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 (

The goal should be to have a full draft of the dissertation completed by October 1 of the sixth year (fifth M.Phil. year). This will enable you to spend the fall of that year on the job market, and to assure interviewers in December that your work is complete apart from some minor revision and the actual defense.

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 Sponsor.  The Sponsor must be a faculty member of the English and Comparative Literature Department. The sponsor 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 Sponsor 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 Sponsor is responsible for the composition of the defense committee: the three members of the student's departmental committee plus two examiners who are typically from other departments. In special circumstances, examiners may be faculty from other universities, in which case the
potential examiner's curriculum vitae must be sent to the Graduate Studies Coordinator for submission to the Dissertations Office for GSAS approval.

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.

If you haven't done so already, you should begin to be active in the wider scholarly discussion beyond campus. This can be done in two ways: through conference participation and through publication of articles and book reviews. These modes of professional interaction are invaluable, but spending too much time working on articles or preparing conference presentations can impede the completion of your dissertation-a hindrance that offers only a marginal benefit. One article and one or two conference presentations per year will amply serve the purpose.

Conference Participation

The department provides some funding to help cover the cost of conference travel for people presenting papers.  The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provides additional funds for post-orals students. To receive such funds, you need to give the Graduate Studies Coordinator a one-page description of your paper, a copy of the letter of acceptance from the conference organizer, and a budget of expected expenses (car rentals, hotel reservations, etc). Please pay attention to the deadlines that are posted for receiving funding. Reimbursements are processed when original receipts are submitted to the department's administrator. Departmental funds for travel to conferences are subject to availability.  In order to make awards available to the greatest number of students possible, priority in making awards will be in inverse proportion to previous support:  the more money you have previously received for conference travel, the lower your priority will be for receiving a new award in any given year.

Your orals examiners and dissertation advisers are excellent resources for advice on what professional organizations to join; by the fourth or fifth year, every graduate student should become a member of one or two relevant leading professional organizations. Even if you are not giving a paper, it is a good idea to begin attending their annual meetings. Apart from such annual meetings, special-topic conferences are constantly issuing calls for papers; PMLA and the MLA Newsletter list many such calls, and the Graduate Studies Coordinator maintains a folder of fliers that come to the department.


Publication is highly desirable--in moderation--and is most useful when you are able to turn an existing draft (seminar paper or dissertation chapter) into an article. Seminar papers will often need to be expanded somewhat, while dissertation chapters will need to be cut down. The MLA Guide to Periodicals gives a very useful listing of journals and their requirements on length and format.

Consult with your advisers about sending out submissions and have them read drafts of articles before submitting them. An article should be sent to one journal at a time, and should be accompanied by a short cover letter on department letterhead. 

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.

GSAS requires students to apply for external funding for their fifth and sixth years. A list of fellowships 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 dissertation seminars; you are strongly encouraged to attend the seminar of most use to you, beginning in the fall of your fourth year.

Dissertation Groups

Dissertation seminars run throughout the year. These seminars meet between 3-4 times a semester and are not for credit. Since students and faculty usually attend, these groups are invaluable ways of getting a great deal of input from colleagues other than your advisers on work in progress. 

The culminating rite of passage of graduate study, the defense should be, and usually is, a very satisfying experience. Your three advisers are now joined by two outside committee members who can read your work with fresh eyes, and if all goes well, the defense will be a congenial two-hour discussion from which you emerge with a new sense of how your work looks to a variety of serious readers and where you might take it next.

Defense Preparation

Applications for defense can be obtained from the department or at the GSAS website and should be filed with the department at least 3 months before your anticipated defense date. This provides ample time for your Sponsor to contact the prospective outside committee members and for all relevant information to be sent to the dissertation office.

After filing your application, make sure your three primary advisers feel that your dissertation is complete and ready to defend. After seeing the final version you intend to distribute, your committee Sponsor must formally certify to the department that it is ready to defend. Once you distribute the dissertation to the five members making up your defense committee, you should contact the Graduate Studies Coordinator to arrange the time, date, and location of the defense.

The registration requirement for the dissertation defense depends on the date of distribution, not on the date of the actual defense. If you distribute before the first day of classes of the new semester, you do not have to re-register.


At the Defense

Bring a copy of your dissertation and a notepad to your defense. Unlike the orals examination, which is purely focused on discussion, the dissertation defense is geared towards helping you think critically about your project, and it is recommended that you take notes to that end.

The two-hour defense ordinarily begins with the Sponsor of your committee inviting you to spend five minutes or so describing the genesis of your project, your thoughts on what you have achieved, and your plans for future developments. The examiners then take turns giving comments and asking questions for 15-20 minutes each. You are then excused for a few minutes while the examiners confer, and then you are brought back in to the room for the result. Your examiners may give you back their copies of your dissertation, if they have made comments in the margins, or may have already made all of their comments in the defense.

Defense Results

Dissertations can receive the following grades:
— PASS (minor revisions): Correction of typos and any fine-tuning the committee may suggest. This is the result in the great majority of cases, and usually involves just a few days' work at most.
— INCOMPLETE (major revisions): Substantial work still to be done within a specified period of time. At the end of that time, a subcommittee of three examiners must read and approve the revised version.
— FAIL: It rarely, if ever, happens that a dissertation whose advisers have approved it for defense receives a failing grade.

Dissertations that pass with minor revisions can also be granted Distinction, if all five examiners agree. Only 10% of dissertations are to receive the grade of Distinction. Following the award of a Pass with minor revisions, the candidate has six months to complete any final revisions and deposit the dissertation at the dissertation office in Low Library. A schedule is set each year for the last date to deposit in time for an October, May, or January degree. Even if you have not actually deposited the dissertation by the time of Commencement, you should be sure to attend the graduate Convocation and share in the champagne celebration that follows.