University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Road to Becoming a Dissertator: Information for PhD Students

Once you finish your coursework (at least 32 credits’ worth!), including your minor*(9 credits) and your skills (6 credits), and your seminars, you’re well on your way to becoming a Dissertator. To get there, though, you’ll need to jump these additional hurdles:

  • Qualifying exam (affectionately known as “quals”), which has 2 parts – a general exam and a specific exam
    • The General Qualifying Exam: The general exam tests the candidate’s broad knowledge in the subfield. Its scope and depth are motivated by the faculty’s belief that any student earning a Ph.D. should be able to teach an introductory course in the subfield. It follows, therefore, that students should be able to demonstrate knowledge at the intermediate level in all areas of that subfield. Each subfield (Human, Physical, People-Environment, and Cartography/GIS) conducts these exams differently. It is the student’s responsibility to talk with their dissertation adviser to gain a complete understanding of the nature of these exams and the way they are administered.
    • The Specific Qualifying Exam: The specific exam evaluates a candidate’s preparation in their own research areas. This exam is different from the dissertation defense in that the exam is centered around how well the candidate understands the theories, techniques and issues in their own research areas and is administered and graded by the student’s dissertation advisor.
  • Proposal Defense
    • The Ph.D. dissertation proposal is defended in front of the dissertation committee. This committee is not the same group of faculty who graded the general qualifying exam although some members may serve on both.

Together, the Qualifying Exam + Proposal Defense = Preliminary Exams (known as “prelims”).

Necessary Paperwork – At least 3 weeks prior to your Proposal Defense, see the Graduate Program Director to request a Prelim Warrant from the Graduate School. The signed Warrant is the signal that the Grad School needs to change your status to DISSERTATOR!

Dissertator Status (also known as Ph.D. Candidacy) – Once you’re a Dissertator, you must enroll continuously every fall and spring for 3 credits (no more, no less!). At this point, time begins to matter, as well – you have 5 years to complete your degree or risk re-taking your Preliminary Exams.

* If you plan to pursue a Specific Minor (Option A), you should complete this PHD Minor Agreement Form and have it signed by both your advisor and by the department in which you intend to complete those nine credits. You can learn more about the PhD Minor in the Graduate School Academic Guidelines.