Finishing your Ph.D. dissertation – The final stages and preplanning

You’ve labored through courses and preliminary and qualifying exams. You’ve read a lot of papers, prepared a proposal for your research and travailed through reading, writing, coding, analyzing and the myriad of details needed to complete a Ph.D. dissertation. The only thing that is left to do is to get your written work to be approved by your adviser, mail the dissertation to your committee members and then stand up and defend. Sounds simple doesn’t it? This last stage requires a lot of planning and some careful thought.

This is what a forward thinking graduate student should do

1. Policies. Before you go any further find out the departmental policies for submitting a dissertation and the deadlines. It is also important to read the graduate school hand book to make sure if there are additional procedures and policies in place.

Common misconception : When the time comes, I’ll just ask the department staff assistant or my adviser. Better yet, I’ll just talk to a fellow student.

My answer : Wrong! Wherever you find a place of employment or life in general there are numerous policies and procedures in place – all with deadlines. Know these policies and write them down on your calendar/organizer. You should know all policies such as : How many weeks before my defense should I send my committee members (CM) my dissertation? It is important that you send your CMs the entire dissertation – complete from title page to references/Appendices. It is poor practice to send CM portions of your dissertation.

A dissertation should never ever be sent out to CMs unless the adviser has worked through the various drafts and approved (the complete dissertation).

2) This could be costly! Most Universities require the PhD student to be enrolled anywhere from 3 credits during the semester that you are defending. Let’s say that you are planning on defending your dissertation during the summer semester. Make sure that you adhere to the deadlines. The Graduate school will not process your dissertation of you do not submit it on time for the summer semester. This means that you will become a Fall semester graduate and guess what? You have to pay 3 credits of tuition even if it means that you will only need part of the Fall semester to finish your dissertation. Rules are rules and most Universities will not make exceptions. There is no sense in getting frustrated at the University or for that matter your adviser or the department. If you do not plan the sequence of events carefully leaving adequate time for the various steps there is no one else to blame but you!

Poor time and project management will lead to frustration and less money in your bank account.

3. Your Committee members have other responsibilities as well. If you have 5 committee members you may think that they will be there every step of the way. Some CMs are very involved and others are less so but it is your job to navigate the process of writing and defending your dissertation. Engage our CMs in meaningful ways and tap into their expertise. In other words, make them work for you!


About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Science at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and Professor in 2007. From 2007-2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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