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Writing a Dissertation

The first formal step toward completing the dissertation is the development of an acceptable prospectus.  The determination of whether or not a prospectus is ready for assessment by the candidate’s advisory committee is the responsibility of the adviser.  The rationale for the project and the design of the study should be as good as collaboration between the student and the adviser can make them.  Satisfying this criterion allows the student to maximize the value of the input from committee members.  The Ph.D. program of study then culminates in the writing and defense of the dissertation.

What are the expectations for the dissertation prospectus?

Prospecti vary in length according to the student's area of research and the expectations of his or her adviser and committee.  In Rhetoric, a prospectus of 20 pages would be reasonable to expect.  In Communication Science, prospecti of 50 to 100 pages are more the norm.  At minimum, a prospectus should address the following matters:

  • A statement of purpose that addresses the question, “What problems will be solved by the research, or what contributions to knowledge will be made by the project?
  • A review of relevant scholarship, including both disciplinary and interdisciplinary literature and foundations relating to the research problem, the relevant theoretical perspectives, and the methodologies to be employed in the study.
  • An enumeration of the research questions or hypotheses that will guide the research, and (if appropriate) a discussion of expected outcomes.
  • A discussion of the design of the study, including plans for archival research or for the acquisition and analysis of data.

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What are the aims of the dissertation?

  • Demonstrating competencies meriting conferral of the Ph.D.  The dissertation should demonstrate a Ph.D. candidate’s ability to identify an important research question or set of questions, design a study to answer the question(s), identify primary sources or acquire relevant data, and conduct analyses appropriate for determining the answer(s) to the research questions.  Although the dissertation is supervised by both an adviser and a committee, it should reflect the student's readiness to function on his or her own in contributing to the advancement of knowledge within pertinent areas of disciplinary specialty. 
  • Providing an opportunity to hone research skills. The dissertation is a capstone opportunity to develop the skills needed to conduct research as a scholar.  Some research skills are learned from interaction with members of the candidate’s advisory committee.  Other skills develop through introspection, reflection, and practice.
  • Establishing the foundations of an ongoing program of research.  The dissertation is a beginning, not an end.  It constitutes the cornerstone of the ongoing program of research that will help the new scholar advance within the academic profession or other fields in which which scholarly inquiry is central.  A quality dissertation will lead to publishable work appropriate to the student's area of scholarly specialization.  A reasonable expectation is that the dissertation will lead to two to three articles in respected refereed professional journals or, if appropriate, a book with a reputable publisher.

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How long does a dissertation take to complete?

Although every student and every dissertation is different, a rule of thumb is that students should expect to spend at least a year completing their dissertation following approval of the prospectus.

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