Formulation of a dissertation proposal is a key step toward completion of the Ph.D. This milestone allows a student’s committee to make three important determinations:
- To assess whether the student’s knowledge of their chosen area and their understanding of relevant literature is adequate to complete a Ph.D.
- To recommend coursework, approaches/techniques and other resources that would facilitate or enhance the proposed work.
- To evaluate whether or not the proposed work, if completed, would constitute an acceptable basis for a doctoral dissertation.
The selection of a Ph.D. committee is an important component of the dissertation proposal process, insofar as the committee is responsible for helping the candidate navigate their path to the Ph.D. The Ph.D. committee approves a candidate’s plan of study, including coursework, teaching, dissertation proposal and the final dissertation. ESE faculty places high value on interdisciplinarity and crosscutting collaborative research. Accordingly, we are firmly committed to letting each student pick a committee that best supports their scholarly and professional development. Ph.D. candidates are not subject to any committee composition rules beyond the Engineering School requirements. The Engineering School rules are as follows: The final dissertation committee must include a minimum of three Engineering School faculty, a minimum of four UVA faculty and a minimum of five total members; one of the UVA members (the “external member”) must be from outside ESE; and at least three of the members must be faculty members with non-zero percentage appointments in ESE. It is ESE policy that graduate students may use a courtesy appointed faculty member as either an internal or external member. It is strongly recommended that the dissertation proposal committee consists of all five faculty members that would be on the final defense; however, it is acceptable for a dissertation proposal committee to have four instead of five members, in which case the fifth person is added before the final defense.
The dissertation proposal consists of both a written document and an oral presentation. The written document should discuss the proposed work, contributions, preliminary results to date, and research timeline in a concise manner. Proposal documents should not exceed 15 single-spaced pages (or 30 double-spaced pages). The bibliography and any appendices (appendices are not required to be read by the student’s committee) are not included in this page limit. Significant departures from these guidelines must be approved in advance by the student’s proposal committee. The written proposal document must be submitted to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the proposal presentation.
All members of the committee evaluate the proposal and generate a preliminary assessment of the candidate’s achievement of the following research skills: a) identifying relevant problems of interest, b) interpreting existing literature, c) generating hypotheses, d) collecting data (via experiment, observation, modeling and/or simulation), e) interpreting results and drawing conclusions, f) communicating results (in oral and written formats), g) answering questions and defending their work, and h) commenting/critiquing on the work of others.
The oral defense of a dissertation proposal is advertised within the ESE and Engineering School. All interested parties are welcome to attend. The candidate gives a brief overview (20 to 25 minutes) of their proposed dissertation research, then takes questions from the audience and their committee. The committee then deliberates and decides whether the candidate has passed. The committee also reviews the student’s transcript and plan of study to recommend additional coursework or other relevant training if necessary. In this way, the emphasis of the dissertation proposal will be on supporting student growth, rather than just deciding who passes/fails. Candidates who fail the exam must take it again within six months. The chair of the candidate’s committee takes the lead in identifying an appropriate format and timeline for the second-chance defense. Students who do not pass on their second attempt are dismissed from the Ph.D. program.
It is the candidate’s responsibility to email the ESE student services coordinators their announcement information which consists of the committee members list with the chair and advisor identified, the meeting date, time, and location information, and the dissertation proposal title and abstract at least two weeks before the proposal. The ESE student services coordinators will provide the chairperson with the relevant forms (Dissertation Proposal and Admission to Candidacy and Dissertation Proposal Assessment) for the proposal defense. It is the candidate’s responsibility to bring their transcripts and plan of study. Each committee member is responsible for completing a research skills assessment and submitting it to the committee chair. The chair collates the feedback, submits an aggregated assessment form to the ESE student services coordinators (who sends it to the Engineering School register) and circulates the feedback to the candidate and their advisor within two weeks of the proposal.
ESE students typically complete their proposal milestone at the end of Year 2, or the end of Year 3 if they enter the Ph.D. without an MS. A revised Recommendation and Certification of Doctoral Advisory Committee form should be submitted to the ESE student services coordinators no later than two weeks before the scheduled proposal if the student has revised their committee since their qualifying exam and/or have added the fourth committee member. Proposal defenses are typically scheduled from March through June.