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Robert Horn, William Martin, Elizabeth Bartolini

Successfully Navigating and Completing a Doctoral Dissertation

It has been said that the two biggest challenges a student faces with respect to a doctoral program are getting in and getting out. Students must expend a great deal of effort to get admitted into a doctoral program, and they must continue with a high level of quality effort to successfully complete their program. Studies have reported that approximately half of all doctoral students admitted to programs do not complete those programs, with some studies reporting up to 85 percent of doctoral students abandoning the doctoral degree program.

While several key factors have been reported as reasons for students failing to complete their programs (e.g., financial burdens, work, personal anxieties, and issues involving family and friends), issues related to the dissertation itself tend to be among the leading factors. Struggles in the dissertation process, issues involving the dissertation committee and, more prevalent, issues involving their dissertation chair, are continually reported as top concerns.

With these odds, the question becomes how doctoral students can complete their program successfully and have a positive experience during their academic tenure. It should be reiterated that although half of doctoral students reportedly do not complete their dissertation, the remaining half not only successfully graduate, but also call their experience highly rewarding. While success strategies may not be universal, we offer a few key insights from our collective experience that most students will find beneficial.

#1. Don't underestimate the amount of work that a dissertation actually takes. A dissertation is a capstone research experience that demonstrates a student’s ability to conduct good independent research. Students often ask when they should begin working on their dissertation.  Our emphatic answer is, “As early as possible.” You need to become very familiar with the research/literature in your field of study. You have already expressed a strong interest by pursuing a doctoral degree in a given field, and you should continue to gain a solid background in that field’s literature. It is through your in-depth knowledge of your field’s literature that you will find a researchable topic for your dissertation. Remember, good research is research that expands on the topical knowledge base, makes an important contribution to its applicable field, and is manageable.

#2. Have or develop good time-management skills. Your dissertation cannot be done overnight; it will take a great deal of time and energy to be successful. Begin early and be consistent with dedicating time to work on your dissertation. Identifying a potential topic early affords you the potential of building on your dissertation review by incorporating your topic area into other classes. Difficult life events will continue to occur during your academic tenure, potentially making time dedicated to your dissertation a challenge. Successful doctoral students also schedule relaxation time to help keep a positive balance in their life. Keep in mind that the average amount of time it takes to complete a doctoral program is relatively small compared to what awaits after graduation.

#3. Perhaps most important of all, begin building a solid working relationship with faculty who may become your dissertation committee and/or chair. Research has indicated that students who have strong working relationships with their dissertation chair (or co-chairs) report less stress and show greater potential for successfully completing their dissertation. Also, whenever possible, gain experiences with research. Your research experiences should be guided by experienced researchers with the key objective to build confidence in your research ability and to gain necessary insight into the research process.

—Robert A. Horn, Ph.D., William E. Martin, Ed.D., and Elizabeth A. Bartolini, M.Ed.
Department of Educational Psychology