How to Propose Your Dissertation

last updated April 2023

For students entering the program with a BA/BS degree, the deadline for proposing a PhD topic is the end of the fall semester of your 3rd year, i.e., after 5 semesters in the program. Follow the procedure below for a successful process.

As a reminder, the official Graduate Division jargon is that a PhD candidate writes a dissertation, not a thesis (as commonly used at the IfA). Theses are for Masters degrees.

1. Pick your advisor and formulate a topic

The most important academic choices that a PhD student makes are their advisor and dissertation topic. Accordingly, these decisions should be the result of thoughtful discussions and careful thinking.

Students are encouraged to begin conversations with possible advisors sooner rather than later, certainly no later than at the end of their 699-2 project. Students should also confer with the past/present students of the advisors to gain insight into their experiences.

In addition to research ideas, the student should discuss the topic of financial support with their possible advisor(s), both the source of the funding and its expected stability during the duration of the student’s dissertation work. IfA policy is that faculty are expected to fully support their dissertation students with RA positions. In rare circumstances, it is possible for a student to be working on their dissertation while receiving financial support from another source (a TA position or an RA position related to another project), but this will lead to much slower progress towards to the PhD and is not considered normal practice in our program.

Students are typically not taking classes in the fall semester of Year 3, while working on a dissertation proposal. During this time, they should register for 6 credits of ASTR 699 with their planned dissertation advisor.

2. Assemble the committee

Basic Requirements

The University’s requirements on the doctoral committee are:

  • A minimum of five members of the graduate faculty.
  • One of these is a University Representative (described below) chosen from a field other than astronomy. Students typically choose faculty from Physics, HIGP, and ICS. Individuals cannot serve as the university representative in a department from which they received their degree.
  • The chair and the outside member must be full members of the graduate faculty of the university.
  • A majority of the committee members must be from IfA.

Additionally, it is the policy of the astronomy program that:

  • At least one of the astronomers on the committee should have an area of specialization different from that of the student.

The University Representative (UR)

The UR serves as a liaison between Graduate Division and the student’s committee. They ensure administration of proper procedures with regard to the comprehensive exam and dissertation, as well as appropriate treatment of the student throughout this process. Disciplinary familiarity with the dissertation topic, while helpful, is not required. The principal requirements to serve as UR are:

  • Level 3 member of the graduate faculty on UH Manoa campus. A searchable list is here.
  • Experience serving on dissertation committees at UH Manoa (i.e., completion of service where at least one candidate has graduated).
  • From a different graduate program and at “arm’s length” from the committee chair and faculty in the student’s graduate program.
  • Participation in committee meetings and attendance at the dissertation proposal (Comprehensive Exam) and dissertation-related presentations (e.g, annual updates and Final Defense).

Note that if your advisor is based in another department and is Cooperating Graduate Faculty in the IfA, the UR must be from a different department than both your advisor’s department and the IfA.

Additional details are available from the corresponding Graduate Division webpage.

Non-UH Members of the committee

It is possible to appoint a suitably-qualified astronomer from outside University of Hawai‘i onto the doctoral committee. Several astronomers from non-UH organizations on the island of Hawai‘i and the U.S. mainland have served on doctoral committees in the past. Non-UH astronomers who are asked to serve on doctoral committees are appointed as ad hoc members. Note that any travel costs for non-UH astronomers to attend dissertation-related activities in person are the responsibility of the student’s advisor, though remote attendance is permitted.

To appoint a non-UH member to your committee, write a brief justification memo and send it to the Graduate Chair for their signature. Then send the signed memo, the individual’s current CV, and a completed Form II for non-UH faculty to Kimberly Kawamura ( at Graduate Division.

3. Schedule your dissertation proposal

Once your committee is assembled, you are strongly encouraged to lock in a 2-hour block of time for your dissertation proposal talk as soon as possible, since it can be difficult to schedule 5 (or more) faculty members to attend the same meeting.

Then you should notify your committee and the Graduate Chair about the selected time, and contact Caroline Piro to book the IfA-Manoa or IfA-Hilo auditorium.

4. Write the dissertation proposal

There is no fixed format for the dissertation proposal. A rule of thumb is no longer than 10 pages, not counting tables and references. Its contents, breadth, and length should be discussed with your advisor. The purpose of the written proposal, and the accompanying talk at the Comprehensive Exam, is for the student needs to demonstrate to their committee:

  • that they are thoroughly familiar with the current state of knowledge in the area of the dissertation;
  • that the research to be done is feasible, timely, important and original;
  • that the student has the technical and intellectual skills necessary to carry out the proposed research, from conception to execution to analysis to publication;
  • that if any needed observing time is appropriate for the project and likely to be awarded by the Time Allocation Committee;
  • that the proposed timeline for the project will lead to graduation within a reasonable length of time.

Students should confer with their committee as to the deadline for completing the written proposal. One week before the Comprehensive Exam is considered the minimum.

5. Undergo Pre-Review for dissertation observations

The TAC offers dissertation students the opportunity to have their first observing proposal for their dissertation “pre-reviewed” to garner an initial round of feedback. Please notify the TAC Secretary in advance of the telescope proposal deadline if you are interested in this.

Students are eligible to use any/all of the Maunakea telescopes for their dissertation, and must have advanced to candidacy by the time of their first allocated night. Depending on the timing of events, the TAC’s pre-review of a student’s proposal may occur before or after the Comprehensive Exam. Full details are here

6. Present your dissertation proposal (a.k.a. the Comprehensive Exam)

The format of the exam is (1) a public talk (~30-40 minutes) to present their dissertation research proposal and then (2) a closed-door interview of the student to answer questions from the committee. All members of the committee must be present for the entire examination, with remote attendance permitted. Committee members may examine the student on any aspect of astronomy, but they usually focus on the student’s dissertation proposal and related topics.

As part of the Comprehensive Exam, PhD advisors are required to provide a funding plan to the student’s dissertation committee and the Grad Chair that describes how the student’s research will be supported to its completion. TA support cannot be a required component of this plan but may be considered in exceptional circumstances. PhD advisors have primary responsibility for funding their dissertation students.

The student should announce of the date, time and subject matter of the examination, typically 1-2 weeks before the date.

Two attempts at the comprehensive examination are allowed by the University.

Passage of the comprehensive examination grants approval to the dissertation topic and, once the paperwork described below is completed, leads to the granting of PhD candidate status.

7. Do your paperwork

After the exam, Doctoral Student Progress Form II (Advance to Candidacy) needs to be signed by the committee and submitted to the Graduate Chair. This process can be done entirely electronically.

8. Epilogue: ASTR 800 & annual committee meetings

In the semesters following approval of your dissertation proposal (normally spring semester of Year 3 and onward), you should register for 1 credit of ASTR 800 with your advisor.

The student should meet with their complete doctoral committee once a year. Committee meetings are particularly useful if it becomes necessary to redefine the scope of a dissertation project due to unforeseen circumstances. After the meeting, fill out the annual progress form and email it to Laura Toyama who will then route it to all your committee members for electronic signatures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I have more than 5 members on my committee?

  • Yes, though you must still adhere to the rule that a majority of the committee comes from the IfA. Since university policy requires that all committee members attend the Final Defense (“thesis defense”), it may be beneficial to appoint an extra member to the committee at the outset for a total of six. This way if one member is unable to attend the final exam, they can be removed from the committee without having to be replaced at the last minute by an astronomer unfamiliar with the student’s progress. On the other hand, scheduling committee meetings (both annual updates and the Final Defense) is more cumbersome with a larger committee.

After my dissertation proposal is approved, can I change a member of my committee?

  • A student may request a change in his/her doctoral committee at any time. The change requires the approval of all the current and proposed members of the committee and the Graduate Chair. There is a Graduate Division form for making the change.