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The Dissertation Process Explained in 6 Simple Steps


Completing your doctoral program is no easy feat, yet the payoff makes it all worthwhile. You’ll challenge yourself with academic rigor and defend your thesis as you showcase your knowledge to a panel of experts.

One of the hardest parts of the dissertation process is simply getting started. Here are six steps to guide you to successfully earning your doctoral degree by tackling your dissertation, from start to finish.

Step 1: Brainstorm Topics

Finding a research topic that’s right for you and your doctoral studies requires some serious thought. A doctoral program can take years to complete, so it’s important you choose a topic that you’re passionate about. Whether that’s in the field of education administration or entrepreneurship, find an area of study that suits your academic interests and career goals. 

As a doctoral candidate, you’ll take on the role of an independent researcher, which means you’ll be facilitating your own studies and academic milestones. Choose a topic that gets your wheels turning and stirs up an urgent sense of curiosity. However, take note that not every idea will suit a doctoral dissertation and the manuscript formatting. Many students make the mistake of choosing a topic that is too broad. Doctoral dissertations must be researchable and demonstrative based on qualitative or quantitative data. 

Do some preliminary research to determine if someone has already conducted similar research. Being flexible with your brainstorming will allow you to refine your topic with ease. Take constructive criticism from peers and mentors seriously so that you set yourself up for success from day one. If you find yourself feeling a bit lost, don’t be afraid to turn to experts in your field for their opinion. At this initial stage of the dissertation process, you should be the most open to exploring new ideas and refining your area of research.

Step 2: Find a Faculty Mentor and Committee Assignment

Once your topic is approved by the university, you’ll be tasked with selecting a faculty mentor. Finding a faculty chairperson is one of the most important steps you will take in your dissertation process, apart from crafting and delivering your manuscript. After all, your mentor will guide your academic work over the course of your doctoral studies for the next several years. You two will develop a working relationship, so it’s crucial that you choose a mentor you can collaborate and communicate with effectively.

At most universities, your faculty chair will be dedicated to the dissertation process full time. That means they will have the skills, expertise and time to support all of your needs. However, for the other members of your dissertation committee, you’ll want to consider logistics as well. You may have a dream faculty mentor you’d appreciate working with, but they must have the time and attention to dedicate to make the investment worthwhile for you both. Be upfront about your intended timeline, weekly and monthly time commitment, and expectations around communication. When you approach a faculty member about serving as part of your dissertation committee, leave the door open for them to say “no,” so you’re sure to find the right fit and someone who can commit in the long run. 

Some universities make the selection process easy by assigning a dissertation chair and committee to you. For example, doctoral students at SNU are assigned a committee comprised of four people: a dissertation chair within the program’s department, a second departmental faculty member, a member from outside the department who has scholarly expertise in the student’s research topic, and the Dissertation Director who coordinates all communication among the committee members.

Step 3: Develop and Submit a Proposal

Think of the proposal as an opportunity for you to both suss out your ideas and create a convincing argument to present to the faculty committee. Your proposal is the first look at your thesis statement, where you:

  • Introduce the topic
  • Pose a set of related topics
  • Outline the qualitative and quantitative data you hope to extract through careful research  

Again, be open to critical feedback. During this stage, you have the opportunity to reflect and refine the direction of your research. Faculty members will likely reciprocate your proposal with pointed questions that identify gaps in your proposal development or information-seeking process. 

You’ll go through a set of one or more revisions based on faculty feedback. You’ll then submit your proposal application for final approval. Once you have the entire committee’s approval, you’ll begin to collect data.

Step 4: Conduct Research and Data Analysis

In your proposal, you’ll outline your plan to conduct careful research, collect data and analyze that data. Throughout the research process, refer back to your outline to chart your own progress and to build a collection of measurable results to present to your faculty mentor. 

The next step is to add the data you collect to your proposal in two sections. The first section will summarize the data, and the second will offer an interpretation of that data. This step also lends itself to a series of revisions between you and the dissertation committee. Be prepared to implement those changes as you begin to draft your manuscript.

Step 5: Draft Your Manuscript

First, consult with your university’s policies and procedures regarding the doctoral manuscript academic requirements and scholarly style. Check with your department to inquire about additional departmental procedures. 

Consider Your Format 

Develop a consistent format in the early stages, so that submitting your thesis to the Advisory Committee and Examining Committee will run smoothly and you can receive swift feedback. You want to create both a professional and intuitive system for the academic committee and your general audience to be able to easily peruse your thesis. 

Pay close attention to proper sourcing of previously published content and provide a numbering system (page numbers and charts) that reflects the formatting of your thesis, not the numbering system of a previous publication. Devise chapter layout with the same level of scrutiny. Number chapters sequentially, and create a uniform system to label all charts, tables and equations. And last but not least, be sure to follow standard grammatical conventions, including spelling and punctuation. 

Cite Your Sources

As you gather research and develop your manuscript, you must cite your sources accurately and consistently. Check with your department ahead of time in case you should be formatting your resources according to specific departmental standards. In the absence of departmental standards, create a format of your own that you can adhere to with consistency. Most doctoral candidates will choose to include sources at the end of each chapter or in one single list at the end of their dissertation. 

Craft Your Content

You’ll spend the bulk of your time crafting the content of the manuscript itself. You’ll  begin by summarizing relevant sourcing and reviewing related literature. The purpose of this first section is to establish your expertise in the field, establish clear objectives for your research, identify the broader context within which the research resides, and provide more acute context for the data itself. You’ll then discuss the methods of analyzing the research before transitioning into data analysis in a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Finally, in your conclusion, you’ll link your direct research to the larger picture and the implications of its impact in your field.

Step 6: Defend Your Thesis

The pinnacle of your research will be defending your thesis in front of a panel of experts — the dissertation committee. Sometimes this takes place in person, or, as has proved increasingly common during the past year, by video/voice conferencing. 

This is your opportunity to demonstrate all that you have learned over multiple years of careful research and analysis. The committee will pose questions to both clarify and challenge your level of knowledge in an impromptu fashion. In some cases, based on the committee’s perception, you may need to submit a secondary oral defense. Ultimately, the committee will determine a successful delivery of your dissertation and the chance to proudly assert your doctoral status after completing all degree requirements. 

No matter which path you choose to pursue en route to your doctoral, online and in-person education options can make your dream of completing your degree one step closer to reality. Take a look at SNU’s online and on-campus course offerings today.

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