What is a Dissertation? Everything You Need to Know

What is a Dissertation? Everything You Need to Know

As a doctoral student, you will have a rare opportunity to make a personal contribution to your chosen field of study in the form of a dissertation. This means that your research and perspective can shape the conversation around a specific subject for years to come. The dissertation, also known as the thesis, is the culmination of your doctoral program and plays a major role in your academic success as well as your future outside of school.

Sounds intimidating? It can be. Students entering grad school know full well the weight of the dissertation as they work their way through their initial courses. But that burden is easier to bear once you fully understand the purpose of a dissertation and, most importantly, how to prepare yourself for the road ahead.

What is a Dissertation?

Far lengthier and more comprehensive than your average research paper, the dissertation is a document that allows you to demonstrate your ability to pursue a systematic investigation of significant issues in your field of study. The dissertation also contributes to your knowledge, skills, and research expertise.

Your topic must be specific, and you must address carefully chosen research questions with quantitative or qualitative research, with a meta-analysis, program design, or program evaluation. Along the way, you can contribute valuable research and new theories that you have gathered during your time in college. 

Elements of a Dissertation

The process of completing your dissertation will vary depending on your school and doctoral program. However, the dissertation process generally includes:

1. Letter of Intent: This document makes clear the topic you have chosen and what you intend to say with your dissertation. 

2. Research: Utilizing all resources at your disposal, you will conduct research and gather all of the necessary data for your dissertation.

3. Writing : After completing your research, you will write your dissertation and prepare it for submission.

Successfully completing your dissertation is the key to graduating with your doctoral degree. However, it’s impossible to define the length of time your dissertation will take because every student and every research topic is different. 

Your Dissertation and In-Residence at Ashford 

Ashford University doctoral students begin planning for their dissertations on day one in conversations with their peers and professors. And, immediately following the completion of your core and specialization courses, you will take a Doctoral Capstone Seminar, as well as Dissertation Planning I and Dissertation Planning II.
 
“We’ve embedded the process in the coursework and the weekend in-residence programs,” explains Dr. Rebecca Wardlow, program chair for Ashford University’s Doctor of Philosophy in Education.

Students are advised to begin the research process well ahead of schedule, rather than waiting until after they’ve finished their coursework. Each student also receives a Dissertation Handbook and has access to information and resources from the University that can guide them through the six phases required to complete their dissertation. 

Even though Ashford’s programs are online, doctoral students take part in three weekend in-residence activities during their tenure. These are collaborative meetings, Dr. Wardlow says, in which students, professors, and members of Ashford’s student support services teams come together to discuss each student’s dissertation.

“It’s a small group setting,” she says. “It’s really an opportunity to focus on the individual student and talk about their research goals.”

It should also be noted that students in Ashford University’s Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program have an opportunity to conduct an Applied Dissertation Project (ADP) as an alternative to the traditional dissertation. 

“This is specifically a workplace research project and it opens up more opportunities for the type of research they can complete,” according to Dr. Wardlow.

Learning to Write a Dissertation

As many students in the doctoral college are writing a dissertation for the first time, Ashford University has designed its programs with two essential courses: Dissertation Planning I and Dissertation Planning II. 

In the former course, taken after the Doctoral Capstone Seminar, you will develop the advanced skills and competencies needed to draft and refine your Letter of Intent. Working alongside an instructor, you will identify a problem, frame a feasible research purpose, and determine the scope for your dissertation research.

This continues in Dissertation Planning II. The second course will see you refining your Letter of Intent, which will include:

  • A refined problem and purpose statements
  • Possible research questions
  • The importance of the study
  • Proposed methodology you are considering to address your research problem
  • A brief discussion of how the results will address a knowledge gap and make an original contribution to the literature and professional practice

After soliciting faculty to serve as chair and committee members for your dissertation, you will work to create an annotated outline of Chapters 1 and 2 of your dissertation proposal. You will then exchange ideas about your research concepts and proposed approaches to your research methodology with other students proposing similar methods, and use this discussion to formulate an outline for Chapter 3. You will also create a tentative dissertation completion plan for review by your instructor.

Resources for Writing Your Dissertation

As an Ashford University student, you’re never alone on your college journey, and the doctoral college – despite its advanced material – is no exception. In addition to having 24/7 access to the resources of the Ashford Library and Ashford Writing Center, you will have access to the SAGE Research Methods tool. SAGE connects students to more than 120,000 pages of research methods books, journals, and reference material with advanced search features.

Your Student Portal also grants you access to SMARTLab, a compilation of interactive web-based course materials in basic statistics that will prepare you for success in research courses and dissertation. This suite of nine self-paced lessons covers basics concepts and skills in statistics, with an emphasis on: Samples and Populations, Variables and Scales of Measurement, Charts and Graphs in Statistics, Measures of Central Tendency, Measures of Variability, Probability, Normal Distributions and Scores, Hypothesis Testing, and Correlation and Regression.

With SMARTLab, you will have a dedicated resource for designing research projects, understanding methods (or identifying new methods), conducting research, and writing up your findings.

Advice from Students

Recently, Dr. Wardlow polled a group of students in Ashford’s Doctor of Philosophy in Education program with the topic “What I Wish I Knew When I Started My Dissertation.” The responses she received followed a similar pattern, one in which students stress time management and self-discipline as the two most important things to consider when preparing for, researching, and writing a dissertation. Additionally, students stressed the importance of communication with faculty and peers, as well as a genuine passion for their chosen subject. Here’s what some of the students had to say:

“Social support is vital. There is no limit to the advice, shortcuts, and coping strategies that you can glean from people who are making the same journey.”  

“Your topic should be something that truly interests you. This is going to be your life for a long time.”

“Your research question should be like the bullseye on a target: very specific and at the center of everything you do. Avoid becoming distracted by interesting but peripheral data.”

A wisely-conceived and carefully researched dissertation can open doors for your career, Dr. Wardlow adds, with opportunities to become published and collaborate with “some of the brightest students and professors you’re ever going to meet.” 

If you’re considering a doctoral program in your future, you can explore Ashford University’s degree programs or contact an Ashford University advisor today.

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Written by Ashford University staff

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