Public Policy PhD Milestone Guide

I would like to request an exemption from a pre-requisite or core course. What do I need to do?

Students may have completed graduate courses which they believe are equivalent to one or more of the required prerequisite or core courses. Those seeking exemption from courses may submit a written petition to PhD Student Services for review by the course instructor, who will recommend to the Doctoral Program Director either that the exemption be granted or that the student take a proficiency examination. The petition must include the following documentation (items 1-4 are mandatory; items 5 and 6 will help make the case):

  1. Course title and a transcript showing the grade earned
  2. A copy of the catalog description of the course
  3. A syllabus for the course or a list of topics covered
  4. Identification of the text(s) used in the course
  5. Examination questions and results from the course
  6. Any papers or projects written for the course

Students will not receive credit toward the 82-hour degree minimum for a core course from which the student has been exempted unless that course is included within the 30-credit maximum allowed for prior graduate work.

Students seeking exemption from a quantitative methodology course may petition in writing to take a more advanced course in the same specialty area at George Mason University or at another institution approved by the Doctoral Program Director. If that course is passed with a grade of B or better, the student will be exempt from the less advanced core course requirement. The credit earned for the more advanced course will count toward the 82-credit minimum.

I’ve passed the Comprehensive Qualifying Exam. What’s next?

Assemble a Field Research Committee, submit the necessary form,  prepare your statement and take the Field Exam.  View eligible faculty for committees.

I’m ready to write my Field of Study Plan. What do I have to do?

By the start of their fourth semester (fifth semester for part-time), full-time students must submit to the chair of their field committee a plan for their Field of Study. The Field of Study Plan is an outline of the student’s proposed research areas. Drawing upon relevant coursework, scholarship, and faculty expertise, the Plan both clarifies research goals and provides a structure for reaching those goals.

The Field of Study Plan should be no more than 1000 words. A basic Plan may include the following elements:

  1. Proposed research areas. The Plan should identify areas of interest and potential questions the student intends to explore. For each area, the student should include a bibliography of significant scholarship and describe the literature most relevant to current research. If the student has begun to consider research design, notes on this may be included.
  2. Relevant coursework. The Plan should list four courses that serve as the foundation for the student’s field of study. These may include courses previously taken or courses the student plans to take. Three of these are substantive: one 800-level Schar School course (excluding core and advanced methods courses), one Schar School course at the 700-level or above (excluding those 700-level courses not eligible for PhD credit), and one substantive graduate course which may be from the Schar School or may be an approved graduate-level course from another department. The fourth is the advanced methods course covering methodology the student intends to apply to the research.
  3. Faculty involvement. The Plan should indicate which faculty members will be involved in the student’s research. This will include the field committee members and may also incorporate other faculty expertise upon which the student will draw.

The student’s Field Committee Chair and the Public Policy Doctoral Program Director must approve the Field of Study Plan.

I’ve passed my Field Exam. What’s next?

Assemble a Dissertation Committee and submit the necessary formView eligible faculty for committees.

I’m ready to defend my dissertation proposal. What do I need to do?

Work with your committee to determine a time and date for the defense. All committee members must be physically present. To schedule a room, please send the time and date of the defense to Shannon Williams.

When choosing a date, make sure to let any external readers and outside members know that parking at the Arlington campus is limited. You may want to suggest public transportation and offer guidance on parking options on campus and in the surrounding area.

At least 15 days before the scheduled defense, you must submit to the Director of Student Engagement the following items:

  • a signed Statement of Readiness for Proposal Defense Form
  • an e-mail listing dissertation proposal title, previous degrees you hold, date and time of defense, all committee members names (including the department of any outside members), and abstract of no more than 100 words
  • a copy of the final draft of your dissertation proposal

You should work with your committee chair to determine time limits and expectations of your defense presentation. Please rehearse your presentation and test the A/V equipment prior to the defense. We encourage all students to attend the proposal and dissertation defenses of other students to get a sense of what to expect.

Any requests for exceptions to these requirements must be made well in advance in writing by the student’s committee chair and approved by the Public Policy Doctoral Program Director and the Dean.

I’ve defended my proposal. What’s next?

Work with your chair to find an appropriate external reader. Once provisionally approved, submit the necessary form signed by your chair and the reader.

I’m ready to defend my dissertation. What do I need to do?

Work with your committee to determine a time and date for the defense. All committee members must be physically present. To schedule a room, please send the time and date of the defense to Shannon Williams.

When choosing a date, make sure to let any external readers and outside members know that parking at the Arlington campus is limited. You may want to suggest public transportation and offer guidance on parking options on campus and in the surrounding area.

At least 15 days before the scheduled defense, you must submit to the Director of Student Engagement the following items:

  • a signed Oral Dissertation Defense Readiness Form
  • an e-mail listing dissertation proposal title, previous degrees you hold, date and time of defense, all committee members names (including the department of any outside members), and abstract of no more than 100 words
  • an electronic copy of the final draft of your dissertation

You must also complete the following tasks at least 15 days before the defense:

  • submit a hard copy of your final draft of your dissertations to the Reserve Desk of the Arlington Campus library
  • conduct a dissertation formatting review with University Dissertation and Thesis Services (UDTS)

You should work with your committee chair to determine time limits and expectations of your defense presentation. Please rehearse your presentation and test the A/V equipment prior to the defense. We encourage all students to attend the proposal and dissertation defenses of other students to get a sense of what to expect.

Any requests for exceptions to these requirements must be made well in advance in writing by the student’s committee chair and approved by the Doctoral Program Director and the Dean.

NOTE for the day of defense: A copy of your dissertation includes a signature sheet, signed by all members of your dissertation committee. Both the library and the Schar School require their copies to have ORIGINAL copies of the signature sheet, although the copies for your committee members may be photocopies.

Signature sheet:

With external reader line
Without external reader line

  • Bring three copies of the signature sheet for your committee to sign. Please also bring the signature sheet in an electronic format in case it needs to be re-printed.
  • Bring a BLACK PEN to your defense and have all committee members sign with it. After collecting the signatures, give the forms to the Director of Student Engagement to collect the program director and dean signatures.
  • If the external reader does not attend the defense and cannot easily sign the signature sheet, you must delete this signature line from the sheet.
  • Append a one-page curriculum vitae of the external reader to the end of the dissertation.
  • If the reader does not attend the defense, he or she must submit a written report or critique of the dissertation to your chair. It is preferable that the reader submit the report prior to the defense so the comments can be included in the discussion. If it is submitted after, please make sure it arrives so you have adequate time prior to the submission deadline to incorporate changes the reader suggests. If possible, this report should be on official letterhead of the reader’s home institution and should indicate the candidate’s name as well as the reader’s title and contact information. You may contact Shannon Williams for external reader report guidance and a sample report.

Once you have defended and made the required revisions to your dissertation, many copies of your dissertation are required in order to safely pass all administrative hurdles and graduate on time. The copies required are:

  • 1 PDF version of the dissertation on CD and one original signature sheet submitted to the library according to  UDTS submission requirements.
  • 2 copies on regular paper to the Schar School. These copies should be unbound but gathered in such a way that they stay together (box, folder).
  • a bound copy for EVERY member of your committee.

Additional Information

Public Policy PhD Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Examination assesses the ability of a student to understand a complex policy problem, to analyze the problem and its underlying data, and to prepare a written report on that problem. The exam also assesses core knowledge and methodological/substantive foundations. This examination is offered in May and January each year. Full-time students are required to take the examination at the end of their first year of study, while part-time students are required to take the examination no later than the completion of their second year. All students must take the examination as soon as they have completed the core courses.

Students will have two opportunities to earn a passing grade on this examination. In the case of an unsuccessful first attempt, evaluators will provide students with written comments for improvement/further study. Students who sit the Comprehensive Qualifying Examination twice will be evaluated by at least five anonymous faculty examiners. Failure to pass the Comprehensive Qualifying Examination on the second attempt will result in termination from the program. The examination consists of two parts: a three-hour in-class exam and a three-day take-home exam. The exam presents a public policy situation and accompanying data from which students must provide an integrated interdisciplinary analysis.

Sample Qualifying Exam 2009, part I
Sample Qualifying Exam 2009, part II
Sample Qualifying Exam 2011, part I
Sample Qualifying Exam 2011, part II
Sample Qualifying Exam 2015, part I
Sample Qualifying Exam 2015, part II

Field Research Committee

Usually, the chair of the field research committee is the Schar School core faculty member who becomes the chair of the dissertation committee. The chair, with advisory input from the student, selects at least two additional committee members, one of whom must be a Schar School core faculty member. View committee guidelines here. The committee should reflect a broad representation of the areas to be covered by the examination. The Field Research Committee Form must be submitted to the Doctoral Program Director for approval. It is the student’s responsibility to have the committee sign this form and submit it to the Assistant Dean for Program Management prior to completing the Field Statement. View eligible faculty here.

Field Statement

Because the field of Public Policy is interdisciplinary, it is necessary for most students to combine the scholarly literature of several different fields of study. The field statement is designed so that students will master the literature of the fields relevant to their dissertation. The definition of the fields to be covered will be determined by the faculty field committee along with the student. The usual process is for the student and chair to discuss the general focus of the student’s planned dissertation and determine the fields to be covered (usually three or four).

The student then compiles a bibliography for each field and submits it to the committee, which may expand the bibliography or make other suggestions. Once the sources have been agreed upon, the student reads the works cited in the bibliography and writes an analytical essay that assesses the state of knowledge in the field with particular attention to current conflicts or disagreement among the scholars who have written in the student’s fields. The field statement is thus much more sophisticated and analytical than an annotated bibliography. The analysis should include the key issues being debated, the major theories that guide research, the types of hypotheses being investigated, what is agreed upon, and what is still uncertain. These readings should be an opportunity for learning and exploration of a wide variety of issues and ideas, not a narrow focus on a specific research problem as would form the literature review for a dissertation proposal.

No firm rules govern the expected length or literature coverage. However, a typical field statement covers twenty to thirty-five works per field and runs in total from thirty to one hundred pages. Length depends on the topics, the student’s approach, and guidance from the field committee. Students should aim to acquire enough knowledge of each field to: (1) design and teach a course on that topic; and (2) identify the important findings and issues relevant to their planned area of dissertation research. When the student has completed the readings, the draft should be submitted to the field committee members. The chair and committee members are free to suggest revisions to this statement, which the student will revise until the full committee approves the statement.

The goal of the field statement is to enable the student to acquire expertise in several bodies of literature that will help him or her identify and carry out an informed and significant dissertation project. The typical field statement includes three fields, one of which may cover methodologies relevant to the student’s planned dissertation research. The field statement must include a bibliography of the literature central to an understanding of each of the student’s chosen fields.

For example, if a student plans to write a dissertation in the area of state policies on pollution, the fields might include: (1) state and local governance; (2) science in policy-making; and (3) anti-pollution policies. A dissertation in the area of growth policies in Southeast Asia might draw on the following fields: (1) development economics; (2) regional development; and (3) the economies of Southeast Asia. If a student’s dissertation focuses on U.S. national policy-making, the fields might include: (1) congressional behavior; (2) presidential policy-making; and (3) organization theory.

Sample field statement 1
Sample field statement 2
Sample field statement 3

Field Exam

The field examination should include written questions on both advanced methods of inquiry (methodology) and substantive content in the domain of research interest (theoretical and empirical knowledge). The questions are broad, comprehensive, and central to the theoretical, methodological, and policy issues in the various topics proposed. While some questions should cover foundational issues, others might deal with unresolved issues in the fields. Students are expected to synthesize material from across their entire program. Although the field examination will be based primarily on the field statement and its bibliography, students might be asked questions that would require them to draw material from topics not explicitly covered in the student’s field statement and bibliography. If the field statement includes three topics, the examination may be in three parts, one part per topic. Or the exam may require the integration of knowledge from more than one field. Often the student is given a choice of answering one out of two or two out of three questions per topic.

There are no specific length requirements, but normally the answers to the questions for each topic require ten to fifteen pages double-spaced (a total of thirty to forty-five pages) using standard fonts and margins. The writing should be clear and free of serious grammatical and typographical errors. Appropriate citation style will be determined by the student’s committee. The chair distributes the responses to the committee members. Grading occurs independently on a pass/fail basis, and the results are returned to the chair, who will give feedback to the student on his/her performance on the exam. If the committee’s consensus is that the answers to a particular question are not satisfactory, a student may be asked to submit a revised answer in lieu of retaking the entire exam. In some cases, even if the committee gives a passing grade, it may identify deficiencies. In this case, the student will receive written notification requiring additional assignments or courses.

It is the student’s responsibility to ensure that the chair forwards the Field Examination Grade form (link to: the new field exam grade form, which is attached) along with the examination questions and answers to PhD Student Services.

Dissertation Committee

View committee guidelines here. In most cases, the members of the dissertation committee will have been on the student’s field research committee. The chair, in consultation with the student, selects the other members from among GMU faculty. At least three members are required for a committee. All must be tenured or tenure-track members of the Graduate Faculty of GMU, and at least two—including the chair—must be from the Schar School faculty. Students and committee chairs are encouraged to select a third member from another unit of the University who is not from the Schar School. The chair and those who have agreed to serve must sign the Dissertation Committee FormView eligible faculty here.

External Reader Guide

After proposal defense, in addition to the three dissertation committee members, the student and chair must identify an external reader who is selected from outside GMU.

  1. Nominees for an external reader may be suggested by the chair, committee members or the Doctoral Program Director.
  2. After the chair and the candidate agree on an appropriate reader, the chair will forward the recommendation, along with the reader’s current CV and the signed Dissertation External Reader form, to PhD Student Services.
  3. The recommendation will consist of a brief written statement (letter, memo, email) to the Doctoral Program Director verifying that the reader meets the following criteria:  a. The reader has a strong academic and research background (including scholarly publications) in a field relevant to the dissertation;  b. The reader is currently active in the field and is working in an academic or research setting;  c. The reader has no present or past relationship with the candidate that might hamper objectivity (e.g., formal supervisory or employer role); the relationship should be “arm's length.”
  4. If one or more of these criteria is not met, the chair should offer a rationale for why this reader should be approved.
  5. After approval by the Doctoral Program Director, the recommendation will be reviewed and approved by the Dean.

The external reader is invited to the dissertation defense but is not required to attend. If the external reader cannot attend the defense, s/he is asked to write a short report and recommendation that comments on the quality and appropriateness of the candidate’s dissertation and research. This report and recommendation is submitted to the student’s chair and Doctoral Program Director.