The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences requires that all doctoral dissertations undergo a formal examination in which the student has the opportunity to discuss and defend the dissertation with respect to its sources, findings, interpretations, and conclusions before a committee of faculty knowledgeable in the student's field of research. All faculty members of the defense committee are expected to be present at the defense.
Only the candidate and the approved members of the dissertation defense committee may be present during the defense. Columbia University policy does not allow spectators or other individuals to attend a defense. There are no exceptions to this rule.
The defense must be conducted in English.
Participation in Doctoral Dissertation Defenses
The dissertation defense is a milestone ideally reached with all five members of a student’s dissertation committee present. When a committee member can only participate from afar, an accommodation may be made by employing audio or video conferencing during the defense. A maximum of two members of the dissertation defense committee may participate remotely, but the committee chair and the sponsor must be present at the defense.
The committee chair will register the need for remote participation on the GSAS Application for the Dissertation Defense (PDF), and will sign the voting sheet on the absent member’s behalf after the defense. Committee members who must participate remotely are requested to submit comments, questions, and a provisional vote in advance so that the defense exercise may proceed in the event technical difficulties are encountered during the proceedings.
Committee Member Absence in Exceptional Circumstances
The dissertation defense committee may convene when one member is prevented from participating by extreme circumstances at the time of the defense. Such a last-minute absence will count toward the total of two members allowed to participate remotely. If possible, the absent member should, before the defense, submit a report containing comments, questions, and a provisional vote on the dissertation's approval. The committee chair will convey these questions to the candidate at the defense and rule on the quality the responses made. If circumstances prevent the submission of a report before the defense, the absent member’s report should be sent as soon as possible after the defense to the dissertation defense committee chair and to the Dean of the Graduate School. The committee vote will not be considered final until the report is reviewed and the defense committee chair determines whether any further action is warranted.
The examination normally lasts two hours. The candidate is generally asked to begin by summarizing the pertinent background and findings. Such summaries should be limited to five minutes. The Chair of the Committee is responsible for allotting time, normally allowing each faculty member 20 minutes in which to examine the candidate.
Typically examiners provide lists of points they wish to discuss. These points are either substantial or editorial. Unless it is necessary to show that a very poorly written dissertation must be entirely rewritten, examiners should not take up these editorial comments one by one. Examiners should give their sheets of notes on these matters to the candidate, leaving time to examine matters of substance.
When all examiners have finished their questioning, the Chair asks the candidate to step outside and wait for a signal to return. The committee rises on the candidate's leaving and entering.
During the discussion period, the Committee makes its decision on the defense.
The following dissertation defense outcomes will remain in effect until December 31, 2016. Click here to view the outcomes that take effect on January 1, 2017.
The dissertation is deemed acceptable subject to minor revisions.
The dissertation is revised by the candidate in light of the comments made by the committee, and the revisions are supervised by the student's sponsor. Usually it is not necessary to seek approval from the defense committee for minor revisions, provided the approval card is signed by the sponsor and department/program chair. The defense committee, however, reserves the right to review those revisions. Upon completion of the required revisions, the candidate is recommended for the degree.
The candidate must complete all revisions and deposit the dissertation no later than six months from the date of the dissertation defense. A unanimous vote or a vote with only one dissent in a lower column constitutes a pass. In the case of three votes for pass and two for incomplete or fail, the voting sheet and dissertation must be submitted to the Dean for review and the candidate should be informed that the committee's vote was not conclusive and he/she should await further communication from the Dean.
The dissertation is deemed acceptable subject to major revisions. Upon completion and acceptance of the required revisions, the defense is considered to be successful and the vote is changed to Pass.
Where a dissertation is considered incomplete (i.e. acceptable subject to major revisions,) the Chair of the Defense Committee is required to form a revisions subcommittee made up of one to three members of the original committee, whose names must be entered as such on the Voting Sheet. Usually the sponsor of the dissertation is chair of the subcommittee; the other members should be those committee members who have made the most extensive objections to the text as it stands. When the student has finished the major revisions, he or she must submit the revised dissertation to each of the members of the revisions subcommittee. Specified revisions must be made and the approved copies submitted to the revisions subcommittee no earlier than three months and no later than one year after the defense unless otherwise directed by the committee. If the revised dissertation is accepted by the subcommittee, each member of the revisions subcommittee must confirm acceptance in writing to the Dissertation Office. Once all these letters arrive, the Dissertation Office changes the vote from “Incomplete” to “Pass,” and the candidate may deposit the dissertation.
If the candidate fails to submit a revised dissertation to the revisions subcommittee by the deadline, the vote will be changed from "Incomplete" to "Fail." A second defense is not permitted.
The dissertation is deemed unacceptable and the candidate is not recommended for the degree. No candidate may have a second defense unless the Dean considers, upon the evidence provided, that the first one involved procedural irregularities.
Approved as submitted:
The committee may ask that minor revisions or corrections be made before the dissertation is deposited. A written description of those minor revisions should be provided to the candidate at the defense. These minor revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the sponsor within one month after the defense. If for exceptional reasons more time is needed, the candidate may apply for an additional one-month extension by submitting a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org with the request.
Approved pending revisions:
The committee may ask that revisions be made before the dissertation is deposited. A written description of those revisions should be provided to the candidate at the defense or shortly afterward. These revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the sponsor within six months after the date of the defense. If for exceptional reasons more time is needed, the candidate may apply for an additional two-month extension by submitting a letter to email@example.com with the request.
The committee believes that substantial work must be undertaken on the dissertation by the candidate before it can reach a recommendation to award the degree. A detailed written description of the reservations about the examined dissertation should be provided to the candidate at the defense or shortly afterward. At the time of the defense, a subcommittee composed of at least three unanimously agreed upon members of the original committee (and including the sponsor) will be formed. The specified revisions should be completed to the satisfaction of the subcommittee within one year after the date of the defense. A statement from the candidate indicating the specific changes made in response to the committee’s request for revision must accompany the revised version, and both be sent to the sponsor. The sponsor will share the statement and the revised version with the members of the defense subcommittee, each of whom must communicate explicitly to the sponsor his or her appraisal of the revisions undertaken. A majority of the subcommittee must approve the revised version for the candidate to be recommended for the degree. The dissertation will then be recommended for award of the degree.
The committee believes that the dissertation is not acceptable, and the candidate will not be recommended for the degree. No candidate may have a second defense unless the Dean of GSAS concludes, upon evidence provided either by the candidate or by a member of the committee, that procedural irregularities occurred during the defense.