Dissertation and Ph.D. degree

Document on the Doctoral Dissertation and the Doctor of Philosophy Degree

University of Nebraska Medical Center

Doctoral Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation is a written document required by universities for the completion of the highest academic degree, the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). The purpose of the dissertation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is to provide written documentation of the research achievements of the student which supports the awarding of the Ph.D. degree by the University of Nebraska. The dissertation also represents a formal and tangible presentation to the University of the most important components of the doctoral studies.

Characteristics of Dissertation
The dissertation represents original research on a defined problem, research for which the student has taken primary responsibility. This research is the culmination of a training process designed to ready the student to do independent research. The dissertation presents proof that the student is ready to be independent, i.e., that the student has the ability to ask questions relevant to some field of inquiry, that the student has developed an appropriate, detailed approach to addressing these questions, and that the student can gather data and interpret them in relation to the current status of the field. The research must therefore be the student's work, not collective research of several people, even if others have contributed in a minor way.

The dissertation must be an original, substantial and significant contribution to the body of knowledge in the student's field. Original indicates that the exact data or the interpretation of these data do not already exist in the knowledge base of the discipline. Substantial reflects the idea that the research presented is important to the field of study, not tangential nor of little relevance. The use of substantial to define a dissertation also reflects that the research presented examines a question in depth. Significant indicates that the research presented by the student provides information that is useful to other scholars in the field. In the ideal situation, the use of significant indicates that the work presented by the student is of such importance that it will alter the thinking or perspective in the student's field of study.


The format of the dissertation varies among universities. The suggested format for the University of Nebraska Medical Center is as follows.

There should be an Abstract that contains no more than 350 words.

There should be a general Introduction that presents a comprehensive and integrated discussion of the literature for the overall dissertation topic. In addition, the Introduction should frame the questions addressed in the dissertation.

A Methods section should describe the experimental procedures in sufficient detail to indicate that the student has a thorough understanding of the techniques used to answer the question and to permit others to replicate the work.

There should be a Results section which presents the research findings of the student in a logical and clear fashion. Unpublished work should be presented in one or more chapters that address well-focused questions or hypotheses. These chapters should include only work performed by the student. If some or all of the student's work has been published, the findings may be rewritten in the form of chapters. These rewritten/reformatted chapters of previously published materials must meet three conditions:

  1. the student must have been FIRST author of the publication(s);
  2. the majority of the work described in the chapter(s) must have been done by the student;
  3. work performed by others in the publications is cited in the Acknowledgement section of the dissertation.

In this regard, publications, even with several authors are encouraged in order to keep the student’s research current in the literature and to allow for recognition of the originality of the student’s work. Reprints of published material will NOT be permitted in the dissertation.

The Discussion section should address the importance of the results, their place in our current knowledge, the conclusions drawn from them, and the future directions or implications suggested by them. The Discussion should tie together the various chapters indicating the relationship of one to another, and their overall contributions to the field of study. Any or all of these sections may have multiple chapters.

Finally, there should be a bibliographic section, documenting the literature cited in the dissertation. The dissertation should be a complete and independent document that can be understood without reference to other materials.

Oral Defense of the Dissertation

Each program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center has a requirement for an oral defense of the dissertation and waiver of this requirement is rare. The defense is a public, formal presentation of the research required to obtain the Ph.D. degree. This defense serves two purposes. It demonstrates to experts in the field, the Supervisory Committee as well as others, that the student comprehends the material presented in the dissertation and related research areas in such detail that the student can defend the work. The second purpose of the defense is to provide opportunity for a public, formal presentation of the work.

Because the faculty is given the privilege by the University of bestowing the Ph.D. degree upon the student and the University is given this privilege by the State, it is appropriate that there be a public presentation of the dissertation work. This presentation should be open to the University at large and to the public.

Doctor of Philosophy Degree

It is the responsibility of every major university to make a concerted effort to prepare independent scientists who wish to pursue careers in either teaching or research. Furthermore, it is essential that this effort be undertaken with the highest academic and ethical standards so that the recipients of the Ph.D. degree accept the values of scientific research and are capable of and committed to maintaining professional standards.

Characteristics of the Ph.D.

The holder of the Ph.D. should be well versed in the knowledge-base of the discipline associated with the degree. Although the mastery of technical elements is essential, the Ph.D. is not a technical degree. It is a degree which represents the mastery of a body of knowledge, including the ability of the individual to contribute new knowledge to that field. Thus a Ph.D. graduate must be capable of understanding and analyzing the original literature in the field, and must demonstrate the ability to develop strategies to answer new questions raised by this analysis. In addition, the holder of the Ph.D. should be skilled in oral and written communication of scientific information.

It is implicit in the awarding of the Ph.D. degree that the recipient has an extensive knowledge of the discipline. As a result, a certain amount of course work is usually required. Nevertheless, the major aspect of work toward the Ph.D. degree is research-related and requires the development of appropriate research skills. These skills include the ability to analyze the literature, the ability to ask questions both inside and outside one's research area, and the mastery of associated technical aspects. Considerable flexibility should be allowed in the manner in which these skills are acquired, based on each candidate's unique interests and research project.

The Ph.D. is not awarded based on time spent in the degree program. It would be inappropriate to compromise scientific standards because of arbitrary deadlines. Neither the courses completed nor the time spent in study can define the requirements for the Ph.D. degree. This degree is earned primarily through the pursuit of excellence in a field of scholarship and requires the demonstrated ability to conduct independent research. At the University of Nebraska Medical Center, students usually require four to six years to complete the work for the Ph.D. degree. The maximum time allowed by the University of Nebraska is seven years.

Full-Time Work Towards the Dissertation

It is preferable for the student to devote full time to the pursuit of the Ph.D. degree. A student should be required to complete at least two years of full-time work towards a doctoral dissertation in order to immerse himself or herself fully in the discipline. The student should dedicate these two years primarily to research efforts. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that the pool of prospective students is changing. There may be non-traditional students who are both interested and qualified to pursue the Ph.D., but who are unable to do so on a full-time basis. Therefore enough flexibility should remain to adapt to the educational needs and requirements of such individuals.


The Graduate College of the University of Nebraska has established a residency requirement for the purpose of ensuring that the doctoral program is reasonably compact, continuous and coherent, and that a substantial portion of the work towards the degree is done at the University of Nebraska or under supervision of the faculty of the University of Nebraska.

To complete work towards the Ph.D. degree, core course requirements may be established by each doctoral program. These core courses represent the minimum didactic course work required for completion in each program. It is the responsibility of the Supervisory Committee to ensure adequate didactic preparation of the student.

Programs may require specific qualifying procedures or examinations which must be completed during the early phases of study, usually by the end of the second complete year of graduate study. Department or program qualifying requirements are specified in individual program guidelines and do not replace or substitute for the Comprehensive Examination.

Supervisory Committee and Program of Study

Upon recommendation of the program's Graduate Committee, the Dean for Graduate Studies appoints a Supervisory Committee of at least four members for each student. Only members of the Graduate Faculty may serve as voting members on the Committee. It is urged that one or more members of the Supervisory Committee be from a field of study different from the major area of interest, particularly when such representation will contribute to the student's program or the overall effectiveness of the graduate program. Faculty from outside the University of Nebraska may serve as ex officio (non-voting) members of the Supervisory Committee; as with other members of the committee, these individuals are appointed upon recommendation of the program Graduate Committee.

Comprehensive Examination and Candidacy

When a student has substantially completed the didactic studies, the student must pass a Comprehensive Examination. The Comprehensive Examination is not a repetition of course examinations, but is an investigation of the student's breadth of understanding in the student's field of study. At the discretion of the Supervisory Committee, or as a program requirement, the student may be required to pass either an oral or written comprehensive examination or both.

Role of the Major Advisor

The major advisor should ensure that the Supervisory Committee meets approximately every six months, but a minimum of once a year. The advisor should also ensure that financial support is available for both the student and the student's research. As Chairperson of the Supervisory Committee, the advisor is responsible for transmitting all minutes of meetings, reports and requests to the Graduate Office. It is also the advisor's responsibility to provide evidence that the dissertation material has been submitted to a peer review journal and that the appropriate number of copies of the dissertation and dissertation abstract are forwarded to the Graduate Office.

Beyond these defined responsibilities, the advisor also has obligations which are of greater importance, but are less clearly defined. The education of the student as a scientist is the major duty of the advisor. This includes ensuring the student acquires the necessary problem-solving skills, proper research techniques, and a knowledge of data analysis. In addition the advisor must instill in the student an understanding of proper scientific methods, the ability to develop and test an hypothesis, and a familiarity with the ethics of scientific research. The advisor should help the student develop written and verbal communication skills and, where appropriate, fundamental teaching skills.

Rights of Students

Graduate students have the right to expect that attainment of the goals specified by the individual graduate program and Supervisory Committee may be completed in a timely manner. Further, all graduate students may rightfully expect graduate courses, especially core courses, to be offered on a regular basis. Students may expect constructive advice from their Supervisory Committee. In the event of a conflict with the student's advisor or members of the Supervisory Committee, the student should take any grievance to the Graduate Committee Chairperson, the Chairperson of the Department, and the Graduate Office, in that order.

Approved by UNMC Graduate Council March 15, 1990.
Revised by UNMC Graduate Council November 17, 1994.
Revised by UNMC Graduate Council May 15, 1997.
Revised by UNMC Graduate Council January 20, 2000.