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School of International Service, PhD

Overview of the Dissertation Prospectus and Prospectus Defense

Before advancing to candidacy, all PhD students must write and defend a dissertation prospectus that explains the justification for the dissertation research, reviews the relevant literature, identifies relevant theoretical, epistemological, and methodological issues, and provides a detailed research design that includes a timetable for the completion of the work. The prospectus defense is both an assessment of a student's readiness to proceed with the dissertation and an opportunity for the dissertation committee and the Director of Doctoral Studies to provide constructive advice on the project.

The SIS Director of Doctoral Studies is the chair of the prospectus defense. The other examiners include the student's dissertation committee. All members of a student's dissertation committee must be either present at the defense or connected via conference call or Skype. Students are responsible for making any technical arrangements necessary to accommodate any committee member who will not be physically present at the defense. The prospectus defense is open to all members of the academic community and students are free to invite guests.

Students are expected to successfully defend their prospectus no later than the end of their third year.


Before the Prospectus Defense

Once the dissertation committee has approved the prospectus, it is submitted to the Director of Doctoral Studies. This must be done at least three weeks prior to the proposed date of the prospectus defense. The Director of Doctoral Studies will have one week to read the prospectus and consult with the committee chair to determine whether the student may move forward with the defense.

If the dissertation committee and the Director of Doctoral Studies determine that the prospectus is not ready to be defended, the student will be asked to revise and resubmit his or her prospectus. Once a student submits a revised prospectus, his or her committee and the Director of Doctoral Studies will begin a new one week period of reading and consultation. Upon receiving approval to proceed with the defense, the student is responsible for scheduling a time during which all the examiners can be present and reserving a room for the defense.

To reserve a room in the SIS building, email Once the time and place have been confirmed, the student must inform the Director of Doctoral Studies, who will announce the defense to the academic community at least two weeks prior to the scheduled defense.


The Prospectus Defense

The prospectus defense and evaluation takes approximately two hours. The format of the prospectus defense is:

  1. The student is given 15 minutes to present a brief summary of the prospectus. The student should construct the presentation based on the knowledge that the committee has already read the prospectus.
  2. Each member of the prospectus examination committee is given 15 minutes to question the student about the proposed research (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 members of the prospectus examination committee discuss the merits of the prospectus defense. A consensus decision determines the result of the defense.
  5. Normally, within 30 minutes the student will be asked to return to the room so that the Director of Doctoral Studies can inform the student of the outcome of the defense.  

The possible outcomes for the defense are:

  • Pass – the student may go forward with the proposed research.
  • Provisional Pass – the student will be given specific areas of the prospectus that must be addressed before the research can proceed. The examining committee will also determine by whom the revisions must be approved in order for the results of the defense to be changed to Pass.
  • Fail – the student will be informed of the specific deficiencies of the prospectus that must be addressed in a future draft. If a student fails the prospectus defense, he or she must begin the process again.

After a successful defense, a student is expected to update his or her dissertation design as the project evolves. Under most circumstances, the student should simply keep the dissertation committee informed of these developments. The dissertation committee Chair has the discretion to ask for a new prospectus if the research question, method or subject matter change so substantially that the dissertation is a fundamentally different research project from that which was defended. However, students are not required to defend the new prospectus in such instances. The dissertation committee has the responsibility to ensure that the content, scope and method of the new proposal are appropriate for a PhD dissertation. For more information on assembling a dissertation committee and writing and defending the dissertation see:


Contact Kasey Neil Petri, 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