GW Department of Physics Guide to the PhD

The purpose of this guide is to clarify the formal steps required to successfully propose and defend a PhD in physics at GW. It is assumed that students have passed all other formal requirements (coursework, etc., as specified in the CCAS Virtual Student Handbook and departmental requirements) prior to entering their PhD research project. If you are uncertain what these requirements are, ask the physics director of graduate studies. In this guide, the abbreviation DGS refers to the director of graduate studies or the DGS’ designated representative.

All PhD students must read the complete guide and then download and submit the form acknowledging that you have read it. Linked on this page are several other forms that will need to be filled in at various stages as you progress through the project. All forms need to be signed and certified by the DGS. Also, various steps may require giving advance notice before going on to the next step. The time periods associated with these advance notices are firm requirements, not suggestions.

Approved by Physics Graduate Committee: March 23, 2017
Amendments Approved by Physics Graduate Committee: September 2017
Amendments Approved by Physics Graduate Committee: March 2019

Please download and sign the signature page to acknowledge that you have read and understood the instructions laid out in this guide.


Acknowledgment of Department Guide to the PhD (PDF)

Finding a Project

Find a physics faculty member and agree with him/her on a Ph.D. project; this faculty member is going to be your Ph.D. advisor (also referred to as dissertation director, supervisor, etc.). If your primary advisor is not a physics faculty member at GW, you will need a GW physics faculty member as co-advisor. The expectation is that you present your dissertation proposal no later than the third year of your studies. Delay beyond that may indicate lack of academic progress and may lead to dismissal.

Start researching your project under your Ph.D. advisor’s guidance and prepare a proposal. You do not need to include already performed original work in the proposal; outline the project, its original content and scientific significance, resources needed, how you expect to achieve your goals and specify a tentative and feasible timeline. The narrative of the proposal should not exceed 15 pages, not counting references. If you have material for more than 15 pages, condense it into 15 pages. For a mandatory proposal document template contact the physics graduate studies advisor.

Timeline to Proposal: In the fourth semester, you take one of the advanced graduate courses “Astrophysics/Biophysics/Nuclear and Particle Physics I or II” and work with an advisor in a “Topics-In” class. You continue immersion in the research group during the following summer. By the end of that semester, you also have passed the General 1 Examination. By the beginning of your fifth semester, you thus should have developed a clear idea where your research interest lies. The department therefore expects that you present a dissertation proposal not later than in your fifth semester. In order to help you, the DGS tracks your progress towards that goal.

If you have not passed your dissertation proposal by the end of the fifth semester, the DGS will usually recommend to the CCAS associate dean of graduate studies that you be put on probation for the next (sixth) semester. You need to present a dissertation proposal by the end of the probation period. Before making such a recommendation, the DGS discusses with you and your advisor your progress, and whether you should be recommended for probation and consults with the Physics Graduate Committee. The DGS’s decision takes into account your annual candidate report and mitigating circumstances, including but not limited to: switching advisors, passing the general examination in the fourth semester (retake) and personal hardship. In such cases, the recommendation for probation can be delayed by one semester. That means you will definitely be recommended for probation for the seventh semester if you have not presented a dissertation proposal by the end of the sixth semester.

At the end of the probationary period, the DGS discusses again your progress with you and our advisor. If you have presented a dissertation proposal, the DGS recommends to the CCAS associate dean of graduate studies that the probation be lifted. If you have not, the DGS will, after consultation with the Physics Graduate Committee, decide whether to recommend that the associate dean of graduate studies terminate you from the program for lack of academic progress. The DGS’s decision takes into account your annual candidate report and, in addition, mitigating circumstances which were not considered when probation was recommended.

When you pass the general examination and as part of the feedback to each annual candidate report, you receive an email to remind you of these rules.

Presenting Your Proposal

When your advisor agrees that your proposal is ready to be presented to the public, your advisor and you need to decide on your Dissertation Research Committee, composed of your advisor (and your co-advisor if necessary) and two readers. The choice of readers needs to be endorsed by the DGS. The Research Committee stays in place for the duration of your dissertation project. Readers are physics faculty members who have an active interest in your project and have the necessary expertise to provide additional help and guidance for your project. (If at any time during the course of your Ph.D. research a reader should no longer be available to serve on the committee, the reader must be replaced immediately while your project is still on-going. This replacement requires the approval of the DGS. Such approval is also required if a reader is to be replaced for any other reason.)

The formal thesis proposal defense may be scheduled after the DGS receives written consent (use the Dissertation Proposal Research Committee Sign-Off form) from all members of the Research Committee that your proposal is ready for presentation. Announcements must be sent out to the entire Physics Department at least two weeks in advance. Announcement templates are available from the Physics Department. Please note: Unless the DGS agrees that there are valid mitigating circumstances, presentations should not be scheduled outside of regular lecturing or exam periods. (Inconvenience, scheduling problems, or being too busy otherwise are not mitigating circumstances. Plan ahead.)

The thesis proposal defense is conducted publicly in front of the entire Research Committee. The proceedings are chaired by the DGS. The Ph.D. candidate gives a 20-minute presentation followed by a public Q&A session between readers and candidate. After that, the chair may invite the public to pose questions. Following these, there is a discussion with the readers in a closed session. The advisor should not engage in presenting the project, but may provide brief clarifications if necessary. The chair does not participate in the discussion. The whole process lasts typically 90 minutes.

At the conclusion of the proposal defense, the Proposal Examination Form is filled in and certified by the chair and signed by the members of the Research Committee. In addition, the Advancement to Candidacy Form is filled in and signed by the DGS, certifying that you have satisfied all prerequisites for starting your PhD project and recording the members of your Research Committee. The DGS sends this document to CCAS as the official record of the start of your candidacy.

M. Phil. Degree: Students who have advanced to candidacy and have completed at least 48 course credits are eligible for the M. Phil. degree. Upon request, the DGS files the necessary form, Degree Along The Way (M. Phil.) Form, with CCAS; the student applies to the registrar and pays a modest fee.

Intermediate Steps: Submitting Annual Progress Reports

After passing the PhD general examination, you are required to submit a progress report to the DGS (with details as specified by the Physics Graduate Committee). If you do not have an advisor yet, it will detail your endeavors to identify and integrate with a research group.

Once a year, usually at the end of spring semester, until the Ph.D. project is concluded, you and your advisor are required to submit a progress report to the DGS (with details as specified by the Physics Graduate Committee); the DGS gives copies of these reports to the readers. Doctoral students are also required to hold annual meetings with their entire research committee (the dissertation director(s) and readers should be present at the same time) and report the outcome of the meeting as a part of their regular annual reporting process. The student is responsible for organizing the meeting (with their dissertation director's assistance). The meetings should occur annually with the first meeting being held no later than 1 year after the thesis proposal defense (this new rule is effective starting June 1st, 2023). 

The readers provide advice and guidance and evaluate your progress between proposal and defense. You are encouraged to take advantage of their expertise. You and your academic advisor must inform the DGS and the readers immediately of major changes in the project’s scope or direction.

Preparing for the Endgame: Be Aware of GW and CCAS Deadlines

As of 2019, GW has revised the steps necessary before graduation. Keep these steps in mind when you plan your dissertation. Confirm all of the following dates with CCAS or Electronic Theses and Dissertations Submission (ETD) at GW, not with the DGS.

Intent to Graduate: You must apply to the registrar for PhD graduation in spring/summer/fall by early February/July/October; check exact dates with registrar’s office. This is an “intent to graduate;” your thesis need not be finished, you need not have defended. If your defense is delayed, you can roll the application over to the next semester without new costs.

Thesis Pre-Clearance: Deadline for all these items is early April/July/November; check ETD for exact dates. You must have completed the ETD workshop on dissertation formatting and publishing requirements, and submitted a pre-version of your thesis for formatting clearance to the library/ETD. This makes sure there is no last-minute formatting scramble. Your thesis does not need to be final.

You also need to submit the Dissertation Examination/Defense Form (CCAS) to the CCAS Graduate Studies Office. This does not certify that your defense is successful, but that you plan to defend your dissertation in the current semester. Signature of the DGS is required (“Defense Committee Chair”). All Readers and Committee Members must be listed.

Dissertation Defense Completion: The Dissertation Defense must be completed by mid-April/July/November; check CCAS/ETD for exact dates. After the successful dissertation defense, the DGS submits the Final Dissertation Committee Signoff Form to the CCAS Graduate Studies Office.

ETD Approval Completion: Often, the Dissertation Committee will request changes. After these have been approved, upload your final, approved dissertation to Proquest via the university ETD site. ETD must certify that you have indeed successfully uploaded by early May/August/December; check ETD for exact dates. It is not enough to upload in time; by the deadline, ETD must have approved that your upload fulfils all specifications, including formatting. Not doing wild formatting changes after the pre-clearance is imperative for success.

Getting Approval From the Research Committee and Forming an Examination Committee

When you finish research work on your project, write up your findings in a thesis document that must follow established guidelines; for a document template and further instructions contact the Physics Graduate Studies Advisor. You must then seek formal approval of your completed dissertation from the Research Committee. The state of the thesis at this stage should be a finished product in form, appearance, and scientific scope and content. It is bad practice to deliver an unfinished product and rely on post-examination revisions to correct deficiencies, and readers should not sign off on such unfinished drafts.

Satisfactory state of your thesis is certified by the members of the Research Committee in the Dissertation Research Committee Approval Form. All members of the Research Committee unanimously agree that the Ph.D. dissertation draft presented to them is acceptable in its current form and suitable for distribution to the examiners (see following paragraph) in preparation for the dissertation defense. If only one member of the Research Committee disagrees, the form cannot be filed, the defense cannot go forward at this point in time and you need to continue working on improvements until all members are in agreement.

The form also specifies departmental and outside examiners for the dissertation defense. The Physics Department limits the number of examiners to two: one from within the department (preferably from a different area of expertise) and one from outside the department. None of the examiners can have had a direct role in the dissertation research process. (They may be affiliated with the same research group as the candidate, as long as they were not involved in any of the project’s work and have no vested interest in its outcome.) The two examiners plus the members of the Research Committee form your Defense Examination Committee. The DGS chairs the committee.

You send the completed form to the DGS, whose signature certifies approval of the Research Committee and proper appointment of the Examination Committee. The Ph.D. defense must not be scheduled without this certification. It is customary to informally discuss tentative defense dates with prospective committee members prior to DGS approval.

After this form is submitted to the DGS, get the DGS signature on the Dissertation Examination/Defense Form (CCAS) and submit it to CCAS. Signature of the DGS is required (“Defense Committee Chair”). All readers and committee members must be listed. Be reminded that CCAS has an early-April/July/November deadline.

Defending Your PhD Thesis

The CCAS Graduate Student Handbook lays out requirements and best practices for PhD examinations in the Columbian College.

The Defense Examination Committee consists of the Research Committee formed at the time of the proposal defense augmented by two examiners — one from within the Physics Department and one from the outside, as specified in Step 2 — and by the DGS, who chairs the actual defense proceedings.

The version of the dissertation that is to be defended must be circulated to all examination committee members at least one month prior to the examination. Announcements of the examination must be sent out to the entire Physics Department at least two weeks in advance. Announcement templates are available from the Physics Department. Please note: Unless the DGS agrees that there are valid mitigating circumstances, examinations should not be scheduled outside of regular lecturing and exam periods. (Inconvenience, scheduling problems, or being too busy otherwise, are not mitigating circumstances. Plan ahead.)

The dissertation defense is conducted publicly in front of the entire Examination Committee. The DGS chairs the proceedings, but does not participate in the discussion. As part of the public part of the examination, you present your Ph.D. project and its scientific outcome in a 25-min lecture, followed by a Q&A session between examiners, readers and you. The advisor should not engage in presenting the project, but may provide brief clarifications if necessary. The chair may invite the public to pose questions as well. At the discretion of the chair, part of the examination may take place in a closed session. Further details of how to conduct the examination are specified in the CCAS Graduate Student Handbook.

The decision to pass the dissertation and defense is reached in closed session by majority vote of the two examiners and the two readers; director(s) and chair do not vote. A split 2-2 vote counts as ‘pass’. Possible outcomes are (a) dissertation accepted as presented; (b) dissertation accepted subject to successful completion of mandatory revisions within specified timeframe; or (c) dissertation is unacceptable. The outcome of the defense is certified by the signatures of all members of the Examination Committee in the Final Examination Committee Sign-Off (Physics) document. (The actual vote tally is not recorded.)

If revisions of the dissertation should be necessary, the form needs to clearly specify their scope, extent and the expected timeline for submission of the revised, final version, and the committee members (readers or examiners, not a thesis advisor) who will sign off. (Ideally, at this stage none of the revision requests should come from the Research Committee since they already had ample opportunity to request corrections prior to signing off on the thesis under Presenting Your Proposal.)

Getting Final Approval

If the dissertation was accepted as presented, skip this step.

If revisions are necessary, the correspondingly revised thesis is examined by the committee members designated in the previous step. If revisions take significantly longer than the previously agreed upon expected timeframe, the DGS must be notified, who will then decide whether the delay warrants reconvening the examination committee for an executive session to assess the situation.

If the revised dissertation is found acceptable, the Final Dissertation Committee Signoff (CCAS) Form (PDF) is signed by the DGS certifying that all requirements have been successfully completed and you may be awarded a Ph.D. Degree. The DGS submits this form and the Application for Graduation Form to CCAS. You upload the final version of the thesis to the ProQuest dissertation library (for further information, see the GW Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs website). Students and their faculty advisors are responsible for complying with the ETD formatting requirements to ensure the final approval and acceptance by ProQuest.

The day you successfully upload the thesis to ProQuest is the day your thesis is finally approved. This day also determines the semester in which your degree is awarded. If a “graduation date” has been set for you (e.g., by granting an extension request), you need to have uploaded your thesis successfully to ProQuest by that date. Graduations are counted as “Fall term” when the upload is finished by early January of the following term. Ph.D. degrees are conferred only during May graduation. For exact dates and other terms, see the GW Academic Calendar.


Timeline for PhD Proposal Defense (PDF)

Timeline for PhD Thesis Defense (PDF)