What is a dissertation?

What is a dissertation?

For many students of international relations, and also the related fields of political science, economics, or international affairs, they have thought about the possibility of studying for a Ph.D. in their field. One aspect of the Ph.D. is writing a dissertation. In this article, we are going to explain what is a dissertation. We will not only define what a dissertation is, but also explain the process that usually goes along with preparing for a dissertation topic, proposing the dissertation, working on the project, revising the dissertation, completing the dissertation, defending the work, and also the steps after the defense.


A Ph.D. dissertation is a major research project that a Ph.D. student will undertake. The Ph.D. dissertation should not only show mastery of the existing literature related to the topic of choice, but should also be an original contribution of research on said subject.

In political science or international relations, the dissertation is usually a book length manuscript, broken up in a series of chapters (which include an introduction, a literature review, the body of original work, and a conclusion). However, there has also been a move–in some cases–where individuals in political science and international relations are doing an article-based dissertation, where, instead of having a book as an end goal, they are doing a dissertation with the goal of publishing a series of articles.

When does one start thinking about the dissertation?

While there is no specific timeline or timeframe in which a person must begin thinking about their dissertation topic, it does not hurt to keep an open mind and begin thinking about what research you would like to do early in your academic career. While it might be rarer, this could be as early as your undergraduate studies, where an undergraduate thesis could serve as a foundation for a master’s thesis, and then possibly a Ph.D. dissertation. However, for many others, they may think more about a dissertation topic while taking courses during their Ph.D. studies. They might find a research question that has not been asked, for a student could be sparked by reading on a particular topic. There is no right way, or time, to select a dissertation topic.

It is important to note that since the dissertation is an original body of work (either doing qualitative or quantitative work), the student should ensure that they topic that they are considering writing on is one that has not been done before (at least in the exact way), and is something that can be accomplished in a dissertation. For this reason, first having a good grasp of the existing academic literature can help in narrowing down a research topic.

How do declare a dissertation topic?

Even before officially deciding on a dissertation topic, a student should seek the advice of their faculty as to their thoughts on any possible topic. It is for this reason that students tend to study with faculty members who are experts in the subjects (and often subfields) of interest; they know the field, and can also better work with the student as s/he develops her/his research agenda. Once the student has thought about a dissertation topic, and spoke with different people for levels of support and advice, the student would then meet with their dissertation advisor (who they should choose ahead of time) so as to discuss the project. Once the two agree on a research topic (if this is pre-proposal stage), the dissertation advisor would expect the student to write a dissertation proposal. Once this is written, it would be read by the dissertation advisor (and possibly, other members of the dissertation committee), and then signed off by the student and at least the faculty advisor.

Writing a dissertation

Next to the question of “what is a dissertation,” many prospective graduate students may also wonder about what the process of writing a dissertation may be like. Writing a dissertation is one of the most independent parts of being a graduate student. When when gets to the “all but dissertation” (ABD) phase of their education, they will spending the remainder of their time at the college or university working on this one project. And because there are no strict deadlines (unless an advisor places a deadline, or the student wants to self-impose deadlines for checking in with the advisor, and turning in work), students are free to work on the dissertation at a pace that works best for them.

A student might take months reading up on the literature, beginning an outline, collecting data, and then, might take more months (or years) running and writing up regression analyses, or carrying out interviews during their fieldwork. Every student has a different path towards working on and completing the dissertation. That is why asking others for what they did can be useful, ultimately your own process will vary.

One of the best pieces of advice for writing the dissertation is to always be working on the project. Students that are used to having deadlines for class might often find themselves with a great deal of freedom given that the there are no immediate negative consequences to not working on the dissertation daily (there is no failing grade to worry about, and if funding is lined up, then this is not an issue either). Thus, it is important that a Ph.D. student set their own research and writing goals for the dissertation. Some prefer to have a daily writing word count, whereas others want to have a certain amount of interviews or chapters completed within a set number of months.

Throughout this time, a student should also be in regular contact with their dissertation advisor, and other members of the dissertation committee. Remember that the professors may have multiple courses, research obligations, service committees, as well as multiple advisees. So, you want to ensure that if you are turning in drafts, that you would want to give your advisors and committee members ample time to read any drafts, and then to provide you with comments.

A dissertation might go through multiple drafts and iterations. It is important that throughout the time, the Ph.D. student keeps their advisor up to date with what they are working on, any problems that might arise, or interesting findings along the way. In addition, a student will continue to read, and write their project.

Then, following multiple drafts in which the committee has read, the faculty and the student would come to an agreement that the dissertation is ready to be defended.

Defending the Dissertation

Defending a dissertation is just that: presenting your work and findings in front of your committee, and also, usually, the community at large. Here, a student will present their research question, what their work aims to do, how they went about researching said question, presenting their findings, and then discussing the implications, as well as the future research goals associated with project. Then, the committee, and others, will ask questions about the project, of which the student should defend. This might be regarding variables they selected, how they went about their data gathering, whether they considered the entire literature, etc… Then, following the questions period, the committee themselves will deliberate to make a decision on the quality of the dissertation.

From there, they may pass the student, pass them with some sort of honors, or require extensive revisions (most dissertations, even the ones that pass with honors will have some revisions needed). From this point, if a student passes the defense, they have earned their Ph.D.


So, as you see, the answer to the answer to the question “What is a dissertation” is one that includes not only the independent research project, but also the likely process for going about working on a Ph.D. dissertation. Given that the dissertation takes years to complete, it is recommended that a student select a dissertation topic that they are truly passionate about.

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