By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Public University
Earning a Ph.D. is a complex process, and many universities have different protocols. A pursuit of a doctoral degree typically starts with taking courses that may be similar to other graduate courses. However, coursework in a doctoral program sets the framework for the dissertation phase.
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Doctoral courses typically provide students with the opportunity to build complex research skills that will be necessary to successfully complete the dissertation. For example, courses in my doctorate program included quantitative and qualitative research design, statistics, ethics, and a scholarly literature review course. Doctoral courses typically focus on the student’s field of study.
Once students complete the required courses, they often enter the comprehensive exam phase. This is when a student is evaluated to measure his or her understanding of the main concepts of the academic discipline. The comprehensive exam phase is also when the student shows he or she is prepared to move into the final phase of earning a doctorate, the dissertation.
Around this time, students have an important decision to make regarding the dissertation. That decision most likely will have a significant impact on whether the student successfully earns the degree.
While some universities select the doctoral candidate’s dissertation chair and committee, other universities permit the student to select his or her own committee. Doctoral students who have the option to select their own dissertation committee should put a lot of time and consideration into the decision, because an effective dissertation committee can often affect the student’s success in the dissertation. The effective committee will provide the student with cohesion and collaboration, which is necessary throughout the dissertation.
Dissertation Committee Members Serve as Coaches
Effective dissertation committees provide feedback and guidance that help the doctoral candidate remain on track and meet milestones in the dissertation process. Committee members, such as the chair, serve as coaches and can help the student avoid conflicts of interests, issues with the Institutional Review Board, and overcome challenges in data collection.
When the student selects the dissertation committee, it is important to first identify potential members who are qualified and fall within the requirements of the graduate school. Their education and career experience should complement the doctoral learner’s dissertation goals. For example, committee members should not only be experts in their field, but should also have a firm understanding of the dissertation process. A good dissertation committee member will have knowledge of discipline-based theories.
Dissertations are commonly guided by theory. Either a new theory is developed in the dissertation research or the practical application of an existing theory is used to guide the student’s dissertation research.
Ask Doctoral Graduates about the Strengths and Weaknesses of Their Committee Members
One approach to finding a good committee member is to ask successful doctoral graduates about the strengths and weaknesses of their dissertation committee members. Selecting professors whom the student had during coursework is also a good way to identify committee members. It may also be helpful to select committee members based on their feedback, accessibility, and communication styles.
Once the dissertation committee has been established, it is a good idea to carefully select the role that each member will play based on their individual strengths. The dissertation chair is the person with whom the student most likely will work most closely.
I found that the dissertation phase was the most challenging part of the doctoral process. It commonly takes years to complete the degree and it is the stage that has the highest failure rate in the doctoral process. However, an effective dissertation committee can provide the pathway to the successful completion of a Ph.D. degree.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Public University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.
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