Doctoral Dissertation Committee

The Doctoral Dissertation Committee is formed shortly after the student passes the MCH Doctoral Written Comprehensive Examination. It consists of no fewer than five members, at least three of whom are full-time, tenured, tenure-track, or fixed-term members of the regular MCH faculty. One member of the Doctoral Dissertation Committee must be the student’s minor advisor. The Chair of the Doctoral Dissertation Committee (i.e, who is typically the student’s academic advisor) is the faculty member primarily responsible for assuring that the student meets all the necessary commitments to earn the degree, and as such, must be a full time, tenured, tenure-track or fixed-term member of the regular MCH faculty. The Dissertation Advisor (i.e., the faculty member who works most closely with the student on their research project) can be from another department or institution. It is possible for a faculty member from another department to chair an MCH dissertation committee, but this must be approved by the student’s MCH academic advisor, the Director of the MCH Doctoral Program, the Director of Graduate Studies in MCH, and the Graduate School. Likewise, if a student’s committee membership is not majority MCH faculty, committee makeup must be approved from the aforementioned parties. Students will then need to work with the Director of the MCH Doctoral Program to send a letter to the Graduate School, and the Graduate School must approve this committee membership. Other members of the committee may be “Special Appointees” (fixed term graduate faculty) approved by the Graduate School. Arrangements can also be made for appointed adjunct MCH faculty to participate on dissertation committees.

Although the student cannot form their dissertation committee before passing their comprehensive exams, students are encouraged to begin conversations with potential committee members during their 2nd year of study. Furthermore, students are encouraged to use MHCH 859, taken in the fall semester of the 2nd year of study, to work towards a grant for a dissertation proposal.

Committee Process

Prospective Doctoral Dissertation Committee members are invited individually by the student and his/her academic advisor to be members of the committee. Although Doctoral Curriculum Committee members frequently continue to serve on the student’s Doctoral Dissertation Committee, usually only those whose expertise is most relevant to the student’s dissertation project will remain.

The Doctoral Dissertation Committee is approved by the Director of Graduate Studies using the “Report of Doctoral Committee Composition” form ( which must be transmitted to the Graduate School for approval. The student begins the process by notifying the Academic Coordinator of the intent to defend and/or the exam date. The student and his/her doctoral committee chair (usually the academic advisor) are responsible for completing the form, obtaining the signatures, and returning the form to the Academic Coordinator, who then submits it to the Graduate School.

Each doctoral student is expected to consult with members of the Doctoral Dissertation Committee at regular intervals throughout the progress of his or her research.

The responsibilities of Doctoral Dissertation Committee members are to:

  1. Examine and approve the dissertation proposal, as part of the oral examination required for admission to candidacy,
  2. Consult with the student throughout the progress of the dissertation research, and
  3. Participate in the final oral examination in defense of the dissertation.

Dissertation Proposal Content

Each candidate is required to write a dissertation reflecting research of such scope, originality, and skill in presentation as to indicate that the student has a command of the subject and has demonstrated an ability to contribute fresh knowledge or perspectives on the subject. In addition, the dissertation should demonstrate mastery of the research methodology of the discipline. The proposal format and length are determined by the nature of the research, but a typical proposal should include the following areas.

  • Abstract
  • Specific Aims
  • Background and Significance (this section would include a critical literature review and the conceptual/theoretical basis of the project)
  • Preliminary Studies (this refers to studies done by the student if pertinent)
  • Research Design and Methods (including such topics as the study design, study sample and recruitment procedures, assessment tools and procedures, statistical analysis plan, study timetable, human subjects concerns)

When developing the proposal, students should consult with all the members of their committee. In addition, it may be helpful for students to examine past MCH dissertations which are available online via the UNC library.

When the Doctoral Dissertation Committee Chair agrees that the proposal is ready to be defended, it should be distributed at least two weeks before the date of the oral examination to all members of the committee. The student should notify every member of the committee of the time and place of the examination.

First Oral Examination: Dissertation Proposal Defense

Usually the first formal meeting with the Doctoral Dissertation Committee is an oral defense of the dissertation proposal. Ordinarily, the student prepares a 20-30 minute presentation of the proposal, and committee members pose questions and issues for discussion. It is sometimes helpful, however, to hold a preliminary planning meeting to solicit input and discussion from committee members as a group about conceptual or methodological issues relevant to the proposal.

A grade of Pass will be based on the presentation of an acceptable proposal and demonstration of a satisfactory level of knowledge on the dissertation subject and related areas. The student must receive a passing grade from two-thirds of the members of the committee. If the dissertation proposal is not approved (i.e., the student fails the oral exam), the examination is rescheduled after revision or completion of a new dissertation proposal. A student who fails the first oral examination twice becomes ineligible to continue graduate study or to take an examination a third time without special approval by the MCH Department and the Administrative Board of the Graduate School.

Final Oral Examination: Dissertation Final Defense

The second formal meeting of the Doctoral Dissertation Committee is the “final oral examination.” During this meeting, the committee examines the student on the dissertation for approval. The “defense” is usually composed of an “open” presentation by the student (which anyone may attend), followed by a “closed” meeting which includes only the student and the dissertation committee. Notice of the defense date and location, which includes a (maximum) one-page abstract of the dissertation, is distributed to SPH faculty at least one month before the defense. Graduate School guidelines require that no fewer than five persons constitute the committee for the final oral examination. Of these, a majority of the members of the student’s doctoral committee and a majority of the persons approving the student’s doctoral dissertation must be full time tenured, tenure-track, or fixed term members of the Graduate Faculty.

It is the responsibility of the Dissertation Advisor to see that the draft is in an appropriate form for evaluation by committee members. The committee should have a copy of the draft at least two weeks prior to the final defense. The oral defense is held only after all members of the committee have had an adequate opportunity to review the dissertation. The committee may, at the time of the final oral examination (but not later), require alterations and corrections. The dissertation advisor is responsible for verifying that the changes required by the committee have been made but may delegate this responsibility to the committee members who imposed the requirements. A student passes the final oral examination only upon approval of at least two-thirds of the members of the examining committee, including a majority of the MCH members. If a second defense is needed, it must occur within the original eight calendar years allowed for completion of the doctoral program. A third defense is allowed only with special approval of the MCH Department and the Administrative Board of The Graduate School.

Dissertation Format

Students in MCH have three dissertation format options. One is the traditional monograph. The second and third options are variations on a manuscript format. For the manuscript format, a student may choose to do a three-paper dissertation or to do a two-paper dissertation, each with an opening and closing chapter. With the two-paper format, at least one of the papers must be submitted to a peer-review journal before the final dissertation defense. This submission must be documented by a confirmation letter or email from the journal editor; documentation should be provided to the dissertation chair by the time of the final defense.

Some studies that offer data for secondary analysis require that any manuscripts based on those data be reviewed and approved by a parent study oversight committee before submission to a peer-review journal. In some instances, significant lead time may be required to complete the review and approval process. Students selecting the two-paper option should investigate the parent study’s procedures on this issue early on, so that any requirements of the parent study may be factored into the defense time frame. Requests that manuscript submission to the parent study’s oversight committee substitute for journal submission (in exceptional circumstances) must be individually reviewed and approved by the Doctoral Committee.

Selecting the Dissertation Format

In selecting the format, the student must consult with her/his advisor and dissertation committee to determine the most appropriate format, given the dissertation subject matter and organizational possibilities. Choice between the two and three paper option should be based on the number of research questions that merit separate treatment in “stand alone” manuscripts. There should be agreement between the student and committee at the end of a successful oral defense of the proposal as to what the format will be. For the manuscript formats, it is acceptable for students to submit journal length papers that are formatted according to target journal requirements. However, the student should confirm that their selected format conforms to Graduate School specifications regarding format and content (see below). For the manuscript formats, students should use additional sections or appendices to provide the detail traditionally included in a monograph but not journal articles. For example, an introductory chapter – typically based heavily on the dissertation proposal – would provide the detailed literature critique that is not usually included in empirical journal articles. A closing chapter would synthesize findings across dissertation papers and discuss their implications for future research, practice, and/or policy.

Authorships on Dissertation Papers

Conventions vary across disciplines, but the collaborative nature of public health typically leads to committee co-authorships on dissertation manuscripts. The dissertation chair/advisor is usually a co-author on all publications derived from the dissertation. Other committee members may also serve as co-authors, depending on their preferences and the significance of their contributions to the manuscripts. Dissertation chairs and students should collaborate on the negotiation of authorship roles, with the chair and/or advisor leading this process as needed. Early discussion and agreement on authorship is advisable, although progression through dissertation development and writing may lead to later, mutually agreed upon, changes in responsibilities and authorships.

Dissertation Submission Guidelines

Dissertations must be submitted to the Graduate School according to the schedule in the Calendar of Events (see Graduate School Record). Dissertations must be prepared in accordance with the standards in The Graduate School Theses and Dissertation Guide, available from the Graduate School at the following website: On matters of form, the student should also consult published manuals of style, and for manuscript format dissertations, journal style requirements. Approved technical processes for reproducing special materials or for reproducing the entire thesis or dissertation are described in the Graduate School’s Guide. All dissertations are submitted electronically to the Graduate School. Graduating students should also submit the dissertation cover page, which includes the final dissertation title, to the Academic Coordinator and to the Administrative Assistant to the Department Chair.


All student research must be reviewed by a member of the UNC Non-Biomedical Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects (IRB), which determines whether the proposed research is exempt from IRB review (not human subject research, NHSR), qualifies for expedited review, or requires full board review. Regardless of the kind of review, all applications use the same submission form. Some students will collect their own primary data, and others will analyze data collected by someone else (secondary data). Because it is not always clear whether secondary data analysis constitutes human subjects research for IRB purposes, students proposing secondary analyses must submit an application form. Go to to submit your application to the IRB.

As previously mentioned, all students must complete training in the responsible conduct of research. For information on training, go to the UNC website of the Office of Human Research Ethics:

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