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Dissertation 101: Tips for researching and writing a doctoral dissertation

When Rose Lorenzo got close to finishing her master’s degree at University of Phoenix (UOPX), she came to a crossroads. She could walk away with her degree and focus on building her company, Lorenzo Financial, or she could scratch the itch for more academic knowledge and pursue her doctorate.

Lorenzo chose the latter. (And still managed to build her company, lay the groundwork to launch a new school and eventually get accepted to law school.)

“Although I knew what I wanted to study, I wish I had known how to choose the right topic and how to narrow that topic down before I started,” Lorenzo recalls.

Lorenzo, of course, is talking about the dissertation, that book-length document that’s both the capstone of the doctoral degree and the driving force behind a doctoral program’s years of study and academic research.

But settling on a topic is just one part of a process that can intimidate even the most determined scholar. What’s exactly involved in a dissertation? And what’s the point of one anyway? Here, we take a deeper dive into the dissertation experience.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is an academic document prepared by a doctoral student that contains original research about a topic. The student identifies the topic, conducts the research, writes the dissertation and defends it in front of a committee led by a dissertation chair and other doctoral faculty who decide whether the research meets the doctoral level research standards. If it does, the student will successfully complete the doctoral program, have their dissertation published in ProQuest and earn a terminal degree, which means the highest education level that can be earned in a field.

The dissertation, in other words, is important. But why all the fuss in the first place? According to Rodney Luster, PhD, a dissertation can enhance society’s overall knowledge and understanding about an issue and ignite a person’s area of interest and expertise, as well as enhance that expertise.

Luster is the chair for the Center for Leadership Studies and Organizational Research within the College of Doctoral Studies at University of Phoenix, and he points to his own dissertation by way of example. 

His research concerned what is currently known as vicarious trauma, a phenomenon he witnessed among his college students after the 9/11 attacks. His students hadn’t been anywhere near the attack, and yet he noticed they displayed classic signs of trauma. This piqued his interest.

“I was able to conduct what I understand was the first research study looking at vicarious trauma in the general population, and that has opened up a lot of doors,” Luster explains.

Now an expert on the concept, he has seen the phenomenon after subsequent events, such as Hurricane Katrina.

 

Lorenzo’s research was more tailored to her area of interest. She ultimately whittled down her topic from how leadership impacts entrepreneurial success or failure to how it impacts female entrepreneurs specifically.

 

Topics, in other words, offer the freedom for students to follow their curiosity and experience with the goal of potentially solving a problem or adding to a field’s body of knowledge.

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Dissertation vs. thesis – what’s the difference?

Some people may confuse a dissertation with a thesis, but they’re not the same thing. While similar in nature in that they are both the capstone of an academic program, the biggest difference is where a dissertation and a thesis fit in the educational journey. As explained, a doctoral student completes a dissertation, while a thesis is a research paper for a master’s-level student or sometimes within a bachelor’s program. 

There are other differences as well. One is the level of research involved. Often, a thesis is based on existing research. This means that an undergrad or graduate student will compile various research findings to defend a theory or idea in a thesis. A dissertation on the other hand requires doctoral students to conduct, present and defend their own research.

The two documents differ in length too. A thesis is often much shorter and can range from 40 to 60 pages for an undergraduate thesis and from 60 to upward of 100 pages for a master's thesis. A dissertation is 150 to 300 pages, or 80,000 to 100,000 words. As noted, whether it’s presented in front of a panel of faculty or academics as an oral defense is another key difference. This is often required for a dissertation, but oral defense of a thesis may depend on the program or institution.

How to write a dissertation

Figuring out a dissertation topic is a process as individualized as the students in a doctoral degree program. Luster usually encourages candidates to begin with a title.

“That’s going to be your selling point for everything, and it has to be understandable. It must be concise. It must have a theoretical construct in it. The title will take you a lot of places and will help lead you into the writing process.”

To this Lorenzo adds a less lofty but equally valid cross-check: She learned to really drill down any topic with the question, “Who cares?” If there are people who are invested in learning more about the topic (if there are, in other words, people who care), it may warrant further research.

These preliminary exercises lay a solid foundation for the dissertation process, but the actual research and writing can still feel intimidating. Luster, for example, had written a book before starting his dissertation, and points out that a dissertation “is not like any other writing that you’ve done.”

So, where do you start? At UOPX, you start in your first class.

Understanding ACCESS

The dissertation process at UOPX was revamped and rolled out in September 2019, notes Shawn C. Todd-Boone, EdD, the associate dean for ACCESS, research and residency at the College of Doctoral Studies.

Luster says the process was reimagined based on extensive feedback and on a desire to make the process more effective and efficient.

One of the first ways the dissertation process changed was with the development of ACCESS, an acronym for “advancing community, critical thought, engagement, scholarship and success.”

This sequence is incorporated into the first three interdisciplinary courses of any doctoral program at UOPX with an eye toward introducing doctoral candidates to what Luster calls a “theoretical mindset.”

The ACCESS program attempts to nurture a culture of inquiry that helps retain doctoral candidates while inspiring them to innovate in their fields, Boone says.

ACCESS, in other words, sets the tone for the entire doctoral process, which is founded on innovation, research and critical thinking.

The five phases of the dissertation

Writing the dissertation occurs in what Luster describes as five phases over the course of different classes. These are:

  • Phase 1: Develop a prospectus, which is an outline of the research project.
  • Phase 2: Draft the first chapter of the dissertation, which is known as the précis.
  • Phase 3: Undergo a concept review and develop the second chapter.
  • Phase 4: Focus on the proposal, write the third chapter and review chapters one through three.
  • Phase 5: Obtain the approval of the Institutional Review Board, which evaluates research according to the University’s ethical standards.

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The UOPX difference

The five phases of the dissertation writing process aren’t ubiquitous. Doctoral students work on a dissertation while going through the program at UOPX — which was very much intentional, according to Boone.

“We have five phases in the dissertation process and a deliverable at the end of each phase to encourage students to finish and to complete on time if they commit to the process,” Boone explains.

This is a notable improvement, according to Lorenzo. “It is more effective to start your research on day one than wait, because it's easier to identify the gap in research and eliminate wasted research time on topics that are not relevant to your study, and [it] helps contribute to the literature review of the study,” she says.

But this process isn’t the only benefit UOPX students enjoy. The doctoral program has several other distinctive features:

  • Once upon a time, students interviewed potential research chairs to take on the oversight of their program. The result was stressful, with doctoral candidates often casting a wide net in the hope of securing a chair and then potentially ending up with someone who wasn’t quite the perfect fit. Today, UOPX takes the stress and potential mismatch out of the equation. “Students do not search for dissertation committee members,” Boone says. “We assign them.”
  • Dissertations from UOPX tend to focus on functional application more so than just theory, Luster notes. This means topics have real-world applications, and communities and industries may benefit from the research. For example, one recent dissertation explored the integration of nurse graduates into hospital settings during COVID-19.
  • Doctoral candidates have access to diverse and extensive resources. In addition to comprehensive documentation about the dissertation process at UOPX, candidates can leverage one-on-one appointments with the University’s library staff, engage in workshops with research chairs and seek opportunities to work as research assistants.
  • Rather than what Luster calls a sink-or-swim approach, UOPX has invested in a mentor-driven approach. “I think that makes us largely different and successful with students, especially adult learners,” Luster says.

In the end, that sense of a safety net — both in terms of mentorship and the doctoral community itself — is one of the biggest reassurances doctoral candidates enjoy.

Lorenzo, for example, keeps in touch with a core group of colleagues she met through the program. “No one understands what you’re going through except for [your peers],” she notes.

Or, as Luster puts it: “You don’t have to worry, because you’ll acquire this information along the way, and you have a lot of good people to help you.”

FAQs

How long is a doctoral dissertation?

Most are 100 to 300 pages and organized by chapters and/or sections and subsections. There are also often requirements for text size, page size and spacing that can depend on your doctoral program.

What are the parts of a dissertation?

A dissertation generally includes a Dissertation Acceptance Certificate, a title page, a copyright statement, an abstract (detailing the objective of the research, the methods and the outcome), a table of contents, the research itself and supplemental information (either as an appendix with charts and tables or as an uploaded file with digital information). Some dissertations include front and back matter, such as acknowledgments, a dedication, a glossary, a bibliography and related features.

Is a dissertation required for a doctorate?

Not always. While most doctoral and PhD degree programs require a dissertation, some don’t, and others require a capstone project.

What’s the difference between a PhD and a doctorate?

Individuals who complete a PhD focus on producing new knowledge to contribute to a theory or body of research. Individuals who complete a practitioner doctorate, on the other hand, focuses on how to apply knowledge to a field or particular issue.