The Stages of a Doctoral Dissertation

Dr. Dave Maslach and I (now Dr. too!) came up with the following description of the steps and stages of a doctoral dissertation. Dr. Maslach is a Professor of Innovation Strategy and Entrepreneurship and I have a PhD in social work with a focus on social policy. We both have been through the challenging process of writing and defending a dissertation and want to support and encourage those of you who perhaps are just embarking on the dissertation journey. Here is Dave’s original vlog post on the steps and stages of a dissertation:

This post was written by Dr. Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Here are the major steps and stages in writing a dissertation. Some of these stages and processes may vary by discipline and university, but most of you will be engaging in some way in each of these stages. We would love to hear from those of you who recently completed your dissertation, what you thought the most challenging stage was. Having just completed my dissertation, I would say it was the process of cleaning the data and figuring out how to recode some variables so I could conduct the analysis I had planned.

Check out this blog post on how to prevent depression when you are doing your thesis.

1. Choosing a topic you love versus one that is expedient

The first stage in the process is coming up with a topic and narrowing down your idea. This is one of the hardest parts of the process. Dave has observed that many people flounder at this stage, and this could last for several months. They may be overwhelmed by the number of areas that interest them and that they are considering, or simply having trouble getting started (or facing) the entire process. The key is to choose a research question and general area you personally find interesting and will not mind being engaged in for a few years.

I have heard professors say, you do not have to be completely in love with your topic or dissertation. Just get it done and move on. I agree and disagree. Yes, it is true that you can move on from your topic after graduating, but it might be easier to choose a subject that you can see yourself being engaged in for a while after the dissertation is completed. Yes, you want to choose a topic or research question that is expedient. It might be related to something you are working on as a research assistant or in coursework.

But there are major advantages to choosing a topic that you want to work on for a couple of years post-graduation and there are several reasons why. You will be expected to produce several journal articles from your dissertation, so you will still be engaged in your study for at least a year after graduating as you work on professional papers and presentation. Furthermore, early in your doctoral career you want to be considered an expert in something. With all of the years you’ve spend on your dissertation topic and then publishing on that topic, you should be considered an expert in that area. You have earned it, and if it is an area you want to stick with when it comes to professional research, you already have so much experience and expertise under your belt. You can always focus on one other area you’re really passionate about after completing graduation, but why completely abandon the momentum you have with your dissertation topic?  

2. Choosing a dissertation committee

Choose your committee wisely! Your school will give you guidelines on how many people are on the committee and how many are PhDs, outside readers, etc. You most likely won’t have a say on at least one proposal committee member, but some schools might allow you to at least suggest a professor who might be a good fit. You most likely can choose an outside reader. Choose an expert in your field and topic area – maybe a former colleague or a mentor from the field. This person’s feedback can be invaluable as they are on the ground, doing the work, and not steeped in the mystery of academia.

Of course, your academic committee members are key to your success and the quality of your dissertation experience. Choose them wisely – perhaps a mentor, a trusted supervisor, a former professor. The chair should be an expert in your subject area and someone you feel comfortable going to when things get hairy. Talk to a few professors early on and get a sense of how they work with students, their time availability, commitment to and expertise in your topic, etc. If you make a mistake in choosing a committee member, talk to the program director and find out if you can replace them. Do this early in the process though as waiting will cause complications.

You need to read this blog post about meeting with your supervisor! It is very helpful.

3. Reviewing the literature and coming up with a research question

Then you read everything you can about your subject area. It is so much easier to choose a topic while you are in the coursework phase so you can focus on this topic for coursework assignments and build a database of literature early on. You will find many things that have already been discovered or examined about your topic are very interesting. You will hope to have the same impact with your research study. As Dave says,

At this point, you are the most confident in your idea. For the first couple of months, you are going to be very excited. You feel that you are going to solve the world’s biggest problem. You get a state of confidence that you are on the right path.

But then things might get a little more complicated. At this stage you may get overwhelmed with all you are reading and learning about your topic.

You may find yourself going in too many different directions as you try to come up with a research question, or two, or three, or four, or five!! That is such a common problem as well – narrowing down your ideas for a research question to one or a few. Do not create more than three research questions, or one main question and perhaps two to three sub questions. I made that mistake and my chair really helped me narrow down what I wanted to analyze. You can always explore additional research questions after graduation when you are writing manuscripts for publication. Do yourself a favor and keep your research focus as simple as possible, while also creating a question that is compelling, sufficiently complex, and has not been examined at great length by other researchers or students.

A word of advice for social science students, and perhaps others: use a secondary dataset for your dissertation. Find a respected and reliable dataset and explore how researchers have used the data to explore various research questions. You may be quite tempted to come up with a very original study and collect your own data. This may end up producing an amazing finding and research project, but it is going to take you more time to collect your own data.

The dissertation process can really get dragged out unnecessarily by data collection problems and logistics. Think carefully about what type of data you want to use. Sometimes for the sake of simplicity and utility you need to make a decision that will help you just get through the process. You do not have to make the big discovery of your career as a student.

4. Writing and defending your proposal

You finally narrowed your research focus and put together a draft proposal. The components of a proposal generally include background, the literature review, research questions, hypotheses, and a data analysis plan. But still, some students have developed a PhD dissertation proposal that is too broad. Your committee chair may ask you to simplify your idea several times before the draft is submitted to the full committee. You may begin to feel negative about your topic or proposal, at this point, but don’t get discouraged and too frustrated. Plow through that emotional state and whittle down your idea and questions as requested. You might do a couple of iterations and this process could take up to 4 to 6 months.

You will have a committee chair and several other members. Prepare for what they might ask. They may accept your draft with minor or major changes. It can be frustrating to have to make more edits when you really want to move on from this stage, but you have to do what they ask. Just get it done and they will most likely accept your final draft. Once you go through the PhD dissertation proposal defense you will have a sense of great accomplishment. This can be a temporary high, however, until you realize that now you actually have to do the work of perhaps collecting and certainly analyzing your data and writing up the results!  

Do you need help with writing your thesis? Check out this blog post on how you can get better at writing!

5. Collecting and analyzing data

You may be able to get a research assistant to help you collect your data. If you are using a dataset you may have to go through several steps to obtain the data. Either way, you have to go through your university’s IRB process.


I made the mistake of writing my proposal, then opening the data only to find data for the variables I was focusing on were not entered! I then had to go back and adjust my proposal after it had been approved.

Then you will try to analyze this data according to your research questions and may find some things about the data that do not make you very happy. Either it is a dramatic issue like I experienced, or a more solvable issue such as a high number of missing data, or a coding problem, or a variable in a dataset you are using does not exactly represent what you thought it did. You may realize you are collecting too much data. You may have to make adjustments and simplify your idea even more. Dave warns, “You may now believe that your idea is not very good.

You may have to improve your limitations section by adding many more limitations. You might also realize that different analytical tests than what you had proposed are needed to examine your research questions. You might also find that the data is not showing what you thought it would. Talk to your chair about what you are seeing. They will advise you about adjustments you have to make. You may want to tweak a research question or even, ugh, add a research question?

You will ask yourself, did I run the right tests? Am I addressing all angles? Try not to lose control, though. At some point you have to say, this is good enough. Your analysis is thorough enough and your findings are what they are. I had to come to this point, otherwise I would still be working on my dissertation instead of graduating. Maybe the results are anti-climactic or in your view, non-consequential; but not finding anything significant is ok too! Research findings, not matter what they are, help us understand a phenomenon and rule certain things out. Just accept your results and move on to the next step.

Here is a good video on analyzing data, but if you want to know more just look up the R3ciprocity Project + analysis on Youtube.

6. Writing up your results and discussion sections

Finally, you start working on the implications of your research and try to make sense of what you found. At this point you typically have a rough draft of your PhD dissertation. You are satisfied with your idea after spending many months, and perhaps years, working on it. You are at peace with your findings. Write up trends and patterns in the results. Do not write up every result. Then in your discussion section explain what your finding mean or what they did not find.

  • How do your findings compare to others’ findings who have worked on similar research questions?
  • Do your findings confirm prior research findings, or do they add more questions?
  • Do they show opposite results?
  • What further research is needed?
  • What limitations were there?
  • What are the practice or theoretical implications of your work?

Write it all up!

7. Defending your dissertation and next steps

One you are happy with your newly written sections run them by your chair. He or she may want you to make some adjustments. Then you have to merge your proposal sections with your results, discussion, etc. into one coherent document. Make sure everything is in the past tense, is streamlined, and flows from one section to the next. Look for discrepancies in what you proposed and actually did; smooth it all out.

When it is time to defend, write up your presentation notes. Create some slides and rehearse. Think about the questions your committee might ask and be prepared to answer them. Think about limitations or challenges you had in the process. Make sure you can explain all details of the process and findings coherently. Once your dissertation has been accepted you can graduate and celebrate! Your dissertation will be published online. You should then think about writing several manuscripts after you have taken a well-deserved break!

Watch Dave’s vlog about who will actually read your dissertation online:

A dissertation is like a romantic partner

Dave describes a dissertation as being like a romantic partner. You must keep it going – it takes work and commitment. You feel very excited the first months but then you have to move it forward. You work through issues and develop a more profound, deeper relationship. When you come to the final stages you will have a deep love and appreciation for your dissertation.

You will appreciate the science behind it. You realize you are doing science, how much work it is, and how tough its but you have become part of the institution of science. During the process of writing a dissertation you become a scientist. Climb that mountain and do not forget to thank those who have supported and helped you along the way. The whole process can take a couple of years. Work on it when you can. Do it in small chunks, but do not ever give up!

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