Dissertation Timeline Guide

Proposing, writing, and filing your dissertation:
Procedures and realistic timelines
Program in Applied Linguistics
September 2003 (draft)

A number of students have let us know that they would appreciate some clarification of the processes involved in starting, completing, and filing a doctoral dissertation.  We have laid out in this document the bare essentials for students in our doctoral degree program.  We welcome feedback about the contents, and about further questions that you would like us to address.

1.  The phases of writing a dissertation: Overview

After you have finished the coursework and the comprehensive requirements for the doctoral degree, what remains are the steps required to propose, write and file a dissertation.   We have divided these into four phases, briefly described below.

Phase One:            The Prospectus

In this phase, you will choose a first reader, discuss your ideas for the dissertation with that reader, and submit a draft of the dissertation prospectus (or proposal) to that person for discussion.  You should also begin the process of choosing a second and third reader, and get their responses to your proposal draft.  You should clear the research with the Applied Linguistics Research Review Committee.  Finally, you should schedule the prospectus hearing, which must be attended by at least two of your readers, and submit the final draft of your proposal to all three readers.  After the hearing, when the proposal has been approved, you will submit it to the Graduate Division.

Phase Two:           Research and First Draft Writing

In this phase, you will begin your research and writing.  Depending upon your project, writing may be carried out simultaneously with research, or may follow after analysis of the data.  During this phase you will begin submitting first drafts of key chapters to your first reader, and ideally, to your second and third reader as well.  (Committee members differ in terms of when they want to see the chapters: as a completed draft or chapter by chapter.)  It’s very important at this stage to maintain clear and consistent communication with your committee members. 

Phase Three:         Reader Response and Rewriting

During this phase, your readers will be responding to increasingly polished drafts.  You may still not have finished the conclusions or introduction, but the literature review, theoretical framework, data analysis, and discussion of results will be moving towards their final form.  At this point you will be concerned with responding to comments from readers, rewriting and in many cases rethinking and reanalyzing. When you have a full penultimate draft, the product of comments from your first three readers and your responses to those, you will submit the dissertation draft to the entire five-person committee for their review before the dissertation defense.

Phase Four:           Dissertation Defense and Filing

After the three main readers of your dissertation agree that the dissertation is ready to be defended, you must compose the 350 word abstract.  This must be approved by the first reader and the program director, and is then submitted to the Dean of the Graduate School.  When it is accepted, you may schedule the final dissertation defense.  During the defense, readers may ask for further changes in the dissertation.  When the final approval pages are signed, you may turn the dissertation in and receive your degree.

2.  How long will it take?  Deriving a realistic timeline

Before we discuss the details of timing, we want to point out several important but often overlooked aspects of deriving a realistic timeline for your project.

•The time it takes to write your dissertation is largely a function of three major factors:

(i) the time it takes you to carry out the research;

(ii) the time it takes you to write the first draft and subsequent drafts responding to the readers’ requests for changes; and

(iii) the time it takes your first, second, and third reader to read and respond to the first and second draft, and the time it takes your whole five-member committee to read and respond to the penultimate draft.

•Therefore, any timeline you come up with will have to include the schedules and unexpected delays associated with the research itself; the scheduling and delays associated with your own writing (including your job(s) and family obligations), and finally, the scheduling and delays associated with the five readers.

•Your actual timeline, then, will be uniquely determined by your circumstances.  It is to some extent not completely predictable, and will not be completely under your control.  This may sound somewhat forbidding, but if you enter the process with patience, persistence, and good humor, you may find writing a dissertation to be a wonderful experience.  The faculty have all been through the process (as students and as advisors) and we are committed to helping you succeed.

Students should all take note of a very important expectation: regular meetings with your first and second (and possibly third) reader are required from the very beginning of the process.  From the time you first begin to consider the writing of the prospectus you are expected to meet on a regular basis with your readers.  You must continue meeting with your first and second reader while you collect your data, analyze it, and begin to write.  The process outlined below cannot proceed without regular and frequent meetings to discuss the particulars of your work.  We strongly suggest meeting with your first reader at least once per month.

One more point for your consideration.  Many students, for various reasons, wish to write their dissertation at some place remote from Boston University.  Although we realize that some students may have no choice (for example, international students who must return to their home countries for family, legal or financial reasons), we want to point out that writing a dissertation remotely is extremely difficult.  In the majority of cases in our experience, the dissertation is likely never to be finished.  We would like to discourage you from this course of action. If you must write your dissertation from a remote site, please realize that it will take longer than the suggested time frame given below.  Moreover, you may be required to return for meetings before the final hearing.

3.  Realistic timelines vs. administrative deadlines

The Graduate School provides a list of deadlines for filing the dissertation, from the initial proposal hearing to the final deadline for submission of the finished dissertation.  These deadlines, however, are administrative deadlines only.  They are not meant to serve as realistic working deadlines.

In the table below we provide, for each step in the process, both the official deadline and a realistic target date.  Below we’ll justify our proposed dates in the table by working through a typical dissertation scenario in reverse, starting with the point at which you would hand in the finished dissertation, and working backwards.  In this manner, we hope to show why the dates given below are realistic.

The following time frame is calibrated from commencement.  If you wish to graduate in May 2004, for example, simply count back from that month using the table below to see when you should begin.

Steps in dissertation process Realistic time frame

Official GRS Deadline

(dates given are approximate, and assume a May graduation )

Submit first draft of dissertation prospectus to first reader 22 months before commencement
Submit final draft of dissertation prospectus to first and second readers (and ideally third reader)

Clear project with ethics board(s)

20 months before commencement
Hold prospectus hearing and submit approved dissertation prospectus to GRS 18 months before commencement approx. 7 months before final oral exam

October 1

Gather data

Process and analyze data

Literature review

18 to 12 months before commencement (add 6 months if no pilot work has been done)
Begin submitting drafts of individual chapters to first reader, one by one twelve months before commencement
Submit complete drafts of key chapters to first and second readers nine to seven months before commencement
First draft of entire dissertation given to 1st, 2nd and 3rd readers Seven months before commencement February 2nd before commencement
Make changes in first draft based on comments of 1st, 2nd and 3rd readers Five to six months before commencement (this timing assumes only one major revision; you may need more)
Diploma application Beginning of semester  before commencement February 1st
Penultimate draft of entire dissertation given to all readers. (Applied Linguistics program policy: the 1st, 2nd and 3rd readers must approve abstract and deem dissertation ready for final oral exam) Eight weeks before final exam, 19 weeks before commencement
Submit abstract to program director, and then to GRS for review Four weeks before final oral, 15 weeks before commencement 3 weeks before final oral exam
Schedule final oral exam with GRS Three weeks before final oral exam, 14 weeks before commencement 2 weeks before final oral exam
Final oral exam 11 weeks before commencement April 13th (last possible date)
Make changes to dissertation based on committee requests at final oral exam 11-8 weeks before commencement
Check final formatting and print out on approved paper Eight weeks before commencement
Submit 2 copies of approved and signed dissertation to GRS Five weeks before commencement April 13th approx. 5 weeks before commencement
Total elapsed time: 22 months 8 months

You will notice that our “realistic” date for the prospectus hearing diverges from the GRS deadline by more than a year.  Many doctoral students who have completed all course work and comprehensive exams find themselves thinking, say in April 2003, that it might be possible to file a dissertation the following May, 2004.  The GRS deadline for the prospectus is not until October 2003.  At first glance it seems reasonable. How did we come up with such a radically different timeline?  The best way to understand our realistic target dates is to work step-by-step backwards from the end of the process, Phase Four, to the beginning, Phase One.

4.  Working backwards: how much time will it really take?

Phase Four: Dissertation Defense and Filing

•Handing in the final revised dissertation We’ll start from about April 15 in the year you wish to graduate, assuming a May graduation.  On that day, you must hand in two final copies of the dissertation, perfectly formatted and printed (a process which itself requires up to a week).  At your final hearing, your committee may have given you lots of changes to make. Commonly, committee members request changes that require at least two weeks of full time writing and editing.  If you have a job or any other obligations, you need to leave even more time.  So unless you can devote yourself completely to your dissertation with no distractions whatsoever, you had better schedule your final oral exam at least four weeks before the final deadline.  This means your final hearing (also known as the dissertation defense) would take place no later than March 15th or so, two months before commencement, and one month before the GRS deadline for handing in the dissertation.

•Setting the date for the dissertation defense The Applied Linguistics Program faculty have adopted a practice that ensures no dissertation will be scheduled for a hearing until the first three readers have approved it as “defendable.”  That means that your 1st, 2nd and 3rd reader must have read and approved a penultimate draft of your dissertation before you can schedule the defense.  To schedule the defense you must present the program director with a signed form that indicates that these readers agree that the dissertation is ready.

•Giving the dissertation to the fourth and fifth readers After your first three readers have approved the dissertation as defendable, you must give the entire draft to the fourth and fifth readers and find out about their availability for the dissertation defense itself.  The Graduate Division requires that you schedule the defense at least two weeks before its actual occurrence.  However, your fourth and fifth readers should be given at least one month to read the penultimate, polished draft that your first three readers have deemed to be ready for the defense.  This means that you will be scheduling the hearing at least one month before it will be held. You are responsible for finding a date that all five members of your committee can attend, so it is wise to begin to schedule the hearing (and give the penultimate draft of the dissertation to the entire committee) at least six weeks before you intend to have the final hearing.  This means that you should be handing all five readers your penultimate draft (NOT your first draft) on February 1st or so.  Note that this is almost four months before commencement.

•Submitting the dissertation abstract In addition to securing approval for the defense from your committee you will need to get approval of your 350-word abstract, first from the 3 readers of your core committee and the program director, and then from the office of the GRS Dean.  If you are to have a hearing by March 15th, the Graduate Division requires that you have submitted the abstract of your dissertation for Dean Whitaker’s approval by February 21st at the latest, three weeks before the defense.  Only when it is approved can you schedule your hearing, so GRS requires a three-week interval between the submission of the abstract and the hearing date.

Writing the abstract is not a trivial task.  It must convey to a reader outside of linguistics the theoretical and/or practical context within which your research is meaningful, the research question and its rationale, the methods, findings and significance of your work.  For most students this takes numerous drafts.  We frequently receive abstracts back from the dean asking “Is this really significant?”  or “Do the findings support the interpretation?”  This is undesirable for you and for us.  You must work with your advisor on the abstract, and then submit it to the first three readers on your dissertation committee.  When they have approved it, you  must get approval from the program director before the abstract can be submitted to GRS.  This process alone can take a week or more. Therefore, it is wise to submit the abstract seven weeks before the planned hearing, so that you can deal with delays.

Phase Three: Reader Response and Rewriting

•Constructing the penultimate draft out of the complete first draft Back to the dissertation draft:  how do you know when you have a penultimate draft, ready for the entire five-member committee?  When your first, second, and third readers have commented on a complete draft, and when you have made the changes they requested, then you will have a complete penultimate draft, ready for the entire committee.

How long does it take to go through the process of submitting the first draft and making revisions?  Often the first two or three readers will read isolated chapters for some months, but at some point you must give them a complete first draft of the entire dissertation.  They will respond with requests for revisions of substance and style.  When you have responded to their requests for changes, and your first three readers indicate that your revisions are sufficient, then and only then will you have a draft that is ready for the entire committee.

How long will this complete first draft stage take?  First we must ask how long you should give your first, second and third readers to read the complete first draft.  The answer is at least three weeks,  even if they have read separate chapters before.  Some readers may require a month at busy times of the year.

Then we must ask how long it will take you to incorporate changes to this first complete draft.  If you are a fast writer with lots of time, you can get their changes incorporated—perhaps—in a month.  That means that realistically you must give your first, second and third readers your complete first draft approximately seven weeks before February 1st (the date you give the draft to your fourth and fifth readers for the first time).  Thus we derive the date when you must be handing your first three readers your completed first draft:  December 7th.

But wait!  Your readers may be busy  with finals on December 7th. Following finals is winter break.  Unless you are working under very special circumstances, you cannot expect your readers to devote their winter break to your dissertation. Although many will agree to give you some of their time during the break, this time has usually been allocated by them to their own work and families, many months in advance.  Therefore, it’s better to plan to give them the whole first draft in late October or early November.  That way you may be able to get responses before winter break, and you can spend your vacation rewriting.

Phase Two:  Research and First Draft Writing

•Writing first drafts of chapters What has gone on in the months before you complete your full first draft?  You should be meeting with your first and second (and possibly third) readers regularly, giving them chapters or at least updating them on your progress.  They will give you comments at this stage as well.  A typical dissertation contains six to eight chapters.  If you are aiming to have a full first draft by the beginning of November (see above), and if we assume that you will spend a month on each chapter, including writing it, giving it to a reader and getting back comments, then incorporating the changes, you can see that you must start writing chapters back in June, almost a year before commencement,  at the very latest.

Remember, however, that faculty are not obligated to read chapters during the summer; they are paid for nine months of work, and summer is the time they are supposed to do their own research and writing.  Particularly if your readers are seeking tenure, they must use this time for their own writing or they may lose their jobs altogether.  If your committee members agree to read chapters over the summer, they are doing you a favor.  You should not count on getting lots of feedback during the summer.  This means that you may have to begin your writing earlier than June.

•Collecting and analyzing the data If you start writing chapters in June, then what must come before that?  Depending upon the type of study you plan to carry out, you may need to factor in several months or more for collecting your data, and perhaps more time for analyzing the data.  For the purposes of this hypothetical scenario, let us say that you collect your data and analyze it between December  and the following June, six months.  This part of Phase Two is extremely variable.  Some students have already collected all of their data when they enter Phase Two.  Others take over a year to find, collect and analyze the data, with no writing included.  Figuring out your own timeline for Phase Two is something that you must take up with your readers.  We have chosen to use six months as a reasonable and representative time span for data collection and analysis: yours may take more or less time.

Phase One: The Prospectus

•The prospectus and proposal hearing So when must you have your proposal hearing?  This should be set up before you begin to collect your data.  If you have data to collect, then the hearing could be as early as October, a full 20 months before commencement.  This is a full year before the Graduate Division deadline for the proposal hearing.

The process of writing the dissertation prospectus, or proposal, obviously precedes the proposal hearing.  It is itself time-consuming but important.  You are working out a roadmap for your dissertation.  You should assume that writing your 20-page prospectus and getting it approved will take several months.  Thus, you should begin planning this process in August or so, about 22 months before an intended May commencement.

*   *   *   *   *   *

These scenarios differ quite a bit from the deadlines provided by the Graduate School.  And any experienced writer will tell you that even the ‘realistic’ scenario painted above is optimistic:  it assumes that the process of revision will go smoothly, and that no major life events will intrude on the process.  You will find that some people have written good dissertations in less than the time estimated here, but you will also find that some people have taken much longer.  Forewarned is forearmed, so make your plans accordingly.