Dissertation Information

Dissertation Requirements: Given the breadth of types of work conducted in the Psychology Department, there is no one-size fits all fully quantitative description of what is required of a PhD dissertation. However, there are broad principles that should be met by every dissertation regardless of things like exact format, number of studies, methods employed, length of the final document, etc.

These include:

  1. The final product should demonstrate original and independent thought and investigation. In short, it should be clear that the student played the primary role in all aspects of the dissertation – from selecting an important topic, to generating hypotheses, to designing studies/methods/analytic procedures, to interpreting the outcomes, to writing up/disseminating the results. Output where, for instance, an advisor or labmate played a major role (e.g., wrote most of the text, designed the experiment or conducted the analyses, etc.) will likely not meet this principle. 
  2. The final product should represent a coherent and significant advancement in knowledge. The dissertation should clearly lay out the initial state of scientific knowledge, the new ideas and/or lines of inquiry proposed by the student, and why those new ideas/lines of inquiry are important. The full dissertation should also be coherent and address some well-defined topic and sections should flow logically together.  As an example, three different studies each on very different topics with no easily apparent logical flow or link will likely not meet this principle.  

The best arbiter of whether these principles are adhered to will always be the student’s mentor and Mentoring Committee (as they are best suited to evaluate whether, for instance, the work is coherent and significant).  Upon hitting dissertator status, students, in concert with their mentor should begin mapping out the path toward a final dissertation together with one *required* step being the dissertation proposal meeting (see below). In short, when students leave that meeting if the proposal is approved (and the associated form is filled out: Dissertation Proposal Form) the student should have confidence that the planned research, if conducted and presented in an appropriate manner, will meet the general dissertation principles outlined above.  

Dissertation Committee Composition: Dissertation committees must have at least four members. At least three members of the committee must be in Psychology or be Psychology-affiliated, and at least one member must be from outside Psychology. Further, at least three members of the dissertation committee must be UW-Madison graduate faculty or former UW-Madison graduate faculty up to one year after resignation or retirement. The chair of the committee must be in Psychology or be Psychology-affiliated at UW-Madison.

Additional notes: (1) The Graduate Coordinator in Psychology can help you determine whether particular individuals are “graduate faculty”. (2) Students who feel a different committee composition (e.g., two in Psychology and two outside) would be more appropriate for their dissertation may petition the Graduate Committee for an exception. (3) The “outside Psychology” member must be UW-Madison graduate faculty or former UW-Madison graduate faculty up to one year after resignation or retirement. (4) More details about the Graduate School’s requirements for dissertation committees can be found here: https://grad.wisc.edu/documents/committees/

Dissertation Proposal

Goal: The dissertation proposal provides students with the opportunity to think deeply about their research and formulate a research plan with expert advice from their committee. The proposal meeting provides an opportunity to discuss the content and scope of the proposal and address any questions the student or committee members have about the proposed work.

Preparing for the proposal meeting: To prepare for the proposal meeting, students are expected to complete the following tasks:

1. Meet with their primary advisor(s) to discuss the content and scope of the dissertation research.

2. Schedule your proposal meeting. Be sure to schedule your committee meeting well in advance of your target meeting time. Depending on committee availability, you may want to schedule your meeting 1-2 months in advance of completing your proposal document.

3. Write the dissertation proposal* and send it to the committee at least 1 week in advance of your proposal meeting.

The proposal should include the following content (noting that individual mentors might want additional/alternative information included, so make sure to talk things over with your mentor):

  • A literature review motivating the research topic and approach
  • A statement of the goals of the research
  • A description of any research conducted so far as part of the dissertation
  • A proposal of the research to to be conducted as part of the dissertation and hypothesized results
  • A preliminary discussion on implications of the (potential) results and potential conclusions.

*The dissertation proposal document should be self-contained Word document or PDF. It should not link to other documents that need to be  read in order to understand the completed or proposed activities.

4. Create a presentation based on your proposal.

  • Although the committee members will have read the proposal, it is helpful to have a slide presentation on hand to reorient committee members to material and have the content easily accessible to display during the meeting. It is also helpful to highlight core questions students want to discuss during the proposal meeting. The presentation will serve a springboard for free-form discussion and often many of the slides are not discussed in the meeting.  Students should talk with their advisors about the general scope and content of the presentation.

Proposal Meeting: The proposal meeting should start with the short presentation and then is followed by discussion amongst the full committee.  The goal is to ensure that the work, as proposed, would fulfill the requirements discussed above, as well as allow the student to work through/get advice on any methodological issues, etc. Once completed and all members have signed off, the Dissertation Proposal Form should be completed. 

You should realize your proposal is not a contract that commits you to conducting only what is proposed. Instead, as above the dissertation proposal process provides you the opportunity to think deeply about your research and formulate a research plan with the expert advice from your committee. You can change experimental plans as your research unfolds. Depending on the magnitude of those changes, you may want to run those changes by your committee or else reconvene the committee to discuss.  

Dissertation Defense:

Written Dissertation: As part of the thesis planning, you should consult the Graduate School’s “Guide to Preparing Your Doctoral Dissertation” http://grad.wisc.edu/currentstudents/doctoralguide.  These publications contain important information concerning formatting your thesis, submission of your thesis, and deadlines for completion of degree requirements.  While the details of your written Dissertation will be determined by you and your Committee, all Dissertations are expected to be of publishable quality and to conform to a general standard. The Dissertation should be written in a style that is compatible with that commonly used for manuscripts published in major scientific journals.

Timeline: You and your Committee will set a date for the In-Person Defense of the thesis. The date chosen for the defense must allow sufficient time prior to your departure from the University for revisions suggested by the Committee to be incorporated into the final version of the Dissertation.  

Final Warrant & Defense: At least 4 weeks before the final Public Presentation and Dissertation Examination, please contact the Graduate Coordinator so your Final Ph.D. warrant can be ordered.  No later than 2 weeks before the defense and after the details have been approved by your major professor, you should provide the Graduate Coordinator with the date, time, and place of the Public Presentation. An announcement will be e-mailed to faculty, graduate students, and affiliated faculty.

The completed Dissertation should be delivered to your Committee at least 2 weeks before the defense. If the Dissertation is submitted later than this, the date for the defense will be rescheduled automatically by your major professor to allow at least 2 weeks for review. Any change in this schedule must receive prior approval by all members of your Committee.  

The thesis defense normally consists of a public presentation of the thesis followed by a closed meeting with the Committee.  At the conclusion of the defense you will be asked to leave the room and the Committee will discuss whether to accept the thesis. This decision will be based on the quality of the public presentation and of the written Dissertation. The Committee will not approve the Dissertation until it is judged to be a satisfactory final version acceptable for the Ph.D. degree and for submission to the Graduate School.  

When going through the dissertation process, keep in mind that the Interim AI-Use Policy comes into play at both the proposal and final paper stage for any written work.  The policy and associated forms are below.

Interim AI-Use Policy 

If students utilize generative-AI in any fashion while preparing written work that is part of a major department milestone (specifically: FYP paper, preliminary exams, dissertation), they must include an AI-use statement fully describing the ways AI was used in the preparation of the written work. The statement will consist of a checklist (e.g., use of AI for developing analysis code, data-visualization code, creating bullet points or paper skeleton/structure, editing grammar, editing style, coming up with new research ideas, making suggestions regarding possible research designs or methods, reviewing literature), and a more open-ended short narrative section describing in more detail how generative AI was used for these purposes.

Students should discuss their planned use of generative-AI with their respective committees and fill out the associated AI-Use form prior to beginning any written work to ensure that the student and committee members are on the same page with regard to the planned use(s) of generative-AI and if any deviations from that plan occur during the process of producing the written work, to inform the committee prior to implementation (in essence, the committee members should not be surprised by any uses when they receive the final document(s)).

Students should have this discussion and fill out the associated AI-Use Form for BOTH the proposal and final paper stages.