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Library Dissertation Manual


Dissertation Committee

The Graduate Council of the Faculties, in consultation with the Council of Graduate Deans, has updated the University’s policy about the composition of dissertation committees, effective June 2017. The revised language is intended to clarify University rules about who can serve on a PhD student’s dissertation committee. The new policy has been published in the Pennbook and can be viewed below and at:

—Beth A. Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education 

Dissertation Committee Composition and Meetings

Upon advancement to candidacy, each student has a Dissertation Committee consisting of at least three faculty members (including at least two members of the graduate group). At least half of the members of the Dissertation Committee must be members of the graduate group at the time of appointment to the committee. Faculty who are not members of the graduate group may serve only with the written approval of the graduate group. The authority to approve membership on committees may be delegated to the graduate chair. A graduate group may establish additional requirements, such as a requirement for outside reviewers on the Dissertation Committee. 

The Chair of the Dissertation Committee must be a member of the Standing Faculty in the graduate group. If the Chair of a Dissertation Committee leaves the Standing Faculty before the dissertation is completed, then a new chair from the Standing Faculty in the Graduate Group must be appointed as chair. The Dissertation Committee chair is responsible for convening committee meetings, advising the student on graduate group and university expectations, and assuring the graduate group chair that the group’s requirements have been met. The Dissertation Supervisor may serve as Chair of the Dissertation Committee, but is not required to do so. 

The Dissertation Supervisor is the person primarily responsible for overseeing the student’s dissertation research. A student may have both a Dissertation Supervisor and a Dissertation Co-Supervisor, or two Dissertation Co-Supervisors, if that responsibility is shared equally.

Dissertation Supervisors, and Dissertation Co-Supervisors, must be members of the Standing Faculty at Penn, with special approved exceptions. A member of the Associated Faculty (such as Research Faculty or Adjunct Faculty) may be permitted to serve as a Dissertation Supervisor with prior approval of the Vice Provost for Education on a case by case basis. The Graduate Group Chair may petition the Vice Provost for Education, in advance, for an exception. In such cases, a member of the Standing Faculty in the graduate group must be appointed as the Dissertation Committee Chair.  

Questions about the policy may be sent to



Dissertation Proposal

During the Spring of their third year, students take a dissertation workshop to assist in the preparation of their proposals. Generally one member of the senior faculty and one member of the junior faculty conduct the workshop, which usually meets 7 or 8 times during the Spring semester.

            This workshop is a requirement of the Graduate Program; participation is mandatory. If illness or other circumstances make it impossible to attend, students must petition the GEC with a proposal for an alternative schedule or arrangement. The final draft of the Dissertation proposal is to be submitted to the Graduate Executive Committee for approval by the last day of classes of the spring semester. Earlier drafts of this proposal should be discussed thoroughly with the student's dissertation committee and, at the student's discretion, with other professors in the field. The finished proposal, which has been signed on the first page by all members of the dissertation committee, must then be submitted to the GEC for approval. For AY 2017-18, proposals should be handed in to the Graduate Coordinator, who will circulate them to the full GEC, by 5:00 pm on April 25.

            The GEC can either approve a proposal as it stands, approve it provisionally (requiring the student to make fairly minor modifications or clarifications to be approved by the GEC), or reject it. When the GEC rejects a proposal, it offers detailed and specific suggestions for revision. The student should then work with his or her advisor to carry out these revisions as quickly as possible (late May /early June, and certainly before the end of the summer term). In order to remain in good standing in the English Ph.D. program, all students must have received GEC approval on dissertation proposals by the beginning of Fall term of the fourth year. 

            The length limit for proposals is 2500 to 3000 words, plus bibliography. The proposal ought to set forth, as clearly and concisely as possible, some or all of the following: 

1.     Any background information pertinent to the subject;

2.     A close exposition of the subject and its merits within the field of study;

3.     Some notice of previous scholarship pertinent to the subject;

4.     The proposed method of organizing the subject and a tentative indication of the table of contents;

5.     Any special research needs or problems encountered;

6.     A short, selective bibliography.

If the subject is inter-disciplinary, the student should describe his or her proficiency in the related discipline(s). 



Dissertation Progress

Students are required to meet with their advisors about their progress once a semester. By the end of the fourth year, the student should submit a complete draft of at least one chapter to the full committee. During the fifth year, the student is required to present a draft of another chapter to one of the work-in-progress groups of the departments. By the end of the summer following the fifth year (that is, before the sixth year begins), students should have completed at least three full chapters. All students are expected to complete their dissertations by the end of the sixth year of study.


In accordance with the Provost's Academic Rules for Ph.D.s, each doctoral candidate should meet annually (typically in the spring, though depending on schedules this meeting may also take place in fall) with his or her full committee to review progress-to-date toward the dissertation; confer about publication plans, conferences, research trips, and job market timetables; and generally check in. The dissertation chair should take the lead, once the student has put in the request, in finding a suitable time, date, and location for the meeting. Committee members who are unable to be attend in person should arrange to participate via Skype or conference call.


Students who have been working on dissertations more than five semesters will receive each summer from the Graduate Dean a Dissertation Progress Report form, which they must fill out and return to the Dean by the stipulated deadline (usually October 26). The form is now available online:


Such students should prepare their Progress Reports in consultation with their dissertation advisors, since the advisors will be asked to verify the student's good progress toward degree.


Dissertation Progress Report forms are available in PDF format here.


Students who have not completed the dissertation within five years of their first registration for dissertation tuition (normally fall of the fourth year) will be dropped from full-time student status, or even dropped entirely from the program, unless the advisor, Graduate Chair, and Graduate Dean agree to extend the student's full-time status. If you are approaching this point, you should take care to submit careful progress reports to the Dean, consult regularly with your dissertation advisor, and keep the Graduate Chair up to date on your progress.


Students who entered the program in Fall 1993 or more recently and who have not graduated within five years of their first term on dissertation tuition, will be required to resubmit their Dissertation proposals to the GEC for re-evaluation and reapproval, in order to ensure that their dissertation work continues to satisfy current scholarly standards. If a student's Dissertation proposal is not deemed satisfactory when resubmitted, he or she will be asked to revise it until it is approved; the GEC would also retain the right to drop the student from the program.


Continuous registration as a graduate student is required unless a formal leave of absence is granted. Graduate students considering taking a leave of absence should consult the University's most current Leave of Absence Policy for guidelines and procedures. 


Dissertation Defense

The Dissertation Defense aims to accomplish two goals. First, it will provide an occasion for the presentation and recognition of completed doctoral work. Second, it will furnish the opportunity for discussion and formal evaluation of the dissertation. 


The timing of the defense will be set by the student, in consultation with her Dissertation Committee, at a date at least a month before the deadline for submission of the complete dissertation to SAS.  The chair of the committee, in consultation with the other members, must certify to the Graduate Chair in writing that the dissertation will be ready for the defense. 


The defense will be chaired by the Chair of the Dissertation Committee and the two other members will be in attendance. When necessary, the Graduate Chair may approve a committee member's participation by conference call or input by email, with a different member of the faculty serving as a proxy at the defense.


The defense consists of two parts. Part One (45 minutes) will be open to all faculty and students within the Graduate Group of English. Broader public attendance will be left to the discretion of the student in consultation with her committee. This part will consist of a 15 minute presentation by the student on the main aspects of the argument and the research reported in the dissertation, followed by questions and comments during a discussion period of half an hour. The chair of the dissertation committee acts as moderator and has the discretion to decide whether questions are germane to the topic of the dissertation.


 Part Two consists of a private discussion between the student and committee members (45 minutes). This conversation offers the opportunity for further questions and more detailed discussion, candid evaluation, recommendations for revision, and suggestions for future plans for publication.
Immediately after the conversation, the committee will confer privately to decide whether or not to ask for specific revisions before final submission.  If revisions are deemed necessary, the committee chair will be responsible for evaluating the revisions and approving the dissertation in its final form.  


Dissertation Defenses may be held at any time during the academic year. In consultation with her committee, the student may petition the graduate chair to schedule the defense in June or July.