The Stanford Sociology Doctoral Program: Dissertation Proposal Defense

The dissertation prospectus is an article-length plan for research, similar in form to a research grant proposal. It must identify a significant research problem, locate it firmly within an existing research literature, and specify the original contribution to knowledge that will result if the research is successfully completed. A dissertation prospectus must also specify a research design and provide a detailed and feasible plan for data collection. If secondary data are to be utilized, the student should provide assurances of their availability and specific examples of how they will be employed. In all cases, analysis methods should be clearly described. If human subjects are to be used, approval must be obtained from the Human Subject Committee before research is undertaken.

It is nonetheless important not to proceed too far with the project in advance of the defense. The proposal may in this regard be understood as a tightrope act in which the feasibility of a project has to be established without also appearing presumptive about whether the committee will in the end approve it. This concern may in part be addressed by maintaining close contact with all members of the committee as the topic is developed and the proposal written. It is the responsibility of the student to regularly meet with committee members.

The proposal itself should be shared with members of the committee at least two weeks in advance of the defense. The prospectus must be submitted and accepted by the reading committee by the end of May of the fourth year in residence.

The prospectus defense will be chaired by the Principal Dissertation Advisor, with the other Dissertation Committee members in attendance. The purpose of the hearing is to explore whether the research question is a good one, whether the proposed research will advance the research literature, and whether the data and analyses appropriately speak to that question. It is conventional for the student to lead off the hearing with a short overview of the project. The amount of time to be allotted for that overview should be settled in advance with the Chair of the committee but is typically 15-20 minutes. The remainder of the session is then devoted to questions from the committee members that identify possible problems with the proposed research or analysis and that explore ways to improve the project.

At the end of the exam, the student will be excused, and the committee will then formally vote on whether to approve the project and advance the student to candidacy. Even when a positive decision is made, the committee will invariably identify ways in which the dissertation research should be improved, and these requirements will be conveyed to the student either by the committee as a whole (at the end of the defense) or via the Chair (at the end of the defense or in a subsequent meeting with the student). At the end of the meeting, the committee confers to discuss whether any changes are to be required in the proposed research. Any such changes, as well as more informal suggestions for improvement are communicated in writing to the student; the department also receives a copy for the student’s file.

The department student services officer keeps a resource binder with examples of what a dissertation prospectus looks like for student review.

For students who entered the doctoral program before Fall 2010, the dissertation prospectus defense satisfies the University Oral Exam. These students should see further information regarding University requirements, and download the oral examination committee form, here: University Oral Examination Form


At the choice of the student (and in consultation with her or his advisor), the dissertation requirement may be met either by:

  1. Submitting the usual book-length document of the sort now required; or
  2. Submitting three independent papers.

The latter papers may address the same topic, but should be written as stand-alone, single-authored papers in standard journal format (i.e., AJS or ASR). None of these papers may overlap substantially with the second-year paper or with one another. (The main criterion in judging “substantial overlap” is whether any standard journal, such as AJS, would regard the papers as too similar to publish both.)

The final dissertation must be submitted to all committee members at least 30 days in advance of the filing deadline.

Back to top