By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Public University
Earning a doctorate is a major accomplishment in your academic journey. Only around 2% of Americans have a doctorate degree.
Completing the standard doctoral coursework, however, is a challenging task of its own. Once that work is done and the comprehensive exams are passed, you’re faced with the most significant challenge of earning a doctorate: the dissertation.
Start a doctoral degree at American Public University.
The ‘All But Dissertation’ Phase
At some point, doctoral students arrive at the “All But Dissertation” phase. From the “All But Dissertation” phase to the successful completion and defense of a dissertation, the work takes an average of 13-20 months.
However, completing a dissertation can take substantially longer depending on issues that come up. Problems can include delays with the Institutional Review Board, issues with the research design or other personal situations that slows your progress.
From my experience, I believe that challenges in completing a dissertation occur because students either didn’t know what to expect in the process and became discouraged, or they didn’t have a strategy to remain on track. To successfully complete a dissertation, it is important to have an understanding of the different steps, a good working relationship with the committee and an organized plan that includes milestone goals to help you remain on track.
What to Expect in a Dissertation
Dissertations usually begin with a concept paper. A concept paper briefly describes what the dissertation intends to do in terms of research. The concept paper outlines the main steps of the research and is the beginning of the discussion between you and your committee.
Some universities permit you to select your own committee, and other universities assign a committee without student input. Committees are made up of a chairperson and at least two other readers who may serve as methodologists or content experts.
This committee will review your dissertation manuscript at different times. In addition, you will have to defend your dissertation to this committee, especially at the final stage of the process.
After completing my dissertation and passing the defense phase with my committee, I learned that committee members typically don’t recommend a student for the defense phase if they don’t feel that that student has already succeeded in the dissertation. This knowledge may take some of the stress out of defending your dissertation.
Progressing through the Dissertation
Once a dissertation has an approved concept paper and you begin working with a committee, expect frequent communication with your committee chair. From my experience both as a student and now a chair, I recommend that phone meetings be arranged between you and your chair no less than every few weeks. The role of the chair is to mentor you and advocate for you.
Instead of spending countless hours trying to figure out complicated quantitative analyses or overcoming flaws in research design, frequent communication with your chair helps you overcome these challenges. I experienced this situation in my own dissertation when I was faced with some challenges in participant recruitment. Closely working with my mentor and being honest about the challenges I experienced enabled my mentor to provide me with ideas based on their experience.
Creating a Well-Prepared Dissertation
A detailed research plan is the foundation of a successful dissertation. The detailed research plan should outline the theoretical basis for the research.
My recommendation is to select a theory that has plenty of available research. Then, that theory can be used as the theoretical framework to either answer the dissertation’s research questions or prove or disprove its hypotheses.
You should expect to spend a significant amount of time on the first three chapters of the dissertation. Typically, the first three chapters of a dissertation include Chapter I: Introduction, Chapter II: Review of Literature and Chapter III: Methodology.
In terms of the literature review, you should expect to locate all available research on the topic of your dissertation and on the theoretical framework used in the study. Expect to review at least 200-300 research studies or more.
My recommendation is to quickly scan abstracts to determine if the studies are associated with your topic or theoretical framework. This strategy can help you to save time compared to opening every study that may be associated with your dissertation.
Look for Gaps in Available Literature, and Use a Familiar Research Design and Methodology
Another strategy is to look for gaps of literature that emerge during your research, which is especially helpful if those gaps align with your research interests. If that happens, you are more likely to remain engaged and enjoy the dissertation.
Once a detailed research plan is developed, submit your study for approval from the Institutional Review Board, which ensures that your study meets the standards for ethical research. An Institutional Review Board is typically associated with the university that the student is pursuing their doctorate and ensures that the study follows ethical and federal regulations for the protection of human subjects.
Since Chapter III involves research design and methods, based on approval by your chair, use a research design that you’re familiar with. Perhaps in the past, you used a research design in previous doctoral coursework that you felt was comfortable and fully understood. If that is the case, it may be useful for your dissertation.
This tactic saves time and reduces stress, because you won’t have to learn a completely new research design. Often, I see students over-complicate their research designs through complicated analytical methods, which is not always necessary.
Develop Triangulation in Your Study
Following Institutional Review Board approval, data collection and data analysis, and as conclusions are being drawn in the dissertation, it is important to develop triangulation in the study as you’re drawing your conclusions. The committee is will likely be looking for this triangulation.
Triangulation increases the credibility and validity in your dissertation findings, and it can be obtained through different ways. For example, citing literature that supports the findings of your study and using multiple approaches to analyze data is a good way to display triangulation. If interviews were conducted as part of the data collection, one option to develop triangulation is through identifying themes that are consistent in participant responses and that are consistent with the literature.
Overcoming Your Obstacles, and Don’t Get Discouraged
Around 50% of students who start a Ph.D. program don’t finish, and many end their academic journey on the “All But Dissertation” phase because they did not successfully complete a dissertation. If you are pursuing your dissertation, be part of the 50% who succeeds and earns the Ph.D. you have worked so hard for!
At some point, everyone gets discouraged. This feeling may result from problems with the research design, feedback that slows you down from reaching milestone goals and many other reasons.
Dissertations are an iterative process, which brought the most frustration for me. An iterative process means that there are many steps that must be repeated, tweaked and strengthened over the course of the dissertation.
This adjustment typically occurs when you submit a portion of your dissertation to your chair for feedback, such as the introduction, review of literature or methods section. Once you receive your chair’s feedback and make the corrections he or she requests, you must then resubmit it back to your chair.
Due to the iterative process, it is likely your chair will return it back to you for additional areas that the chair wants to be changed. Adding these changes is time-consuming, especially if those changes could have been identified in the first round of feedback.
But when this need for changes occurs, it is critical to avoid giving up or remaining discouraged. Being willing to jump through these hoops in the iterative process is often the difference between success and remaining in the “All But Dissertation” phase.
When discouragement comes, it is best to communicate how you feel with your chair. Since the chair is your advocate, hopefully that person will help you overcome the obstacles causing the discouragement.
Successfully completing a dissertation is possible for anyone who reaches the “All But Dissertation” phase of a doctorate. But be aware that it will require continuous determination, frequent communication with your chairperson and time.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been involved in homeland security for over two decades and he is an associate professor at American Public University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States and Central America on the topic of human trafficking. Most recently, presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference in September of 2020 on his in-country research on human trafficking in Colombia, South America. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.
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