lab meeting

The doctoral dissertation is the culmination of the graduate research and should be a document of which both student and adviser are proud. A list of practical information about the mechanics of assembling and submitting a dissertation is maintained by the graduate school website.

Summary of key points from the Penn State Graduate School

  • The final dissertation should be given to the committee two weeks before the oral defense
  • The committee should determine whether the dissertation is in its "final" form, with correct and polished content and style, appropriate notes, a bibliography, tables, etc. one week before the oral defense; if it is not, the oral defense will be postponed

How to have a successful dissertation defense

  • Turn in a polished dissertation to your committee. If your dissertation indicates a high level of scholarship, the committee will be ready to discuss the finer aspects of your work with you as a colleague
  • Prepare a talk suitable for a general audience. Make sure you let everyone in the room know why your project is important
  • Take the tips below seriously

Program chair's tips on dissertation preparation


What to include:

  • An overview of your field of study that sets up your key questions and hypotheses. Particularly if you used published works for the data chapters the Introduction and Discussion chapters must demonstrate your scholarship at a level that indicates you are an independent scientist who deserves a PhD. So everything in these chapters should be in your words. See below for information on how to include published work in data chapters
  • Transitions between sections to help make the introduction a logical whole
  • Key questions and hypotheses
  • Figures and diagrams to help your readers navigate the key points. Diagrams should be things that you design to illustrate the points you make. If you have a special reason to use a diagram from someone else's publication you will need to look at the journal policy on inclusion in dissertations and in some cases will need to ask for permission to use it. It is much better to just make your own diagrams as these typically illustrate your specific points better
  • A paragraph at the end of the introduction that previews the rest of the dissertation for the reader, describes chapters and how they relate to published work, and lays out collaborations involved in the work.
  • Tips: use spell and grammar check, keep your thoughts and sentences clear

What not to include:

  • A list of everything you can think of that might touch on your project
  • Spelling errors and long convoluted sentences; this is obviously true for the whole dissertation


  • At the beginning of each chapter set up the question you will be asking. Help your audience to be excited about the hypothesis; this means they need to understand what the hypothesis is and why it is important
  • At the end of each chapter include a conclusion or wrap-up section. What was the answer to your question? Why is it important?
  • Each chapter can be a published or planned paper. If it is published make sure you clearly describe how the chapter relates to the published work (is it the paper word for word? Is it the paper plus some additional data? Is it part of the paper? Which figure comes from which paper? Was the data in a particular figure generated by you or by a co-author. Be specific)
  • If you include the work of others, make sure to clearly acknowledge their specific contributions in the figures
  • Include each figure near the text that describes it to make it easy for your reader to navigate. Include a complete figure legend with each figure
  • Materials and Methods can be included within each chapter or can make up a separate chapter


  • The goal of the last chapter is to position your work in the field. You should say what you have learned and how this has advanced general understanding in the field
  • Include some models to summarize your work. Maybe speculate about what might come next and how your work has led to new questions as well as new understanding

Dissertation timeline

  • Provide your dissertation to your committee two weeks before the defense
  • Provide a complete draft to your advisor one month before your defense

Final tips

  • If you feel writing clearly and using correct wording and grammar might be a problem, please have someone else look through your dissertation first
  • Throughout your dissertation, help guide readers by using introductory sentences to paragraphs and transitions between paragraphs
  • All wording must be your own. No sentences can be derived from anyone else’s work; this is plagiarism and any evidence of plagiarism will result in an unacceptable dissertation, as well as other consequences
  • As you develop an outline, go through it with your adviser to make sure you are on track