Completing a Dissertation

Completing the research

It is hard to predict where your research will take you. Often you find out that what you planned to do won't work, but in the process you come up with some other idea that is really exciting. That's ok; the dissertation proposal is not a contract. As long as you stay in the general area of your original plan, you can turn in a dissertation without having to go through another proposal (that usually only happens when you change areas so much that you have to change advisors). It is a good idea to keep checking your proposal every now and then, however, because it is easy to lose sight of what you are doing and spend a lot of time on details that are not that important. Keep the big plan in mind, and make sure you make progress in it. However, also remember that there's always more work to do, and you don't have to solve all the world's problems in your dissertation. What you should do is to push your approach, architecture, method (or whatever) as far as it will go with reasonable effort, and leave the major changes for future work.

Putting together the dissertation

If you have published a lot, putting together the dissertation is a lot easier than you might think, although it will still probably take a couple of months. Usually you still have research that hasn't been written up, and the Intro and Discussion chapters and such take a lot of time, and often you come up with ideas for experiments that you really should do to back your claims up. So give it time. Start writing from the "core" chapters, those that describe the architecture and results, and expand outward, like you would in any paper. Write the intro and conclusion the last, because then you know exactly what the dissertation contains.

As usual, give me chapters to read and comment on as soon as you are finished with them; don't wait until you are done with all of them. I'll give comments and suggestions, although my editing is at a more high level than when we are working on a paper together.

The hardest part about writing a dissertation is to keep it all in check. It is a much larger document than anything you've ever written, so any change (in terminology, for example) requires a lot of work. So keep it organized. Keep notes about changes that you should make for each chapter, and ideas about what should go into them before you get to them. And finally, there are always more experiments that you could do, more comparisons, more analysis. You cannot do all of it, and at some point you just have to decide it is time to stop. The best dissertation is the one that's done :-).

PhD defense, revisions

The final defense is pretty much like the proposal talk, except that you concentrate on presenting what you've done, which is easy because you succeeded. You almost never fail a defense, but almost always the committee suggests some revisions. It is part of the process, so give the revisions enough time, like a couple of weeks. Usually it is enough that I check them but sometimes a committee member wants to see another draft. If you have talked to your committee members along the way, chances are that you won't have to do as many revisions.


If you want to include figures from other people's work in your dissertation (e.g. in related work), you'll need to get permission. It's usually easier to get such permission for a dissertation than for a commercial publication, and copyright owners will rarely if ever ask for a fee in such cases. Most publishers have permissions web forms to fill out, and the turnaround time seems to be about two weeks Of course, you will want to allow more time than that so that you won't have to revise your dissertation at the last minute if you can't get permission.

Filing, distributing

Every semester there are workshops for degree candidates where all the steps about filing a dissertation are explained, and you should attend one. There are quite a few steps, but it is really not that bad if you plan ahead. Make sure you get the proper Overleaf templates, and check the formatting with the Dissertation Advisor several days before the filing deadline. To officially get a degree during a given semester, you have until the last day of classes to file. If you miss the filing deadline, you have to register for the following semester and pay full fees (except in the summer when you can file "in absentia" until the Fall semester begins).

We will put the dissertation in the NN website, and you may point people to it that you want to impress.

Publishing the dissertation

After you have graduated and moved elsewhere, it is possible that we still have paper revisions to do together and we might chop off a paper or two from your dissertation. You should also consider also publishing your dissertation as a (usually single-authored) book. There are several good monograph series that publish dissertations (like MIT Press and Kaufmann). If you are planning on continuing in the same area, it is a very good way to get publicity and to get other people up to speed on what you are doing.

Last modified: Sun Sep 25 15:28:01 PDT 2022