To Finish Your Dissertation…

"The dissertation is the monument to the moment when the committee gave up" ~ Dr. D. Barry Lumsden

Getting a doctorate depends on wise choices before, during, and after enrollment in your program. I have worked with clients at Ivy League level institutions and at for-profit private online programs as well as everything in between those two extremes. I have worked as an interdisciplinary coach with topics covering public health, natural sciences, social sciences, education, religion, and the arts and humanities.

When I set out to earn my doctorate, I was place bound. I had an infant and a preschooler. I was married, and my husband made the “good” money in the technology world. I studied all the doctoral degree granting options within no more than 2 hours from our home because in 2000, online all the time was not an option.

I first culled out the private, expensive options, which did include NOVA Southeastern that is located physically in the Florida because it offered a cohort model with classes at the DFW airport. When I factored in the public options, I had Texas A&M Commerce, Texas Woman’s University, and the University of North Texas available for my fields of interest (namely, counseling, psychology, higher education). At that point, I had to settle on the degree program, which caused TWU to get knocked off the list because they did not have the right program of curriculum for me.

With my two program choices in hand, in November of 2000, I called the two schools’ programs, and I scheduled interviews with their program coordinators. I interviewed both of them. One of them did not seem to care about my agenda and made me perform an extemporaneous essay exam before being willing to talk to me at all (and I didn’t choose that school; I regarded the essay writing as a form of intimidation or hazing).

I didn’t care whether I was a viable student in their eyes before I applied because I had done the research on earning the doctoral degree. I knew I needed to find accessible professors. Without accessible professors, a dissertation cannot be done in a timely manner was the conclusion from the research on going back to grad school that I had done–some of which included directly interviewing my bosses and others around me. Essentially, I conducted primary data collection just to choose a doctoral program. (Interestingly, 20 years later and 15 years into coaching dissertants, this conclusion remains relevant and rings true.)

When choosing your doctoral program, you need to ask the program coordinators and department chairs many questions. By asking the administrators and professors your questions BEFORE they have a chance to ask you anything or evaluate your merits, you force them to judge you as a viable future student of their (according to them) esteemed program. Why? That’s easy: You show initiative, thoughtfulness, appropriate scientific skepticism, and the ability conduct research by asking them all these questions they should have answers to (and usually are not prepared to answer).

“What are the right questions to ask?” There is no one right set of questions, but the right questions are those that enable you to determine if you will get the support you need after classes end and the dissertation writing begins. First you must know the answer to: “What is your dissertation completion rate?” An evasive answer with no indication of X out of XX students is rated as a grade of F on that question. An honest answer of X% with the inevitable list of caveats that would explain a low value allows for a D grade. An X% answer with a list of all the ways the program and the university worked to support students, then the program was working its way toward a passing value on the item. The dissertation completion percent matters because no doctoral program has a 90% success rate; it is unheard of. In education and the social sciences, 30% to 40% is about average, and in the humanities, the average rate is far less than 30% than I want to type. Usually, they will answer with something like 70% of doctoral students who start classes, finish classes. But out of that 70%, how many finish? Probably about 30% if national numbers ring true, so 30% out of 70% is what percent of the original 100% of all who started classes? Not good is the answer.

Another meaty question involves knowing what are the procedures and processes for completing a dissertation. The for-profit driven models are listed as being doable in 3 to 4 years, but they have built in so many checks and so-called quality control measures that I have seen very few students finish without paying 6 years worth of tuition payments. Many times, they have paid for a year or 2 of tuition after courses ended without making any progress even though they have tried by writing drafts that get rejected, communicating with professors who give answers that leave them confounded and flummoxed, and spinning their wheels like a car stuck in mud.

Added checkpoints beyond the committee and the institutional research board that approves human subjects studies cause extra years to be needed for dissertation completion. There are public and non-profit schools that follow the for-profit cash cow model of adding in check points. Every check point means an additional 2 to 16 (or more) weeks of your money and time being wasted as well as added political drama, in-fighting, and intrigue that serves to frustrate you and reduce your will to go on.

If a program has a level of review known as a university research reviewer, quality review for methodology, academic quality reviewer, dean’s office approval review, etc. that exists AFTER the committee agrees you are ready to propose, do NOT choose that program. Further, if the program adds a final quality review, assurance of adherence to methods review, Chapter 4-5 university research review, etc., that happens (again) AFTER the committee green lights the final defense or worse AFTER the final defense, do NOT choose that program. Another layer that is super annoying and not necessary is the proposal format and style review being done by a BACHELOR OF SCIENCE/ARTS or a Master of Arts in writing/English (which is MLA specific and not social or hard science writing oriented) level employee–if that is part of the dean’s office review process, don’t choose that program.

If a program has a project study or a three chapter dissertation that it sells as innovative, do NOT buy the hype; run away. There is this movement toward enrolling students in a dissertation class that operates parallel to the requirements of the dissertation chair. I have yet to see the chair and the course instructor agree. Thus, unless the course instructor is facilitating an engaged, directive approach and is your chair, I suggest avoiding that format too.

Every university does have a final format review, which should be about the front matter conforming to a uniform standard and ensuring the dedication and acknowledgements are professional(ish). Essentially, you cannot cuss out the dissertation committee or disparage the institution in this official document that the institution will take the credit for publishing. Expect to be told about that process as the last step following the final defense.

A respectable program has the following procedure set:

  1. The three chapter proposal is written in future tense and approved by the chair.
  2. The proposal is approved for proposal seminar by the full committee.
  3. The proposal approved by committee after presentation by dissertant.
  4. The research proposed in Chapter 3 is approved by institutional research board for collecting data.
  5. The dissertant collects and analyses the set of data.
  6. The full dissertation is put together at final chapters plus proposal converted to past tense.
  7. The full dissertation is approved by the chair.
  8. The full committee allows the dissertant to schedule the final defense.
  9. The final defense includes the dissertant’s presentation of the study, gauntlet of questions by the committee, the committee awarding the title of doctor, and all the professors signing a form saying the dissertation passed.
  10. The final approval by graduate school or university level for formatting (margins, etc.), abstract, and front matter conforming to university standards for final publication.

These 10 or so procedures should take 6 to 9 months of time, assuming you have a committee chair who has both dissertation competence and efficacy AND work diligently each week to complete all steps. If you do not have a chair with both values, you can expect a 12 to 24 month process while you are working diligently, weekly to complete all steps. If you cannot make yourself work diligently when you don’t feel supported, you can expect to spend 3 to 4 years on the dissertation AFTER you finish the coursework and complete any comprehensive exams or final specialty papers that are designed to propel you to dissertation candidacy. (Unless you hire a coach.)

Additional questions to ask before you even apply to a program involve learning how dissertation chairs/directors/mentors/etc. are assigned to students. Do students ask professors to be their chairs? Are chairs assigned by the department head? Is there a procedure for transferring to a different professor is the fit is not there with the first professor? What are the drama and politics involved in asking for a new chair should that be a concern in the future? What professors are most prolific as dissertation advisors? What is the completion rate for minorities? (That question matters even if you are not a minority because it suggests how much assistance and advice you can expect to receive from your chair. [And yes, there are a ton of stories that I can tell you about how much that question matters for all students.])

You want to ask about services that include: (a) literature search support by research librarians, (b) research support office that might do data entry or perform statistical analyses, (c) a statistics computer lab or research design tutors, (d) doctoral-level style guide assistance from a writing center (which is usually not equipped for dissertants), (e) institutional research board tutors or coordinators, and (f) other unspecified helpful stuff like free access to NVivo, SPSS, SAS, etc. The presence or absence of these services provides you with some important corresponding accessibility information. Both a set of helpful services and an accessible, competent, and efficacious professor are necessary conditions for timely dissertation completion.

The homework you need to do before you choose a program as worthy of interviewing is this: Look up all the faculty, both adjunct and full-time, on Linked-In, Facebook, Google, etc. Learn about those people and their research interests–regardless of the program format as 100% online or F2F. Find all their peer-reviewed publications. If you can, look up dissertations by the search term of “advisor” and find out how many they have listed and when those dissertations were published. You want to see a few recent ones.

NEVER EVER be the professor’s first dissertant. Don’t allow it. Or at least, make sure a first time dissertation advisor has a co-chair with an extensive track record mentoring them or being available to you for mediating disputes. If you can avoid an abecedarian as your dissertation chair, do it.

Beware and be aware: Many for-profit programs and non-profit programs have professors with no peer-reviewed publications and with only their own dissertations under their belts. The professors were hired by cronyism, usually. Those professors have no clue how to guide you and tend to know only how to tell you that they see something is not right while not knowing how to tell you what is wrong with what they see. They say, “It’s all wrong” or “Go figure out APA and send me something readable” or “Read dissertations to find out how to do it right.” That read other dissertations line is the professor’s code for: “Follow my dissertation because I know what that looks like.”

In short, choose the program with the end, the final defense moment, in mind. You choose them. Don’t let them choose you. The formats of the classes and the course-delivery or related issues are not the real meat of the doctoral degree. The real meat is the dissertation, so learn about the end before you even deign to give them any of your money. Trust me, institutions are happy to take your money for every semester possible until your deadline to do or die comes up at 7 to 10 years after the first semester of enrollment. You don’t want to be All But the Dissertation for one minute longer than necessary. Begin the doctoral program by choosing its end wisely.

2 thoughts on “Choosing your doctoral program wisely

  1. drcs90something says:


    This is really spot on. I think you should publish this as an article…. for reals.


    On Fri, Aug 28, 2020, 1:35 PM To Finish Your Dissertation… wrote:

    > Dr. C posted: ” Getting a doctorate depends on wise choices before, > during, and after enrollment in your program. I have worked with clients at > Ivy League level institutions and at for-profit private online programs as > well as everything in between those two extremes. I” >


    1. Dr. C says:

      Thank you! Not sure where I would start with finding it a publication home. I did vet it with a few clients who represented different schools that put them through these processes–I didn’t want it to look like I was talking about just one program when I can name several of them that do these things!


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