The Dissertation and Final Examination


Adopted 1/20/2012


Planning the Dissertation Research

Dissertations conducted in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience (P&N) at Duke University can employ any of the wide variety of approaches to research evidenced in our field. Research designs in psychology and neuroscience take many forms, from purposive laboratory manipulation to field-based naturalistic measurement. They examine thoughts, feelings and behavior using a broad range of levels of analysis, from biological processes to group interactions. They are conducted using both human and non-human animals as subjects. In virtually all instances P&N dissertations are based upon empirical research. On rare occasions, the dissertation can involve the formulation of new theoretical or historical analyses without empirical data. Individual training programs in P&N may have additional guidelines and expectations.  

Students and their committees will evaluate the appropriateness of a dissertation topic based upon its level of contribution to the field. The dissertation methodology will be evaluated based on the scientific rigor of the proposed design and analysis and the feasibility of its successful completion. In addition, the proposed research will be considered in the context of (a) the students’ training and experiences up to and including the dissertation and (b) the student’s career objectives.

Time Limits

According to the Graduate School, "the doctoral dissertation should be submitted and accepted within two calendar years after the preliminary examination [in P&N, the Major  Area Paper, or MAP] is passed.” Should the dissertation not be submitted and accepted within four calendar years after the MAP examination, the student, with the approval of the committee, may petition the Associate Dean of the Graduate School for an extension of up to one year. If this extension is granted and the dissertation is not submitted and accepted by the new deadline, the student will be dropped from candidacy. The student must then pass a second MAP examination to be reinstated as a candidate for a degree. In such cases, the time limit for submitting the dissertation will be determined by the Associate Dean of the  Graduate School and the student’s committee. Credit will not be allowed for a MAP that is six years old at the date of the Final Examination. In cases of exceptional merit, however, the Associate Dean of the Graduate School may extend these limits. Should the six year limit be exceeded, the student's department will submit to the Dean specific requirements for  revalidating credits.

On occasion a student will receive an extension but then fail the Final Examination. In these cases, a second examination cannot be scheduled sooner than six months after the first (another Graduate School rule). This compulsory delay often forces the candidate beyond the six-year limit which renders the MAP examination invalid.  Consequently, the student is faced not only with the pressure of a second (and terminal) Final Examination but with a second MAP as well. Thus, it is wise to plan the dissertation carefully in order to avoid such a circumstance.

The Ph.D. Committee for the Dissertation

It is not unusual to change committee membership between the MAP and the dissertation because faculty availability changes from year to year for a multitude of reasons. Additionally, the rationale for a particular committee structure at one stage of graduate training may not be appropriate to a later stage. It is the student’s responsibility to make adjustments as necessary. Changes in the committee membership should be conducted in consultation with the Faculty Mentor; or, in the case of a change in Faculty Mentor, the student should involve the program director and the DGS. In these guidelines, 'Faculty Mentor' refers to the student’s intellectual advisor and Chair; ‘administrator’ refers to the committee member who will run the meeting and ensure that all procedures are followed. Students should be aware that after the MAP is passed, the committee remains intact.

Therefore, if the student then wishes to substitute new members, s/he must communicate with those to be removed from the committee and inform them of the reasons for change. They will rarely  object, but this is a requirement and they deserve this courtesy.  A written confirmation from the dropped committee member should be sent to the DGS via email. 

As in the case of initial establishment of the committee, any changes in membership involve:

(1) consulting with the Faculty Mentor (or DGS in the case of a new supervisor) about the new committee membership; (2) getting consent of the new members to serve; (3) getting consent of former members to withdraw; (4) requesting of the DGS in writing the new committee structure. This is done on the Committee Approval Form. The DGS will then submit the change form electronically to the Associate Dean of the Graduate School requesting the committee change. Committee changes should be requested two weeks prior to the Final Examination date; However, even with changes each step takes considerable time, so do not put off committee changes when they are needed.  Note that students may  not change their committee composition if s/he fails to pass the Final Examination and elects to take a second examination.

The committee that supervises and evaluates the dissertation must contain a minimum of four members, but the Graduate School allows more than four when such additions seem warranted (see Committee Formation guidelines on the P&N Website). As in the case of the MAP, one member of the committee must be from a related field but outside the candidate's principal area (‘Minor Member’).
In most instances, the administrator of the committee will be selected by the student’s Faculty Mentor but cannot be the Faculty Mentor or the Minor Member.

Writing the Dissertation Proposal

All students must meet with their committee within six months after passing the MAP and at least once in every 12-month period thereafter until a dissertation proposal is submitted or until the Final Examination is passed.

Perhaps the best format for the proposal is that suggested by the National Institute of Health for research grant applications. We also suggest restricting the proposal to 15 single-spaced pages of text (or 30 double-spaced pages), not counting title page, references, tables, etc. The plan should contain an introduction giving the rationale for the study and providing clearly stated objectives and  hypotheses. The design should be outlined with specific statements about the methods to be used, including quantitative methods for data analysis. Although it is very helpful to include preliminary data, it may be counterproductive to collect a large amount of data before meeting with the committee. Consequently a student should consult with her/his Faculty Mentor as to the appropriate time for scheduling this meeting. The proposal meeting should take place at least nine months prior to the Final Examination.

Dissertation Proposal Review

All members of the committee must meet together with the student to review the proposal. An exception can be made only in the case of a member from a distant university in which case the member must join the meeting by teleconference. Notification of the proposal review date must be given to the DGS Assistant to help in locating a room for the proposal review. The dissertation proposal should be distributed to the committee at least 10 days before the meeting. The approval of the dissertation proposal is made by completion of the “Dissertation Project Approval Form" (linked below) and obtaining the signatures of all committee members. This form must be filed with the DGS Assistant.

Note that the proposal meeting is not an exam and there is no “passing” or “failing” of the proposal meeting.  If the committee discussion with the student leads to alterations in the proposal plans, then the committee can ask for changes prior to signing the form. This can take place after the proposal meeting.

Note: Clinical psychology students must have dissertation proposal successfully defended prior to applying for internship (i.e., before October 1.)

The student’s ability to proceed with their work over the summer will often suffer if they are unable to have a dissertation proposal review meeting after the beginning of May. Assuming committee  members are available in the summer months students have the option of having a summer meeting for the proposal without paying a registration fee. However, when possible, these meetings should take place by the end of May or at the end of August right before the semester begins.


Conducting the Research

During data collection, students should regularly consult with committee members, either individually or in a group, to obtain advice and keep them informed of their progress. All research with human subjects must be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). If the studies require the use of animals, an animal use protocol must be filed with the DUIACUC. Students will need approval from these committees before beginning data collection. P&N maintains a Human Subject Pool that may be helpful in research. (For information concerning University Principles and Procedures for Human Subject Research and Human Subject Pool Information, see Appendix V.)

Planning for Publication

Although completion of the dissertation and passing of the Final Examination are the proximate goals of most students, the faculty expects prompt, visible publication of the dissertation research. It is a disservice to oneself and the field not to publish the culmination of what is usually a great amount of thought and effort. Yet many excellent dissertations are never published. The reasons are many and varied, but there seem to be two main, related causes. First, the dissertation often must be rewritten to meet the format requirements of a specific journal. Second, since the student completes the PhD before publication then the publication process competes with the demands of a new job or postdoctoral position.

Given these considerations, we strongly urge students to publish each publishable unit along the way to the dissertation. Students should work with their Faculty Mentor to decide whether the dissertation will constitute one or more publishable papers. As much as possible, the dissertation should be composed of material easily converted into journal articles and/or book chapters.

Writing the Dissertation

The Graduate School provides an online booklet titled, Guide for the Preparation of Theses and Dissertation, although it is revised from time to time so students should be sure to have the most up-to-date guide. It includes references to other guides as well. Students should pay close attention to the format requirements for a Duke dissertation described in the guide. All final dissertation format checks must be approved by the Graduate School.

Students should use the format listed by the Graduate School to compose text, references, tables, figures and citations. The Graduate School’s format is a broader format within which APA style can be written (or other styles such as Chicago, or Turabian). In P&N we use APA style.  


The student must “Apply for Graduation” early in the semester in which she/he plans to receive the degree (e.g., late January for May graduation).  There is no penalty for failing to finish in that semester, but a student cannot graduate without applying. Students must also submit an electronic version of the dissertation approximately two weeks prior to the Final Examination. This Final Examination cannot be held later than mid-April for a May graduation. The timeline is available here:

Final Examination

It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the Final Examination. The scheduling process should begin well in advance of the intended exam date (e.g., 6-8 weeks). If the Final Examination occurs after the semester is over (the beginning of May), the Graduate School expects the student to be registered and pay registration fees in the summer session.  If a student is willing to pay the registration fee to take the exam in the summer, consideration must be given to the faculty. The administrator of the committee must be the negotiator with the committee members about attending a summer exam. It is legitimate for some committee members to be unavailable during the three summer months.

The completed paper must be submitted to committee members at least 10 days before the Final Examination.  Students should ask committee members if they would like a paper copy or an electronic document and provide them with the format preferred. The committee members must email the administrator their vote on whether the the Final Examination should proceed no later than 48 hours prior to the scheduled exam. The Final Examination proceeds as long as there is no more than one dissent among the committee and that dissent is not from the Committee Chair.

The Committee administrator will compile votes and must notify the student and the other committee members no later than 24 hours prior to the scheduled exam whether the Final Examination will proceed. If the paper is not acceptable, the exam is canceled. All committee members are expected to be present for the Final Exam and will arrive at the meeting having closely read the dissertation and having considered the kinds of questions they will ask. In rare instances, a member may need to join via teleconference, but this requires notification and approval from the Associate Dean. The Faculty Mentor must always be present.

At the start of the exam, the student should leave the room to allow the committee members a short discussion period.  When the student returns he/she should give a 20 minute presentation of the dissertation, typically using a small number of slides to illustrate major points.

Amendment Open Session

The first part of the Final Examination will be open to all members of the Duke community and other invitees. Announcement by the administrative member of the time and place of the exam will occur only after the committee has agreed that the exam should proceed (24 hours advanced notice). The student should begin by giving a 40-50 minute presentation of the dissertation, typically using slides  to illustrate major points. Attendees who are not members of the student’s committee will then be invited to ask questions. Then, all invitees will be asked to leave and the committee members will begin their part of the examination.

Committee   members   will   ask   questions   that   stem   from   the   dissertation’s   written document.  The  defense  should  be  focused  on  the  paper,  but  the  student  should  also  be prepared to demonstrate knowledge in the broad field of study. Students are responsible for answering all questions.

The closed oral defense will consist of at least two rounds of questions. In each round, each committee member questions the student with the administrator establishing the order of questioning. Each committee member will be allowed up to 15 minutes of time to examine the student during the 1st round, and up to 10 minutes during the 2nd round.

The time allocated to each committee member is intended to be used primarily by that member; other members may ask brief questions of clarification during that period but extensive questioning by other members is not appropriate. The administrator is responsible for monitoring time and for gently enforcing time limits. After the two rounds of questions, the committee may decide to have an optional 10-15 minute discussion period in which all members may ask questions.

At the conclusion of the exam, the student will leave the room and the committee members will determine whether the candidate has passed or failed the exam. The committee will complete the forms titled “Written Dissertation Evaluation Form” and “Dissertation Final Examination Evaluation Form.”  These forms ask for specific judgments regarding the student’s accomplishments along  several dimensions related to the written paper and oral defense (see attached evaluation form).

The evaluation forms are first completed individually by committee members. Following discussion, individual committee members can change their rating if they wish to do so. The committee members should consider a score of 3 or higher on each of the evaluative dimensions as passing. If there is a shared feeling among committee members that the scores could improve with additional questioning, they may decide to have an additional round of questioning. After the final ratings and questioning, the committee members must vote either “pass” or “fail.” The ratings on both forms are then used to provide the student with feedback regarding the written and oral portions of the examination.  These rating forms should be turned into the DGSA to file as the data are used for SACS reporting.

Note that while the committee can request some minor revisions, the pass or fail vote must be made at the end of the Final Examination. It is then the responsibility of the Faculty Mentor to make sure that any suggested minor revisions are made prior to the dissertation being submitted to the graduate school.

Successful completion of the Final Examination requires at least four affirmative votes and no more than one negative vote. The sole exception to this policy is that a negative vote cast by the Faculty Mentor will mean a failure on the examination. A student who fails the Final Examination may be allowed to take it a second time, but no earlier than six months from the date of the first examination. Permission to take the second examination must be obtained from the Faculty Mentor and from the Dean of the Graduate School. Failure to pass the second examination renders the student ineligible to continue work for the Ph.D. degree at Duke University. The committee may also decide that no re-examination is possible. This occurs via a second vote taken after a failing vote on the first round.