One type of doctoral program that traditionally requires the completion of a dissertation is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program. PhD programs are research-focused doctoral degrees that are designed to produce scholars in a particular academic discipline or professional field. The overarching goal of PhD study is to contribute new knowledge and understanding to the field through original research. For this reason, completing a dissertation is a core requirement of most PhD programs.
The dissertation is the culminating project of a PhD program where students conduct extensive independent research and scholarly work under the supervision of faculty advisors and dissertation committee members. Through the dissertation, PhD candidates demonstrate their ability to identify a research problem or question within their field of study, conduct a comprehensive review of relevant literature, utilize appropriate research methods and analysis, and make an original contribution to the body of knowledge in the discipline. Dissertations generally take 1-3 years of full-time work to complete after coursework is finished.
The dissertation process consists of several formal steps. Students first develop a dissertation proposal outlining their research question or hypothesis, literature review, methodology, and anticipated findings. This proposal must be approved by the student’s dissertation committee before research can begin. Once approved, students move forward with conducting the proposed research and analysis. Throughout this stage, regular meetings are held with advisors to discuss progress and receive guidance.
Upon completion of the research and analysis, students write a lengthy dissertation manuscript presenting all elements of the completed research project. The written dissertation typically ranges from 150-300 pages in length and includes an introduction, literature review, methodology section, results/findings, discussion/conclusion, and references. After the written dissertation is submitted, students must then defend their work orally during a dissertation defense meeting with their committee. The committee will ask questions and evaluate the quality and rigor of the student’s independent research and written work.
Upon passing the defense, making any required revisions or corrections, and gaining final approval from the dissertation committee and graduate school, the PhD candidate will have completed all requirements for the doctoral degree. The dissertation demonstrates to degree granting institutions that PhD graduates have reached the level of expertise required to independently and creatively conduct worthwhile, publishable research within their specialized field of study. It is considered a hallmark of PhD education and signifies that a student has achieved a distinct level of expertise beyond a master’s degree.
There are many specific PhD programs across various disciplines that require completion of a dissertation as the capstone project. Some common examples of doctoral programs requiring a dissertation include PhD degrees in various sciences like Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. In the social sciences fields, programs such as Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics all typically require an original dissertation as the culminating experience. Dissertations are also standard components of PhD degrees in many humanities fields including Philosophy, History, English, and Communications. Professionally-oriented PhD programs in areas like Education, Nursing, Social Work and Business also generally necessitate completion of an independent research dissertation on a specialized topic within the given professional domain.
While dissertation requirements and formats vary some between individual doctoral programs and research topics, the multi-step process of developing a proposal, independently conducting original research using accepted methods, writing a lengthy manuscript, and defending the work publicly remains consistent across most academic PhD programs in the United States. The dissertation allows emerging scholars to make an authentic research-based contribution to their specialized field of study under the guidance of faculty experts before earning their doctoral degree. It is truly the pinnacle requirement demonstrating a student’s readiness to independently contribute to their discipline at the highest level as a credentialed PhD.
A dissertation is the defining component of most PhD programs across various academic disciplines in the United States. Through the rigorous multi-stage process of developing, conducting, writing, and publicly defending a substantial piece of original research, doctoral students complete the most complex and career-defining project of their education. Earning a PhD through successful dissertation work signifies that a graduate has reached the peak of expertise in their specialized academic or professional domain and is prepared to independently further advance their narrow field of study through future scholarship and research. The all-encompassing dissertation experience is truly the hallmark final step separating master’s and PhD education.