University of Nebraska Medical Center

The Dissertation

Q: How do I organize my dissertation?

A: The document Instructions for Preparation and Submission of the Dissertation will be included in the graduation packet or can be downloaded at the link above. You must submit a brief outline of your dissertation to your committee members and receive verbal approval. The outline is usually three to five pages long and should list the major chapters, headings, and some sub-headings where necessary. (In addition to this brief outline, you may find that a detailed outline will speed up your writing process a great deal. Your committee won’t want to see it, but perhaps your advisor will.)

As far as overall organization, you may wish to model after previous dissertations. Format and style can change, so it is best to use a fairly recent dissertation as a guide. The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology keeps a copy of all its students’ dissertations and theses that you can check out from the office and view. In all cases, you will need an abstract, a table of contents, a list of figures/tables, a list of abbreviations used, an introduction chapter, a methods chapter, research chapter(s), a summary or discussion chapter, and your references.

Q: How do I know how to format my dissertation?

A: The Office of Graduate Studies will provide you with a packet containing important paperwork and forms. Included in this packet is a formatting guide for the dissertation including margins, font size, and information about references, abstracts, and figures (see above). This document will also inform you as to the number of dissertation copies that will be required to turn in and the specifics on the type of paper for those copies. (In addition to these copies, you will need a copy for the department, and you should check with your advisor and committee members, as well as any personal copies that you want. These extra copies do not have to be printed on the heavy, watermarked paper.)

One important feature is formatting of the figures. If your figures are small enough, the figure and its legend can be on the same page as part of the continuous document. However, if the combination of figure and legend are too large to fit on one page, then the figure should be on the right page with its legend facing it on the left page. This will require you to flip the legend page from its normal orientation.

Q: Can I insert my published or unpublished manuscripts as chapters?

A: The short answer is no, but you will use a great deal of your manuscript. The dissertation has "Methods and Introduction" chapters that will cover the entire story, so both of these chapters will be much longer and more detailed than a manuscript. You will need to format your figures and legends to match the Graduate Studies requirements. The main data or "Results" chapters of your dissertation should each cover a project, including a rationale (or a brief introduction), results and discussion relevant to that topic. You will usually have a separate "Conclusions" chapter, which should not re-state or summarize the results, but should synthesize them into a thesis, keeping in mind the big picture. You want to avoid redundancy as much as possible in your dissertation.

Q: Do I include data in my dissertation that I do not otherwise expect to publish?

A: If you have an ongoing project that you will not finish before you graduate, but you want it included in your dissertation, it is fine to include the data in your research chapters. You can ask your advisor and committee members if the project should or should not be included.

Include all data that you need to tell a complete and coherent story that is representative of your contribution to the field. Many faculty members do not react favorably to use of the phrase “data not shown” in a dissertation. Unlike manuscripts, in which negative or peripheral supporting data are not shown or are included in a supplement in order to conserve space, your dissertation should tell a complete story. If it took you six months to determine that there was no effect of a drug on cells, then a summary figure would do that effort justice. Also, your committee knows about your negative results and “failed” experiments, and those experiments helped you to reach your final conclusions and to write the manuscripts. On the other hand, all students could easily argue that if you included every research branch explored, you would never finish writing. You will want to discuss some of these experiments with your advisor and come to a consensus on what data will or will not be shown and discussed in your dissertation. By Graduate Studies policy, if you were not the major contributor, equivalent to first author for a project, the data may not be included in your dissertation.

Q: What do I hand my dissertation in to my committee members before the defense?

A: Four weeks prior to your scheduled defense date, submit a copy of your draft dissertation to each member of your committee. This is a complete copy with all of the chapters, figures, legends, formatted references, table of contents, etc. Your figures should be facing their figure legends and placed in the appropriate pages. Each figure should be placed immediately following the page where it is referenced, not where it fits best in the chapter for formatting purposes. You will want to place each copy in a heavy-duty 3-ring binder and deliver them to your committee members. It is nice to also include post-it flags for your committee members to mark their questions and revisions. You may also include a copy of the dissertation on a CD, but a hard copy is absolutely required.

At the two-week point prior to your defense, you will need to get your advisor’s signatures on a document that states your dissertation is defendable as written. This form needs to be submitted to Graduate Studies before you can defend. It is a good idea to have at least one committee member (most likely your advisor) read and roughly edit your dissertation prior to your submitting it to the entire committee. This will save a lot of revision time and save your committee members’ time on editing.

Q: Can I include any new data or make any changes after I submit my dissertation to my committee?

A: Yes. If they have been kept updated on your research, they likely know if you still have new data to include. They will have to see it and have time to edit it before you can include the data in the final copy of the dissertation. If you change anything major in your dissertation, make sure your committee is informed of the changes.

Q: How do I schedule my defense seminar?

A: The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology office staff will help you schedule your seminar and defense rooms and times. Once you have a date in mind after checking with your committee members, you should schedule the seminar and defense rooms as soon as possible. Bear in mind that your defense will likely not coincide with the standard Biochemistry and Molecular Biology seminar schedule. Scheduling conflicts with other classes can be a problem and are best resolved through department staff. Plan for a one and a half hour seminar and two to two and a half hours for the defense with your committee.

Q: What data do I present at my defense seminar?

A: You do NOT have to present all of your data at the final seminar. In fact, you should not even try. It is a 50-minute seminar that should have an introduction and time for questions. Set it up similarly to your fourth-year seminar and within the time limits of the seminar. Depending on how much data you have acquired, you may wish to present only research that you have performed since your fourth-year seminar. As with any seminar, make sure you present a complete story with introduction, data, and some discussion. You do not have to include a future directions component. Presenting a lot of data with very little description or background only frustrates your audience - tell a story!

Q: What information do I include in the program for my seminar?

A: Department staff will ask you to provide specific information for your program. You can ask to see a copy of someone’s program to get an idea of what to include. Under manuscripts, you can only include accepted and published papers. Submitted articles will not be included.

Q: What should I expect in my oral defense?

A: Every individual’s oral defense experience is different. It depends a lot on your committee members and on your preparedness before the defense date. If your committee members are updated on your research progress and have had plenty of time to review your dissertation, the meeting will go more smoothly. If you have new data to present that was not presented in your seminar, you will likely start with a short presentation. Make sure you have all of your research slides at your disposal during the defense. It is a good idea to have your fourth-year seminar, your final seminar, and any new data with you at the defense.

After you have discussed any research progress, your committee members will likely take turns asking questions that they have marked in your dissertation or that were prompted by your seminar. This will continue until they each have asked whatever questions they feel necessary. Obviously, your level of preparation will directly reflect how well this portion of the defense will go. Some of the questions will be clarification of small matters, while others will be more in-depth questions about your project or the field in general. Know the literature in your field, understand your introduction section (which is much broader than your small research scope), and know your data (methods and results). You (and your advisor) are the experts in this field. The better you are able to demonstrate this fact, the more smoothly your defense will go.

If you get flustered or overwhelmed, it is okay to ask for a moment to compose yourself or even a short break. This is the most important day of your graduate career—you are going to be nervous! Just remember that everyone in that room wants to see you succeed and do well. No one is trying to deliberately stump you or make you look foolish.

When your committee is done asking questions, they will send you out of the room so they can discuss your defense and dissertation. When they are finished, you will be asked to come back in the room and told your results. You will likely be told that you passed and offered congratulations. Your forms will be signed stating that you have successfully completed your oral examination of your dissertation. These forms are available from the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology office—be sure to have these forms prepared and available for the meeting!

Q: Can I bring something to drink or eat with me to the defense?

A: Ask your advisor and committee if it is okay for you to bring food and beverages to your defense. Whether this is appropriate depends on their views and to some extent on when your defense was scheduled - will the lunch hour be involved? Some committee members are very appreciative of food arranged by the student, but others may view it as an inducement toward a favorable outcome.

Q: What happens when the defense is over?

A: Once you have completed the defense, you will need to make any revisions to your dissertation that your committee has requested. It would be a rare occurrence for the committee to request another look at your dissertation to approve these changes—they will probably trust you and your advisor to take care of them. When the revisions are complete, you will need to print the required copies of your dissertation, including rotating the figures where necessary, and take the copies to the library for binding. Two of the copies need to be on the watermarked paper. The others can be printed on different paper if you want. Make sure you keep the special two copies separate and indicate to the librarian which copies are printed on the special paper. You will want to call the library and discuss your binding options and schedule a drop-off time. You will have to get all of the copies of your dissertation to the library, pick out your binding and lettering color, and get a signature indicating that you have completed this task. The Office of Graduate Studies needs this signature before you can graduate.

Q: I’m finally done! What happens at graduation?

A: You will receive notification as to gown fitting times a couple of months before graduation. You need to be fitted and pay for your cap/gown up front at the fitting. There will be cap and gown pick-up dates the week of graduation. You will receive a letter telling you when graduation starts, when you need to be there, where to park, and the room number that you are supposed to go to when you arrive. The May graduation is the longest ceremony because of med school graduates. The December graduation is shorter and the August graduates are included in the December ceremony. At graduation, the Dean of Graduate Studies will declare you as graduated. You will also be hooded by your advisor (or a committee member) and your dissertation title will be read as you walk across the graduation stage.

Q: This is a lot of information! What is the recommended time line for completion of my dissertation work and my defense?

A: Below is a rough time line to finish. Graduation usually comes about a month after your defense.

Dissertation Timeline

12-24 Months Before Dissertation
  • Discuss plans with your advisor about graduation.
12-18 Months Before Dissertation
  • Schedule more frequent meetings of your committee.
  • Develop an experimental outline so you know their expectations and you have defined finishing points.
  • Begin looking for post-graduate career opportunities. Get your CV updated and ready to send out to potential post-doctoral opportunities, companies, job offerings.
6-12 Months Before Dissertation
  • Start writing or at least gathering and organizing your data.
  • Keep looking for job opportunities. Make contacts and perhaps begin interviews, if possible.
Six Months Before Dissertation
  • Get your plans for finishing experiments approved by your committee.
  • Obtain committee approval of your dissertation outline.
  • Start writing for real, beginning with the "Methods and Introduction" chapters.
  • Call the Office of Graduate Studies and discuss dates/forms, etc. Get your forms packet from them and actually look through it!
Three to Four Months Before Dissertation
  • Obtain committee permission to cease experiments (if not done already).
  • Submit the form for graduation and pay your fee.
  • Discuss defense and seminar dates with your advisor and committee.
Two Months Before Dissertation
  • Schedule your seminar and defense dates/times/rooms.
  • Start double-checking formatting issues and requirements from Graduate Studies.
  • Maintain focus on your writing - it is easy to step away from the computer and help with an experiment or some other non-writing activity.
  • As you are completing chapters, submit them to your advisor to be edited.
One Month Before Dissertation
  • Submit your dissertation to your committee members in 3-ring binders with the proper formatting. Give them Post-It flags to mark their revisions.
  • If you are planning to print on the department printer(s), discuss your plans with the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology office staff. They will likely request that you print before or after peak hours or on the weekend. Have someone show you how to fix paper jams, change print or toner cartridges, and how to load paper.
Three Weeks Before Dissertation
  • Fill out as much of the Graduate Studies paper work as possible and put the rest of it somewhere that you won’t forget about it or lose it.
  • Get fitted for you cap and gown and pay for their rental.
  • Start preparing for your defense. Keep up-to-date on the literature. Know your data and understand the field. It may be helpful to re-read your introduction. Some people re-read their textbooks, but that is probably unnecessary.
One to Two Weeks Before Dissertation
  • Practice for your seminar and get final advice from your advisor.
One Week After Dissertation
  • Make revisions of your dissertation as outlined by your committee.
  • Forms/paperwork submitted.
  • Print! You need your two copies for UNMC, the department copy and whatever other copies you need for your committee and yourself.
  • Submit your printed copies to the library.
  • Take your completed checklist to graduate studies by the submission deadline.