Changes to doctoral dissertation policy, effective fall 2017

The Graduate Faculty Executive Committee (GFEC), the governance body responsible for graduate education policy, has approved changes to the rules that regulate doctoral dissertations at UW-Madison (see GFEC 2/10/17 minutes).  These changes are primarily related to doctoral dissertation committee membership and collaboration.  They come after months of work by a committee tasked with examining doctoral dissertation policy, investigation of peer institution practice, feedback from faculty across campus, and discussion by GFEC.

Requirements around dissertations exist to ensure continued high standards for the conferral of doctoral degrees at UW-Madison.  Additional Graduate School and program policies address learning outcomes, minimum number of credits required, and more.

The new policies, summarized below and announced on March 14, 2017, go into effect in fall 2017.  Rationale excerpts below are from the Future of the Dissertation report.

The minimum number of required members on the doctoral committee is four and at least three committee members must be designated as readers. 

In acknowledgement of the increasing pressures on faculty time and effort, the minimum required size of dissertation committees is being reduced from five people to four.  This is consistent with peer institutions’ practice.  Programs are free to require more than the minimum number of committee members, if doing so is needed to enhance rigor or breadth of opinion.

Readers are committee members who commit themselves to closely reading and reviewing the entire dissertation. While graduate programs cannot have fewer than three readers, they may require all members to be readers. The rationale for specifically designating non-reader status is to facilitate faculty participation in dissertations without automatically expecting the level of commitment associated with deeply engaging a PhD thesis. Given faculty workloads, designating a non-reader in some cases may permit faculty participation where engagement would otherwise be impossible.

Dissertations must acknowledge contributions received from other individuals.

Collaboration is already permitted and encouraged; this policy further clarifies current practice.  Much scholarly research involves substantial collaboration. In the absence of a specific policy and established practices, questions of student contribution and even plagiarism sometimes arise.  Students should feel free to collaborate as appropriate (with faculty, students, and others) to advance their scholarship, but should also be prepared to document the nature of that collaboration to ensure that the dissertation committee can confidently assign due credit to the student whose dissertation is being evaluated.

The role of co-advisor or co-chair of the dissertation committee becomes a formal option. 

The informal practice of co-advising is common on campus, and co-advising of dissertation work often provides substantial benefit to students. Given the work required of co-advisors, the common but informal practice of co-advising students is now a formal option, including an opportunity for co-advisors to be designated on dissertation warrants.

These policy changes will be reflected in the Graduate School Academic Policies and Procedures starting this summer (2017).


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