PhD Policies & Resources


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


In the Political Science Department, we set high expectations for our excellent students. Our ultimate goal is to prepare students to compete for the 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 Doctoral 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.




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), he or she is 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.

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, Americanists and international relations students — typically complete the program in six years. Fieldwork students should begin requesting external funding (e.g., Fulbright) to support their sixth year during the third year in the program. These students plan to enter the job market in the fall of their sixth year.


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.

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 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).

Students are required to complete a research paper at the end of their second year in the program and submit it to Director of Graduate Studies for a mock peer-review by faculty at the beginning of their third year. This paper must reflect the student's ability to conduct research. 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. If the paper was written for a class, it should be further developed. 

The paper should be of the quality that can be presented at a major political science conference, and students will be encouraged to take the paper to a conference, submit it to a journal, and/or use it as the basis of their dissertation. Papers that do not meet satisfactory standards will need to be revised. 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

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 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 director of graduate studies, 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.

The prospectus should be submitted and defended by the end of the first semester after the student has passed his or her second comprehensive exam. At the very latest, students must defend their prospectus by the time they have accumulated 63 credits; for full-time students, this is by the end of the fall semester of the fourth year.

Students who are not finished with the prospectus by this time must file an extension in consultation with the DGS and the dissertation adviser explaining why they are requesting this extension. This plan takes the form of a contract; failure to complete the prospectus defense within the timeframe specified in the modified plan will result in termination from the PhD program. The burden is on the student to justify the delay in sufficient detail. The director of graduate studies and dissertation advisor will decide whether to approve or reject the application.

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

In the fifth (most students) and sixth (fieldwork students) year, students complete their dissertation. Organizing a dissertation defense takes a minimum of six weeks, so start early. 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 to accommodate any travel plans of those involved.

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.

The dissertation director, in consultation with the department graduate advisor and with the advisor’s approval, determines the membership of the Dissertation Defense Committee (what CCAS calls the Final Examination Committee in the Doctoral 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 outside member may be from another GW department or from another university or similar institution. If the outside member is not a GW faculty member, her or his CV must be provided to the graduate advisor. Outside 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.

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 Graduate Advisor. Be sure the examination room is booked for the defense and that any necessary electronic equipment is available. When agreement is reached, the director must submit a "Final Oral Examination Committee" list to the Graduate Advisor 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.

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’s Graduate Assistant. Learn more about dissertation formatting on the Electronic Theses and Dissertations website.

As soon as the defense is scheduled, the student is responsible for providing the Graduate Advisor 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 electronic abstract (one paragraph) of the project. The Graduate Advisor will then circulate a notice of the defense to all students and faculty in the department.

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 Graduate Advisor in writing on the form. The dissertation director and any other committee members who will review the revised dissertation must then sign the “Final Dissertation Approval (Post-Defense) Form.

  1. Procure an email from all members of the Research Committee that dissertation can to go defense, and send this to the Graduate Advisor. This confirms that in the opinion of the signatories, the dissertation is defensible.
  2. Consult with the Graduate Advisor 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 Graduate Advisor.
  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 (electronic version) reaches the Graduate Advisor and a paper 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 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 ETDS by the required date.
  1. Verify that all members of the examining committee have a copy of the dissertation and that an electronic copy of the dissertation is on file with the Graduate Assistant for inspection by any interested faculty member or graduate student.
  2. Arrange for a room for the defense if student and Director so request.
  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 abstract of the dissertation.
  4. Place the Final Examination Committee Sign-Off Form in the student’s file after completion of the defense.