Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Years Three, Four, and Five

graduate program handbook

The second period in your graduate program is characterized by a shift to more independent work and an even more intensive focus on research. The third year focuses on two requirements that you work on simultaneously, the third year Literature Review and the Dissertation Proposal. The fourth year focuses on dissertation research. Even more than in the first two years, however, meeting the formal requirements is the minimum. The student’s principal job is carrying out research and building up a CV.

Early in the third year, students should meet with their committee to form a tentative plan for Years Three and Four. This plan should be formalized and signed by the committee by Dec. 1 of Year Three. Students are encouraged to begin pilot research for their dissertation, if they have not already done so, during the first semester of Year Three.

Dissertation Advisory Committee and Dissertation Defense Committee

When you are ready to write the Dissertation Proposal, you will form a Dissertation Advisory Committee. The Dissertation Advisory Committee consists of two members from the student’s area, and one faculty member from outside the student’s area (who will provide an outside, broader perspective). The member who is outside the student’s area must not have training in the student’s area. At least two members of the committee must be from the department.

It is possible that the student’s preliminary advisory committee from the first two years will already have a member outside the student’s area, and in this case no change is needed unless the student wishes a change.

At the time of the Dissertation Defense (but ideally earlier), the Dissertation Advisory Committee is supplemented with one additional member from outside the Department to form the Dissertation Defense Committee. The fourth member must be from outside the Psychology Department and can be from any university and any area (whether this be the student’s area, another area in psychology, or even another related discipline). The student’s Dissertation Advisory Committee recommends a fourth member to the Graduate Program Director, who must approve this recommendation, and sign the Dissertation Defense Committee Form (#10). Note that it is possible to have a defense committee with only two members from the Psychology Department, and with only two members from Boston College. It is recommended but not required that the fourth member be added to the committee early enough to include that individual in the plan and proposal defense. The minimum number on the Dissertation Defense Committee is four, and therefore the student, in consultation with the advisor, can add a fifth member if deemed appropriate. The fifth member can be from any area, any department, and any university.

External Funding

Students should continue to seek external funding for their graduate work. The more research you have done and the clearer your ideas about future research, the greater your chances of getting funding. Try both public and private sources. The secret to success here is persistence. Your advisor will guide you in finding sources and preparing the proposal.

For the third and fourth year students, there is pre-doctoral funding available from the APA and NIMH, as well as a wide variety of private foundations. Getting a grant in your third or fourth year will allow you to extend your time in graduate school, do more research, get more publications, and in the end, do better on the job market. (Getting grants looks very good on your CV.)

Course Requirements

The two remaining course requirements are to be completed by the end of the third year. Students may take these two required courses in the first two years, but the third year is recommended. Students may take additional electives in the department or in other departments at Boston College, and may cross-register (with permission) for courses at universities that form part of the Consortium.

Year Three Checklist

  • One breadth seminar (a course outside the student’s area)
  • A History of Psychology course

While students are welcome to take courses beyond those required, we remind you that your first responsibility to yourself is to conduct research and submit papers for presentation at conferences and publication in appropriate journals.

Students are encouraged to continue to attend a Research Workshop. Perhaps it is time to try a workshop from another area. Research Workshops are not limited by your advisor’s participation.

Students who have completed all course requirements and are not taking a course must register each semester for the one-credit Doctoral Continuation, which ensures full-time status.

Students typically receive five years of university funding (assuming adequate performance). Students may not continue in the program for more than eight years.

Consortium Schools: Boston University, Brandeis University, Tufts University

Third Year Literature Review

Students identify an area (typically one in which they will carry out their dissertation research) and write a scholarly integrative review of the literature in that area. This paper is not merely of the kind used as an introduction to an empirical paper. Nor do we have in mind an old-fashioned annotated bibliography that reads like a list of unintegrated summaries. Instead, the third year literature review has the breadth and depth of a scholarly review to be published on its own. The aim is for an article that is a scholarly contribution to the field, providing an integration of the literature, a novel perspective, a tightly reasoned argument, and a firm conclusion. We have in mind the type of paper now published in Psychological Bulletin or Psychological Review. Some emphasize integration of empirical studies, others emphasize conceptual issues. Of course, the approach and emphasis are up to you.


Students should meet regularly (at least once a week) with their advisor to identify an area, plan their review, and discuss the ongoing work of the review. A good idea is to read a number of review articles in your field. These are typically published in journals specializing in reviews. You should also consult with other members on your Preliminary Advisory Committee.

Before writing the Literature Review, the student prepares a preliminary plan for the review, which is to be approved by the preliminary advisory committee sometime during the first semester, and no later than Dec. 1 of Year 3 (Form 6). Once signed by the committee, this plan is similar to a contract. While changes may be made (with approval from advisors), the committee cannot require new changes. The third year literature review must be authored solely by the student when it is turned in to the committee. If the paper is later submitted for publication, it can be co-authored with the advisor, but the student should always be first author.


The final project is evaluated by the Preliminary Advisory Committee. Their standard is whether the article is of publishable quality. All members of the committee must sign a form (#7) indicating that the project has been accepted.

Due Date

This paper must be finalized and approved by the student’s committee by May 15 of Year 3 or earlier.

Submission for publication

The ideal paper would be submitted for publication to a review journal. (Of course, whether this work constitutes a stand-alone journal publication, or whether it should be combined with other studies, will depend upon judgments by the student and faculty advisor.)

Dissertation Proposal Defense

Work on the Dissertation Proposal should begin on Day one of Year 3. Throughout Year 3 students should meet with their advisor to plan the dissertation, while at the same time working on the Third Year Literature Review and completing course work. At some point in Year 3, student and dissertation advisory committee will typically formalize the plan into a formal Dissertation Proposal. After the committee approves the written proposal, the student defends the proposal at a formal meeting with the Dissertation Advisory Committee which is open to all faculty and graduate students in the department. Students should aim to hold this meeting by the beginning of the fourth year.

The format of the proposal is up to your committee. Perhaps an ideal format is that of a grant proposal. In any case, typically, the dissertation proposal includes:

  • A statement of the research question
  • A review of the relevant literature, which can be a condensed version of the Third Year Literature Review (typical length of this section is five pages)
  • Clear statement of hypotheses and how they will be tested in this research
  • A presentation of pilot research results if relevant
  • A full description of the methods and data analysis to be used and power analysis

The dissertation proposal is evaluated in light of the importance of the research question; adequacy of the design; and likelihood of completion in time proposed. The dissertation should make an original contribution to our understanding of some question in psychology.

For those working with human subjects, remember to make timely application to the IRB for approval to proceed with data collection (if not already covered by one of your advisor’s protocols)!

Advancement to Doctoral Candidacy

After students have completed all of the program requirements, including the Third Year Literature Review, and have successfully defended their dissertation proposal, they will be advanced to doctoral candidacy.

Dissertation Format

Visit the GSAS website for dissertation forms and Boston College regulations for format of dissertations.

Full text access to all dissertations, including Boston College dissertations, is available from the Libraries’ website.

Dissertation Defense

If the student has not already done so, now is the time to add a fourth member to the Dissertation Committee, thereby forming the Dissertation Defense Committee (see above). The dissertation is defended at a public hearing open to faculty, graduate students, and other members of the BC community. The Chair of the Defense Committee will be someone other than the student’s advisor. The member from outside the Department must be present at the defense. Your advisor contacts the Graduate Program Director at least two weeks in advance of the proposed date of the defense. The student also notifies the Psychology Office so that the time and date of the Defense can be announced publicly. The student obtains all necessary paperwork and brings it to the defense. Students wishing to graduate in May must turn in a signed and approved copy of their dissertation around April 1 (See Academic Calendar on GSAS website).

Presentation at Professional Conferences

During the second two years, we especially encourage students to attend professional conferences. Ideally, every student submits a paper or poster for presentation each year. Travel to a conference to present a paper or poster is partially subsidized.


In some areas, students may elect to carry out fieldwork in order to study the application of psychology in real-world settings. Consult with your advisor on arranging a suitable placement.

Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program

When departmental doctoral programs are unable to satisfy the interests of the student, an interdisciplinary doctoral program remains a possibility. A student interested in exploring such a possibility should make an inquiry to the Graduate School Office