How to Write a Dissertation - 21 Steps of Writing a Dissertation

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This hub provides an annotated outline of what you can expect from the dissertation writing process. In all there are three major phases and 21 overall stages of writing a dissertation. The three major phases include:

  • The Dissertation Proposal Phase
  • The Data Collection and Analysis Phase
  • The Dissertation Completion Phase

This hub briefly examines what you might expect to encounter in the dissertation writing process.

Dissertation Proposal Phase

The dissertation process begins with the dissertation proposal phase. In the this phase, the doctoral student can expect to walk through the following steps...

  • Choose a general subject to research and write on.
  • Choose the dissertation chair
  • Pre-proposal literature review (identify a gap in the literature)
  • Dissertation topic approval (includes gaining permission to use survey
    instruments)
  • Full literature review
  • Write Chapters 1-3 (Introduction, Literature Review, and Methodology
    includes set up Table of Contents, Table of Figures and Tables, and
    Reference page)
  • Dissertation proposal defense (includes PowerPoint presentation)
  • Complete and Submit Human Subject Research Review application to the
    Institutional Review Board representative

Choose the General Topic to Research

The first step in the dissertation is to choose a general topic to research. The choice of topic will guide the next step which is to choose your dissertation chairperson.

Choose the Dissertation Chairperson

Most doctoral programs will require that the dissertation process be guided by a panel of three professors who help direct and refine the research project. After the Ph.D. student decides on the general course of study, he or she must select a dissertation chairperson who has expertise in that general subject matter. The chairperson will help the student refine his work and also invites two other professors with expertise in the same course of study to join the committee. Most professors will only agree to become the lead in a dissertation if the chosen subject matter is interesting to them. They will also calculate whether the subject matter is publishable and they will want to share the by-line on the end product.

Pre-proposal literature review (identify a gap in the literature)

The third step in the dissertation proposal stage requires that the student conduct a preliminary literature review to identify a gap in the academic record that he or she would like to address in the dissertation. This means that the researcher combs academic writings extensively enough to find an angle that few if any have researched and written about.

Dissertation topic approval

After the student identifies the gap, the next step is to share his/her initial impressions and ideas with his/her dissertation chair, receives valuable feedback, and if necessary refines the topic proposal until all parties are satisfied and the student gains approval from dissertation committee members to proceed. This stage can be stressful, if his or her ideas for the direction of the dissertation clashes with the ideas of the dissertation chair.

Full literature review

(defined as the portion of the dissertation proposal research within which the AND researches the previous conducted academic research directly or indirectly related to his/her dissertation topic and subtopics). This portion of the ABDs experience can be frustrating as the process of gathering, reading, and selecting relevant passages for inclusion can be tedious and prolonged. I enjoyed this process of learning about my topic because I felt I found a topic that few had studied or written about and I was very interested in my topic.

Permission to Use Research Instruments

If the student chooses to conduct a research project wherein he or she will use a survey intrument or interview questions designed and copyrighted by another researcher, then he or she will need to write and gain approval to use the instrument or questions. There is no need to proceed to write the proposal if the originator(s) of a given survey questionnaire refuse to grant permission. If in a rare case, this happens; then, the doctoral candidate may need to find a similar instrument or in the worst case scenario scrap the project and start afresh.

Write Chapters 1-3

The next step is to begin drafting the first three chapters of the dissertation. Most dissertations include five chapters. The first three chapters of the study project are required to advance to the dissertation proposal defense which the student will have to pass before allowed to conduct the actual research. The first three chapters include the Introduction, Literature Review, and Methodology as well as set up of the Title Page, Table of Contents, Table of Figures and Tables, Reference page, and the Appendices. Of course, this stage includes multiple drafts until all parties are satisfied.

Dissertation proposal defense

Next, the student can expect to defend the proposal before allowed to conduct the research project. This means that the student will have to persuade the dissertation committee members that the research project is worthwhile, will add to academic scholarship in a significant way, and publishable. This step includes preparing a PowerPoint presentation. This presentation may be conducted face-to-face or as in an online program, over the phone or Skype. I conducted my defense on Skype. This was a little disconcerting for me as I like to see the whites of the eyes of those to whom I am speaking.


Complete and Submit Human Subject Research Review Application Process

After the doctoral candidate passes the proposal defense, he or she will be required to submit the proposed research project for approval from the Institutional Review Board at his or her institution of higher learning. The U.S. Government has set up special guidelines for research conducted with human subjects and each dissertation proposal that requires data be collected from human subjects must meet the standards of those guidelines. These guidelines exist to guard away from the possibility of subjecting would be participants to inhumane procedures. There is a bit of anxiety during this phase because it is possible (although rare) that the point person for Human Subjects Research review could reject the proposal and the doctoral candidate will have to rewrite a major portion of his or her methodology section.

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Data Collection and Analyses Phase

The second phase of the dissertation writing process is the data collection and analysis phase. In this phase, the doctoral student carries out the plan in the dissertation proposal. This phase includes the following...

  • Secure permission to conduct research by contacting perspective liaisons to
    respondents (e.g., owners or supervisors)
  • Prepare survey materials (including translation if conducted in another language) and Print copies or (if conducted online) upload materials to desired survey portal (e.g., SurveyMonkey)
  • With permission granted, organize data collection according to your proposed
    methodology and design (e.g., personal distribution method; special
    meetings; sending post cards, etc.)
  • Enter data into data analyses software (if quantitative) or transcribe interview
    notes (if qualitative)
  • Run the appropriate analysis using the proposed analytical technique
  • Write Chapter 4 the results chapter (includes making corrections as recommended by your dissertation chairperson.


Secure permission to conduct research

The first step in the data collection phase is to contact perspective liaisons to potential respondents for the study. This means identifying and contacting the approved authority figures such as owners, supervisors, or organizational heads to gain access to the target sample for the study. This process can begin during the first phase while the candidate is writing the proposal and waiting for feedback on the latest proposal draft.


Prepare research materials

Next, the researcher must prepare the instruments for the data collection. In most cases, the survey instruments will have to be included in proposal and submitted for approval to the IRB to meet Human Subject Research guidelines. After approval has been granted, the survey insturments may need to be translated (if conducted in another language). Then, the student will need to print copies (if conducted in person or through regular mail) and or upload materials to
desired survey portal (if conducted online through a website like SurveyMonkey).

Conduct the Data Collection

With permission granted, begin conducting the data collection according to your proposed methodology and design (e.g., personal distribution method; special meetings; sending post cards, etc.). In my case, this stage took two months to complete; depending on the amount of access one has this period could be shorter and extremely longer. If the data collection process extends on, it is wise to continue reading over your proposal continuously in order to remain connected to it. In my case, I began to lose connection to the information I had written in the proposal and had to re-ignite the passion for the subject and re-acquaint myself with what I wrote.

Data entry stage

After the student finishes the data collection, he or she will move on to enter data into the selected data analyses software (if quantitative) or transcribe interview notes (if qualitative). Of course, this stage can begin with the first collected surveys and continue until the last comes in.

For some, data entry can be intensely boring and tedious and very time consuming. The process is even more time consuming for the researcher who worked with a qualitative design by which they have to transcribe their notes from short- to long-hand.


Run the appropriate analysis

After all data has been inputted into the chosen software program (e.g, SPSS or LISREL). This part of the AND experience can be exhilarating or exhausting depending on the process used and the results received (especially whether they match the researchers hypotheses). In my case, my level of understanding of the results received made me question the results and rerun the analyses repeatedly until satisfied.

Write Chapter 4 - the Results Chapter

After the data analysis is completed, the doctoral student will begin to write Chapter Four of the dissertation which is the Results chapter. The Results chapter includes preparing and or formatting all necessary statistical tables including Descriptive Statistics, Correlation Tables, Regression Tables or whatever other figures are relative to the reporting of the results of the data analysis.

This portion of the experience can bring renewed interest in the subject matter and with it renewed hope that the AND may soon promote to full-fledged Ph.D. The writing picks up again and there is positive movement towards the end of the dissertation process. Of course, this new motion towards the end could be squelched if a member of the dissertation committee does not agree with the results or the process by which they were gained and promoted. My dissertation chair walked with me through the entire process, so the writing of the results section went smoothly and I proceeded to the discussion section without delay.

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Dissertation Completion Phase

The third and final phase of the dissertation writing process is the dissertation completion phase. This phase in the process can be defined as the portion of the research project wherein the doctoral candidate puts the finishing touches on the dissertation.

This portion can be quite exhilarating because there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel and victory insight. This portion can also be exhausting in that more research needs to be done to find support for the results whatever they might have be.

The dissertation completion phase can include the following steps or stages:

  • Write Chapter 5 – the discussion chapter
  • Write Abstract, Dedication, and Acknowledgement sections
  • Proofread entire document two or three times including tables, text, illustrations, reference section, and appendices
  • Dissertation Defense (includes PowerPoint presentation mostly geared towards
    Chapters 4 and 5)
  • Contact dissertation process director for final steps
  • Submit document for final editing for publication


Write Chapter 5 – The Discussion Chapter

After the data collection phase, the step in the dissertation completion phase is to write chapter five - the Discussion chapter. In this step, the student researcher attempts to make sense of the results of the study. He or she will conduct a further literature review as it relates to findings (i.e., results) of the study and write a meaningful discussion of the findings of the research.

This is the last lap, the home stretch towards the end of the dissertation process. When I received my dissertation chairs endorsement to move to the dissertation defense, I felt a deep sense of pride that I had finished what I had started and about to accomplish a wonderful milestone.


Write Abstract, Dedication, and Acknowledgement sections

In this step, the doctoral student will look back and reflect on what he or she has done and who along the way helped to complete the journey. There is a potential to get lost in one’s own accomplishments and forget those who helped make it possible. This is a time near the end of the doctoral experience wherein the candidate turns his or her eyes away from themselves to embrace the wider community around them. No man is an island unto themselves. The man of gratitude will find build a network of friends that will last a lifetime and increase their opportunities.

Proofread entire document two or three times

The fourth step in the completion process is to proofread the document multiple times to make sure that all formatting, grammar, and spelling are accurate. This includes perusing all tables, text, illustrations, reference section, and appendices.

Dissertation Defense

This double D-day. The culmination of all the blodd, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights. The time to persuade the dissertation committee members of the significance of the research study. This step in the dissertation completion phase will likely include preparation of a PowerPoint presentation mostly geared towards Chapters 4 and 5. At this time, the Ph.D. candidate presents his or her scholarly work to the members of the dissertation committee in order to gain gains approval (or not) for his or her study. If in fact the dissertation is approved by the committee, then this is the most motivating of all experiences because the members of the committee offer their hands as colleagues. In some cases, the dissertation chairperson will send an advance copy of the research study to the other members for their initial feedback. Any one of the three may request changes before the defense date is set on the calendar. As in my case, most dissertation chairpersons will not set up the defense until he or she is relatively certain that the doctoral student will pass it.

Contact dissertation process director for final steps

At least a few universities have a point person in charge of moving the student through the dissertation process. After the dissertation defense, that person will help move the document to final publication. Obviously, it would be important to contact that person from the outset, but as in my case, it was imperative that I did so immediately after the dissertation defense.

Final editing for publication

The last step in the dissertation completion process is to send the document for final editing. Many universities require the student to hire a professional editor to proofread the document before they will allow the dissertation to be published. Once the document has been finalized and presented to the university library or listed on ProQuest, then the doctoral student will officially graduate with the Ph.D.

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Comments 2 comments

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

This requires much hard work, but the efforts do produce the PhD. I think the process is one that involves expertise in the field - mentors who would help you to acquire knowledge and skill in the field as you interact. Interesting to know.


ecoggins profile image

ecoggins 4 years ago from Corona, California Author

teaches12345 thank you for yor comment. Dissertations do take much hard work and dedication. And, you are correct; I could not have finished the process without my mentors (dissertation chairman and committee).

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