PhD Degree - Dissertation & Defense

The Ph.D. thesis is based upon original research and shows mature scholarship and critical judgment, as well as familiarity with tools and methods of research. The Ph.D. thesis differs from a M.S. thesis or a single journal publication in terms of the scope and/or originality and significance of the research.

The subject of the Ph.D. thesis should be approved by the student's Ph.D. Committee in a meeting with the student within 18 months of admission into Ph.D. candidacy. Some research advisors may request a written thesis proposal; others may require only an oral presentation.  The Ph.D. Committee may provide advice on the scope and methods of the research, and will provide an assessment of the suitability of the proposed research for a Ph.D. thesis. The Ph.D. candidate is expected to meet with the committee annually to discuss research progress. A written report will be provided to the student by the research advisor after each meeting with the committee.

The content of a Ph.D. thesis should include:

  • Motivation for the research
  • Hypotheses, scientific questions, and/or unique observational or analytical tools addressed in the research
  • Survey of relevant literature
  • Description of research tools and methods
  • Research results
  • Conclusion that assesses the significance of the results, limitations of the research, and future applications of the research

Theses that emphasize development of observational or analytical tools  (e.g. development of instrumentation or numerical models) are expected to include in the thesis research some application of the tool to a scientific problem.

The format of the thesis may be that of the conventional thesis, where individual chapters correspond to topics such as those described above. If the student has published or submitted for publication several manuscripts, the student may elect to include these manuscripts as appendices in the thesis. These manuscripts should only include those for which the student is first author (Note: student's contributions to non-first-authored papers can be included in the body of the thesis).  The body of the thesis may then be relatively short, describing the overall motivation, hypotheses, tools, highlights of results (including any results not in the appendices), and conclusions.

Scheduling the Final Examination (defense) is the responsibility of the student.  The student should schedule a meeting with his or her entire committee approximately one year prior to when the student thinks he or she will be ready to defend to determine if completion of the dissertation along this timeline is feasible.  Scheduling of the actual defense date is normally done only after the research advisor and other committee members have read at least a preliminary copy of the written dissertation and have given approval to proceed with the Exam. Once the defense date has been set, the ATOC guideline for submitting a polished copy of the written dissertation to each committee member is one month prior to the date of the defense.

The format of the Final Examination (defense) is similar to that of the Comprehensive Examination. However, the entire Final Examination is open to any interested person. The candidate gives an oral presentation of the thesis research that is about 45 minutes in length.  After the presentation, questions from the audience are addressed.  More detailed questions are then asked by the committee members.  After the Exam, the Ph.D. Committee meets in closed session to decide upon the outcome.


After a preliminary copy of the dissertation has been accepted for defense by the student’s committee, a final examination on the dissertation and related topics is conducted. The following rules must be observed:

  1. A student must be registered as a regular degree student on the Boulder Campus for a minimum of 5 dissertation hours during the semester in which the final examination is scheduled.
  2. The examination consists of an oral presentation given by the candidate on the dissertation subject, followed by a period of questions for the candidate by the committee. The oral presentation is open to anyone who wishes to attend. The full examination typically does not exceed two hours.
  3. The examination will be conducted by the Ph.D. Committee.
  4. More than one dissenting vote will result in failure. In case of failure, the examination may be attempted once more. A second failure will result in automatic suspension by the Graduate School. Signatures from 5 committee members are required.
  5. Students must notify the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance of the scheduled date of the final examination.


A dissertation based on original investigation and showing mature scholarship and critical judgment, as well as familiarity with tools and methods of research, must be written on a subject approved by the student's Ph.D. committee. Each dissertation presented in partial fulfillment of the doctoral degree must:

  1. Comply with the "University of Colorado Graduate School Thesis and Dissertation Specifications."
  2. Be filed with the Graduate School by the posted deadline for the semester in which the degree is to be conferred.