On May 29, I completed and passed my PhD dissertation proposal defense. The proposal defense process can vary widely among institutions and even among departments in the same institution, so in this post I outline the process I followed in the CISE department at UF.
The first step I followed was to create a document outlining my proposed work to help my committee understand my plans. There was no prescribed length or format for the document, but mine was around 60 pages. The document contained information about all the work I’ve done up to this point as a PhD student, as well as an outline of all the work I plan to do before graduating. Preparing the document requires a significant amount of work, so I would recommend planning on spending several months working on it before submitting. The document is a crucial part of the proposal process since your committee will use it as a guide to understand the details of your work that you don’t have time to cover in your presentation.
After completing the document, I sent it to my committee. The committee then had several weeks to review the document while I prepared for the next step, which was to give a 45 minute-long presentation about my prior work and my plans for my dissertation work, with 15 additional minutes for public questions.
The proposal defense itself was divided in to four stages. In the first phase, I gave my 45-minute presentation to my committee as well as members of the public who were interested in attending. In the second stage, which lasted around 15 minutes, both the public audience and my committee members asked questions. In the third stage, the public audience was asked to leave and my committee asked questions in private. This phase lasted around 30 minutes. I found that the questions my committee asked in this phase were more difficult and thorough since my committee wanted to be sure they understood my proposed work. For example, my committee asked not only what I planned to do but how I planned to implement specific parts of my dissertation work. In the final stage of the proposal defense, I was asked to leave the room while the committee deliberated on whether I had passed the proposal. The time taken by the committee to deliberate can vary, but for me it was in the range of 20 to 30 minutes. After my committee finished their discussion, I was brought back into the room and was very excited (and relieved) to learn that I had passed my proposal! My committee offered suggestions and feedback on ways to improve my proposed work. For example, some of my committee members suggested specific algorithms that I had not considered that may be useful for my work.
I am entering my fifth year in the PhD program at UF. Now that I’ve defended my proposal, my next major milestone will be my final dissertation defense, which I plan to complete in December 2019. The proposal process was long and difficult, but it provided me a valuable opportunity to crystallize my plans for my dissertation work. Preparing for my proposal forced me to take a more active role in generating ideas for future directions of my research, and now that I’ve passed my proposal I am expected to take more ownership of my work with less involvement from my advisor.
Based on my experience, here are some tips for preparing for your proposal:
* Read proposal documents from students who have already passed their proposal in your department and/or to help get an idea of the scope and formatting to use. I used previous students’ proposals working in a similar area to mine as a model for my document.
* Give as many practice talks as you can with different people. Consider getting people outside of your own lab to make sure it is understandable to a more general audience. Even your committee will have diverse backgrounds and may not be familiar with some concepts related to your research. Practices also are a great time to get a feel for the types of questions you’re likely to get. When I prepared for my presentation, I gave practice talks to friends in other engineering departments to help evaluate how well I was able to explain my work.
* Prepare backup slides to help you answer questions you think you are likely to get.
* Ask your friends and labmates to attend your talk. It helps to see familiar faces and to know you have a lot of support while you’re giving your presentation.
* Bring food and/or coffee for the audience, especially your committee.
* Try not to get too stressed out during your presentation. Ultimately, everyone wants to see you succeed.
If you’re about to propose your dissertation, good luck!