Graduate College Five-Year Rule
By regulation of the Graduate College, a student has five years following successful completion of
the Comprehensive Examination in which to finish all substantive requirements for the Ph.D.
Registration after the Comprehensive Exam: After a student has passed the Comprehensive Exam and is
engaged in the preparation of the prospectus or doctoral thesis, he or she must enroll every fall
and spring in the independent study course ENGL-7999 under the guidance of his or her dissertation
director. Continuous enrollment in this course will bring the student to 72 s. h., which the
Graduate College requires of all PhD students at the time of graduation. If the dissertation
defense examination is completed during the summer semester, the student must register for summer s. h.
For financial aid, the student must submit a “short hours” form must be submitted to the
Registrar’s Office (30 Calvin hall) to be considered fulltime. This form is available in the GPC’s office.
A. The Dissertation Committee: This five-member committee consists of a dissertation director and
three other full or jointly-appointed English Department faculty members. The fifth member may be
either from the English Department or from another department within the University of Iowa. The
Graduate College must approve any requests for a member from another institution or for an
additional committee member. These committee members share with the director an active role in the
formation of the dissertation. The nature of responsibilities for reading and responding to
chapters will be decided at the meeting to approve the prospectus.
B. The Topic: In most cases, the article prepared for the Comprehensive Examination Portfolio
provides a point of departure for the dissertation, but the questioning that produces a successful
dissertation begins early in your course work. A dissertation topic may emerge from the materials
of a specific course or from a conjunction of texts, themes, and theories encountered in several
courses; often it receives its first formulation in a seminar paper. Because topics are constituted
through the critical discourse that surrounds them, all topics are tied to a scholarly community.
The aim of the dissertation is to enter this community in a way that is fresh, individual, and
C. The Prospectus: After passing the comprehensive examination, you must present a dissertation
prospectus to a committee composed of the dissertation director and at least three secondary
readers from the dissertation committee. No later than the semester following the Comprehensive
Examination, this committee must meet with you and determine whether the prospectus is acceptable.
Please note that you must turn in a copy of the prospectus to each member of the dissertation
committee at least one week prior to the prospectus meeting. If the prospectus is not approved at
the prospectus meeting, a second meeting must be held by the end of the following semester.
Although the prospectus should be precise enough to give your committee a clear sense of
your proposed topic, argument, and aims, it is a working proposal, not a legal contract. Your
prospectus should follow these two general guidelines:
a. A prospectus is a typed, double-spaced document 6-8 pages in length. In addition to stating the
main thesis, it should provide the most pertinent critical context for the argument and some idea
of how the thesis will be developed chapter by chapter. In the end, the prospectus should
be useful not only for launching research and writing the dissertation but also as an abstract to
submit for possible internal or external fellowship support. In this regard, it is helpful to
consult guidelines for the Ballard/Seashore Fellowship described in the Fellowships and Awards
section below. In addition, forming a prospectus-writing workshop with other students may prove
b. A working bibliography of primary and secondary sources should accompany the prospectus.
A copy of the prospectus, signed by the dissertation director, must be submitted for approval to
Writing a book-length dissertation is the most sustained and demanding intellectual labor
confronting a graduate student. Although research and writing are part of doctoral training from
the start, the dissertation is the evidence on which academic employers will judge a candidate's
potential as a publishing scholar. A student who has completed a dissertation has a claim to be not
just an author but an "authority": someone who has addressed a significant topic with learning and
thoroughness, someone whose arguments have weight and consequence, someone who has made a
contribution to ongoing scholarly discourse. A successful dissertation combines a project worth
doing, the preparation necessary to do it well, and the hard work and insight that can lead to a
fresh and urgent argument.
Many students find writing a dissertation to be the hardest and most rewarding experience of their
time in the program. Students are well advised to take advantage of the formal and informal
resources available at the University of Iowa for doctoral candidates working on their
dissertations. These include the Doctoral Workshop in English offered every summer and the Writing
Center’s Write-In and Write ON programs and its summer writing camps. Many students also find it
helpful to form writing groups to share chapters-in-progress with their colleagues. Students are
strongly encouraged to set a schedule for completing their dissertations with their directors. It
is especially helpful to set and keep deadlines for completing and revising chapters. Above all,
students should stay in regular contact with their directors to discuss their progress. This is
especially important for students who choose to leave Iowa City while writing their dissertations.
Because the forms that a successful dissertation can assume are various and because a new topic may
call for an unprecedented form, no canonical description of a dissertation is possible. Specific
questions of form and content must be decided in consultation with the dissertation director and
committee. However, regardless of the form of your argument, it is strongly recommended that your dissertation
not exceed four chapters or 250 pages, and that you choose a topic that is attuned to the
opportunities and constraints of the current academic marketplace.
Successful completion of a dissertation requires careful planning and active consultation with the
director and committee members. Because very few manuscripts reach publication without alteration
from the criticism of colleagues and peers, suggestions from readers connected with a press, and
the intervention of one or more editors, you might consider your dissertation committee to be your
first-- and most streamlined--band of editorial advisers.
While the form and content of acceptable dissertations cannot be effectively defined here, the
duties and responsibilities of all persons concerned can be made clear. The director has major
responsibility for the supervision of the planning and writing and for detailed commentary on the chapters in
progress. The obligation to provide commentary also extends to the other readers, whose role as
critics and advisers should be active. They and the director are responsible for returning drafts
of individual chapters no later than one month after receiving them. You, in turn, are responsible
for observing all required procedures and deadlines that relate to the dissertation and its
defense. In particular, you must be certain that all members of the committee possess a full draft
of the dissertation no later than three weeks prior to the defense. Any committee member may refuse
to read the dissertation if this deadline is not met, and the defense will have to be rescheduled.
Defense of the Dissertation
A. Doctoral candidates, having completed the dissertation, must pass a final oral examination
called the “Thesis Defense,” “Defense of the Dissertation,” or “Final Examination.” This
examination will be conducted by the dissertation director and the dissertation committee, with
questions from the public as they are recognized by the dissertation director, who chairs the
examination. There are two aspects of the defense of the dissertation that require clarification:
the procedures that govern the defense and the nature of the examination itself.
B. The procedures covering the defense are complex, partly because of official deadlines and partly
because the Graduate College must approve the dissertation before its final defense can occur. It
is your responsibility to assure that all deadlines and requirements are satisfied. The following
timetable should be observed:
1. The defense must occur no later than five years following successful completion of the
Comprehensive Examination. In unusual circumstances, an extension may be granted by the Graduate
2. Typographical conventions must follow the Graduate College Thesis Manual, available from the
Graduate College (http://www.grad.uiowa.edu/theses-and-dissertations/graduate-
college-thesis-manual). Bibliographical format must conform to the latest edition of the MLA
3. You must file an application for receiving the degree before the deadline specified each
semester by the Graduate College. Failure to meet this deadline means that awarding of the PhD will
be postponed for a semester.
4. Following consultation with all five members of your committee, the next step is to make a
formal request through the GPC for a specific examination date. If a member of the examination
committee is on leave, a substitute examiner must be requested at this time through the DGS. The
request of an examination date must be made with the GPC no later than six weeks prior to the
5. No later than three weeks prior to the defense, every faculty member on the committee must be
given a paper or electronic copy (check with committee members for preference) of the full
dissertation. The completed draft of the dissertation distributed to the committee at this time
need not be final, but it should be very close. Major rewriting in the three weeks before the
defense is unacceptable.
6. The “first deposit” should be submitted electronically according to the Graduate College
Guidelines (http://www.grad.uiowa.edu/deadlines). Please follow the “Theses and Dissertation”
electronic format guide (http://www.grad.uiowa.edu/theses-and-dissertations). The only textual
changes permitted after the “first deposit” are those required by the Graduate College or by the
7. On the date assigned, the defense of the dissertation takes place. A report of the examination
is signed by all committee members and returned to the GPC along with a signed copy of the
dissertation title page and optional embargo letter (An embargo letter prevents your dissertation
from being electronically circulated on the internet through the University Main Library). Each
committee member evaluates the student as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Two unsatisfactory votes
will make the committee report unsatisfactory. In case of a report of unsatisfactory in the Final
Examination, the candidate may not be reexamined until the next semester. At the time of the
defense, the paper copy of the title page must be signed by the committee members. The dissertation
abstract page and embargo letter must be signed by the committee director. The examination may be
repeated only once, at the option of the department.
8. Following a successful defense of the dissertation, the student must make any corrections
specified by the Graduate College and/or the examining committee and submit the corrected final
paper copy of the dissertation to the Graduate College by the deadline for the “final deposit,”
submit the abstract page, title page and embargo letter.
C. The nature of the defense will vary with the composition of the examining committee and the
nature of the dissertation. To some degree, the members of the dissertation committee serve a
different function as examiners than they did as advisers. They confront in the finished
dissertation not individual pieces of work-in-progress, which is usually what they see as advisers,
but a complete work implicitly asking recognition from a larger world of scholars, publishers and
readers. In approving the dissertation, the committee certifies that the student's completed act of
literary interpretation, criticism, and/or scholarship is worthy to be made public not only inside but also outside the University of Iowa.