PhD in Regional Planning

Your Dissertation Proposal & Preliminary Exam


A successful dissertation reports original research on a significant problem or issue in planning. It demonstrates rigorous and thorough research and scholarly originality, and it presents significant advances in knowledge. Your quest for a dissertation question and appropriate research design does not wait until you have completed all other degree requirements. It begins with your letter of acceptance into the Ph.D. program and continues while you are taking courses, preparing for your qualifying examination, working as a research assistant, attending seminars and conferences, and collaborating with your advisor and other faculty members.

The Preliminary Examination is an oral defense of the written dissertation proposal. An acceptable dissertation proposal and successful defense should indicate beyond doubt that (1) you have a clear and concise research question appropriate to the Ph.D. in Regional Planning, (2) answering the question will produce a significant advance in knowledge, (3) the research design is feasible and adequate to deal with the research question, (4) you are familiar with the literature on the question and topic, and (5) you have the scholarly expertise and research skills to complete the research. There is no limit to the number of times a proposal can be defended and amended, other than the five to seven year Graduate College limits to complete the degree. Your advisor or examination committee might require additional courses to help write or refine the proposal or develop analytical skills critical to the research.

You should defend your proposal within six months of passing your qualifying examination. You are eligible to do so after satisfying all pre-dissertation course requirements, including the removal of all excused and deferred grades other than for UP 599 Thesis Research. Your advisor fixes the exact date of your oral proposal defense/preliminary examination within these bounds.

Your examination committee administers your proposal defense. The committee should be formed as early as possible after your successful completion of the qualifying exam. Its members assist you with your research. To enrich your work, they should be chosen for their expertise in your research area and methods and provide diversity in viewpoint, methodology, or academic discipline.

The composition of your committee must meet several requirements. It has at least four voting members, of whom at least two must be faculty members in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, one of whom serves as your committee chair, and at least one must be a faculty member from outside the Department in a discipline appropriate for your dissertation topic. At least three committee members, including the chair, must be members of the Graduate Faculty and at least two must be tenured faculty. A person not on the faculty of the University of Illinois with expertise in the area of research may serve on this committee, but such external readers must be nominated in a statement that justifies the involvement and identifies the resources that will be used to defray the associated expenses, if any. Non-voting members, such as an external reader, a member of the faculty who is off campus, or others who can make a significant contribution to the research, may be appointed. Requests for deviation from these membership requirements will be considered by the Ph.D. Program Director, the Department Head, and, if required, the Graduate College.

At least one month prior to your proposed examination date, your advisor will request that the program Director formally recommend the members of the examination committee to the Dean of the Graduate College. This request also includes the nomination of a committee chair and a director of research (generally, but not necessarily, the chair of your committee) and the proposed date of the examination.

Prior to the oral examination you complete a research proposal which typically includes (1) identification of the problem or issues, (2) review of the literature usually augmented in the dissertation itself, (3) the conceptual basis for the analysis, (4) description of the data on which the analysis will be based, (5) description of the research method, and (6) whatever preliminary analyses are necessary to demonstrate that the research is feasible. Some proposals consist of initial chapters of the dissertation that cover these materials; others are a freestanding research prospectus. Discuss the appropriate format for your proposal with your advisor and committee. Your research proposal should be distributed to the examination committee members at least one week prior to the proposed examination date.

Preliminary examination is a Graduate College requirement for completion of PhD studies. Examination format, committee membership requirement, committee appointment process, the role of the chair as well as procedure for examination approval are all governed by the Graduate College rules and regulations. Please closely observe those requirements as outlined by the Graduate College website. In brief, all voting members should be present at the examination, physically or via electronic communication mediums. But the Chair, the student and at least one member of the committee must be physically present during the examination.

Your proposal defense and preliminary examination is open to the public. Your committee chair arranges for the time and place of your examination and announces your topic and the time and place via e-mail to Planning faculty and graduate students at least ten days prior to the exam.

The deliberations of the committee are held in an executive session. The committee determines whether you shall advance to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree and whether your dissertation topic and research plan, as presented in your research proposal, are acceptable. The committee’s decision must be unanimous and reported as pass, deferred decision, or fail. In cases of deferral, the committee specifies the activities required to earn a pass, including the possibility of reconvening the examination based on a revised proposal. A reconvened examination is scheduled within every six months until a pass or fail outcome is reached. Failure is final unless the committee records a failure and, at the same time, grants the student another opportunity to take the examination after completing additional course work, independent study, or research.

The committee chair communicates the decision in writing to the Ph.D. Program Director and Head. The chair also is responsible for submitting the Certificate of Result to the Department as soon as possible after the examination. All voting members must sign this form with original signatures, but non-voting members (if any) do not sign the form. If a result is not communicated within six months of the exam date, the committee is dissolved.