HDFS Dissertation

Having completed research at the MS level, you should have a fairly good idea how to begin your dissertation work. Preparing a quality dissertation proposal takes time, hard work, patience, and perseverance! Support and encouragement from your advisor, your committee, and fellow students will make the process more bearable, even fun!

You may also want to find other resources to support your dissertation work—suggested resources are available here. For example, a dissertator support group composed of fellow dissertators is available on campus though the University Health Services, as are other supportive resources, such as a dissertation writing camp.

The Big Picture – Ph.D. Dissertation Format Options

Dissertations can look different depending on the nature of the student’s research. The structure should be discussed and agreed upon by the student, advisor, and committee. Two suggested models for how the dissertation can be structured are provided below. These models are intended to provide a streamlined path to developing professional products out of the dissertation – beginnings of a monograph or book (Model 1) or manuscripts (Model 2). However, other structures may align with other types of professional products. If an alternative structure is appropriate, then it is up to the student, advisor, and committee to clarify exactly what is required for the dissertation and determine how this can translate into professional products.

Model 1: Five Chapter Dissertation
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Review of Literature
Chapter 3: Methods
Chapter 4: Results
Chapter 5: Discussion and Conclusions

Chapter content is based on the approved dissertation proposal and presents the data and interpretation of findings from the dissertation research. The document may also include preliminary work completed while the student was in the PhD program. The student is expected to be the sole author of the dissertation thesis. The dissertation should be prepared in APA format. There are no page limits for individual chapters or appendices; however, students should consult with their faculty advisor about preferred length of the document.

Model 2: Three Paper Dissertation
Manuscript 1
Manuscript 2
Manuscript 3

Students may choose to write a 3 paper dissertation in which 3 manuscripts are prepared. For each manuscript, all committee members must agree on the focus and aims, the target journal, timeline for submission, and any planned co-authorship. The manuscripts must be distinct from each other, but the student must be able to logically tie them together toward a focused program of research. At least two of the manuscripts must be data-based and report new and original findings. The third manuscript can either be empirical or a critical review of the topic (ending in next directions for field). If choosing a review paper that stems from one’s preliminary examination, the concept would be expected to have been substantially further developed.

The manuscripts can have co-authors, but the student should be the first author on all manuscripts. Students are required to complete the below table to indicate their percent effort, and that of co- authors, on each manuscript in the categories of conceptualization, analysis, and writing. C-authors must attest that the student did the majority of the work and most of the writing. Manuscripts do not need to be submitted to the selected journals prior to graduation, but should be formatted according to the journal guidelines.

Up to two manuscripts already submitted and reviewed or accepted for publication at the time of the dissertation defense may be allowed, at the discretion of the committee, as long as 1) they are substantive to the dissertation, 2) the work was completed while the student was enrolled in the PhD program, 3) the student is the first author of the manuscript, and 4) all co-authors confirm that the student did the majority of the work. If manuscripts already accepted for publication are to be included, the student must obtain written permission from the copyright holder (the journal) to include the material in the dissertation deposited with the Graduate School.

Committee members should expect that journal page restrictions will limit the amount of detail that can be provided in the manuscripts. Instruments, tables, and other relevant documents may be submitted as appendices, but a limit of no more than 30 pages of appendices is recommended.

Committee members might not carefully review all appendix documents in detail. Content and issues that do not fit in the allowable page limit of the manuscripts are appropriate for questions and discussion in the oral defense.

In addition to the 3 papers, the dissertation must include: 1) an Introductory chapter that provides an introduction to the manuscripts and explanation of how they integrate to represent a cohesive body of work; 2) a Discussion including synthesis of main findings across manuscripts, their meaning, and future directions. The Introductory and Discussion chapters should be prepared in APA format.

Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

Students are expected to propose their dissertation within 1-2 semesters of completing their preliminary exam. The purpose of the proposal is to present your committee with your plan for dissertation research. This gives the committee the opportunity to provide feedback and guidance, and for you all to jointly agree on the direction of and expectations for your dissertation work.

Proposal Structure

  • The structure of your proposal should mirror the dissertation structure you are planning to use. All proposals should include the following core components:
    • Background and significance of the topic
    • Specific aims or research questions to be addressed
    • Research design and methods, including planned analytic approach
  • For the five-chapter dissertation, this information is often presented as discrete sections that cover the content of the dissertation as a whole. In some cases, it may be more straightforward to present the introductory and background information, and then present the methods for each aim independently.
  • For the 2-3 paper dissertation, students will often draft an introductory section that contextualizes the dissertation as a whole and describes the aims, followed by background, aims/hypotheses, and methods for each constituent paper.
  • Individual advisors and committees have specific expectations for their students and you should communicate with them to determine the scope and format. They may also provide other suggestions or recommendations as to the structure and format.
  • The following guidelines can be helpful for ensuring that you have included all the relevant information in your proposal – your advisor may give additional or alternative guidance
    • Guidelines for Proposals: Quantitative Research
    • Guidelines for Proposals: Qualitative Research
    • Standardized checklists for study design and publication such as:
      • Observational studies: STROBE
      • Randomized trials: CONSORT
      • Systematic and scoping reviews: PRISMA
      • Qualitative research: SQRQ
    • The amount of information you provide should be adequate for the committee to understand what you plan to do, why you plan to do it, and how you will go about the work. The research design and methods (including data analysis plan), in particular, should be detailed and allow the committee to assess and provide suggestions on feasibility. This is akin to a grant proposal.
    • A typical proposal is 20-25 pages in length.
    • It is advisable that you communicate with your committee throughout the proposal writing process. Plan to meet with committee members in advance to discuss your research plan at the very early stage. It is recommended that committee members read an early or mid-stage draft of your dissertation, although they may opt not to do this. It is expected that you ask the committee members if they would like to read an early/mid-stage draft, and that you check in with your committee members prior to scheduling your defense, to address any potential questions or issues.

At the suggestion of your advisor, students may wish to share drafts of their proposal (or a section) with committee members (see above for committee composition), especially if they have expertise in the content or methods. In most cases, however, your advisor will provide most of the feedback for your proposal. You will probably need to write several drafts before the advisor considers it ready for your committee to read and for you to schedule your proposal meeting. The UW-Madison Writing Center has a webpage on resources for proposal writers that may be helpful as you undertake this process.


Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal Meeting

In scheduling your proposal meeting, you should plan far enough in advance to accommodate everyone’s schedule, and be sure to give your committee at least two weeks to read your proposal before the meeting, unless you negotiate a different timeline. Students should send committee members an electronic version of the thesis and ask whether any member would like a hard copy. If the faculty member would like a hard copy, the student should provide one, using the 2nd floor copy service or their own printer.

The “Proposal Approval Form” should be signed electronically by your committee, and submitted to the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator.

Proposal Meeting Logistics and Recommendations

  • Schedule the proposal defense 1-2 months in advance, as schedules fill up quickly. It can be helpful to confer with your advisor as you decide your timeframe. It is always OK to push the meeting back if you find you are not ready.
  • The proposal defense should be scheduled for two hours to allow adequate time for discussion and advice.
  • Send your proposal to your committee at least one week in advance (preferably two), unless otherwise agreed upon by the committee.
  • Students are often asked to step out of the meeting for a few minutes at the start of the meeting, while the committee members touch base.
  • Students are advised to give a 10 to 15-minute presentation at the beginning of the proposal defense, summarizing the significance of the topic, aims, and methods. This often gives the committee additional insight into the students plans and priorities beyond what they glean from reading the proposal alone.
  • The remainder of the time is for questions and discussion. The goal of this conversation is to advise the student and help set them up for success.
  • At the end of the proposal defense meeting, the student will be asked to leave the room while the committee debriefs and decides on next steps. The student will then be invited to rejoin the meeting and advised of the outcome.
  • After your meeting, expect to make corrections and provide the committee with an update of any crucial changes in your research plan. When revisions are requested by the committee, students are recommended to create a point-by-point response document, similar to a revise-and-resubmit for a journal article, to address each substantive comment or question the committee would like to see addressed.
  • Before beginning data collection, be sure to get your Human Subjects Approval Form submitted and approved to the appropriate campus IRB. See Human Research Protection Program (HRPP). Any research using human subjects must have IRB review before it can be conducted. Note that you will need to submit your project for IRB review even if you expect it to qualify as exempt. You will also need to have taken and passed the CITI Human Subjects Protection Training. If you obtained IRB approval prior to the proposal meeting, be sure to submit any changes to the research plan for IRB approval.

Writing Your Dissertation

The next steps are up to you—conduct your study! This process varies from student to student, so there are no “rules”. Just make sure you stick with it, find ways to motivate yourself if you are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and keep in touch with your advisor! Most students feel that this process requires a lot of self-direction, a high level of organizational skills, perseverance, and discipline, but the joy of discovery and completion is not to be missed!

The UW-Madison Writing Center has several resources for dissertators. They also host regular dissertation writing camps, which students have found to be extremely helpful. The Graduate School also has a compilation of resources, including dissertation writer support groups and workshops.

Ph.D. Dissertation Defense

When you and your advisor feel you have a satisfactory draft of your complete dissertation, you should set up a meeting with your committee for your Oral Defense meeting. The meeting should be scheduled for 2 hours to ensure there is enough time. At this meeting, you’ll present your research and defend your findings. It’s similar to the proposal meeting, but now focuses on the actual conduct of the study, the results, and your discussion of your findings. You should consult with your advisor about what to expect, and how to prepare for the defense. In some departments, other students attend the oral defense meeting, although this has not been customary in HDFS.

Although there are variations in how the defense is conducted, typically you will be asked to make a brief presentation of your study to the committee. Sometimes questions begin before the presentation is finished, other times they begin once the formal presentation is completed. Your committee will ask questions about your dissertation work; questions can cover any part of the project (e.g., theory, literature review, methods, analysis, application of findings). The questions will critique the dissertation in the same way that editors and reviewers critique journal article submissions, and your reply to the committee should be much like a good reply to a journal editor: you should defend and explain your research to the committee if, for example, they have misinterpreted something you wrote, or if you disagree with the committee member; but you should be able to admit weaknesses in your thesis when they are identified, and modify your position as necessary. This is one of the tests of a scholar–to be able to both defend your position and change your position, and have the good judgment to know when to do each. Even though defending the thesis is your responsibility, your committee will help you as needed. They will be happy to restate questions, and may even suggest possible answers. Sometimes they will argue with each other about the best answer, and then ask you to join in the argument! Even though they ask very difficult questions, they are committed to your success. When they identify weaknesses (and they always do), they will make recommendations to make your final, revised thesis the best it can be.

At the end of the defense hearing, you will be asked to step outside the meeting room so that the committee can meet briefly in private to settle on a set of recommended and/or required changes and decide whether or not you have passed. When you return to the room you will learn the results of this brief meeting. You may need to do some additional work, so you may need an additional meeting before your committee members will sign the Warrant. Or they may only request some minor changes and sign at the meeting. It is common that your advisor does not sign the Warrant until all of the requested changes have been made. It is highly unusual to have your dissertation accepted with no changes at all.

After passing your final oral—Celebrate! Then go through the finishing steps outlined below. For more information, see the Graduate School website publications under “Completing Your Degree”.

Ph.D. Warrant and Final Steps

At least 3 weeks prior to your final oral defense meeting, you must contact the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator to fill out the paperwork to order your Final Defense Warrant. See the SoHE forms page to request your warrant. You must have a completed and signed PhD Checklist on file. If your committee did not review and sign the PhD Checklist earlier, you will need to obtain the signatures of your committee.

The Warrant is signed electronically by your committee at or after your final oral defense meeting. All members of the examination committee must sign the Warrant. Your advisor may withhold their signature until all required revisions to the dissertation have been completed to their satisfaction. After your defense, the signed copy of your warrant is uploaded electronically as you deposit your dissertation to the Graduate School.

At your defense, you should request that each of your committee members complete the PhD Dissertation Evaluation on Qualtrics. Electronic (Word/PDF) copies are also available on the SoHE Forms page.

Depositing Your Dissertation to The Graduate School

For information about depositing your dissertation, see here.

The department does require that you provide us with an electronic copy of your dissertation. This should be the final, fully approved version. You should also provide your advisor and other members of the committee with a copy of your final, fully approved dissertation.


School of Human Ecology Graduate Programs Handbook Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Holland. All Rights Reserved.

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