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 as a PDF from the Graduate Studies web page. You must submit a brief outline of your dissertation to your committee members and receive verbal approval. The outline is usually 3-5 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. BMB 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: 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—the Instructions mentioned 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Q: Can I insert my published or unpublished manuscripts as chapters?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 - it is already a long enough document. 

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 6 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 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 up to date 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 BMB 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 BMB seminar schedule. Scheduling conflicts with other classes can be a problem and are best resolved through the BMB staff. Plan for a 1.5-hour seminar and 2 to 2.5 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 4th-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 4th-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: The BMB office 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 up to date 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 4th-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 BMB 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 OK 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 2 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 Graduate Studies Office 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: Here is a rough time line to finish. Graduation usually comes about a month after your defense. 

Countdown for Your Defense: 

Week after Defense: