How the doctoral dissertation process works
Completing your doctoral dissertation is likely one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do, according to Amanda Stevens, a student in the University of Phoenix® Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership program.
And while she notes that “the dissertation process is overwhelming, to say the least,” she adds that the continuous support of faculty members, as well as their expertise, has made parts of the process “seem like a breeze” and “very doable.”
Here are six steps you must take before you can add the title “doctor” to your name:
Develop your idea.
“The purpose of a dissertation in any discipline is to investigate a problem that hasn’t been investigated before by using the scientific method,” explains Mike Vandermark, PhD, an instructor in Stevens’ doctoral program.
“I once had a student become interested in the fact many people are addicted to their [smartphones],” he explains. “He looked at the literature and found this issue hadn’t been researched very much. So he went out and interviewed people [who had admitted to] smartphone addiction, collected and analyzed data on how it affected their lives and work, and proposed … a solution.”
While many students enter doctoral programs thinking they already have a solid dissertation idea, they often find it needs refinement, Stevens adds.
“Narrowing down an idea to a researchable topic is much harder than it sounds,” she cautions. “While you have all of these great ideas for a topic during the first year of coursework, you realize [some] ideas are underdeveloped, scattered and not able to be researched.”
Vandermark agrees. “Coming up with the idea is often the hardest part,” he says, noting that all University doctoral programs include an eight-week course focusing exclusively on turning dissertation topics into concise, two-paragraph concepts. “Those are going to be the two toughest paragraphs you’ll ever write.”
Choose your faculty chair and committee.
Once the University approves your topic, you then select your faculty chair and dissertation committee, who will mentor you throughout the process and have final say on the acceptance and publication of your thesis.
“The University will help match students with faculty who have an interest in supporting their dissertation topic and are available to participate, but the final selection of both chair and committee rests with the doctoral student,” Vandermark explains.
In addition, “students enroll in one-on-one dissertation classes with their chair,” notes Keri Heitner, PhD, an associate research faculty member for doctoral programs. “The process typically begins in the second year of the program, concurrent with coursework.”
Write your proposal.
“The proposal is essentially the first three chapters of your dissertation, where you explain the problem to be investigated and its context,” Vandermark says, adding that most students go through many drafts of these chapters before they receive approval from their dissertation committee and reviewers from the School of Advanced Studies.
“The University is essentially your publisher, since the dissertation will eventually be uploaded onto ProQuest® [database] with the University of Phoenix name on it, right next to yours,” Vandermark points out. “So just like with any publisher, there will be a lot of revision back and forth until the publisher accepts the final proposal manuscript.”
Once the revisions are complete, your dissertation committee will give you the green light to collect data.
Get institutional review board approval.
Before you begin your research, however, you first must create your data collection model and have it accepted by the University’s internal institutional review board (IRB).
“This is an ethical requirement for whenever you’re collecting information from human subjects to make sure you’re doing so in a fair and unbiased manner that protects participants’ privacy,” Vandermark explains, and it is important to thoroughly and accurately complete the IRB application.
Joslyn Sato, who’s completing her doctorate in organizational leadership, describes the process as a “waiting game,” noting that “being patient is key.”
Research, analyze and write up results.
Students work on their dissertations independently, but they also lean on faculty members for support, Stevens points out.
When preparing her research framework, Stevens first developed an outline for her written introduction and literature review that helped her present her material in a logical, easy-to-follow way, she says. This method also helped her create a test model that made collecting and understanding her research data easier.
Once you finish your research and data analysis, you add two more chapters to your proposal draft: one that presents the data and another that interprets it and offers recommendations. The new chapters qualify the document as a dissertation for eventual presentation to your program’s dean and your dissertation committee.
“Just like with the proposal, there will be a lot of revisions back and forth between you and your chair before the full manuscript is finalized,” Vandermark says, adding that it can take two to four years to complete your research and write your dissertation. Some students take even longer.
Defend your manuscript.
This is the final step, where you present key findings to your dissertation committee — usually via conference call.
“We call it a defense, but it’s really more of a conversation,” Vandermark notes. “Students meet with their faculty committee to explain what they’ve learned by completing their research and the nature of the recommendations. It’s a very sophisticated Q&A.”
The committee confers, and sometimes will ask for refinements, which then require a second oral defense.
“But often,” Vandermark says, “the committee has good news for the student, and the first thing they say is, ‘Congratulations, Doctor So-and-So, on completing your dissertation.’”