A dissertation is the result of a scholarly investigation on a topic or problem conducted independently by the candidate under the general guidance of a faculty committee and chaired by a primary advisor. The committee plays a key role in guiding the candidate's proposal, research, and writing. To facilitate the advisory process, the candidate selects his/her faculty committee on the basis of common intellectual interest on the dissertation topic. Two additional external readers are added later in the process, in consultation with the Doctoral Program Director, to participate in the defense. Ultimately, what constitutes a dissertation is the result of an agreement between the student, the chair, and the committee members.

Preparation for the Dissertation

Preparing for the dissertation requires the following steps:

  1. Selecting a manageable and relevant research topic.
  2. Developing a proposal which must be defended orally and approved by the dissertation committee.
  3. Completing independent research.
  4. Writing the dissertation.
  5. Defending the dissertation orally before a committee of five faculty members (committee plus external readers).
  6. In addition to defense, students are expected to make a formal presentation ("job talk") of dissertation - related work to the NYU Wagner community, typically at the Wagner Research Colloquium.

Searching for a Topic

A doctoral candidate may have to ponder and explore more than one possible topic for his/her dissertation research. This is an intellectually demanding effort that requires time and self-discipline. Some questions that a candidate may ask at this stage are:

  1. What is the topic or problem for research?
  2. Can this idea be reduced to a limited topic or problem for research given available resources and time, that is, is it feasible?
  3. What are the questions for research?
  4. What specific attributes or relationships (independent and dependent variables) will be studied?
  5. What is the theoretical base?
  6. How is the topic related to public administration/public affairs/public policy or its fields of study?
  7. What research methods and techniques will be most suitable for the investigation?
  8. What is the main literature in this area?
  9. Who in the full-time faculty is interested in this area of inquiry and able to provide guidance?
  10. And lastly, at a more personal level, the student must ask:
    1. Do I feel sufficiently interested, and excited by this topic to invest the time and effort that it would require for a dissertation?
    2. How much preparation will I need in the field and in research to study this topic or problem adequately?
    3. Will it prepare me to do the sort of research I would like to do after I complete the Ph.D.?
    4. How will it help me to obtain the sort of position I am interested in?

When a candidate feels comfortable with a topic, s/he should put together a brief outline including a tentative title and research plan. The candidate should approach a few potential readers once s/he has put together a preliminary statement. Their reactions and dialogue will help the student move forward and assess how helpful different faculty can be for their dissertation. The dialogue with faculty would help the student identify a first reader or dissertation advisor as well as other potential members of the committee.

Proposal and Dissertation Committee

Once a first reader (chair) has agreed to serve on the dissertation committee, the candidate works on developing a formal dissertation proposal. While developing the proposal, the candidate also secures two additional readers in consultation with the chair. These two additional readers and the chair comprise the dissertation committee.

The dissertation advisor should be a full-time NYU Wagner faculty member and at least 2 of the 3 readers should be from NYU Wagner. If there is no professor available for the selected topic area, it is preferable that the Chair still be from Wagner with the understanding that the second reader will be the technical expert and advisor. The three readers serve as the dissertation committee and assist the candidate with further developing his/her proposal. Based on the nature of the research topic, it is also possible for students to include faculty from other NYU schools or from other universities in their dissertation committee. The composition of the dissertation committee must be approved by the Doctoral Program Director prior to the proposal defense.

K. Turabian's Manual of Style and/or the American Psychological Association Manual of Style are excellent guides to develop the proposal. Periodically books about the dissertation process appear in the market and can be helpful sources. An example is: Fitzpatrick, J., J. Secrist and D. Wright. (1998) Secrets for a Successful Dissertation, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Dissertation Proposal and Final Defense

Students are required to defend their proposals orally before their committees. In a formal meeting, the committee will determine if the candidate is ready to begin writing his/her dissertation.

In addition, students may also need UCAIHS approval for their defense. Access more information on how to obtain this approval.

Research and Writing

Once the approval of the dissertation proposal has been secured, the candidate proceeds with the research and writing under the guidance of his/her principal advisor and dissertation committee.

Oral Defense

The chair of the dissertation committee works with the student to schedule the final oral defense. A dissertation is accepted when the five committee members (3 original readers and 2 external readers) indicate their approval in writing on the appropriate form.

Job Talk

In addition to the defense, students nearing completion of their dissertation are expected to make a formal presentation (or "job talk") of dissertation related research at the Wagner Research Colloquium. Students expected to defend their dissertations in a given academic year should contact the faculty coordinators for the Research Colloquium so that time can be set aside to do the student's presentation.


Each candidate, prior to receiving the recommendation for his/her degree, must guarantee the publication of the dissertation through ProQuest.