Ph.D. Committee & Proposal

Dissertation Committee

You must form a PhD dissertation committee that includes a minimum of four members of the graduate faculty as follows:

  • A member of the Computer Science faculty who agrees to supervise your dissertation work (your "chair").
  • Two additional faculty members of the College of Information and Computer Sciences.
  • A member of the UMass Amherst graduate faculty from outside of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (your "outside member"). Most (not all) members of the UMass Amherst faculty are members of the graduate faculty, so faculty members from other UMass Amherst departments can serve in this role (and are the preferred choice). In addition, some (not all) members of the Five College faculty, have graduate faculty status and can serve in this capacity (including Computer Science faculty at those schools). Faculty outside the Five Colleges are not members of the UMass Amherst graduate faculty so cannot be your outside member.

You should choose your chair and minor members for the contributions they will make to your thesis work.  Your outside member may serve that purpose, but is formally on the committee to guarantee fairness and Graduate School standards.

You may nominate additional people to serve on your committee. If that person is not a member of the UMass Amherst or Five College graduate faculty, the Graduate School will require a copy of his or her CV as well as a signed letter from him or her committing to attend your dissertation defense. (The College of Information and Computer Sciences does not cover travel costs.)

When you have decided on a committee, please notify the GPM.  The proposed committee will be circulated among the faculty for comment.  On rare occasions, the GPD or other members of the faculty have raised concerns, requiring that members of a committee be replaced or added.  If there are no objections, you will have "formed your committee."

Thesis Proposals

Your thesis proposal will normally be defended in your 7th semester.

A thesis proposal describes the work that you expect will become the topic of your PhD dissertation. The proposal should describe the problem that you will tackle and your intended method for solving it, demonstrate that your work is novel, and convince your committee that you are likely to succeed.

To accomplish those goals, a thesis proposal is likely to contain the following:

  • Problem statement. What are you trying to solve, why is it an important problem, and how do you propose going about solving it? 
  • Literature review. To demonstrate that your work is novel, you need to convince your committee that you know what else has been done that is related. You are demonstrating that you have a thorough and deep understanding of the area. How do other researchers define the problem? What other work has been done to address the problem? How is your proposed solution different from all of that work? 
  • Work so far. What have you done toward this problem already? The point of this information is to convince your committee that your ideas have merit and that they are likely to succeed. This might be your own work or work you did with others. It might be something that was submitted for publication, or it might be work that is not yet ready for submission. It is plausible that a proposal might not contain completed experiments or proofs in its support, though most proposals will.
  • Anticipated contributions. When the work you propose is completed, what will "we" have learned? What important contribution(s) will you have made to the research community? What methods do you propose to determine the degree to which the work actually makes the anticipated contributions? Since you've barely begun, these are ideas, perhaps even (educated) guesses; they are clearly not set in stone. This information helps make it clear what you believe is novel about your work. By the way, contributions should be focused ("Intend to show that Anonymized Machine Learning for Routing Protocols is NP-complete") rather than vague ("Will do some analysis of Anonymized Machine Learning").
  • Project plan. What is your anticipated timeline and what do you need to do to get to your dissertation? Do you have special needs in terms of software, hardware, data sets, or other things that must be acquired or constructed? What milestones can be used to help gauge progress? For many proposals, a specific timeline will be little more than a guess, but you should have solid ideas for the other items mentioned.

Remember that a thesis proposal is just that: a proposal. It is not a contract with your committee, but a description of where you believe your research will take you. Some early discoveries may derail later plans, so things will shift. You should keep your entire committee informed of substantial changes in the proposal. In some cases it may be useful to get the entire committee together again between the proposal and the final thesis defense.

Finally, the big question: How long should a proposal be? The unhelpful but correct answer is: long enough to get the job done. It will depend largely on the amount of existing work there is on the topic (the literature search) and the work you've done so far. Ultimately you will have to decide what is necessary for your particular thesis and committee. As a helpful guideline (not requirement), you could expect a proposal to be the combined size of 2-3 conference papers. That might turn out to be 20 single-spaced pages of mostly text. (Don't try to squeeze it into 20 pages by fiddling with margins and font size. It needs to be readable and if more than 20 pages is needed, so be it.) If you get up to 40 pages you are almost certainly including too much.

Once a date is set for your proposal, please notify the GPM.