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School of International Service, PhD

The Doctoral Dissertation

Each student must complete and successfully defend a dissertation through which he or she contributes to knowledge that is relevant to international relations. This dissertation is defended orally before the student's dissertation committee and members of the academic community. 

Page Overview:

The Dissertation Committee

Writing the Dissertation

The Dissertation Defense

The Dissertation Committee

Each student is responsible for assembling a dissertation committee. According to the Graduate Academic Regulations, a dissertation committee must meet the following criteria:

  • A committee must consist of at least three members, including a committee chair.
  • All committee members must have received a terminal degree from an accredited institution and at least two of the core members must be full-time, tenure-line faculty members at American University, preferably from the program in which the student is enrolled.
  • The committee chair must be a tenured faculty member in the School of International Service. Untenured, tenure-line faculty may be appointed as co-chairs but must serve with a tenured faculty member.
  • The committee must be approved by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and the University's Dissertation Council.

At the time of the dissertation defense, an outside reader will join the committee to review the dissertation. This outside reader serves an advisory role and is to determine if the dissertation meets general standards in the field, but not necessarily to critique the work in detail. This outside member must have the appropriate terminal degree and must be an expert in the subject matter of the dissertation. However, the outside reader should have no direct association with the student. The outside member is selected by the chair of the dissertation committee. 

A student may have one or more committee members from outside the university. If a student chooses to have a committee member from outside the university, the student is solely responsible for obtaining comments on the dissertation as it progresses, and making arrangements for the external members to be present physically or virtually for the prospectus and dissertation defenses. 

Once a student has assembled a proposed committee, he or she must complete and submit the Doctoral Dissertation Committee Approval Form along with an explanation of each member's qualifications and ability to contribute to the student's dissertation to the Director of Doctoral Studies. Once the Director has given preliminary approval of the committee, the student should email the completed form and the following additional documents to to be reviewed by the Dissertation Council. The required additional documents include the following:

  • An abstract of the dissertation proposal.
  • A copy of relevant research assurance certificates.
  • A rationale for the inclusion of each proposed committee member.

For more on these required accompanying documents, please see the second page of the Doctoral Dissertation Approval Form.

A student may change the composition of a dissertation committee at any time. All changes must be approved first by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and then the University's Dissertation Council. Students should submit the Change in Doctoral Dissertation Committee Approval Form to propose changes to their committees .

In the event that an American University faculty member serving on a dissertation committee resigns his or her position at the University, the Dissertation Council may permit him or her to remain part of the committee. A Dissertation Committee chair who retires or leaves the University before the dissertation is complete may also petition the Dissertation Council to remain on the committee as chair, as a co-chair, or as a member. Should a faculty member remove him or herself from the committee, it is the student's responsibility to identify and confirm a new member.

Writing the Dissertation

Once a student has advanced to candidacy, he or she will register for 9 credits of SIS-899 (Doctoral Dissertation credit) each fall and spring semester until he or she has successfully defended a dissertation, is approved for temporary leave, or is dismissed from the University. While all ABD students will be registered for 9 credits and considered full-time students, this registration will be priced at one graduate credit hour. According to American University's academic regulations, doctoral students are expected to complete all degree requirements within 9 years of beginning the program. Prior to the expiration of that time limit, students may petition for an extension of candidacy. Under compelling circumstance, students may apply for three one-year extensions. Students must petition the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies for each one-year extension. Each extension must also be approved by the SIS Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Graduate Education and the Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Research.

The Dissertation Defense

Once the student has completed their research and written the dissertation, it must be submitted to the student's dissertation committee for review. The final draft of the dissertation must follow the University's formatting and style requirements.

The final draft of the dissertation must be submitted to the committee and outside reader at least five weeks prior to the date of the proposed defense. The committee and outside reader will have at least three weeks to read the dissertation. Within that three week period, the committee will inform the student if the dissertation is ready to move forward to the defense. If revisions need to be made, the student will be provided with a detailed description of what items need to be addressed. If the committee believes that the student may move forward, the date for the defense may be finalized.

The student must find a time when the dissertation committee members are all available and arrange a room for the defense of the dissertation. All committee members must participate in the defense, including members from outside American University, either in person or virtually. It is the student's responsibility to insure that all members are in attendance or technical arrangements are made for those who are participating virtually. Except in extraordinary circumstances, and with the permission of the Director of Doctoral Studies, the student must be present in person at the defense of their dissertation.

Once the date, time, and location of the defense have been finalized, the student must notify the Director of Doctoral Studies no later than two weeks before the defense is to take place. The Director will make a public announcement of the defense. The student must also provide a 300 word or less summary of the topic of the dissertation and its main findings, which will be used in the public announcement of the defense.The format of the dissertation defense is:

  1. The student is given 20 minutes to present a summary of the dissertation findings.
  2. Each committee member is given 15 minutes to question the student about the dissertation (other committee members may ask a question during another member's time if its purpose is to clarify a response or specifically relevant to the issue at hand).
  3. Ten minutes is reserved for questions from other members of the academic community in attendance.
  4. The student and others in attendance will be asked to leave the room while the committee members discuss the merits of the dissertation. A consensus decision determines the result of the defense.
  5. Normally, within 30 minutes the student is asked to return to the room so that the committee chair can inform the student of the outcome of the defense.

The possible outcomes are as follows:

  • Distinction – the dissertation presents a contribution to knowledge that is significantly beyond that normally expected and is approved for submission pending any final adjustments.
  • Pass – the dissertation is approved for submission pending any final adjustments.
  • Provisional Pass – the student will be given specific areas of the dissertation that must be addressed before the dissertation is passed. Revisions may have to be submitted to the entire committee or only to the committee chair. The student will be informed of the follow-up process at the time of the defense.
  • Fail – the student will be informed of the specific deficiencies of the dissertation so that they may move forward with addressing the issues so that the defense process can be initiated again. 

Once a dissertation receives a grade of Distinction or Pass, the dissertation committee must sign the Defense Examination report, which is provided to the dissertation committee chair by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies. The student must also provide two copies of the properly formatted title page of the dissertation for signature by all members of the dissertation committee. After the title page is signed by each member of the dissertation committee, the student must submit both copies to the PhD academic advisor. The student will also need to submit the final dissertation. For questions about formatting or electronic submission please email


Contact the PhD Program Coordinator, at 202-885-6582 or

We encourage prospective candidates to visit the University to meet faculty members and current PhD students. To arrange a visit, contact Graduate Admissions at 202-885-1646 or