Successfully Defended Dissertation Abstracts

SHBT Doctoral Dissertation Guide


Important Deadlines & Requirements

Years 1 - 2


  • Students conducting research prior to submitting a dissertation proposal must register for pre-dissertation research (SHBT 333r).

Year 3


  • The student must submit a Letter of Intent to propose a Dissertation Advisor and a general area of dissertation research by September 15 of the third year of registration.  .
  • The student should identify members of a tentative Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC), and begin to meet with his or her tentative DAC at least once per semester.
  • The student must submit a Dissertation Advisor Declaration to declare a final DAC and DAC chair by April 15 of the third year of registration.

Year 4


  • The student must present a dissertation proposal to his or her Dissertation Advisory Committee, then submit the dissertation proposal to the SHBT Student Tracking Committee, by June 1 of the fourth year of registration.

Year 5


  • Following the submission of a dissertation proposal, the student must meet with his or her DAC at least once per semester and submit a report to the DAC chair after each committee meeting.


These policies are intended to help keep students on track as they progress through the PhD program. Experience shows that students make more rapid progress towards graduation when they interact regularly with a faculty committee and complete their Dissertation proposal sooner rather than later.

Beginning Dissertation Research

Students may choose a doctoral dissertation topic in virtually any research area relevant to speech and hearing at the interface of physical science/engineering and the biomedical sciences.

Students are encouraged to begin research activities early in their graduate program; research work towards the dissertation may be done at Harvard, MIT, or affiliated hospitals.  SHBT encourages students to explore areas relevant to clinical medicine.  The doctoral candidate pursues a dissertation under the direction of a Dissertation Advisor and is guided by a Dissertation Advisory Committee.

[Friendly advice: If you are having trouble selecting a research area and/or advisor, invite several faculty who you know best to join you in a brainstorming session.]


The Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC)

Committee Composition and Function
Students perform doctoral dissertation research under the guidance of a Dissertation Advisory Committee consisting of at least three faculty members, including a Chairperson and a Dissertation Advisor, who help guide the research and act as readers of the dissertation.  Faculty members with relevant expertise from outside Harvard may serve on the DAC if approved by the Division of Medical Sciences.  At least two members of the DAC must be formally affiliated with the SHBT program; at least one member must not be affiliated with the Program in order to provide an outside perspective.

Students are required to identify two tentative DAC members by the beginning of the third year of registration, and to declare a final DAC by the end of the third year of registration. The SHBT student tracking committee must approve the composition of the DAC; this is done by the approval of the DAC Declaration Form (see below).  In order to avoid conflicts of interest, a student's Dissertation Advisor cannot simultaneously be either his or her academic advisor or DAC chair.  In the event that an academic advisor becomes the Dissertation Advisor, a new academic advisor will be found.

[Friendly advice: In addition to covering all the areas of expertise needed to do your Dissertation research, your committee should also be diverse. It should include people from various departments and labs. It is often very helpful to include at least one person who is likely to view your problem from a very different perspective than you and your supervisor.]

[Friendly advice: Although there is no maximum committee size, three or four is considered optimal. Committees of five members are possible, but more than five is unwieldy.]

DAC Meetings
Beginning in the third year of registration, a student must meet with his or her DAC at least once during Fall and Spring terms. At the end of the meeting, the DAC Chair completes a DAC Report for submission to the Division of Medical Sciences.

[Friendly advice: Begin meeting with your proposed committee even before this. Group discussions can be a very effective for generating new ideas and developing a clear research plan.]

Dissertation Advisor
The Dissertation Advisor is responsible for overseeing the student's dissertation project, providing a supportive research environment, and mentoring the student. The Dissertation Advisor is chosen by the student and must be a faculty member of Harvard University or MIT.  The Division of Medical Sciences may approve other individuals as Dissertation Advisors on a case-by-case basis.

DAC Chair
Each DAC is headed administratively by a Chair, chosen by the student in consultation with the Dissertation Advisor. The DAC Chair is responsible for overseeing the committee meetings that are convened at least once each semester to review research progress; submitting a report after each DAC meeting; conducting the Dissertation defense; and, with the committee, reviewing the Dissertation. The DAC Chair must be a Harvard or MIT faculty member and must be well acquainted with the academic policies and procedures of DMS. The dissertation advisor may not simultaneously serve as DAC Chair


The Letter of Intent and the Dissertation Advisor Declaration

Students must submit two forms, the Letter of Intent and the Dissertation Advisor Declaration, to propose a Dissertation Advisor and Dissertation Advisory Committee, respectively.  It is recognized that the Dissertation Advisor and/or Advisory Committee may change as the research evolves.  If so, updated forms should be submitted with the revised information.

The Letter of Intent proposes a general area of dissertation research and a Dissertation Advisor. The form must be submitted to the SHBT Program by September 15 of the third year of registration.  This form should specify the area of expertise of the Dissertation Advisor.  It should also indicate whether IRB approval (Institutional Review Board; for research involving human subjects) and/or IACUC approval (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee; for research involving vertebrate animals) will be required and, if so, from which institutions. The research description should be no longer than 100 words.  The student and Dissertation Advisor must sign the form.


The Dissertation Advisor Declaration addresses the same issues as the earlier form and also specifies the faculty members who will serve on the DAC.  At least one member of this committee must be eligible to serve as the DAC Chair.  The form should also confirm the Dissertation Advisor and general area of dissertation research.  The Dissertation Advisor Declaration, signed by the student and Dissertation Advisor, must be submitted to the SHBT Program and the Division of Medical Sciences by April 15 of the third year of registration.

Students are strongly encouraged to identify tentative Dissertation Advisory Committee members and begin meeting with the Committee as early as possible.  Following submission of the Dissertation Advisor Declaration, students are required to hold at least one meeting per semester with their DAC. The role of the committee is to offer advice in formulating the research.

It is recognized that the research direction may change in the process of developing a formal dissertation proposal. The research topic and DAC are only considered final after the Dissertation proposal (see below) has been approved.

[Friendly advice: Be sure to take responsibility for obtaining the necessary signatures and submitting the forms to the SHBT Program.]


Dissertation Proposal and Proposal Presentation

Proposal Document
Each student must present a dissertation proposal to his or her DAC, and submit the approved proposal to the SHBT Student Tracking Committee, by June 1 of the fourth year of registration.  


The only exception is for students who substantially change their research focus after submitting their original Dissertation Advisor Declaration; in those cases the dissertation proposal must be submitted within three semesters of joining a new lab.

The proposal should be no longer than 4500 words, excluding references. This is intended to help students develop their proposal-writing skills by gaining experience composing a practical proposal; the length is comparable to that required for proposals to the NIH R03 Small Research Grant Program. The proposal should clearly define the research problem, describe the proposed research plan, and defend the significance of the work. Preliminary results are not required.

Proposal Presentation
The student must formally present the written dissertation proposal before the full Dissertation Advisory Committee.


Following the presentation, the student must correct any deficiencies in the proposal identified by the Committee, and the Committee then reviews the amended proposal.  Once the Committee approves the proposal, the student should obtain signatures of the DAC members as described below, as part of the proposal submission package.

[Friendly advice: As a professional courtesy, be sure your committee members have a complete version of your dissertation proposal at least a week in advance of the proposal presentation.]

[Friendly advice: Be sure to take responsibility for obtaining the necessary signatures and submitting the proposal to DMS. The proposal serves as a contract between you and your committee, but not until it is approved by the SHBT Tracking Committee.]

Submission of Proposal Package
When the DAC deems the proposal acceptable, the student submits the proposal package to the head of the SHBT Student Tracking Committee for final approval. The Tracking Committee has responsibility for final approval of both the proposal and the composition of the DAC.

The proposal package includes the following:


  • the proposal with properly formatted title page signed by the student;
  • an abstract of the proposal (maximum length 300 words) that serves as a concise description of the proposed work and can be read independently of the full proposal. The Tracking Committee will use the abstract when reviewing the proposal for final approval. The abstract should be comprehensible to a general scientific audience, yet contain sufficient information for evaluation of the project.  The components of the abstract are:
    • a brief description of the project background and significance, explaining why the work is important,
    • the specific aims of the proposal, and
    • an indication of the methods to be used to accomplish the specific aims.
  • IRB and/or IACUC approval numbers, institutions and dates if applicable
  • a statement of approval of the proposal, signed by each member of the committee;
  • a cover letter signed by the chairman of the committee documenting the time and place of the dissertation proposal presentation, the names and areas of expertise of the DAC members and the committee's assessment of the proposal.


Dissertation Document and Dissertation Defense

When the dissertation document is substantially complete and fully acceptable to the DAC, a public dissertation defense must be scheduled at which the student presents his/her research to the DAC and other members of the research community. The dissertation defense is the last formal examination required for receipt of a doctoral degree. To be considered "public", a defense must be announced at least five working days in advance. Through the defense, the DAC judges the adequacy of the dissertation research. Once the dissertation is satisfactorily defended and the signed final dissertation document is submitted to the Division of Medical Sciences, the student's Dissertation requirement will have been fulfilled.

Dissertation Defense Procedures

  • The DAC, working with the student and reviewing dissertation drafts, concludes that the doctoral work is complete
  • A complete final draft of the dissertation document is due to the DAC approximately two weeks prior to the dissertation defense to allow the committee time to review
  • The student emails a dissertation abstract to DMS approximately ten days prior to the dissertation defense
  • A dissertation defense is held to which the public is invited. The DMS Office will send out an email announcement, put up announcement posters, and list the defense on the online calendar.
  • The entire DAC should be present at the defense. In extreme circumstances, one committee member may be absent as long as at least three others are present
  • Students should reserve a room and any necessary equipment for their Dissertation defense
  • In a discussion immediately following the public Dissertation presentation, involving the student and all faculty members present, additional questions can be explored at the discretion of the faculty.  The DAC meets in executive session to decide whether the dissertation defense was satisfactory.  Additions or editorial changes to the dissertation document may be suggested to the student by the committee at this point.
  • The DAC chair informs the Division of Medical Sciences that the student has successfully defended the PhD Dissertation.


On September 23rd, 2016, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation “The Structure and Components for the Open Education Ecosystem: Constructive Design Research of Online Learning Tools” at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. I was honored to have Professor Emeritus Terry Anderson from Athabasca University acting as an opponent in the defense.


This research studies the design of online learning tools for open education. The dissertation is based on five articles and design case studies that explore open education from different perspectives: open educational resources, open learning environments, and assessment of teachers’ competencies. The underlying concept of the study is the open education ecosystem. The study explores the ways in which the design of online learning tools could benefit from the digital ecosystems approach. The design of online learning tools for open education presents wicked problems, that involve ill-defined requirements and contemplates the influence on and by the stakeholders and other components of the ecosystem. Firstly, to clarify the design challenges related to the open education ecosystem, this study summarizes a set of design challenges presented in design case studies. Secondly, it identifies and recommends a set of design patterns that address these design challenges. Finally, the study proposes the structure and components that are needed for the open education ecosystem.

The dissertation can be purchased or downloaded from Aalto ARTS Books (direct link to PDF).

The Structure and Components for the Open Education Ecosystem from Hans Põldoja

Some photos from the defense are in published Flickr.

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