Frustration with Milestone Deadlines

by | March 25, 2010

The dissertation research process at Capella is based on a set of 16 milestones which measure learner progress. Unlike in coursework where there are weekly assignments, learner’s progress in dissertation is measured by milestone completion. Milestones have set timelines that are not tied to quarters. For example, when learners receive a six-week timeline for completion of the dissertation committee process, it means that learners should immediately set about contacting prospective members via email. In a previous post, I described a method that seems to make the process go more smoothly.

Since that post, I have heard from learners who are frustrated because the process is not going as smoothly as they wish and that that their milestone deadline is approaching. A first extension is available and is for half of the original number of weeks. Learners contact their mentors to request this extension. For example, the committee nomination milestone first extension is for 3 additional weeks. A second extension for milestones, with the length of the extension left to the discretion of the mentor and advisor, can be approved. Learners need to demonstrate that they are attempting to make progress.

Completion of dissertation milestones such as the dissertation committee nomination is like any other research project requiring a trial and error approach. It can happen quickly or take longer, depending on the availability of particular faculty members. If learners do not follow the process correctly it can also result in delays. It is always best to discuss the process with an Advanced Learner Doctoral Advisor during the initial dissertation advising session. Advisors welcome follow-up questions and are standing by to explain and clarify Capella’s many processes and procedures.

8 Responses to "Frustration with Milestone Deadlines"

  1. Annette says:

    I am in the IDOL specialization. Does my committe have to be in that specialization or can they be from other specializations in Education?

  2. Jonathan Gehrz says:

    Morning Annette!

    I’m going to jump in here and respond, because I actually work with Education folks and am perhaps in a better position to answer than Dr. Larson. A fine question, as it good to recognize that every School and specialization may have their own requirements for what is considered an acceptable dissertation committee. Currently, the Instructional Design in Online Learning specialization, yes, your dissertation committee will consist of a mentor/chair of the committee and faculty member affiliated with the IDOL program; one committee member also affiliated with the IDOL program; and one committee member either from a different specialization within the School of Education or an external, non-Capella faculty member or Visiting Scholar.

    Great question. Do remain mindful, your committee really is your team that will guide you in developing your contribution to your field (Instructional Design in Online Learning.)

    Jon Gehrz

  3. Sherry Pearson says:

    From what I have heard there is an outline given to follow-thru with the entire process of working on the dissertation??


  4. Mark Larson says:

    Yes, Sherry, the 16-milestone process is an outline of sorts. Also, there are manuals and other resources that explain the process. When you reach that stage of your program, your Advanced Learner Doctoral Advisor will go over the process with you. Best wishes for now!

  5. Shane Willis says:

    My question would be could we get our hands on the 16-milestone process earlier. I am starting to think about the disserataton process even though I have 5 quarters left (after the current one) of coursework. I want to start my research and formulating what I can while I am in the coursework. I understand there will be limitations on what I can do now, but not knowing what to expect makes the process more daunting. Thank you


  6. Mark Larson says:


    While your apparent energy level is commendable, you can only begin thinking about a topic and how you might approach it at this point. You absolutely cannot begin your research at this stage. In fact, you cannot begin work on your dissertation until you have successfully passed the comprehensive examination. To do so, would be a violation of policy, which has serious consequences. When you attend your Track III colloquium, you will focus on the comprehensive exam and dissertation and that will give you an overview of what to expect.

    Again, I suggest you start thinking about a topic and how you would go about researching an aspect of it; however, you must stop at that point and wait until you are allowed to move forward with the actual research process.

    My intent is not to put a damper on your obvious enthusiasm, but to clarify just what you can and cannot do at this point.

    Don’t lose that drive – just channel it into your current focus: your coursework.

    My very best wishes to you!!

  7. Nihal Gunay says:

    I am a doctoral student at General Psy. and working on my MRF. The process is very slow and I am having problem understanding the process as it is outlined. Here are the issues I would like to get a response:
    1- We have been asked to select 3 members for the committee. The only person who works with me continuously is my mentor, the other two do not even respond to my emails. Why did I have to wait for them to be approved if they would not be involved with the process?
    2- My mentor approves my MRF and takes 10 days (as it was stated in the course room) then I wait another 10 days to get approval from the department chair. This process is same and the time line is same regardless how small or big the changes are on MRF. If the ultimate decision lies with department chair why we work with the mentor? Why the learner works with department chair directly until after MRF is approved. Then the mentor can provide much more dept feedback.
    3- Of course, in MRF stage, I can do nothing until I get an approval which takes 1 month. However, Capella charges me more than $2000 for just waiting. I think we need to get a lower rate for dissertation courses since the work for faculty or student advisor who ever observes the course room is not required to work like the faculty who actually teaches an online course.
    At this point, I feel Canella is taking advantage of the situation I am at: I cannot transfer to any online university just to complete my dissertation and Canella will keep on charging me for a work that is so slow and unfair to the learner due the time line. I really appreciate if someone can share some wisdom with me so I will keep my motivation and wait patiently for the process to take its course… please I desperately need some assistance and advise. Thank you in advance, Best Regards.

  8. Jonathan Gehrz says:

    Thank you for asking questions about the dissertation and MRF process. I will try my best to answer them.

    Let us start with the role of the committee. The committee’s first official role is to review and to ultimately approve the first three chapters of your dissertation, also known as your proposal. The committee will also eventually be called upon to approve your entire dissertation. Depending upon the topic, the methodology and the expertise of the committee members, they might be involved by providing input during the MRF process. You can count on the committee being more involved as you move on, and their expertise will provide you broader feedback with which to enrich your dissertation.

    Let me also explain one reason why the committee members might not be responding to your emails. The committee members may not be clear about what you are asking for at this point. If you are sending them emails without copying your mentor, the committee members might also be wondering if you are trying to go around your mentor to get answers from the committee.

    It sounds to me as if you are still awaiting topic approval for your MRF. Have you and your mentor had a chat about switching from the MRF to the Scientific Merit Review form? I would encourage you to do that if you have not already had that conversation.

    Second, you asked about turnaround time. Yes, we do expect that it will take several days — or up to ten business days — for a mentor or a chair to read and to provide feedback. Some people make the mistake of thinking that a mentor or chair simply gives a submission a quick reading, slaps on a few comments and ships it back. But you need to understand that an MRF, the proposal and the full dissertation are read very differently than a best-selling novel. The readers will frequently go back and forth between sections of your document to make sure you are being consistent or to see if they missed some item that must be in there. They might very well be checking some of the references that you have listed. Getting through just 10 or 20 pages can consume hours and hours of a mentor’s time.

    You also asked why you are working with the mentor when it is the chair who ultimately approves the topic. One of your mentor’s many responsibilities is to make sure the document is in fairly good shape before anyone else reads it. You know how many mentees are in your own courseroom and how many of them are still working on the MRF. The mentor works with the mentees to make sure that the chair, who might be getting MRFs from 40 or more dissertators in a short time, will be able to understand what your proposed study is all about. Chairs have plenty of other responsibilities besides approving topics.

    I would like to address two concerns about what you are doing while your MRF is being reviewed. My first concern focuses on what might be delaying the approval of your topic. I am not clear from your questions whether your MRF has been sent to the chair more than once, but if it has made at least two trips then you are probably still struggling to identify a doable topic and a workable population. Do you fully understand why your current topic is not going to be approved?

    That brings me to my second concern about what you are doing while waiting for feedback. Could you be searching for and reading appropriate literature to help you reach the topic approval stage more quickly? Are you thoroughly absorbing the feedback and making sure your literature search is comprehensive? In other words, what are YOU doing to help to close the gap between the topic you have proposed and a topic that will be workable? If you are not thoroughly exploring the literature during this waiting period, you are the one slowing your own progress.

    With a greater grasp of the literature, you should be able to move more quickly on completing the rest of the MRF/SMR once your topic is approved.

    But the literature is not all you could be exploring while you wait for feedback. You could be examining dissertations in your field or Capella dissertations to help you visualize the components of a dissertation. You could make yourself comfortable with the information in the Dissertation Manual, in the Dissertation Milestones Guidebook, in dissertation materials from Track 3, and with additional dissertation materials on iGuide. You can work on strengthening your writing or improving your knowledge of and use of APA 6. If you are not working on those items while waiting for feedback, talk to your mentor about how you would like to use that time.

    As an advisor, I become concerned when I hear learners say they write, submit and wait. The reading that you could be doing during that waiting period should go a long ways toward helping you gain more understanding of why your topic is not gaining approval. It should help clarify what you need to improve, change, add, or drop to make your topic workable. Remember, your first step is to gain topic approval, so your goal should be to read everything you can get your hands on at this stage.

    Although we come into the dissertation process knowing quite a lot about our proposed topic, what we know at the beginning of the process is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we will know by the time we complete our dissertation. The intellectual growth that we will experience will be acquired piece by piece, bit by bit. At a certain point we begin to see the puzzle pieces start to fit together and we will begin to drive more of the process.

    A dissertation at Capella – or any other doctoral-granting institution – is a process. That is one of the reasons why so many dissertators around the world drop out of their institutions. It is difficult to know how long this process is going to take – and that inability to set an end date can cause problems with motivation. I encourage you to consider the MRF/SMR as the checklist you need to complete before you can draw up your blueprint (Chapters 1, 2 and 3) for the house you are about to build (the research and the complete dissertation). You need to make sure every detail is right so that your house does not fall down, or that the incorrectly installed wiring does not cause a fire.

    A National Research Council report released last year assessed 20 characteristics of doctoral programs in the United States, including a learner’s median time to a degree. According to a September 28, 2010, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the study, the music program at Washington University in St. Louis had the longest median time-to-degree, coming in at 16.3 years. What do you think keeps those dissertators motivated for more than a decade and a half?

    Constance Davis, Ph.D.