At the University of Pennsylvania, the doctorate of philosophy is conferred in recognition of marked ability and high attainment in a specific branch of learning. In Classical Studies a student demonstrates this ability and attainment with satisfactory completion of the PhD program requirements of the graduate group. The last and most substantial of these requirements is the dissertation, which must be both accepted by the student’s dissertation committee (see below) and defended publicly.
A dissertation is the product of in-depth, independent, and original research on a substantial topic. In the dissertation the student demonstrates facility with the skills, methodologies, and conceptual frameworks relevant to the topic and communicates the significance of the research for both scholars in the field and a broader audience in and beyond the academy.
Dissertations come in many forms: some are tightly-focused discussions of particular issues (i.e., potential monographs), some contain a coherent series of related materials (i.e., potential articles), some are commentaries on or editions of texts, and so on. Whatever its form, the dissertation will constitute the core of the student’s professional work during the period of its composition and in the immediate postdoctoral phase, so the research questions must be chosen with an eye to their inherent interest for both the student and future readers.
Preliminary work on the dissertation generally begins in the student’s third year in the program, often in connection with preparation for part II of the student’s Preliminary examinations. The general topic will often have been identified in the context of a seminar or independent study, perhaps emerging from a process in which the student perceives gaps or untenable arguments in existing scholarship and identifies questions whose answers will fill those gaps or provide better arguments, and/or when the student discovers significant primary material that has not received sufficient attention. As the student considers the topic’s potential as the subject of a dissertation, consultation is essential—with potential advisors and committee members, with the graduate chair, with peers at Penn and elsewhere, and so on. A provisional topic, research question, approach, and broad outline should be worked out by the middle of the third year. The prospectus workshop (CLST 9000) in the second semester of the third year is an extended opportunity to refine the topic, sharpen the research questions, determine appropriate approaches, outline the chapters, situate the project in the relevant scholarly discourse, and identify both how the project advances that discourse and how it constitutes a contribution to knowledge. (For further information on the prospectus and the prospectus workshop see the Prospectus page.)
Students will usually have one primary faculty advisor for the dissertation, as well as two or more secondary advisors, who together will constitute the ‘dissertation committee’. (University rules pertaining to the composition and work of the dissertation committee apply.) Students must meet regularly with their advisors and follow an appropriate schedule for the completion of their work. While writing the dissertation, students are also strongly encouraged to work with their peers in the Dissertation Workshop. Regular contact with advisors, and regular participation in the workshop, are important ways that dissertation writers can get essential feedback on their work in progress, and remain part of the intellectual community around them.
The timetable for completion is flexible, depending on the project itself and the student’s pursuit of simultaneous opportunities, but most dissertations are completed within two to four years from the approval of the prospectus.
Students who have not completed the dissertation within five years of first registering for dissertation tuition (usually in the fourth year of the program) are required to submit a revised dissertation Prospectus and to repeat that portion of the Preliminary Examination that involves defending the proposal before a committee of at least three examiners. The revised Prospectus must include an account of the current state of scholarship on the topic and an up-to-date bibliography.