Having worked with countless graduate students nearing the end of their doctoral career over the years, I am often struck by how uninformed they are about the dissertation submission process. This ignorance is generally through no fault of their own; as things often do in graduate school, the details about this part of the dissertation process often slip through the cracks. In fact, many graduate programs fail to provide detailed guidelines or instructions to their students regarding what the process entails. It seems like many committee chairs or advisors assume that, if you’ve made it that far, you already know the steps that you need to take to successfully submit your dissertation. However, without accessible resources or staff members to guide you through the necessary steps of submitting your dissertation, it’s unfair for them to expect you to have a clear understanding of the process.
What process am I talking about exactly? I’m referring to that nebulous period between when your primary reader or chair signs off on your completed dissertation, when you actually defend your dissertation, and when your dissertation is formally approved and accepted by the graduate school. Oftentimes, this period is much lengthier, more time consuming, and more work intensive than students anticipate. Here are a few things you should know before you get to this point. Trust me, it will make life a whole lot easier!
- Time it right (i.e., plan ahead!): Did you know that most programs expect you to submit a full copy of your dissertation to all of your committee members at least a couple weeks before your defense? Yes, that’s right. In fact, some programs require that you submit dissertation copies a full 4 to 6 weeks before your defense date. In a nutshell, that means that you need to plan ahead! Beware if your chair is still editing your final chapters 3 weeks before your dissertation defense. It is your responsibility to gain a clear understanding of the timing requirements in your program and to hold your chair to that timing. If you need to submit your dissertation 2 weeks before your defense, make sure that your chair has returned all final edits to you at least 3-4 weeks (if not more) prior to that date to give you enough time to do the last revisions and prepare the final copy.
- Hard copy or electronic copy: Should you submit a printed hard copy or an electronic copy (PDF file via email) of your dissertation to your committee members? Often this is a matter of preference for each reader or committee member. You might send them an email asking what they prefer. However, you should check with your chair first. If he/she says to provide printed hard copies to each member, make sure to allow enough time for the printing process. Bear in mind that it will likely take a printing company (whether it’s your on-campus printers or FedEx Office) a couple days to print multiple copies of a document that is a couple hundred pages long. Plus, it will be pricey, so make sure to budget for it. And don’t forget to print a copy for yourself!
- Final formatting: Many students don’t realize that the vast majority of universities and graduate programs have their own formatting/layout requirements for dissertations. This is in addition to whatever style guide you’re using (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Don’t be fooled when you hear that your program requires that you follow APA format—the American Psychological Association (APA) does not provide formatting guidelines specifically for dissertations. The school’s guidelines usually come in the form of a dissertation formatting guide—generally a PDF that you can download from the school’s website—that specifies exactly how to format your document for submission. These guides are often painfully detailed, and generally contain rules on layout of front matter (title page, abstract, acknowledgments/dedication, Table of Contents, List of Tables, List of Figures, etc.), as well as margins, spacing, page numbering, use of headers, references, appendices, etc. Depending on how long your document is, formatting it correctly to follow the university guidelines can take hours, if not days. Many students opt for hiring a dissertation formatting service to avoid doing it themselves. This might be a good option for you if you have the budget for it—especially if you don’t have a good command of Microsoft Word (it can get real tricky, what with automated Tables of Contents, headers, and table and figure captions).
- Requested changes from your committee: Bear in mind that, even though you expect to pass your dissertation defense (indeed, most dissertation chairs wouldn’t allow you to schedule your defense unless they’re confident that you’ll pass), that doesn’t mean that your dissertation committee won’t request any revisions. It is actually pretty common for doctoral candidates to receive some minor edits or requests for changes at their defense. In this case, the dissertation committee expects the student to make those changes to their dissertation before they submit the final copy to the graduate school as part of their degree filing. In the case that more major edits are required, the committee chair might ask to see the updated version before he or she approves it for final submission. This is important to know, especially if you’re up against a filing deadline to get your degree within a specific term or year. Make sure to schedule your dissertation defense with enough time before the final filing deadline for that term (check with your graduate school/office of graduate studies for this deadline).
- Required school editors: Many graduate schools/programs require all students to go through a university-approved editor before final submission. Make sure to check if your school requires this—if they do, they will provide you with a list of approved editors. This doesn’t mean that the school pays for the editing service, it just means that you can choose from any editor on the list to get your dissertation edited before you are allowed to submit it. The schools that have this rule in place do so in order to avoid extra work for the graduate school staff who manually review each submitted dissertation for compliance to university formatting requirements. The hope is that, if you get your dissertation edited for style and layout requirements by an outside editor, it is more likely to be approved on first submission and to avoid being returned by the graduate school with a request for edits. Bear in mind, though, that the editors will not do all of the work for you; they will likely return your dissertation with track changes and comments inserted in areas that you need to address (this is standard practice for editors—they often can’t correct all issues themselves, especially when it comes to missing references or insufficient information in table/figure captions, etc.). That being said, you should anticipate having to do some of the revision work yourself before your dissertation is completely ready for submission.
- Returned for further revision: Once you submit your dissertation to the graduate school or office of graduate studies, it still may be returned to you with a request for additional edits. If your school doesn’t require mandatory editing prior to submission, this is even more likely. To avoid this occurrence, some schools (including my own alma mater) require that you schedule a pre-filing appointment where you bring in a hard copy of your entire dissertation and have a staff member go over it manually with you to point out any formatting errors. This gives you an opportunity to fix all of those errors prior to the final filing. No matter the circumstances, if your dissertation is returned for further revision, the fixes may or may not be simple—it depends how closely you followed the university formatting guidelines in the first place. But in addition to formatting, many dissertation reviewers will review for adherence to style (this is particularly the case for APA) and for accuracy of citations. If you have missing references or incorrect citations, they might ask you to fix those. If your dissertation gets returned with requests for very technical edits that are difficult for you to address yourself, you might wish to approach an editor for assistance at that point. Bear in mind that your degree will not be formally filed until your dissertation is approved and accepted by your university, so if it gets returned for additional edits, this will delay your degree filing.
I realize that this is a lot of technical—and some might say nit-picky—information. And believe me, it was draining to write it all out! But I share this in an effort to make the process easier for all of those graduate students out there who haven’t gotten to this point yet. What lesson should you take away from all of this? It’s better to plan ahead and be thorough in advance, rather than regret it later. That means that you should take the time to accurately format your dissertation the first time around. It also means that you should be meticulous about your reference management. I know it’s hard to keep track of so many sources, but it’s in your best interest to be organized from the start so that you’re not trying to retrace your steps months or years later in an effort to find a missing reference.
Even if your dissertation defense still seems far away, take the time to get informed now! The end of the road will be here before you know it, so you might as well know what to expect before it arrives.
Let our PhD editors polish your thesis or dissertation. Learn more here.
Founder & Chief Editor