Thesis or Dissertation Process

The Dissertation Defense: The Final Hoop to Jump

You are almost there. You have completed your coursework. You have passed your comps. You have finished writing your dissertation. Now, the only obstacle between you and the prestigious title of Doctor is your dissertation defense. Many people often get really nervous about defending their dissertations, but in most cases, if your committee is allowing you to defend your dissertation, chances are that your committee will approve of your work.

When defending your dissertation, keep in mind that you have already proposed your project, so information that was found in the proposal (i.e., introduction, literature review, and methodology) has already been presented. Therefore, you do not need to spend much time going over these sections at your dissertation defense. Rather, you should briefly overview of the first three chapters of your dissertation and move on to the new information that you want to present (i.e., results and discussion).

When you discuss your results, you do not necessarily need to go into detail about every little outcome that you found; often, you will not have enough time to do this. Instead, you should discuss your results in terms of patterns that emerged in the data. Comparing patterns in your data to that of previous research is a natural way to flow into your discussion section and give a good presentation. When presenting your discussion section, be sure to present both the limitations and the strengths of your project. Remember, your goal for your dissertation defense is to prove to your committee that you have contributed new knowledge to your field.

You will probably have to answer questions from various committee members, so try your best to respond in a non-defensive manner. Additionally, keep your answers concise; you should not try to impress your committee by using complex responses. Lastly, if you do not know the answer to a question, that’s ok, but be upfront and admit that you do not know the answer. Committee members will likely respond better to your admitting that you do not know something as opposed to your faking an answer (yes, they will be able to tell if you are faking).

Though it may provoke anxiety, defending your dissertation is actually an exciting process because in some cases, the dissertation defense marks the end of a very long journey. At the same time, successfully defending your dissertation also marks the next stage of your professional life, so as much as you can, you should try to enjoy this moment.

What is a Research Proposal?

If you have never written a research proposal before, you might be wondering why it is an important and necessary part of the dissertation process. This is your first chance to present your thesis or dissertation ideas in written form to your professors and committee members and to demonstrate to them that you have organized your research around a set of clearly defined research questions about a specific topic. After your professors and committee members review your proposal, they will generally advise you about any what you should do to continue your research. If you write a well-organized and comprehensive proposal, then you will have less difficulty incorporating the advice and comments of your professors and committee members into your future research. Before beginning your research proposal, you should read other proposals in your field, paying attention to how the proposals are organized to facilitate clarity and cohesion between topics and research questions. You should also determine if your university or department has specific guidelines for research proposals. Typically, a research proposal includes the first three chapters of the dissertation:

Chapter I of your research proposal is an introduction to your research and generally contains the statement of the problem that you are researching, the background information necessary to understand the problem, and the purpose and rationale of conducting research to investigate the problem. Chapter I may also contain the research questions and significance of your study and the definitions of terms, assumptions, limitations, and conceptual or theoretical frameworks that you will use in your study.

Chapter II is a literature review of previous research that is related to your research topic. Again, you should read other research proposals in your field to help you decide how to structure Chapter II of your proposal; if you have additional questions about how to structure your literature review, you should contact your professors or committee members. In Chapter II of your research proposal, you should demonstrate that your research will fill a gap left by other related research.

Chapter III is a more specific description of your research methodology. In the introduction to Chapter III, you may restate the problem and the research questions that are motivating your research; you may also introduce the hypotheses that you have developed about your research questions. Chapter III also contains your research design, sample, and setting, a description of the instruments or measures you will use in your research (e.g., structured interviews, surveys, questionnaires, etc.), and a description of how you will collect and analyze data in your research. Chapter III generally concludes with a discussion about issues of validity and reliability and about any ethical considerations in your study.


Choosing Your Team: Selecting a Chair and Academic Committee

To receive graduate degrees, graduate students will likely be required to write dissertations or theses under the direction of faculty chairs or advisors and to present that work to an academic committee who decide whether or not the students pass examination and qualify for graduation. Typically, graduate students are allowed to choose their own chairs and committee members. Committee members and chairs play an important role in the success of graduate students. Academic committee members and chairs can determine (a) how quickly graduate students progress through their degrees, (b) how successful graduate students are in their research, (c) how successful graduate students are in networking with others in their fields, and (d) how successful graduate students will be in either academia or the professional world after graduation. Therefore, graduate students must carefully and thoughtfully choose which faculty will act as their committee members and chairs.

Qualities to Look for in Committee Members and Faculty Chairs

When deciding whom they would like to act as their committees and chairs, graduate students should consider (a) if faculty have compatible personalities with similar research interests; (b) if faculty are experienced in and enthusiastic about directing, advising, helping, and working with students; and (c) what kind of teaching and research reputations the faculty have. Graduate students should definitely consider all three of these characteristics for both committee members and faculty chairs, but graduate students should especially consider the first two characteristics in their choices of faculty chairs. Graduate students work more closely with faculty chairs than they do with academic committee members, so it is important that graduate students can get along with their faculty chairs.

Differences in Mentorship Styles

Being a member of a graduate student’s committee or acting as a chair for a graduate student is a form of faculty mentorship, and most faculty approach mentorship with different styles depending on where faculty are in their own academic careers. For example, a newly hired professor hoping to gain credibility with his or her department might be more involved in a graduate student’s research than would a professor with a well-established academic career. Neither style (hands on or hands off) is inherently good or bad, but both styles have pros and cons. For example, a hands-on chair may provide a graduate student with lots of direction and guidance but may subsume the student’s original research goals into his or her own research. On the other hand, a hands-off chair may provide a graduate student with a wealth of knowledge about research and other industry information but may have less time to spend with the graduate student because he or she is too involved in his or her own work. Before choosing their academic committee members and faculty chairs, graduate students should understand differences in mentorship styles and should identify the mentorship styles of potential committee members and faculty chairs to determine if their mentorship styles will provide them as graduate students with the support that they will need to succeed in graduate school.

Collecting Dissertation Data

Once you have successfully defended your dissertation proposal and have had your study approved by your university’s institutional review board, you are ready to start collecting data for your study. There are many data collection methods, but how you ultimately choose to collect data will depend on the design of your study. Below are some common methods of collecting dissertation data and the types of projects for which these methods are most appropriate.

Online Data Collection

Online data collection has become very popular. Compared to paper-and-pencil surveys, online data collection is much cheaper and less time consuming and allows researchers to recruit participants from a larger geographic area. There are many websites for data collection, such as Survey Monkey and Psych Data, which make the process of collecting data very easy. Given its nature, online dissertation data collection is really only appropriate for quantitative research projects.

Paper-and-Pencil Surveys

Like the name implies, paper-and-pencil surveys are hard copies of your questionnaires that are handed out to participants to complete and return. One advantage of using paper-and-pencil surveys is that participants are more likely to complete paper-and-pencil surveys if surveys are handed to participants and if participants are given time and space to complete the surveys (n.b., you can make use of all the undergraduate classes in which you and your fellow grad students are GAs). The drawback of paper-and-pencil surveys is that you will have to enter the data by hand, which you would not have to do for dissertation data collected online. However, you can always recruit eager undergraduates who want to get into grad school to help you enter the data. As with online data collection, paper-and-pencil surveys are only appropriate for quantitative research projects.

Interviews/Focus Groups

If your project is qualitative in nature, you will likely need to conduct interviews or focus groups to collect the dissertation data you need. Once you have conducted your interviews or focus groups, you will need to go back and transcribe them verbatim, which is also a rather time-consuming process. Again, you can enlist undergraduates to help you transcribe your interviews.

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