Finishing Your Dissertation

At one point in Der Zauberberg Hans Castorp nearly dies of exposure.  In a way that is said to be typical of this mode of dying, he feels a great deal of joy and internal peace.  Finishing a dissertation is like dying of exposure, and I can only thank those who hastened this pleasant demise.

–from the Acknowledgements section of John McCarthy’s Ph.D. dissertation

As far as content goes, it’s up to you, with advice from your committee.  Here, a bit of advice on externals.

For official requirements, you should consult the Graduate Division page.  This page is informal advice.

1. Herd the cats
2. Be alert about requirements
3. Defense
4. Hooding ceremony
5. Let the world see it
6. Further advice

1. Herd the cats

You’re asking at least four people, your committee members, to read and comment on a long, possibly technically difficult document.  Maximize their reliability and the predictability of their behavior by asking them in advance how they like to do this work.  You can ask:

  • How much time they need to read it
  • How much they want to see preliminary versions of it
  • How much time they think it will take you to revise, taking their comments into account
  • Whether they like to get electronic copy or hard copy
  • Whether they are able to read 10-point type (this becomes an issue if your committee members are older.)
  • When they are out of town and can’t come to your dissertation defense.
  • At what point they are likely to feel ready to sign your title page

It’s usually easier to watch over your committee members and make sure they are with the program when you’re in town–“out of sight, out of mind”.   For long-distance monitoring, a telephone call or skype sometimes works better than email.

2. Be alert about requirements

Department:  In Linguistics, you have to give a Colloquium (not necessarily on the dissertation topic) and do a dissertation defense.  Sometimes these can be waived, but this has to be negotiated in advance.

Library: You have to file your dissertation with the UCLA Library.  The library employs a staffer called the Thesis and Dissertation Advisor, whose job is to make sure that dissertations are formatted in a style acceptable to the library.  This person is normally a real stickler for regulations–so cooperate assiduously, to avoid trouble.  It pays to visit the TADA in advance, bearing a preliminary version of your dissertation, formatted in what you think is the legal way. The TADA will correct your formatting, and hopefully remember you and not give you a hard time if later on you have to file on the last possible day.

You can get full information (regulations, schedule for orientation sessions), from here.  Talking in advance with friends who have filed can also be helpful.

3. Defense

Generally, a defense is scheduled only when the committee members think the dissertation is advanced enough to be defendable; i.e. it’s pretty unusual for anybody to fail, but that is by design …

Establish a format in advance with your chair (e.g., do you want to try to get a limited period without interruptions to give an overview? or do you want the questions to start right away?)

Be aware that a huge amount of the defense time might be spent with you out of the room as your committee discusses you. This is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

Bring title pages.  Try to persuade as many people to sign as possible before they leave the defense room. They need to sign with a black pen.

4. Hooding ceremony

There is a pretty nice ceremony in Royce Hall in June in which Ph.D.’s get awarded their degrees (your family can come, people wear funny medieval robes, your dissertation chair is on the stage and stands up while you get handed your diploma and a ritual hood is laid over your shoulders).

You have to finish pretty early to participate, or else you have to come back and participate the following June.  Finishing in time to participate requires careful herding of the committee.  See #1 above.

5. Let the world see it

You can post your finished dissertation in an informal Web location, then cite it for details as you write up more compact journal articles based on it.  The department provides such a location.  This location is stable, unlike, perhaps, your own Web site if you move about in the earlier stages of your career.

To post, contact a member of the department’s Web Page Committee.  If you want to revise the dissertation, they can re-post it for you later on.

6. For further advice

As always, talk to your chair.  Also, talk to the Department’s Student Affairs Officer.