Topical Examination

Following the Preliminary Essay, students begin work toward their dissertations. During the Winter and Spring quarters of their third year, they should be meeting with various faculty members to discuss and refine possible dissertation topics, and possible dissertation committees.

By the end of the seventh week of the spring quarter, each student should meet with a prospective committee for an informal "dissertation chat," based on a "dissertation sketch" submitted to those faculty and to the Graduate Program Committee. The character of that sketch will vary from case to case; but, in any case, is not expected to be long or elaborate. Some sketches may be more definitive than others; some may be seriously disjunctive; some students may submit more than one sketch. The point of the sketch and preliminary meetings is to provide some faculty guidance for the more independent research that begins over the summer. After the "dissertation chat" the student should submit to their committee a document that describes the work toward formulating a dissertation project and lays out a plan of research for the summer that will lead to a "Topical Examination" by the beginning of the Winter quarter of their fourth year.

At the beginning of the following fall (fourth year), students will again meet with their advisors (optimally all together), to discuss progress and developments over the summer, and make concrete plans for the Topical Examination (to be held later that quarter, or, if necessary, early in the Winter quarter). Those plans will include:

  • a tentative timetable
  • a determination of the dissertation committee
  • the expected character of the materials to be submitted by the student, on which the Examination will be based.

Though the details will vary (depending on the subject matter, the state of the research, individual work habits, and so on), these materials must include a substantial piece of new written work by the student (something on the order of twenty-five double-spaced pages) -- perhaps a draft of a chapter, an exposition of a central argument, a detailed abstract (or outline) of the whole dissertation, or whatever the committee as a whole agrees upon. (It is expected that students will abide by these agreements; but, if there are unanticipated problems, they may petition their advisors and the DGS, in writing, for a revision).

The Topical Examination is an oral examination administered by the members of a student's dissertation committee with the aim of evaluating the viability of the proposed dissertation project and the student's ability to complete it within a reasonable amount of time. Students will be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. only once they have officially passed their Topical Examination.

Note: students must have scheduled their Topical Examination by the end of their fifteenth quarter (normally the end of the fifth year) to remain in the Program.

Students cannot take their Topical until they have met all other program requirements including passing their foreign language exam or exams. Students must finish their language exams by the end of their fourth year in the program (independently of their status with regard to any other requirements).
The Department's normal expectation is that students will have advanced to candidacy (including passing their Topical Examination and their language examination(s)) by the end of third week of their 11th quarter (normally the Winter quarter of their fourth year). Summer funding at the end of the fourth year is contingent on satisfying this expectation.

The Department requires that each student submit a written progress report on his or her progress by the end of the winter quarter of each year, beginning with his or her fourth year in the program. The report should be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies and (after the Topical) to the student's dissertation committee. In addition to this report, students who have advanced to candidacy must submit a substantial piece of new writing (25-30 pages in length) to the chair of their dissertation committee. The student will be notified whether or not he or she is making good progress following the annual review meetings in Spring.
It is very much in each student's own interest to be well along with his or her dissertation early in the fifth year, for several related reasons. First, of course, all students are obligated to teach a stand-alone course that year as part of their GAI teaching requirements. This is inevitably time and energy consuming. Second, GAI funding runs out at the end of that year; and some students will not get any more support from the University. And, finally, such sixth-year support as there is from the University is systematically directed to those applicants whose work is not only of the best quality, but also the furthest along (as documented not only by faculty testimonials but also by submitted chapters). Keep in mind also that so-called "dissertation-year fellowships" are awarded competitively on a Division-wide basis, and there are not enough to go around. Though Philosophy students have often done well in this competition, there is no guarantee for the future; and, in any case, not all applications will be successful.
To be sure, supporting oneself without aid, while finishing up a dissertation, is a time-honored academic tradition. But, for most students, the available opportunities are far from deluxe (either inside or outside the University), and it is clearly wise to minimize one's dependence on them, if possible.

NOTE: The Department Coordinator must be informed of the date and time of your Topical Exam, and documentation of the Topical. This is so that department and university can record the exam and admit the student to candidacy.  Students need to email the Department Coordinator the names of the members of the committee, the sample chapter on which the Topical examination is based, and the working title of the dissertation.