Political Science

Graduate Dissertation

The dissertation is a substantial work of original scholarship usually ranging in length from 200 to 450 double-spaced pages.

Once coursework and both preliminary examinations are passed, the student is considered to have Advanced to Candidacy and is officially a Ph.D. candidate.


Before commencing work on the dissertation, the Department requires you to write and defend a dissertation proposal, known as the prospectus. The prospectus is written and defended during the third year in the Ph.D. program. Further information pertaining to the prospectus will be disseminated in the prospectus writing seminar (POLS2050 and POLS2051). Students are required to pass at least one preliminary exam before registering for the prospectus course.  

  1. Selection of the Dissertation Committee

    Before beginning work on the prospectus, you should select a principal dissertation advisor to chair your committee. Oftentimes, students begin lining up their principal advisors during their second year in the program; in any event, you should wait no longer than the middle of your fifth semester to have yours in place. Prior to the prospectus defense (see no. 3 below), you must select two additional advisors to serve on your dissertation committee, for a minimum of three committee members. The principal advisor must be tenured and a second committee member must be tenured or tenure-track faculty in the Department of Political Science at Brown unless you obtain an exception from the DGS. One committee member may be from outside the Department of Political Science or outside Brown University.

  2. Drafting of the Prospectus

    In consultation with members of the dissertation committee, you must draft a prospectus that is consistent with the spirit if not the letter of the specifications outlined below ("Contents of the Prospectus"). Prospectus drafts (and later dissertation chapters) should be shared with the entire dissertation committee for consistent feedback and communication. The prospectus course (POLS 2050 and POLS2051) is designed to further explain the components of a prospectus and guide students through the creation of a prospectus. Students should be prepared to read and provide constructive feedback on each other's work in the class.

  3. Defense of the Prospectus

    Formal approval of the prospectus follows after a successful oral defense of the proposal, which shall be advertised in advance and open to Political Science Department faculty and graduate students.

In consultation with the three committee members and the DGS, you are responsible for scheduling the oral defense well in advance (a minimum of ten days beforehand); please do not forget to inform the DGS well in advance, so that the event can be publicized. Normally, the defense will proceed with the participation of all three committee members. In extraordinary circumstances, the defense may proceed with two examination committee members. If fewer than two committee members are able to attend, the defense must be rescheduled. Prospectus defenses are open to Political Science Department faculty and graduate students only.

The format of a typical oral defense is as follows: (1) introductory remarks by the principal advisor; (2) a brief overview of the proposed thesis project by you; (3) questions from the dissertation committee members; (4) questions from the general public, time permitting. The student will make a 10-15 minute presentation of the prospectus and then will be asked questions by any faculty members first and, time permitting, fellow graduate students in the room.

Immediately following the question session, the dissertation committee shall meet in executive session to determine whether the prospectus should be approved. There are three options available to the committee:

The committee decides that the prospectus is acceptable as is, and that you may commence work on the dissertation.
Conditional pass
The committee decides that your prospectus requires additional work prior to final approval. Your principal advisor will provide you with a list of concrete suggestions for improvement and a firm deadline by which you must complete those revisions. The committee will review the updated work and should they approve the prospectus, a second oral defense is not required.
The committee decides that the prospectus is both unacceptable and unsalvageable in its present form, and requires you to undergo the defense process anew. NOTE: Close and frequent consultations between you and your committee prior to the scheduling of the defense will go a long way toward eliminating the chances of an outright fail.

Once the committee has reached a decision in executive session, you will be called back into the room and informed immediately. The principal advisor will also inform the DGS of the committee's decision.

The purpose of what follows is to create a set of shared expectations among both students and faculty about the contents and organization of the prospectus. This statement is not meant to be compulsory, but it should work to the advantage of most students and their advisors.

The prospectus is typically 10-20 pages in length; indeed, the shorter the better, since it is then more easily converted into a formal proposal for external funding. The purpose of the prospectus is to pose a precise question, to set the proposed dissertation topic in an appropriate theoretical context, to allude to the relevant literature, and to describe the proposed research methods. The prospectus is not a legal contract, but a proposal. It is a beginning, the first step in a long journey. As your research progresses, you are almost certain to depart from your prospectus blueprint. Knowledge of this fact should make the exercise a less imposing hurdle. The goal of the prospectus is not to demonstrate that you know all the answers in advance. Rather, it is to establish that the question you intend to address is worth asking, and that your proposed course of action is feasible and potentially valuable in terms of its contribution to knowledge.

A satisfactory prospectus contains four basic components: a question; a statement of theoretical context; a research design; and a working bibliography.

  1. The Question

    "What is the dissertation about?" The prospectus should begin by stating the central question or puzzle that is to be addressed in the dissertation. The question should be phrased precisely, since it will determine what is or is not germane to the dissertation. Whether the puzzle is "Does Marx have a political theory?", "Why are some American regulatory agencies more effective than others?", or "What are the effects of the organization of worker training programs in Sweden, Germany, Japan, and the United States?", it should be stated within the first or second paragraph, and as clearly and succinctly as possible. This is also the appropriate place to identify the general approach adopted in the dissertation: historical, interpretive, quantitative, etc. It is also important to qualify the question in terms of geographical, temporal, and/or substantive scope: What country or countries will be examined, and over what time period? What range of an author's works will be evaluated? What kinds of bureaucratic agencies will be studied? What kinds of effects are at issue (social, economic, political)?

    Treat this as an opportunity to state with clarity and conviction exactly what the core of the dissertation will be. Do not get carried away with the need to qualify here; there is plenty of time for that in Part C. This section should be no longer than two pages in length. If it feels like writing an abstract, then it's probably coming out right.

  2. Statement of Theoretical Context

    This part of the prospectus addresses the frustrating but important question, "so what?" In other words, why should one devote a thesis to the question set out in the preceding section? An effective answer requires two distinct arguments. First, you should provide a well-focused summary of the current debate(s) in your chosen subfield. This will allow your committee to see how you situate your project in the existing theoretical literature. Second, you should outline in precise terms the specific contribution(s) your dissertation will make to the subfield. If you believe you are studying a neglected yet significant subject, specify what of substance has been missed, and how your study will fill the gap. If you are building on an important literature in the field, say what has been achieved, and how your proposal adds to it. If your proposal is a case study or a comparison of multiple cases (countries, policy areas, etc.), this is an appropriate place to justify your selection of cases with reference to theory.

    Five or six pages should suffice for this part of the prospectus, although in cases where the resolution of contending interpretations is an especially important part of the thesis, a bit more detail is appropriate. Whatever you do, do not set out to review the literature in depth here. Instead, write this part on the assumption that both you and your committee are familiar with the field.

  3. Research Design

    This part answers the question, "How will you answer the question set out in Part A?" Part B showed that the game is worth the candle; Part C must show that you will, in fact, finish the contest with some answers in hand. Depending on the field, this part will cover different elements, but all will need to address the following: What do you intend to do, and what does each step contribute to the project as a whole? In what order do you intend to proceed? If your investigation is empirical, what sort of evidence will you consider? If theoretical, what material will you cover and what will you do with it? Are you planning to do library work, field work, and/or quantitative analysis?

    Obviously, you will not know everything you would like about this part at the time you have to defend your prospectus. But you should be able to provide your best, educated guess. In the end, your committee will be looking for evidence that (1) if everything goes according to plan, you will be able to complete a satisfactory dissertation, and (2) there is a reasonable chance that everything will in fact go well.

Six to ten pages should be enough to cover this material. You should try to provide the following sorts of information:

What will be the raw material for your analysis? How do you propose to obtain it? Any information you can provide that pertains to reading, coding, interviewing, observing, and the like is helpful. Feasibility
Is there adequate data or other materials available? Do you know where to find it? Can you obtain it? Do you possess the necessary linguistic and/or quantitative skills, if relevant? Do you have any preliminary hunches or results with which to substantiate your claims?
Selection of Method
If there are other obvious ways to investigate your topic, why is yours preferable?
Chapter Summary
Even at this earliest of stages in the dissertation, it is helpful to construct a chapter-by-chapter organization of the project, however provisional. This will communicate to your committee the relative importance you attach to various aspects of your investigation, and the structure with which you will offer answers to your central thesis.
How long do you expect various parts of your proposed research to take? Is there a part of it which is already substantially completed?
Funding Sources
If appropriate, specify the granting/funding agencies to which you have applied or intend to apply in the near future.
  1. Working Bibliography

    This is self-explanatory, but essential.

Extension of Candidacy

It is University policy that the dissertation should be completed within five years of advancing to candidacy. Since students often require more time, candidacy may be extended in cases where the faculty believes the student will finish and accepts the reasons for delay.

Annually the Graduate School will remind active students whose candidacy is about to expire that they must write to the DGS, explain why they are taking so long, and request an extension if they intend to finish. If the DGS, after consulting with the principal dissertation advisor, believes an extension is justified, s/he will make a formal request to the Graduate School. Extensions to seven years may be granted by the Graduate School; extensions longer than seven years require a vote of the Graduate Council.

Dissertation Defense and Submission

Graduate students are eligible to have degrees conferred, and to receive their diploma, at three different times over the course of the academic year. All deadlines are firm. Please review the Graduate School's Dissertation Guidelines for the most up-to-date information.

Students are required to submit a full draft of the dissertation to their dissertation committee four weeks prior to the expected defense date. If you anticipate problems meeting any of these deadlines, consult the Director of Graduate Studies or the Graduate School.

A complete description of the format of the dissertation can be found on the Graduate School website. All directions from the Graduate School must be followed exactly.

Once your dissertation committee has approved your thesis-in-draft in principle, you should agree on a date for the defense well in advance (a minimum of ten days beforehand) with your committee members and also inform the Graduate Program Coordinator so that the event can be publicized. You are responsible for scheduling the oral defense. You must complete a Dissertation Defense Information Form which must be submitted to the Graduate School at least 2 weeks prior to the defense. Normally, the defense will proceed with the participation of all three committee members in the room. In extraordinary circumstances, the defense may proceed with two examination committee members. If fewer than two committee members are able to attend, the defense must be rescheduled.

The defense is open to the public, which typically includes faculty members and other graduate students. The format of a typical oral defense is as follows:

  1. introductory remarks by the principal advisor;
  2. a brief overview of the dissertation by you;
  3. questions from the dissertation committee members;
  4. questions from the general public, time permitting.

Immediately following the question session, the dissertation committee shall meet in executive session to determine whether the dissertation should be approved. You will be called back in to hear the decision privately, as well as any further recommendations from the dissertation committee. The committee members may address the strengths and weaknesses of your dissertation, your future plans for it, and the direction you expect your work to take in the next few years.