Dissertation & Examination Guidance

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Find the information and guidance you need regarding research requirements, plan of study, general examinations, dissertation defense and more.

The Department of American Studies offers specific guidance on certain steps of the dissertation and examination processes. For further details beyond those included on this page, consult the Columbian College Graduate Academic Policies Guide.

CCAS Graduate Student Academic Policies


Research and Plan of Study


Research Seminar Requirement

All students must successfully complete at least two approved research seminars offered by American Studies or another GW department, in which they produce an original, article-length (25-35 pages), primary source-based research essay of publishable quality. Students should consult with their advisory committee during the first semester of each year to identify appropriate courses for fulfilling this requirement.

Note: PhD students who matriculated prior to fall 2009 are strongly encouraged to follow the current research requirement but are required to take only one approved research seminar.

Suggested Plan of Study

Each student meets with the departmental director of graduate studies and other faculty members to develop a comprehensive plan of study and establish an advisory committee. The plans of study, including coursework and preparation for the general examination, are tailored as much as possible to match each student’s intellectual interests. Plans may include pertinent courses and fields drawn from other related departments (such as American literature or U.S. political history), as well as comparative courses or fields focused on a non-U.S. culture.

Year One

Complete three graduate seminars each semester, one of which is Scope and Methods, a research seminar

Year Two
  • Complete three graduate seminars each semester, one of which is a second research seminar
  • Identify the faculty members who will be supervising the field exams
  • Assemble reading lists for each field to be examined, in consultation with faculty members from each field exam area
  • Begin reading for the exam during the summer months
  • Take a dissertation research course in the spring
  • Complete dissertation proposal and submit by end of spring semester
Year Three
  • Complete three advanced research and reading courses
  • Complete exams by end of fall semester
  • Prepare to defend dissertation proposal
Years Four and Five
  • Research and write dissertation
  • Meet regularly with dissertation director and readers
  • Complete full first draft of dissertation
  • Continue to register for dissertation research courses each semester, until maximum 72 credits are reached
  • Apply for outside funding if planning to continue to a sixth year; GW funding is not guaranteed for a sixth year
Year Six and Beyond
  • Complete, defend and submit dissertation and all forms necessary for graduation
  • Complete, defend and submit dissertation and all forms necessary for graduation


General Examinations


Students are expected to complete a general examination in three related fields of study of their choice. The exams should be completed over the course of one month by the end of the student’s fifth semester in the program. Students who receive transfer credits for previous graduate study are expected to complete the examination sooner. Students who take an official leave of absence may take it later.

There are no required areas of study for the general examination. In conjunction with faculty advisors, students design their own fields and are encouraged to take advantage of faculty strengths to develop a coherent, interdisciplinary program of study. Students may devote one exam field to the comparative study of a non-U.S. culture, if necessary faculty expertise is available.

Each exam field should be supervised by a different faculty member. On occasion, two professors may agree to jointly supervise a single exam field. In such instances, the student and examiners should have a clear agreement about the scope of the exam.

Reading Lists and Exam Preparation

PhD students must prepare a reading list in preparation for each of the three exams. Reading lists map out the basic material that students ought to have mastered before the exams. It is very important to obtain and study copies of recent examinations in fields of interest, for such a study will suggest better than any general directives what competencies are required for a student to do well on these examinations. Students will need to consult closely with their examiners as they put together their reading lists.

Sample reading lists for general exam fields are available in the American Studies Department office. In general, students should expect to read widely and comprehensively, well beyond the readings assigned as part of their coursework, if they wish to do well on the general examination.

In addition to assembling a reading list, students are advised to register for nine credits (three courses) of Advanced Reading and Research during the fifth semester of study. Each of these three readings courses should be directed toward the completion of one of the student’s exam fields and should be supervised by the student’s designated examiners. Such courses are to be graded on a Credit/No Credit basis; no letter grade is given for reading courses in preparation for the field exams.

Advisory Committee

The advisory committee consists of the director of graduate studies, the student’s advisor and the faculty responsible for preparing the student for each of the three general exam fields. The student will meet with the advisory committee each fall to review progress until the exams are completed. The advisory committee may also be convened at other times, if a student has a special need or problem.

Format and Grading

Each of the three field exams consists of a six-hour written examination. Work is assessed on the scale of Distinction, Satisfactory Pass, Low Pass and Fail. Failure usually constitutes cause for dismissal from the program, although with approval from the advisory committee and dean, a student may be re-examined one time. If the student fails a second time, no further opportunity to take the examination is permitted, and the student's degree candidacy is terminated. Two low passes may also be cause for dismissal.

Deadlines to Pass General Examination

Failure to meet the general examination deadline may result in the termination of a student’s degree candidacy.

  • Students with transfer credits: November 15 of the third year of study
  • Students taking an official one-semester leave of absence: November 15 of the fourth year of study
  • All other PhD students: April 1 of the third year of study


Dissertation Guidance

Dissertation Proposal

PhD students must produce a written proposal in consultation with the dissertation director and readers. Students in their sixth semester of study (earlier for those who received transfer credits) should register for three credits of Advanced Reading and Research, in which they will produce a defendable dissertation proposal under the dissertation director's supervision. The principal elements of a proposal are:

  1. A title, presumably to be used for the dissertation itself
  2. A clear statement of the research problem to be addressed, explaining its importance in the context of existing scholarship. (Which scholars have done most nearly the same thing? Which scholars are most important as models for your work? What do you anticipate your scholarly contribution will be?)
  3. A description of the scope of the project. (What subjects are you studying, with what examples, through what period, in what region, etc.?)
  4. A statement of methodology and theoretical approach. (By what principles are you selecting and delimiting the subject? What means will you use to analyze the materials? What theoretical frameworks do you expect to employ?)
  5. A careful analysis of the primary evidence involved, including nature of the materials, location, limits, sampling techniques, etc.
  6. A provisional outline and description of dissertation chapters. (Step 5 may be incorporated within chapter descriptions, if it makes more sense in relation to your dissertation.)
  7. A selected bibliography of key secondary sources and primary materials.

The department suggests that students find or create a peer writing group to help move forward their dissertation writing process. A strong dissertation proposal may be used to seek fellowship funding from institutions, and a peer group can be helpful in planning and completing grant applications. Sample copies of dissertation proposals are on file in the American Studies Department office.

Defense of Proposal

The proposal defense is nearly always a friendly, productive and intellectually stimulating occasion. Most students find it quite beneficial to meet with their entire dissertation research committee at the same time for the sole purpose of discussing their individual research project and related scholarly endeavors.

The dissertation director decides when the proposal is ready for circulation to the readers and will decide when to schedule the student's proposal defense with the dissertation research committee. At the defense, the student is expected to address any concerns. The student may also ask the director and readers to discuss any points of disagreement that they have among themselves regarding the proposal and project. At the conclusion of the defense, the committee will evaluate the student's proposal and decide whether to accept the proposal (as is, or with revisions) or to ask the student to rework the proposal for a second defense. Once the committee is satisfied with the proposal, they sign a topic approval form.

Final Examination/Dissertation Defense

The director forms an examination committee and schedules the oral defense of the dissertation, also known as the final examination. The examination committee consists of four people, usually including the two dissertation readers, one additional examiner chosen from the American Studies faculty and one examiner from outside the department. The student should provide a copy of the dissertation to all members of the examination committee at least four weeks before the scheduled defense.

The director serves as the student's advocate during the defense; the director does not examine the student. Other members of the faculty, fellow students, friends and family may attend the student's final examination, but they are not allowed to participate in any way. At the conclusion of the oral defense, the examination committee and the student's director meet in confidence to evaluate the student's performance and to make a determination to:

  • accept the dissertation as is,
  • accept the dissertation subject to requested revisions (which will be conveyed to the dissertation director) or
  • find the dissertation unacceptable, requiring the student to obtain permission from the committee for a new dissertation

Once the student has successfully completed the final examination and the examination committee has verified that all requested revisions to the dissertation have been made, the student is required to submit the final, approved, properly formatted, complete dissertation and other required forms electronically to Proquest/UMI. The GW Libraries website offers detailed guidance on how to submit electronic dissertations.