The Doctoral Thesis

Doctoral Candidates (who have passed the General Examination) must complete a doctoral thesis that satisfies the Institute and Departmental requirements in order to receive the doctoral degree. General Institute requirements are described in the MIT Bulletin and MIT Graduate Policies and Procedures.

The Ph.D. Thesis Committee

After the Thesis Area Examination is completed, the final doctoral thesis committee is constituted from the members of the two (non Chair) Thesis Area Examination committee members and the advisor(s). The chair of the oral thesis area examination committee step downs after the TAE examination is completed. Thesis committee changes other than this must be approved by submitting a petition to the Chair of the Departmental Committee on Graduate Studies (including addition of new committee members). The final Ph.D. Thesis Committee will have at least two members who are not advisors or co-advisors. At least half the members of the thesis committee must be DMSE faculty. Petitions for inclusion of committee members outside of MIT may be routed to the Departmental Committee on Graduate Studies as well. The general graduate student petition form is available from the Office of Graduate Education should be used for these petitions and submitted to the DMSE Academic Office (

The doctoral thesis committee has the responsibility of advising the student on all aspects of the thesis experience, all the way up through the preparation and defense of the final thesis document. The student and supervisor will hold progress reviews with the entire thesis committee at least once a year and written feedback to the student is required, which will also be submitted to the Departmental Committee on Graduate Studies. The thesis advisor holds responsibility for assembling this written feedback and sharing it with the Departmental Academic Office and the student. Frequent meetings of the thesis committee are strongly recommended.

Year 3 Update Meeting

This meeting must be held in the Fall term or Spring term of your third year. Students must register for 3.998 Doctoral Thesis Update Meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to update the thesis committee of your plans and progress and to engage your thesis committee in advising you in your research towards your degree. Starting with your thesis proposal as a point of departure, present your revised vision of the path forward including what you see as challenges and obstacles. All members of the thesis committee are expected to be physically present at this meeting. This meeting is restricted to the student and the thesis committee. Fill out the 3.998 Doctoral Thesis Update Meeting DocuSign Form here.

Plan-to-Finish Meeting

Approximately one year before expected graduation, but no later than 6 months before the planned PhD defense, the student will schedule a plan-to-finish meeting with the thesis committee.  At this meeting the student will present the projected outline of the thesis, the important data that will become part of the thesis, and what still needs to be done.  The purpose of this meeting is for the committee to evaluate whether the student is likely to be ready for graduation within a year.  The student will prepare a written document for the committee which will include the research results, the graduation timeline, a list of papers published or in preparation, and the list of classes the student has taken to satisfy the PhD course requirements.  The document is to be delivered to the committee one week before the presentation.  This presentation is restricted to the student and his/her thesis committee.  At the end of the meeting the committee decides whether the student is likely to proceed towards the PhD defense, or whether another plan to finish meeting is necessary.  The committee will prepare brief written feedback to the student.

Doctoral Thesis and Oral Defense of the Thesis

The Department’s long-standing emphasis on original research is a key element in the Candidate’s educational development.

Scheduling of the final PhD defense can take place no earlier than 6 months after a successful Plan-to-Finish meeting.  The PhD thesis will be delivered to the committee members one month before the defense.  The committee members will respond in two weeks with comments on the written document, giving the student two weeks to modify the thesis.

At least one week prior to the defense the Candidate will hand deliver copies of the final thesis document to the Thesis Committee members and to the DMSE Academic Office along with a proposed date, time, and room for the defense. The DMSE Academic Office will publicize the defense. The defense begins with a formal presentation of approximately 45 minutes based on the thesis. The floor is then opened to questions from the general audience, which is thereafter excused. The Thesis Committee then continues the examination of the Candidate in private. The Candidate is finally excused from the room and the Committee votes. A majority yes vote is required to approve the thesis. It is the responsibility of the principal thesis advisor to give the Committee’s decision whether the thesis is satisfactory or unsatisfactory to the Candidate and submit the form to DMSE Academic Office. In the event of a vote not to pass, the Thesis Committee will make recommendations as to needed changes to render the thesis satisfactory. The revised thesis will then be submitted for a second final defense.

Note: Students are advised to keep in mind that the months of May and August tend to be the months where scheduling a presentation may be difficult because of faculty unavailability and availability of presentation rooms. Keep in mind that faculty are not on academic appointments in the summer, and are often on travel, in some cases scheduled at the last minute.  This may lead to the need to reschedule your defense, in some cases into the Fall term.  DCGS will not make exceptions to the thesis committee rules for PhD defenses that were originally planned in the summer, and encourages you to schedule your thesis defense in the academic terms.

Thesis Format

The usual thesis format, a cohesive document, is traditional and generally desirable. It is not, however, dictated by regulation and occasionally the thesis may separate naturally into two or more sections, which are more directly publishable individually. A thesis written in sections should include a general introduction, abstract, and conclusions. The sections should be arranged so that the document reads as a whole. It is appropriate to put detailed descriptions of procedures and tables of data in appendices so that the thesis sections may be comparable in length and scope to journal articles. Use of this alternate format does not imply a change in the requirement for original research, in the student/supervisor relationship, or in their respective roles in producing the thesis document, all of which still apply.

Candidates should consult Specifications for Thesis Presentation.

Students who would like assistance in improving their writing skills for any task (thesis area proposal, final thesis, and resumes and job application letters) should contact the MIT Writing and Communications Center. The Writing Center offers individual consultations and advice about any writing problem and is open to all members of the MIT community.