What You Need to Know about the Doctoral Dissertation Milestones

Have you heard the statistic that says only about 50 percent of doctoral students in the U.S. actually finish? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s not by choice. While a select few may be satisfied with passing their Doctoral Comprehensive Examination and joining the ABD Club (all but dissertation), most are committed to beginning the dissertation writing process with the goal of conducting research and defending their dissertation to earn a coveted doctoral degree.

With that in mind, we touched base with Dr. Eve Mika, assistant dean of The Graduate School at Northcentral University, to help shed some light on each of the doctoral dissertation milestones and what you can expect from the process.

Concept Paper (CP)

The Concept Paper is the first dissertation milestone document and is basically a “pre-proposal.” “The CP gives students the opportunity to obtain feedback about the feasibility and worthiness of their dissertation topic,” explains Dr. Mika. “Students are expected to highlight the scholarly research that has been published on the topic to-date, document a research-worthy problem based on this literature base, and then outline a basic methodology for data collection and analysis.” Depending on whether you are pursuing an applied doctorate or PhD, your topic should make either a theoretical (PhD) or practical (applied) contribution to your field.

Dissertation Proposal (DP)

“The Dissertation Proposal builds on the initial concept,” continues Mika, “and it is here that students explain the methodology and design they plan to use to implement their study in greater detail.”  In other words, the DP is the basis of your actual research and demonstrates your research design in a way that anyone who reads it would be able to replicate your study.

Institutional Review Board (IRB) Application and Approval

Upon final approval of the DP, the candidate applies to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). All research endeavors involving human subjects must be approved by an IRB committee to ensure the study is ethical. “This process is designed to protect researchers and their affiliated institutions from undue risk and ensure the safety, welfare, rights and dignity of all research participants,” she notes. No data may be collected until IRB approval is obtained.

Dissertation Manuscript (DM)

“Once IRB approval is obtained, students can begin collecting data,” reveals Mika. “It is this data and the analysis of the data that helps make up the final elements of the Dissertation Manuscript (the bulk of chapters 1-3 is from the DP).” The DM includes the study findings and the student’s recommendation for future research as well as practical applications. 

Oral Defense/Presentation

The oral defense (presentation for applied doctorates) is the final formal step prior to completion of the doctorate. “The student presents to their doctoral committee the highlights of the study, key findings and limitations,” she explains. “The student must demonstrate expertise on their dissertation topic and research design, and field questions from their committee. The committee then decides whether the student has sufficiently completed the requirements for a doctorate.”

It’s important to keep in mind that while dissertations are a staple for doctoral programs, each college or university more than likely has its own requirements for different portions of the dissertation, including length, review, research methods and committee assignments. The best thing you can do as you’re preparing to begin the dissertation process is find out everything you can about your institution’s requirements and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.