Carnegie Mellon University

Procedures for Ph.D. Proposal Exam

Students are expected to defend their Dissertation proposals no later than the end of their seventh semester in the program (not counting summers), but they are encouraged to do so on the fifth semester or earlier to ensure the dissertation committee is formed and can properly advice and monitor the progress of the student. Also, Pitt-registered students should be aware that at least 40 dissertation credits are needed for the thesis defense. Requests for extensions of this date must be submitted in writing to the program Directors no later than eight weeks before the end of the semester in which the defense would normally occur. Prior to defending their thesis proposal students must have completed all core courses and be in good standing with the program. The completion of all core courses and the successful defense of the thesis proposal is the Comprehensive Examination for the CPCB students.

The student together with his or her advisor(s) should decide upon the members of the Dissertation committee, which should consist of at least four faculty members. At least three members must be from the program's training faculty and there must be at least one from the Pitt training faculty and at least one from the CMU training faculty. One of the committee members should be external to the program and, preferably, from another University. The Dissertation advisor(s) is/are part of the Dissertation committee. For the students registered through Pitt an additional rule applies that an absolute majority (>50%) of the committee members should have Graduate Faculty status at Pitt. One of the committee members is selected to serve as the Chair. The student is responsible for obtaining the agreement of all committee members that they are willing to serve and for finding a date and time that is suitable for the whole committee. The list of committee members and the defense date should be communicated to the program Directors no later than eight weeks prior to the date on which the exam is to be taken.

The student should prepare a written Dissertation proposal and provide it to the thesis committee no later than seven (7) calendar days before the defense (students should ask the committee members whether they would like to receive this document electronically or on paper).

The thesis proposal should consist of no more than 12 single-spaced pages with 1 inch margins. This limit does not include references, which can consist of no more than 5 additional pages. Students may also append higher-resolution versions of figures as long as the original version is contained within the proposal. The proposal should describe:

  • the background and significance of the proposed project,
  • the overall goal and specific aims to be accomplished,
  • the methods and approaches to be used,
  • the preliminary results that have been obtained to support the feasibility of the project, and
  • the way in which the results obtained will be evaluated.

Note that previous work by others (including by anyone within the advisor(s)’s group(s) other than the student defending) should be included in the background and significance section, not in the preliminary results section.

The student should give an oral presentation of the proposal lasting no more than 45 minutes (not counting time for questions). This presentation is not public but is open only to students and faculty of the Program and members of their research groups. Following the presentation, the Dissertation committee will question the student on the proposed work and any related material in order to determine whether the proposed work is suitable for a Ph.D. Dissertation and whether the student is adequately prepared to engage in the proposed research.  A minimum of 2 hours should be scheduled for the entirety of the proposal.  If the committee requires more time, they may schedule a continuation for additional questions/discussion. 

At the conclusion of the exam, the committee shall determine whether the student has passed, failed, or conditionally passed and, if conditionally passed, what conditions the student must meet to pass. The committee shall communicate this result to the program Directors and communicate to them when the conditions on the pass, if any, have been met. This will be done using the appropriate form(s) for each university. It is the responsibility of the student, with the assistance of the program coordinators, to ensure that all necessary forms have been filled and signed by the committee members, and submitted on time to the program Directors and coordinators. A student may retake the Ph.D. Dissertation proposal exam no more than once.