The Better Way to Earn Your Degreeô
Ph.D. DISSERTATION HANDBOOK
Version: May 2005
A dissertation has been defined by Merriam-Webster as an extended written treatment of a subject. For Doctor of Philosophy Learners, the questions then become "What subject?" and "What treatment?" This handbook has been developed to focus primarily on the second issue.
Dissertation topics exhibit as much diversity and individuality as do Learners themselves. But, to ensure academic rigor, their treatment must be governed by rather formal guidelines, and a well-defined process. We might think of the doctoral dissertation as a genre of writing unto itself. It is neither a book nor a research report, neither wholly technical nor wholly literary, neither entirely original nor entirely derived. Because of its specialized nature, dissertation writing may seem intimidating. The purpose of this handbook is to demystify the subject by examining each step of NCUís dissertation completion process, from drafting a concept paper through preparing for, and presenting the final dissertation defense. Many of its guidelines are intended as suggestions or catalysts for facilitating decisions on how to best proceed. Other guidelines define procedural and technical requirements for completing the dissertation process at Northcentral University.
The point of transition from Ph.D. Program Learners to colleague. Learners become doctoral candidates when they have passed all required course work, and their research proposal is approved (RSH8954) and passed the Comprehensive Examination (CMP8091).
A review to assure that the Learner has a comprehensive knowledge of the discipline before beginning doctoral research. The review is taken after all regular coursework is completed, but before the dissertation is initiated.
An initial description of the proposed dissertation topic. The concept paper includes a statement of the research problem, a brief review of related research, and a broad description of the methods to be used. Concept papers are generally 15-25 typed double-spaced pages in length.
All Learners in the Ph.D. degree program must be continuously enrolled. If additional time is required to complete any of the dissertation courses, Learners must reenroll and pay the tuition for that course. Continuous enrollment will only be permitted when Learners demonstrate satisfactory academic progress toward completing dissertation requirements. The dissertation committee determines satisfactory academic progress.
Quality Assurance reviews conducted by the department chair after Learnersí concept papers, proposals, and dissertations that have been approved by Learnersí mentors or committee members.
The dissertation committee consists of at least three NCU faculty members and an External Reviewer. Committee chairs guide Learners through the dissertation completion process and consults with Learners on their work. Chairs are the "project managers" who have the primary responsibility for guiding Learners research and writing. The two (or more) additional NCU faculty members serve as "consultants" who typically provide insights and suggestions from the perspectives of their areas of specialization that are related to the Learnerís topic. The role of the External Reviewer is to provide the Learner and committee with the insights and perspectives that complement or enhance the expertise of the other committee members.
The proposal constitutes the first three chapters of the dissertation; I - Introduction, II - Review of the literature, and III - Methods. A list of references and relevant appendices is also included in proposal.
NCUís "virtual library" provides access to dissertation resources online. Links to academic reference tools, databases, research guides, library catalogs, and search engines assure that NCUís Learners have access to the most up-to-date information for conducting their dissertation research.
A committee comprised of NCU faculty members with responsibility for assuring Learnersí proposed research contains sufficient assurances and evidence that the research will be conducted in both an ethical and safe manner.
The description of how the research will be conducted to develop and analyze the data and information required to test research hypotheses and answer the research questions. Methodologies can be quantitative, qualitative, or a mixture of both.
This is a forum in which the Ph.D. candidate reviews their completed dissertationís purpose, methodology, and conclusions. The Learner also addresses questions from their committee members. The oral defense usually takes place via teleconferencing, or if the Learner wishes, at NCU, and may include other NCU faculty, staff, the External Reviewer, Learners, alumni, community members, and invited guests.
The discipline/field of study in which research is to be conducted, e.g. Leadership
The specific issue within the research area to be addressed by the dissertation, e.g. Commonalties Found among Psychological Profiles of Successful Leaders at General Electric, or Key Characteristics of Successful Public High School Principals Assigned to Underachieving Schools in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Characterized by the rate of progress in completing the Learnerís dissertation being reviewed by the Learnerís Dissertation Committee and determined to be satisfactory.
The objective of this section is to provide Learnersí with further insights into the nature of doctoral dissertations and associated concepts.
A good dissertation will indeed make a meaningful contribution to the field--but within a fairly specific research and narrow topic areas. It will contain some original thoughts and approaches, but will be built largely upon the work of other scholars. Many Ph.D. Learners find dissertation writing challenging; however, anyone who has successfully completed difficult graduate course work has already demonstrated the ability and tenacity required to meet this challenge. A dissertation may be compared to the final piece of work, which artisans produce before being admitted to their guilds. No one expects the work to change all of history, but it is expected to demonstrate a high degree of proficiency in the artisanís field and serves as a well-earned passport into professional life.
On the other hand, a dissertation is not a corporate report or a "white paper." It must build a bridge from a specific example to a generalized value in your field.
Remembering the following three main purposes of a dissertation can help correct an unrealistic or pessimistic attitude towards the task ahead. A dissertation should:
1. Summarize and integrate pertinent research and theory in its topic area. It is suggested you concentrate primarily on work accomplished within the last five years, although some topics may require more in-depth historical development.
2. Make a contribution of knowledge to the research area and the defined research topic. This can be accomplished in several ways, such as conceptualizing an issue or problem in a novel and useful manner, collecting new data through quantitative or qualitative research, demonstrating the applicability of a method or treatment, synthesizing and interpreting existing data to gain new insights, or expanding the application of a theory or previous research conclusions to a new area.
3. Clearly demonstrate how a topic area is illuminated, expanded, or changed by the new and significant perspective brought to it.
The University encourages dissertations that extend the work of the Learnerís professional expertise and into areas of interest associated with emerging fields of inquiry. Learners are encouraged to select a topic that addresses contemporary issues in their fields and which melds with their own career objectives. Learners are also encouraged to use term papers or other course work, where appropriate, as preliminary investigations of topics that may later become facets of their research. NCU mentors will provide assistance and provide feedback on the suitability of such topics.
Learners typically select and reject several topics before the right one finally "gels." Initial ideas are often too broad in scope to be handled in a dissertation format. As additional information resources are reviewed, the topic will narrow. The background material on the topic is a rich source for developing an annotated bibliography. The intent of an annotated bibliography is to keep a formal listing of the information that may become an entry in the reference section of the dissertation that also serves as a repository for key notes, summaries, short quotations, or other parts of the reference, to facilitate remembering the relevance of it later.
Reading several dissertations written in the research area will provide a better understanding of the style and tone of dissertation material. Time is well spent by researching and ultimately rejecting a topic. This process creates a solid foundation for the subject that is finally chosen. Often efforts devoted to those abandoned topics have a way of resurfacing for consideration in future projects.
Good dissertation topics often reflect common characteristics:
Northcentral University policy is that no data gathering may begin until the research proposal has been approved. Any data taken prior to the approval of the proposal may be used as historical data, background data, or a pilot study. However its use will be allowed only if it is commensurate with the approved methodology and it meets the requirements of both the dissertation committee and NCUís Ethics Committee.
Travelers starting on a journey to a new destination are more likely to complete it successfully if they have, and frequently use, a good road map. Analogously, Learners seeking to successfully complete their doctorates are well advised to understand the dissertation completion process.
Figure 1-1 provides a high-level process flow diagram of NCUís Dissertation Completion Process.
Figure 1-1. NCU's dissertation completion process 5-20-05.
The dissertation process starts with Ph.D. Learners enrolling in the first Dissertation- track course, RSH8951, Research Questions, Constructs, and Design. In RSH8951 which, for example, requires the Learner to:
- Define a research area and research topic
- Describe the potential significance of the research
- Formulate research questions
- Conduct a thorough literature review
- Differentiate the major categories of research methods
- Produce an initial annotated bibliography
After completing RSH8951, the Learner enrolls and completes the second dissertation-track course is RSH8952, Measurement of Constructs and Concept Paper which requires the Learner to:
- Identify component variables of the constructs
- Determine how to assess the measurement reliability of variables
- Create a dissertation Concept Paper
- Obtain approval of the Concept Paper by the department chair
- Identify the members of their Dissertation Committee
Completion in the third dissertation-track course is RSH8953, Design, Statistics and Data Analysis, requires the Learner to:
- Develop the design options for the research
- Survey statistical tests appropriate to the proposed research
- Align statistical tests with dissertation design options
- Ensure the use of conventional guidelines and "best practices" for collecting data
- Learn about available statistical software
- Use statistical software to analyze simulated data
- Interpret and, as needed, incorporate the results of the statistical analysis into the evolving research design
Completing the fourth dissertation-track course is RSH8954 Ė Research Ethics and Proposal requires the Learner to:
- Ensure that ethical principles and practices are used in their proposed research
- Draft the dissertation research proposal
- Submit the dissertation research proposal final draft to the dissertation committee for review and comments.
After completing RSH8954, the Learner enrolls and completes DIS9007 - Doctoral Dissertation Proposal in which they:
- Finalize the draft of the Dissertation Research Proposal
- Submit the Proposal to the Department Chair and the Universityís IRB/Ethics
- Committee for approvals to proceed with data collection
After completing DIS9007, the Learner enrolls and completes DIS9017 - Doctoral Dissertation Data in which they:
- Collect and analyze the dissertation data
- Provide periodic progress updates to the DIS9017 mentor and the dissertation committee
After completing DIS9017, the Learner enrolls and completes DIS9027 in which they:
- Complete the dissertation document
- Submit the completed dissertation document for approval from the Dissertation Committee and Department Chair
- Schedule and prepare for the oral defense
 A comprehensive discussion of each dissertation-track course is contained in Chapter 2.
Figure 1-2 is a detailed flow diagram of NCUís Dissertation Completion Process, e.g. it shows responsibilities for key activities. It is suggested that Learners review and use it to gain a more in-depth understanding of the process only after they are comfortable with their understanding of the high-level process flow in Figure 1-1.
This section of the handbook presents guidelines for establishing the dissertation committee, defines communications, and the key roles and responsibilities of the members.
Once the Concept Paper has been accepted by the department chair, it will be presented to the dissertation committee. Although members of the dissertation committee are required to communicate with each other throughout the dissertation process, the dissertation committee chair may call a formal meeting of the dissertation committee at his or her discretion. When dissertation committee members cannot meet in person, the meeting can be held through a telephone conference call, e-mail, or videoconference. After verifying the need with the committee chair, the Learner may need to contact individual dissertation committee members to discuss detailed aspects of their comments and suggestions. However, it is expected that vast majority of communications to and from the candidate will be through the dissertation committee chair.
The dissertation committee chair is an NCU faculty member in the Learnerís department. The dissertation committee chair is responsible for overseeing the Learnerís progress through the dissertation process, and ensuring the integrity of the University's dissertation process, policies, and guidelines. The dissertation committee chair coordinates the activities of the dissertation committee so that the dissertation committee's work proceeds in a timely fashion.
The dissertation committee chair has the following responsibilities:
Progress through the dissertation process is facilitated when Learners work closely with their dissertation committee chair. Keep in mind that the dissertation committee chair is the "project manager" and is dedicated to the projectís success. He/she supports Learnersí in meeting the goals of producing a quality dissertation and completing their doctoral degrees. Therefore, it is essential that regular communications between Learners and the dissertation committee chairs are conducted at and within every step in the dissertation completion process. For example, upon completing the review of the literature, have it critiqued by your dissertation committee chair. Regular communications will help minimize the chance of unpleasant surprises.
Dissertation committee members are selected from the University faculty and from qualified individuals external to the University. These individuals will have expertise in your topic of interest, research methodology, APA style, and will be able to evaluate your work from both scholarly and applied knowledge vantage points.
Each NCU dissertation committee member has the following responsibilities:
The External Reviewer has the following responsibilities:
Dissertation committee members who are members of the University faculty are paid a stipend for their work. The stipend varies according to their roles. The Learner is responsible for compensating any committee member who has been appointed by the University at the candidateís request, and who is not a member of the Universityís faculty.
For each first submission, the Ph.D. Learner may expect work to be reviewed and responses returned from the full dissertation committee, that has addressed the feedback from the department, within the following time periods:
2 Ė 3 Weeks
2 Ė 3 Weeks
3 Ė 4 Weeks
Subsequent revisions that adequately address the committeeís and departmentís comments to the committee may be expected to have shorter review cycles.