past six months. Throughout the noughties, online sources were used in PhDs. However, the first cycle of PhD candidates who have studied in the web 2.0 environment are submitting their doctorates this year. The impact on the theses I have examined recently is clear to see. Students do not differentiate between refereed and non-refereed or primary and secondary sources. The Google Effect – the creation of a culture of equivalence between blogs and academic articles – is in full force. When questioned in an oral examination, the candidates do not display that they have the capacity to differentiate between the calibre and quality of references.
This bibliographical flattening and reduction in quality sources unexpectedly affects candidates’ writing styles. I am not drawing a causal link here: major research would need to be undertaken to probe this relationship. But because the students are not reading difficult scholarship, they are unaware of the specificities of academic writing. The doctorates are pitched too low, filled with informalities, conversational language, generalisations, opinion and unreflexive leaps between their personal “journeys” (yes, it is like an episode of The X Factor) and research protocols.
I asked one of these postgraduates in their oral examination to offer a defence of their informal writing style, hoping that the student would pull out a passable justification through the “Aca-Fan”, disintermediation, participatory culture or organic intellectual arguments. Instead, the student replied: “I am proud of how the thesis is written. It is important to write how we speak.”
Actually, no. A PhD must be written to ensure that it can be examined within the regulations of a specific university and in keeping with international standards of doctoral education. A doctorate may be described in many ways, but it has no connection with everyday modes of communication.
5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida
How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.
The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.
I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.
6. Assume something you are doing is new because you have not read enough to know that an academic wrote a book on it 20 years ago
Again, this is another new problem I have seen in the past couple of years. Lazy students, who may be more kindly described as “inexperienced researchers”, state that they have invented the wheel because they have not looked under their car to see the rolling objects under it. After minimal reading, it is easy to find original contributions to knowledge in every idea that emerges from the jarring effect of a bitter espresso.
More frequently, my problem as a supervisor has been the incredibly hardworking students who read so much that they cannot control all the scholarly balls they have thrown into the air. I supervise an inspirational scholar who is trying to map Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid” research over neoconservative theory. This is difficult research, particularly since she is also trying to punctuate this study with Stan Aronowitz’s investigations of post-work and Henry Giroux’s research into working-class education. For such students, supervisors have to prune the students’ arguments to ensure that all the branches are necessary and rooted in their original contributions to knowledge.
The over-readers present their own challenges. For our under-readers, the world is filled with their own brilliance because they do not realise that every single sentence they write has been explored, extended, tested and applied by other scholars in the past. Intriguingly, these are always the confident students, arriving at the viva voce brimming with pride in their achievements. They are the hardest ones to assess (and help) through an oral exam because they do not know enough to know how little they know.
Helpful handball questions about the most significant theorists in their research area are pointless, because they have invented all the material in this field. The only way to create an often-debilitating moment of self-awareness is by directly questioning the script: “On p57, you state that the academic literature has not addressed this argument. Yet in 1974, Philippa Philistine published a book and a series of articles on that topic. Why did you decide not to cite that material?”
Invariably, the answer to this question – often after much stuttering and stammering – is that the candidate had not read the analysis. I leave the question hanging at that point. We could get into why they have not read it, or the consequences of leaving out key theorists. But one moment of glimpsing into the abyss of failure is enough to summon doubt that their “originality” is original.
7. Leave spelling mistakes in the script
Spelling errors among my own PhD students leave me seething. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. The night before they bind their theses, I stare at the ceiling, summoning the doctoral gods and praying that they have removed the spelling errors.
Most examiners will accept a few spelling or typographical mistakes, but in a word-processing age, this tolerance is receding. I know plenty of examiners who gain great pleasure in constructing a table and listing all the typographical and spelling errors in a script. Occasionally I do it and then I know I need to get out more.
Spelling mistakes horrify students. They render supervisors in need of oxygen. Postgraduates may not fail doctorates because of them, but such errors end any chance of passing quickly and without corrections. These simple mistakes also create doubt in the examiner’s mind. If superficial errors exist, it may be necessary to drill more deeply into the interpretation, methods or structure chosen to present the findings.
8. Make the topic of the thesis too large
The best PhDs are small. They investigate a circumscribed area, rather than over-egging the originality or expertise. The most satisfying theses – and they are rare – emerge when students find small gaps in saturated research areas and offer innovative interpretations or new applications of old ideas.
The nightmare PhD for examiners is the candidate who tries to compress a life’s work into 100,000 words. They take on the history of Marxism, or more commonly these days, feminism. They attempt to distil 100 years of history, theory, dissent and debate into a literature review and end up applying these complex ideas to Beyoncé’s video for Single Ladies.
The best theses not only state their original contribution to knowledge but also confirm in the introduction what they do not address. I know that many supervisors disagree with me on this point. Nevertheless, the best way to protect candidates and ensure that examiners understand the boundaries and limits of the research is to state what is not being discussed. Students may be asked why they made those determinations, and there must be scholarly and strategic answers to such questions.
The easiest way to trim and hem the ragged edges of a doctorate is historically or geographically. The student can base the work on Belgium, Brazil or the Bahamas, or a particular decade, governmental term or after a significant event such as 11 September 2001. Another way to contain a project is theoretically, to state there is a focus on Henry Giroux’s model of popular culture and education rather than Henry Jenkins’ configurations of new media and literacy. Such a decision can be justified through the availability of sources, or the desire to monitor one scholar’s pathway through analogue and digital media. Examiners will feel more comfortable if they know that students have made considered choices about their area of research and understand the limits of their findings.
9. Write a short, rushed, basic exegesis
An unfair – but occasionally accurate – cliché of practice-led doctorates is that students take three and a half years to make a film, installation or soundscape and spend three and a half weeks writing the exegesis. Doctoral candidates seem unaware that examiners often read exegeses first and engage with the artefacts after assessing if candidates have read enough in the field.
Indeed, one of my students recommended an order of reading and watching for her examiners, moving between four chapters and films. The examiner responded in her report – bristling – that she would not be told how to evaluate a thesis: she always read the full exegesis and then decided whether or not to bother seeing the films. My student – thankfully – passed with ease, but this examiner told a truth that few acknowledge.
Most postgraduates I talk with assume that the examiners rush with enthusiasm to the packaged DVD or CD, or that they will not read a word of the doctorate until they have seen the exhibition. This is the same assumption that inhibits these students in viva voces. They think that they will be able to talk about “art” and “process” for two hours. I have never seen that happen. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the exegesis and how it articulates the artefact.
Postgraduates entering a doctoral programme to make a film or create a sonic installation subject themselves to a time-consuming and difficult process. If the student neglects the exegesis until the end of the candidature and constructs a rushed document about “how” rather than “why” it was made, there will be problems.
The best students find a way to create “bonsai” exegeses. They prepare perfectly formed engagements with theory, method and scholarship, but in miniature. They note word limits, demonstrate the precise dialogue between the exegesis and artefact, and show through a carefully edited script that they hold knowledge equivalent to the “traditional” doctoral level.
10. Submit a PhD with a short introduction or conclusion
A quick way to move from a good doctoral thesis to one requiring major corrections is to write a short introduction and/or conclusion. It is frustrating for examiners. We are poised to tick the minor corrections box, and then we turn to a one- or two-page conclusion.
After reading thousands of words, students must be able to present effective, convincing conclusions, restating the original contribution to knowledge, the significance of the research, the problems and flaws and further areas of scholarship. Short conclusions are created by tired doctoral students. They run out of words.
Short introductions signify the start of deeper problems: candidates are unaware of the research area or the theoretical framework. In the case of introductions and conclusions in doctoral theses, size does matter.
Hope washes over the start of a PhD candidature, but desperation and fear often mark its conclusion. There are (at least) ten simple indicators that prompt examiners to recommend re-examination, major corrections or – with some dismay – failure. If postgraduates utilise these guidelines, they will be able to make choices and realise the consequences of their decisions.
The lessons of scholarship begin with intellectual generosity to the scholars who precede us. Ironically – although perhaps not – candidatures also conclude there.