Both Online and Traditional Ph.D. Candidates Agree: Start Your Dissertation Early

One of the most challenging aspects of a doctoral education is the process of researching and writing a dissertation. Students carry out dissertation research in different ways depending on their discipline, but it will often consist of independent experimental research or intensive literature review. Because students must complete and successfully defend a dissertation in order to be awarded a degree, the dissertation is of utmost importance. Some doctoral candidates, however, face challenges such as failure to find an adequate topic, financial difficulties or family responsibilities and drop out before obtaining their degree, according to research cited in an article by Eduardo Lage-Otero, a doctoral student at NYU. The article was later posted by a professor on the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning website. The Chronicle of Higher Education says nearly half of all doctoral students leave their programs without earning a degree, Lage-Otero reports. The difficulty associated with completing a dissertation “has resulted in a growing concern in higher education about the increased time-to-degree ratio for doctoral students and its impact on attrition rates,” he said.

Because of these odds, it is crucial for students to be aware of the dissertation process early on in their doctoral work. “The closer I get to completing my dissertation, the more I think about the beginning stages of this rocky journey and all the tasks I should have done earlier and all the knowledge I wish I had then,” said Lage-Otero. Although a comment like this would likely ring true for most people reaching the end of a long project, the importance of completing a dissertation is fundamental to earning a Ph.D. To avoid common issues, both traditional and online students attest to the fact that getting a head start on your dissertation process is one of the best formulas for doctoral success.

“You really need to be thinking of what your topic is for your dissertation early,” said Dr. Victoria Lynn Walker, who received an online Ph.D. from Regent University. “I realized that I only had two years of courses, and, by the time I got to my third year, I would already be in my dissertation period. If I waited until I finished my required classes to find a host university to do my research, I wouldn’t be done for five or six years,” she said. Amanda Jacobs, an online doctoral student at Capella University, has taken the same approach. About halfway through her course work, she has approximately a year until she begins her dissertation. “I haven’t begun it, but I have an idea for it,” Jacobs said.

Not only is it beneficial to start planning your dissertation early, but the beginning phases of the process are some of the most important. The thesis proposal “is the most crucial stage in the sense that the basic concept is worked out here. Problems in later stages are usually rooted from a weak thesis proposal,” Dr. H.T. Kung, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Harvard University, said in a presentation. It is during this time, Kung said, that students most need input from their advisers.

So, how does this translate in an online setting?

Students in online programs typically work with their professors and advisers via email and discussion boards. Jacobs said that she communicates with instructors “primarily through email.” She noted that “it becomes extremely important to be able to write. You have to be able to express yourself well. If you are not able to do that, you really shouldn’t be in an online program.” Most communication is through email or text, but “there comes a point when things happen that you have to pick up the phone and talk to somebody,” she said. “That happens at Capella. You have to feel comfortable to pick up the phone and talk to a stranger. Life happens during the degree.”

For Walker, having a good relationship with her adviser was key. “During my first year I emailed my adviser and thought I was going to do one topic,” she said. “I had written two chapters and thought they were good, solid chapters. But I was also researching something else on the side which was a passion for me. My adviser said, ‘Hey, you are passionate about this. Maybe you should do this for your dissertation.' Having an adviser who knows you is so beneficial.”

To create those types of relationships in an online program, students need to be willing to keep their advisers thoroughly up to date and aware of their interests and progress via email. “With the dissertation, unlike other parts of an online program, it’s up to the students to get the ball rolling and take the initiative to contact advisers and begin doing the research,” Walker said. “They don’t know what you’re interested in. It’s up to you to take the time to say, ‘what about this.' ” By the time Walker was in her second year, she already knew what she was going to study and had secured a location for research. She was able to complete her doctorate in three years, but notes that that was possible only because she had been working on it her entire second year. The Regent Ph.D. course plan outlines four years to complete the degree.

Students also suggest taking part in university programs provided to doctoral students to help decide on a topic, prepare for research and get writing advice. Capella offers a Dissertation Writer’s Retreat, during which doctoral students can meet personally with members of the research staff to discuss concerns or get guidance. Programs like these are offered to doctoral students at many schools.

Student interaction is also a significant catalyst for research ideas. Dr. Tom Ward, who graduated from Capella University, “had the benefit of sharing cyber classes with graduate students who were full-time educators in school communities across the country,” according to a profile on the American Association of School Administrators website. Students were able to share ideas on common problems, which helped Ward develop a dissertation on integrating math into vocational studies that he would later apply as a superintendent in Missouri.

Before students ever start researching, residency periods can also provide a spark for ideas and insight into the best research practices. Doctoral students at Capella have required colloquia where they attend presentations and have discussions on issues such as choosing dissertation topics and ethical responsibilities in research. Capella also offers webinars on a wide variety of research issues. “During the first residency, they sort of lit the fire under the cohort I was in,” Walker said, adding that students were encouraged to begin thinking of their topics early.

With a research plan already in mind, Jacobs estimates that it will take her one year to complete her dissertation after she finishes her required course work. Ward completed his dissertation in 18 months and physically met with advisers only three times during his program. And NYU student Lage-Otero said, “After several years of doctoral work, I have become familiar with this path to a doctoral degree, even if I'm not entirely sure where this road is taking me.” He has finished his required course work, completed a pilot study and filed his proposal. “Much less clear, however, is how to write a dissertation that will go beyond the requirements for degree completion and serve as a steppingstone into a hopefully fulfilling academic career,” he said.

These kinds of pressures offer all the more reason for students to begin early in determining what they want to research so they can complete their dissertations in a timely manner and earn their Ph.D.s.