The final PhD requirement is to write a dissertation and to defend it orally before the committee.

Timing of the Defense

The Graduate School sets deadlines for the application to graduate and the submission of electronic doctoral dissertations. These deadlines are posted one semester in advance (http://gradschool.unc.edu/academics/resources/graddeadlines.html). If a student applies to graduate in a particular semester but does not complete the requirements for graduation that semester, they are allowed to apply again the next semester.

Note that degrees may be conferred in May, August, or December, but there are commencement ceremonies in May and December only. Students whose degrees are conferred in August may participate in the December commencement.

There is a single doctoral hooding ceremony in May of each year, the day before commencement. Students whose degrees are conferred at that time or in the previous August or December may participate in the hooding ceremony. Students that expect to graduate later in the same year are not eligible to be hooded until the following May.

A student must be registered for a minimum of three hours in the semester of the defense. If the defense is held during the summer, the student must be registered for that summer session.

Scheduling the Defense

Scheduling a defense requires:

Prior completion of all other requirements. A defense may not be scheduled until all other requirements have been met, including the publication requirement. This means a first- or co-first-author research publication must be formally accepted prior to scheduling the defense. Exceptions may be granted in special cases (see below).

Approval of the dissertation committee. The dissertation committee must agree that the student has achieved a level of intellectual development that warrants awarding a doctoral degree and has completed a body of research sufficient to write a doctoral dissertation. Approval to move forward must be granted by the committee.  This should happen in a final committee meeting that must be held within four months of the intended defense date. As with other committee meetings, the structure should be determined in advance by the student and the chair; however, it is expected that the student will present their case for being ready to write and defend a dissertation. It is often useful for the student to prepare an outline of the dissertation and any progress toward writing it. The committee should assess the student’s level of intellectual development and research accomplishments before granting approval to schedule a defense. The committee should also set a time frame for the dissertation to be delivered, typically one to two weeks prior to the defense date.

Notification of the student services coordinator. Once a defense date is scheduled, the student should notify the student services coordinator so the oral presentation can be publicized. The defense should not be scheduled at a time when GMB seminars or other major competing seminars (e.g., the departmental seminar for the advisor’s department) are held. In some cases, it might be possible to schedule the defense as part of a seminar series in the home department of the advisor.

Scheduling a Defense Before the Publication Requirement Has Been Met

For many students, the first-author publication is the last requirement to be met before scheduling the defense. Normally, the publication must be accepted prior to scheduling the defense. There may be cases in which students wish to hold the defense and submit the dissertation in time to meet a semester deadline, even when a manuscript to meet the publication requirement has not been formally accepted. In this case, a request must be made in writing to the Director of Graduate Studies. Note that The Graduate School states that completion of all requirements must occur within one semester after the defense (you will not be registered for credit during the semester after the defense). That means that if the defense is held prior to acceptance of the publication and then that publication is not accepted by the end of the next semester, the student will not be allowed to graduate and will be withdrawn from the University. With this caution, any request for exemption must be made in writing and signed by the student, the advisor, and the committee chair. This request must include the desired time frame for the defense and the reason(s) for the request (i.e., why is it important to have the defense prior to completion of other degree requirements?). The status of the publication must also be discussed, according to one of the following scenarios:

a)  If the manuscript has already been submitted and reviewed, include the reviews and the editor’s decision letter in your request, along with a description of the steps being taken to address the reviews, an estimated time frame for resubmission, and whether the manuscript will be submitted as a revision to the same journal or as a new manuscript to another journal.

b)  If the manuscript has been submitted but reviews have not yet been received, provide evidence of submission and an estimate of when reviews are expected. Explain why the defense cannot wait until the reviews are received. Also, discuss the strategy to be taken if the decision is negative (e.g., submission to journal X).

c)  If a manuscript has not yet been submitted, outline the plans for completion of a manuscript, including whether any experiments or analyses remain to be done, the target journal, and the target date for submission. It is anticipated that requests to hold a defense when a manuscript has not been submitted will be granted only in special cases.

The student should send a scan or digital copy of the signed request to the Director of Graduate Studies. The Director will then circulate the request to the Executive Committee for consideration.

The Dissertation

Formatting of the dissertation is dictated by The Graduate School in the Thesis and Dissertation Guide. Students are advised to review the formatting guidelines and submission process early in the preparation of the dissertation.

The content is determined by the student, the advisor(s), and the committee. In general, the dissertation should be a record, as complete as possible, of the research performed by the student during the doctoral training. A typical structure is:

Chapter 1: Introduction and Background. This purpose of this chapter is to put the rest of the dissertation in context: What are the unsolved problems or unanswered questions that the research hopes to solve or answer? It needn’t be a comprehensive review of the topic, but this is also acceptable. In this case, the review should be a scholarly synthesis of prior research in the field rather than a simple listing of what has been published.

Results chapters. These chapters describe the research performed by the student. One or more of these may be manuscripts that are published or are or will be submitted for publication and can include all sections of the manuscript (e.g., Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References), but must be reformatted according to the guidelines in the Thesis and Dissertation Guide.. A footnote or preface should describe the contributions made by the student and by other authors. If previously published or in press, the full citation should be given. Also note that if the paper is previously published, the student is responsible for obtaining permission to include part or all of the manuscript in the dissertation, unless the authors retain copyright (as in open access publishing). Please see the section of Use of Your Own Previously Published Material in the Thesis and Dissertation Guide. Other chapters may include research that will not be published or may be included in a future publication with data from others; the dissertation serves as a useful record of the student’s contributions.

Discussion chapter. This chapter should discuss how the research have moved the field forward, questions that the research raises or makes possible to address, etc.

The Graduate School Handbook states, “The final oral defense will be held only after all members of the committee have had adequate opportunity to review a draft of the doctoral dissertation.” Thus, the completed dissertation must be delivered to the committee at least one week in advance. The committee may request additional time (e.g., two weeks in advance). This should be determined at the final committee meeting. Failure to deliver the dissertation at the required time may result in cancellation of the defense.

Final acceptance of the dissertation requires agreement of a majority of the committee.  All members of the committee must sign Part IV of the Doctoral Exam Report Form. If extensive revisions and edits are requested, any member of the committee may decide to sign this form only after reviewing edits and finding them satisfactory. See the Editing and Filing the Dissertation section below for more on policies governing edits and final approval.

 The Defense (Final Oral Examination)

The defense consists of an oral presentation followed by a defense in front of the committee. The oral presentation is open to the public. The structure and content of this presentation is entirely up the student. In most cases, this takes place immediately prior to the private defense. Other arrangements (e.g., private defense before public presentation) must be approved by the committee, but the two components must be held within 30 days of one another. Per Graduate School policy, all members of the dissertation committee should be present for the defense (telephone or video presence is acceptable). If any cannot make it, they should be replaced or should hold a separate defense.

After the oral presentation and questions from the audience, the student meets with the committee for a private defense. The committee may ask the student to leave the room prior to the defense. They will then ask the student questions about their research, the dissertation, and the field. They will then ask the student to leave the room while they deliberate on the outcome.  The student must receive a Pass from a majority of committee members to pass the defense. All members of the committee must sign the Parts III and IV of the Doctoral Exam Report Form.

 Editing and Filing the Dissertation

Members of the dissertation committee may ask for corrections and modifications to the dissertation. If any committee members determined that the edits are extensive enough to require their approval, their approval and signature on the Doctoral Exam Report Form should be obtained by the student. The chair of the committee must initial a box on the Doctoral Exam Report Form attesting to the student having made the requested edits. After edits are approved and signatures are obtained, the student must upload a final copy of the dissertation to The Graduate School.

Since the dissertation is the final degree requirement, it should not be uploaded until all other requirements have been met. In cases where a student has been allowed to hold a defense prior to formal acceptance of the required publication, the dissertation may not be uploaded until the publica­tion is accepted; the Curriculum may put a hold on the upload until the publication requirement is met.

 Responsibilities of the Student

  • Obtain permission from the committee to schedule a defense.
  • Schedule a defense and reserve a room. Please do not schedule the defense at the same time as Tuesday or Friday seminars.
  • Notify the Student Services Specialist of the date, time, room, and dissertation title at least two weeks in advance so it can be publicized.
  • Distribute copies of the dissertation to members of the committee in sufficient time for them to review it prior to the defense. These can be electronic, but a paper copy should be provided to any committee members who request one.
  • Revise the dissertation as directed by the committee, including obtaining approval of the chair and, if requested, other members of the committee.
  • Submit a properly-formatted final dissertation to The Graduate School.

Responsibilities of Advisor(s)

  • Determine that the dissertation draft is in an appropriate form for committee evaluation.
  • Ensure the requested edits are made by the student (see also Responsibilities of Dissertation Committee Chair.

 Responsibilities of the Dissertation Committee Chair

  • Run the oral defense of the dissertation and the discussion of whether the student has passed and what changes to the dissertation, if any, are requested.
  • Ensure that requested edits are made by the student (a box much be initialed on the Doctoral Exam Report Form attesting that all edits have been made.

 Responsibilities of Other Dissertation Committee Members

  • All committee members should read and evaluate the dissertation. Written feedback should be provided to the student.
  • Prepare questions about the student’s research, the dissertation, and the field.
  • Approve the final version of the dissertation. This may require an additional read of some or all of the dissertation if extensive edits are requested.

Edit History

09/01/2014    Added last paragraph to The Dissertation section, clarifying responsibilities for making edits and obtaining signatures of the committee.

10/01/2014    Moved the paragraph added on 09/01 to the Editing and Filing the Dissertation section and added additional explanation of roles.  Also expanded on roles of different parties with respect to approval of edits.

09/14/2016    Added text about the Graduate School’s policy clarification on the limit of one semester after the defense to complete all program requirements and file the dissertation.