PhD Policies & Resources

Department of Political Science sign on a glass door with a man and woman in the office in the background

The Political Science Department PhD program aims to prepare students to compete for top jobs on the academic market. The department guidelines and other resources are designed to assist students as they navigate the program.

In addition, the Columbian College’s Graduate Student Handbook provides further details on workload, curriculum and transfer credits, academic policies, and the graduation process.

The information on this page applies to doctoral students in the fall 2014 cohort and beyond. Read our guide for the fall 2013 cohort and earlier.



    GPA Requirement

    In order to ensure that the Political Science Department maintains the highest standards of excellence and positions students for prestigious careers, we must consider the option of terminating students (in conjunction with annual evaluations) who are not meeting our expectations.

    Columbian College policy states that if a doctoral student’s GPA falls below 3.0 (see the CCAS Graduate Student Handbook), they are subject to termination from the program. The Political Science Department will consider it a red flag if a student’s GPA falls below 3.5.

    Also note that students who do not receive a “satisfactory pass” on the second attempt of a major comprehensive exam or a “bare pass” on the minor comprehensive exam on the second attempt will be terminated from the program.

    Funding and Timeline

    For Students Not Completing Fieldwork

    Funding is guaranteed for five years, conditional on adequate progress. Students should work with their advisor to create a clear plan laying out a timeline for completion of the degree program and specifying when they will enter the job market. The expectation is that they will enter the academic job market in the fall of their fifth year. The department can make exceptions to this timeline, but the burden is on the student to justify why they need more time.

    Students should be aware of expectations regarding the timing of the job market and of pre-doc and post-doc positions.

    For Students Completing Fieldwork

    Students doing fieldwork in a foreign country — usually comparativists — typically complete the program in six years. Fieldwork students should begin requesting external funding (e.g., Fulbright) during the third year in the program to support their sixth year. These students plan to enter the job market in the fall of their sixth year.

    Comprehensive Examinations


    All students in the PhD in Political Science are required to complete comprehensive examinations in both their major and minor fields. The department will entertain petitions jointly submitted by students and full-time faculty members in the department for minors that are composed primarily of classes that are not offered by the established fields.

    Preparation for Exams

    Exams are intended to test students' familiarity with and critical understanding of the broad range of ideas and literature that the major and minor fields comprise. Consequently, students prepare for exams by engaging in substantial reading beyond course requirements, in consultation with faculty.

    Evaluation of Exams

    Comprehensive exams are evaluated as fail, bare pass, satisfactory pass, or pass with distinction. Students must receive a grade of satisfactory pass or better on their major field exam, and a grade of bare pass or better on their minor field exam in order to continue in the program. Students may retake each exam once, if necessary; under no circumstances may a student take a comprehensive examination a third time. Failure to demonstrate the required level of performance on comprehensive examinations after two efforts will result in termination from the program.  In addition, students may not switch their major or minor field if they fail on the first or second try.  Students who have achieved at least a bare pass in the major field will be eligible to be considered for the M.A. degree. Part of the major examination includes an oral portion. Prior to the oral examination, students are required to submit a one-page summary of the planned dissertation topic.

    Plan of Study

    During the fall and spring semesters of the first year, students should fill out a plan of study in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the conveners of the major and minor fields. This allows students and their advisors to plan for the entire program and determine which classes are necessary to prepare for comprehensive exams and dissertation research. Students should use research papers in courses to explore potential dissertation topics in preparation for writing their prospectus when they finish exams.

    Copies of exams from previous years are available. All students will need to complete and submit a Comprehensive Exam Application Form (PDF).

    Research Paper Requirement

    A central objective of doctoral training is to teach students how to produce original publishable research. To that end, students are required to complete a research paper (PDF) as a major component of the second year program. Students are paired with a faculty mentor in their second year to advise on the paper and the steps toward a draft. An initial draft of this paper will normally be presented at a workshop in late spring of the second year. The final draft of the paper is due at the beginning of the third year (mid-September). The paper is submitted to both the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the second year paper coordinator, who distributes the paper to a number of faculty who review the paper as if it had been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

    Ideally, the goal of this requirement is to get students directly engaged in research early on in the process while they are taking courses and mastering the literature and methodological tools.  As this requirement is also designed to induce students to think about their dissertation topics early, students are strongly encouraged to write a paper related to their dissertation research. However, the paper may be developed from a class or workshop presentation. The students are encouraged to take the paper to a conference, submit to a journal, and/or use it as the basis of their dissertation (or some component of the dissertation).  The paper should be of the quality that can be presented at a major political science conference. If the paper does not meet minimum standards of form and substance, it will not have met the requirement and the student will need to revise the paper, following a timeline determined by the DGS. If, after two versions of the paper, the student is unable to meet this requirement, the student will be terminated from the program.  

    Dissertation Guidance

    Dissertation Prospectus

    The dissertation prospectus is written in consultation with a faculty committee consisting of a director and two readers, selected in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies. The director of the dissertation committee must be a member of the Department of Political Science. The prospectus must outline the central research question(s), relate the proposed research to the existing literature, detail a research methodology and explain the nature of the original contribution that the completed project will provide. Formats for the prospectus vary and are decided jointly by students and their committees. Examples of past prospectuses are available from the Director of Graduate Studies.

    When a final draft of the prospectus is complete, the student should work with the committee to set a date for the prospectus defense. The prospectus must be presented and defended in an open forum, to which all faculty and doctoral students will be invited. The defense must be announced at least two weeks in advance. Once a date has been set, the student is responsible for reserving a space and sending an announcement to the Department Administrator, who will forward it to faculty and doctoral students.

    A prospectus topic defense form must be completed by the student and signed by the committee. The student should bring the form to their prospectus defense and submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies after the defense.

    Note: Students who are completing fieldwork should defend their dissertation prospectus before going into the field.

    Prospectus Timeline and Extensions

    The presumption is that students will have completed and defended a dissertation prospectus by the end of their third year in the program. Students who are not finished with the prospectus by the end of the third year must meet with the DGS and with a potential adviser to develop a plan for the summer and fourth year. The student must present a specific plan and timeline for defending the prospectus. These deadlines are critical to keep in mind. If they are not met, the student is no longer considered to be making satisfactory academic progress.

    If the prospectus is not complete by mid-fall of the fourth year the following final deadlines will go into effect.

    - By January 15th, produce a rough draft of a dissertation prospectus that a committee of three GW political science faculty members express confidence in and send the draft to the Director of Graduate Studies ([email protected]);

    - By March 1st, respond to faculty members’ comments on the rough draft in a way that the committee believes will lead to a successful final prospectus;

    - By May 15th, defend the dissertation prospectus.

    If the student does not meet these terms, they will be terminated from the program.

    Advancing to Candidacy

    Once students have secured approval on their prospectus and met all other exam and credit requirements (see the CCAS Graduate Student Handbook), they advance to candidacy.

    Organizing the Dissertation Defense

    In the fifth year (or sixth for fieldwork students), students complete their dissertation. Organizing a dissertation defense takes a minimum of six weeks, so start early. (View CCAS guidelines.) Even before the dissertation is completed, students and their dissertation directors should be thinking about who will join the dissertation defense committee and possible dates for the defense.

    Dissertation Sign-off

    When the Research Committee (those faculty who advised the student in writing the dissertation) agree that the dissertation is ready to be defended, they must email the Director of Graduate Studies that they believe the dissertation is ready to go to a defense.

    Establishing the Defense Committee

    The dissertation director, in consultation with the department Director of Graduate Studies and with the advisor’s approval, determines the membership of the Dissertation Defense Committee (what CCAS calls the Final Examination Committee in the Graduate Student Handbook). The committee should consist of the members of the student's Research Committee and at least two additional members, one of whom must be from outside the department. This external examiner may be from another GW department or from another university or similar institution. If the external examiner is not a GW faculty member, their CV must be provided to the DGS. External members should be active academic researchers holding doctoral degrees. A student's current or prospective immediate supervisor of employment is not permitted to be an examiner. Care should be taken to ensure that the committee proposed represents the necessary fields of expertise to assess the dissertation.

    Scheduling the Defense

    The dissertation director and student consult with the Defense Committee members to determine the date, time and place for the defense, subject to the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies. Be sure the examination room is booked for the defense and that any necessary electronic equipment is available. When agreement is reached, the dissertation director must submit a "Final Oral Examination Committee" list to the DGS along with the C.V. of any member from outside the university.

    The defense cannot take place sooner than four weeks after the additional members of the Defense Committee have received their copies of the dissertation to be defended. This is to ensure adequate time for them to read the work.

    Distributing Copies of the Dissertation

    The student must distribute copies of the dissertation to all members of the Defense Committee and ensure that an electronic copy of the dissertation is on file with the Department Administrator. Learn more about dissertation formatting on the Electronic Theses and Dissertations website.

    Public Notice of the Defense

    As soon as the defense is scheduled, the student is responsible for providing the DGS and Department Administrator with all information necessary to post a public notice of the defense at least four weeks prior to the defense. This information includes: the title of the dissertation; names and affiliations of all members of the defense committee; the time, date, and place of the defense; and an abstract (one paragraph) of the project. The Department Administrator will then circulate a notice of the defense to all students and faculty in the department.

    The Defense

    A few days prior to the defense, the dissertation director should meet or correspond with the committee members to establish procedures for the defense. Procedures to discuss might include whether the student will make a brief presentation of the project (establish the length and/or format of this), the order of questioning by committee members, the duration of questioning by each committee member, and the rough duration expected for the entire defense. Agreed procedures should then be communicated to the student.

    The defense then proceeds at the appointed time and place. The dissertation director presides at the defense but plays no role in questioning the student or answering questions from other examiners. After the examiners have concluded their questioning, the student and any other observers in attendance are asked to leave the room while the committee meets in executive session. During these deliberations, the director plays the part of advocate for the student and works with the committee to reach a final decision about the dissertation.

    At the conclusion of the defense, the Defense Committee members must fill out the Final Examination Committee Sign-Off Form (link below). The form asks the committee to check one of three boxes: the dissertation is "acceptable as is", the dissertation is "acceptable subject to requested revisions," or the dissertation is "unacceptable." If the Committee requests revisions prior to accepting the dissertation, it must establish procedures for approving those revisions and convey those to the dissertation director, the student, and the Director of Graduate Studies in writing on the form. The dissertation director and any other committee members who will review the revised dissertation must then sign the Dissertation Defense Committee Sign-Off Form (PDF).

    To-Do List for the Dissertation Director
    1. Procure an email from all members of the Research Committee that the dissertation can go to defense, and send this to the DGS. This confirms that in the opinion of the signatories, the dissertation is defensible.
    2. Consult with the DGS about the composition of the full examining committee. If someone from outside GW is on the examining committee, a C.V. must be provided to the DGS.
    3. Work with the dissertation student to ensure that a copy of the dissertation that will be defended is in the hands of each member of the examining committee no less than four weeks before the date of the defense.
    4. Work with the dissertation student to ensure that a copy of the dissertation abstract reaches the DGS and a digital copy of the entire dissertation reaches the department office no less than four weeks before the date of the defense.
    5. At the defense, run the meeting as an impartial facilitator but play no part during the examination. In the executive session, play a full and active role.
    6. After the defense, help coordinate any required revisions.
    7. When everything is in order, work with the student to ensure that the correctly formatted dissertation is uploaded to ETD by the required date.
    To-Do List for the Graduate Advisor
    1. Verify that all members of the examining committee have a copy of the dissertation and that a digital copy of the dissertation is on file with the Department Administrator for inspection by any interested faculty member or graduate student.
    2. Arrange for a room for the defense.
    3. Approximately four weeks before the defense date, notify faculty and graduate students of the defense. This notification will include the name of the dissertation student, title of the dissertation, composition of the examining committee, date, time, and place of the defense, and an abstract of the dissertation.
    4. Place the Dissertation Defense Committee Sign-Off Form (PDF) in the student’s file after completion of the defense.