The Dissertation

The Dissertation

The culminating product of graduate work, the doctoral dissertation is likely to be by far the longest piece of writing a student has ever done, and it becomes the most important piece of evidence on the academic job market, the fullest and most visible expression of a candidate's intellectual values and accomplishments.

It is useful for you to be aware from the outset what a dissertation is not. It is not a book, though it may eventually become one at a subsequent phase: dissertations are typically shorter and more selective in scope than books. Nor is a dissertation the kind of magisterial summing-up that a scholar can try out following the award of tenure--a speculative or deeply personal work addressed essentially to a very general audience, or to oneself, but not focused on any particular audience of intermediate size.

Generally, the dissertation should accomplish two things:

  • It should address an issue that intrigues you deeply and that gives you an opportunity to work on authors you find compelling and who will repay extended study--not by someone else, but by you.
  • The dissertation also should demonstrate the various skills that assistant professors in literary studies are expected to have: skill at analysis of literary texts, sophistication in historical and/or theoretical framing of issues, and engagement in an ongoing scholarly conversation concerning important issues of current concern.

A typical dissertation runs between 250 and 300 pages, divided into four or five chapters, often with a short conclusion following the final full-scale chapter. There is no set minimum or maximum length, but anything below about 225 pages will likely look insubstantial in comparison to others, while anything over 350 pages may suggest a lack of proportion and control of the topic, and would probably take too long to write. For guidelines on formatting, students should consult the GSAS Dissertation Office website.

Helping guide you through the process of writing the dissertation is your dissertation committee, a group of three faculty members. One member is designated the dissertation Advisor. The Advisor must be a faculty member of the English and Comparative Literature Department. The Advisor is directly responsible for overseeing your schedule, and ensures that regular chapter meetings take place, although the responsibility for scheduling those meetings lies with the student. Your faculty Advisor is also responsible for filling out departmental and GSAS progress reports. The other two members are the Second and Third Reader, faculty members from inside or outside the department who each act as full advisers. All three committee members should review your draft prospectus and will need to sign off on the final version of the prospectus.

As you contemplate potential committee members, you should talk over your ideas with the DGS to help you decide what combination of people will be most useful to you in terms of specific knowledge as well as of general approach and interaction. The dissertation Advisor is responsible for the composition of the defense committee. For rules and regulations relating to the dissertation defense, click here.

The department strongly encourages students to take advantage of our customary practice of having the entire dissertation committee convene to discuss each completely drafted dissertation chapter.  These meetings have the advantage of providing students with coordinated feedback on each dissertation chapter. 

It is the student's responsibility to contact faculty to schedule these meetings, which usually take place in the office of a dissertation committee member.  Typically students email faculty members a draft of a chapter and at that time also begin the process of scheduling a chapter meeting.  (Some faculty may request hard copies of chapter drafts.)  When scheduling meetings, keep in mind that faculty typically take two to six weeks to read drafts of chapters.  Students should consult committee members and the DGS about any significant divergences from this timetable.  Committees vary in terms of how polished they want drafts to be, so seek explicit instruction from your committee members about their expectations.

Dissertation Fellowship

The department makes available to all students who have completed the M.Phil. degree a full-year of funding in either their fifth or sixth year in the program free from any teaching obligation. Students are expected to use this "free year" to make significant progress on their dissertations, aiming to have a full draft done by the end of the year. Students must have completed their prospectus and one chapter to be eligible to take the dissertation fellowship. Students applying for a 6th-year dissertation fellowship must have drafted at least two chapters of the dissertation.  Drafts must be at least 40 pages.

A list of external fellowships, some of which may lead to an additional year of funding, can be found on the GSAS website at

During the extended period of dissertation work, it is important to be in touch with other students as well as your advisers. To this end, the department sponsors several research colloquia; you are strongly encouraged to attend the colloquium of most use to you, and to take advantage of opportunities to discuss drafts of your chapters in a workshop setting.

The department also recommends that PhD candidates take advantage of the services offered by the GSAS Writing Studio, including weekly dissertation writing groups, writing workshops, and one-on-one consulting sessions. Students have also found it helpful to share their work with friends, and to create informal writing groups that meet to swap drafts or simply keep one another on task by writing together. Whatever approach works for you, please remember that you don't need to take on this challenge all alone.

The culminating rite of passage of graduate study, the defense should be, and usually is, a very satisfying experience. For complete information about applying for the defense, and rules and regulations governing the defense, please consult the GSAS dissertations defense website.