Doctoral Dissertation

The dissertation is expected to be a mature and competent piece of writing, embodying the results of significant original research. Physical requirements for preparing a dissertation (i.e., quality of paper, format, binding, etc.) are prescribed online in the Guide for the Preparation of Theses and Dissertations; a copy is also available in the Graduate School Office. For specific aspects of form and style, students are advised to use Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Eighth Edition, 2013). Special physical problems regarding preparation of dissertations should be taken up with the Assistant Dean for Student Programs.

Graduate students also have the option of submitting their dissertation electronically, to facilitate access to their work through online databases. Students must be registered at Duke during the semester in which they defend their dissertations and therefore must take their final dissertation examination while classes are in session. It is best to schedule a final examination (the so-called "thesis defense") early in the fall or spring semester. Examinations during the summer terms are almost impossible to arrange and should be avoided, if possible. Examinations between semesters are permitted only in exceptional cases.

Checklist for Doctoral Dissertation Defense

  1. Schedule exam during school semester; be sure to register.
  2. File the Intention to Receive Degree Form as required.
  3. Clear date and time with all members of your committee.
  4. Proofread your dissertation and have someone else do so.
  5. Provide committee with reading copies of your dissertation 3 weeks in advance.
  6. Format check a copy of your dissertation through the Graduate School Office several weeks in advance.
  7. Check with the DGSA that the Final Exam Form has been sent to the Graduate School a week ahead.
  8. Pick up Final Exam Certificate from the Graduate School and bring it to the defense.
  9. Come to exam with enough sleep and earn a clear pass.
  10. Have committee sign Exam Form, Dissertations, Abstracts.
  11. Return the original Exam Form to the Graduate School, and bring a copy of the form DGS office.
  12. Make corrections and submit 3 dissertation copies and abstracts.
  13. Pay for microfilming, binding, & (optional) copyrighting.
  14. Have brilliant academic career. Cover Duke with reflected glory.

Process, Forms & Procedures

The supervisory committee for the dissertation usually consists of four faculty, though a committee of five faculty is strongly recommended.  The committee must always have at least two regular History faculty, including the primary advisor, and a majority of its members must be Duke University faculty members.  The committee is chaired by the primary advisor, the person most involved in advising a student's research. If necessary, the committee may vary somewhat from the one that oversees preliminary certification, but changes must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the Graduate School at least 30 days before the examination.

Continuing members of the committee will have a copy of the dissertation prospectus from the oral phase of the preliminary examination. New members should be given a copy as soon as they join the committee. All committee members should be given subsequent revisions of the prospectus and kept informed about the progress of research and writing. The exact use a student makes of the members of this committee will depend on the committee members' availability and the student's needs. Each professor and student works out this relationship in a different way.

External Sources

Within the discipline of History, funding needs and opportunities vary widely. While foreign research is more expensive than most U.S. history work, there tend to be more funding prospects. Students who plan extended overseas research should familiarize themselves with specific opportunities. Advisors and committee members can help with this, as can more advanced graduate students and professors in other disciplines. A bulletin board in the Graduate Lounge displays funding opportunities, but students should also check with the Office of Research Support.

There are diverse foundation and government programs available but many of them are obscure. The dissertation prospectus can sometimes function as the core for a grant application. In searching out prospects, a student should consider all the different categories into which their research might fit in terms of chronology (e.g. Renaissance Studies), geography (e.g. Asian Studies), subject (e.g. Slavery Studies), or methodology (e.g. Medical History), as well as categories into which they themselves might fit that could qualify them for a fellowship (e.g. as an alumna/alumnus of a particular university).

Internal Sources

The Duke Graduate School has an annual program of awards and doctoral candidates in History. However, the resources are limited and the competition is very keen. The number and size of these awards vary slightly from year to year. The most recent information can be found at the Graduate School's Financial Assistance webpage. Other awards are made within the University and opportunities based in other departments where history graduate students are eligible may exist. Watch messages from the DGSA and the DGS, and from the Graduate School and other units of the university.

The History Department administers the Anne F. Scott History Research Travel Award, which is given to several recipients each spring to cover research expenses, such as travel. Applications are open to Duke Undergraduates and graduate students engaged in research relating to women's history. Notice of the competition is circulated by the History Department. Awards range from $200 to $3000.

Each year, the History Department also offers a special teaching stipend to an advanced graduate student to allow them to teach an undergraduate class as Instructor of Record in the field of military history, that is, the historical study of the military, war, and society. The stipend covers the salary for a student serving as Instructor of Record.

Selection Procedures

The Graduate School's selection procedures and schedule change slightly each year, but the following general rules apply to fellowships administered through the Graduate School:

  1. Nominations must come through the Department (the dates vary) so the application process is coordinated through the DGS office.
  2. The DGS Office will inform advisors and students of relevant nomination deadlines, and students are urged to watch carefully for these notices and remind their advisors of them.
  3. Depending on the fellowship, the department either ranks the applicants or makes nominations. For the most prestigious awards, the department is limited in the number of students it can recommend (usually to two). Either the DGS or the faculty members of the Graduate Committee prepare rankings and nominations.
  4. The DGS and DGSA usually ask students to submit applications several weeks in advance of the Graduate School deadline to facilitate the departmental selection process. Usually, students submit to the DGS and DGSA the documentation requested for the specific award, addressed to the Dean of the Graduate School, describing in some detail the nature of their work and the need for support. Keep in mind that this documentation will first be used by the DGS and the Graduate Committee to determine which students go forward to the Graduate School, and then will go forward to the Graduate School where a committee of non-historians will appraise applications from across the university. As always, write clearly and proof read well.
  5. Faculty nominators should be aware that their supporting letters will be read by informed, interested non-historians. Brief letters of mild support do not help much nor do letters that are too long. Recently the Graduate School has strongly urged a limit of one page for all recommendations.
  6. Once the Department has selected its nominees, the Graduate Committee will let them know if specific revisions would be helpful or necessary for the competition.

From time to time other awards are made within the University and it is important to keep an eye out for opportunities based in other departments where history graduate students are eligible. A bulletin board in the lounge and e-mails to the graduate student listserv announce some options that come to the attention of the DGS, but informal grapevines and networks help too.

Prior to or at the start of the semester in which a student intends to defend their completed dissertation, they must file an "Intention to Receive Degree" form with the Graduate School. This should be done at least one month before the dissertation is to be defended and no later than January 25 preceding commencement in May (deadline is June 15 for a September degree and October 15 for a December degree).

Students must file the form in the specific semester they plan to receive their degree. Forms are not transferrable so if plans change and a student is unable to finish, they will need to complete the same form again for the semester they plan to receive their degree in.

The Graduate School provides instructions for preparing to graduate.

The DGS office is required to submit a formal defense announcement to the Graduate School Office at least a full week before the scheduled examination. This notice includes the student's name, dissertation title, and the names of the committee members, as well as the time, place, and date of the exam as agreed upon by the student, the primary advisor, and the committee.

Final Milestone Examination Certificate

After the exam form has been received by the Graduate School and the completed dissertation form has been approved by the Assistant Dean, the Graduate School will issue a "Final Milestone Examination Certificate" Graduate students are responsible for picking up their certificate from the Graduate School and then bringing the certificate to their defense. After the exam, the student is responsible for returning the original paperwork, with the appropriate committee signatures, to the Graduate School and providing a copy to the DGS office.

Most dissertation advisors will want to see chapters as they are drafted and a student should have at least one other committee member read parts of the early drafts as well. The process for commentary and feedback will differ with each dissertation and students should work with their advisors and committee, and when necessary the DGS, to be sure they receive the counsel they need.

A copy of the finished dissertation – complete with table of contents, full citations, page numbers, bibliography, and the works – should be given to each member of the dissertation committee at least two weeks before the final examination. It is important that students provide their thesis to the committee to allow members time to carefully go through it. Given their other obligations, the sooner committee members have access to the student's work, and the better shape it is in when they receive it, the more the student can expect in the way of productive feedback.

The dissertation must be submitted to the Graduate School office at least 14 days before the scheduled final examination and no later than 5:00 p.m. on the deadline date. It should be accompanied by a 350-word abstract; the abstract will later be sent with the dissertation for microfilming to be printed in Dissertation Abstracts International.

Defense Process

The final examination is normally administered by the supervising committee of five members, though a four-member committee is permissible if the primary advisor is present. Only two members of a dissertation examination committee may participate by telephone; that member may not be the chair. The DGS must obtain the permission of the Senior Associate Dean for remote participation at least a week before the oral exam. This oral exam lasts between two and three hours. Since this is a public defense, other persons may attend to listen but they should notify both the student and the chairperson in advance. Questions and discussion concentrate primarily on the dissertation; however, the committee may also ask questions that relate broadly to the major field of study.

Once the exam is over, the candidate and any guests will be asked to leave so the committee can discuss the exam and vote by written ballot as required. If all of the members vote affirmatively, they sign their names on at least the first and second copies of the dissertation and on the title page of the original copy of the abstract, signifying the abstract is suitable for publication. The easiest and least confusing procedure if for the committee member to sign all of the copies. They then sign the final examination certificate, which is returned signed to the student who should promptly turn in to the Graduate Studies Office.

Four of five (or four of four) affirmative votes of those present – including the main supervisor – constitute a pass. The Graduate School Bulletin states that "A student who fails the final examination may be allowed to take it a second time, but no earlier than six months from the date of the first examination. Permission to take the second examination must be obtained from the professor who directed the dissertation and from the Dean of the Graduate School. Failure to pass the second examination renders the student ineligible to continue work for the Ph.D. exam at Duke University."

Revising and Correcting the Dissertation

The committee may accept the dissertation on the understanding that the student will make minor revisions and corrections to be reviewed and approved by their advisor before the dissertation is deposited with the Graduate School. In this case, they will sign the exam certificate and the abstract sheets and dissertation signature pages. The student will then have up to 30 days after the examination to make the requested changes and improvements.

NOTE: this 30-day period for corrections cannot be granted when there are fewer than 30 days left in the semester. In such cases you must check with the Graduate School to determine the deadline for submitting the completed dissertation.

Depositing the Dissertation

After passing the final examination, and making any necessary corrections and improvements, a student takes the original and first two copies (three sets in all) of the finished dissertation, with 3 abstracts signed by the committee, to the Graduate School office.

At this time the student will be required to sign a microfilming agreement and to pay a fee to cover microfilming costs. Duke dissertations are published on microfilm by University Microfilms (Ann Arbor, MI). At this time the student will also be required to pay to have the original and two copies of the dissertation bound in black covers with gold lettering on the spine. The original and one copy go on file in Perkins Library; the other copy goes to your dissertation advisor. Additional copies may be bound through the Duke Bookstore in the Bryan Center. The student may also pay to copyright their dissertation at this time; this is optional but recommended.