From A to Z: doctoral degree glossary

August 19, 2015

As you consider a PhD or professional doctorate program, you might find you need to learn a new language just to understand the doctoral degree process and outcomes. Here are the most common terms (and their definitions) you might encounter.

ABD: “All but dissertation.” An unofficial phrase which describes a PhD candidate who has completed all the requirements of the degree program except for the final dissertation—and without the dissertation, the PhD cannot be awarded. It is NOT a recognized credential.

Accreditation: A quality assurance process that certifies educational institutions or programs for achieving and maintaining commonly recognized high standards. There are several career areas where graduating from an accredited program can make a difference in the type of career and the rate of pay graduates can earn. Learning about industry standards in your chosen field and what accreditation(s) are available are important points of research.

Colloquia/colloquium: See Residency

Comprehensive exam (also called qualifying, general, preliminary, or major field exam): Comprehensive exams (often simplified as “comps”) allow students to demonstrate competency within their program, and serve to ensure they are prepared to move into the dissertation phase of the degree.

Programs may also require students to complete qualifying or preliminary exams. These may be similar to comprehensive exams and may be taken in lieu of or in addition to comprehensive exams. Comprehensive exams are generally distinguished by their breadth of focus, and are designed to ensure students can demonstrate knowledge and readiness for the dissertation.

Dissertation: The dissertation is the final step in the PhD process after successful completion of the comprehensive exams. The actual project depends on the program, but regardless of the field of study, there will be a large research component that is meant to be developed into a final degree deliverable that will increase the body of knowledge in the chosen field, either by adding new contributions or by expanding and deepening previous studies. It will take the form of a written project that evaluates and interprets the research the PhD candidate has completed, usually in a five-chapter format that can run several hundred pages. It’s an independent project that’s the most intensive form of research and writing a doctoral candidate will undertake.

Dissertation advisor: Students will have a dissertation advisor to turn to for help in overcoming obstacles, managing time, writing advice, and planning for the dissertation. Generally an advisor is assigned by the university early in the student’s doctoral process, although some universities allow the student to select their own advisor. The advisor can guide a student through selecting coursework that will be the foundation needed to approach writing a dissertation. The advisor can also assist in navigating university policies and processes, and providing career advice or resources.

Dissertation milestones (phases of research): There are generally three primary stages of writing a dissertation (although at Capella University, there are 16 milestones along these three stages, to keep the process in small, manageable pieces):

  • Proposal. By the time students complete coursework and colloquia, they should have selected a topic. Preparing the proposal involves developing the research plan and methodology; and obtaining approvals of the topic and research plan from the mentor, committee, and the Institutional Review Board (IRB).
  • Data collection and research. The student takes the approved research plan and begins research.
  • Writing. Once the research is complete, it’s time to write the dissertation. Generally, a dissertation will have five chapters: an outline of the full background of your study; a comprehensive literature review supporting your research; a discussion of your choice of research design, data collection, and analysis, and details of the research steps; the actual data analyses and results; and the final evaluation and interpretation of your results. (Some universities may require a sixth chapter of conclusions.)

IRB (Institutional Review Board): An IRB is a standing committee at a university that examines potential research projects to ensure that humans involved in the research are protected and the appropriate safeguards are in place. Dissertation research is always subject to IRB approval.

Mentor: Depending on the university, a mentor is either assigned to a student or chosen by the student early in the PhD process and is the first point of contact for questions and concerns about the program. They’re able to advise the student as to his/her academic progress and recommend resources, but they also provide emotional support and resources for managing non-academic issues that may be obstacles for the student, such as work-life balance, family issues, etc. In many cases, the mentor may help with career advice as well as academic guidance. They will guide the student through the research and dissertation process, often providing a more personal relationship.

PhD: The most common type of doctoral degree awarded in the U.S. The PhD prepares students to conduct research and contribute new knowledge in their field, with career outcomes usually focused on continued high-level research or entry to academia.

Professional Doctorate: A doctoral degree with a primary focus on applied research; considered a more career-focused degree. Professional doctorates will apply knowledge in the field rather than continuing research or teaching, or they will conduct research that will solve real-world problems in their specific field.

Qualitative research: Qualitative research focuses on examining a topic via cultural phenomena, human behavior, or belief systems. This type of research utilizes interviews, open-ended questions, or focus groups to gain insight into people’s thoughts and beliefs about certain behaviors and systems.

Quantitative research: Quantitative research involves data-gathering across a wide range of participants in order to uncover relationships, trends, or other characteristics across groups. This type of research involves statistical analysis of demographic, survey, experimental, or similar numerical data.

Research methodology: Working towards a PhD requires a dissertation, which requires research that studies a problem or gap in knowledge. There are several research methodologies available, but the most commonly used are the qualitative and quantitative methods (see above).

Residency: A transition step between coursework and the dissertation, residencies are meant to prepare the student for the dissertation work. Residency formats vary from school to school, but in general, there’s an in-person component that’s different from regular coursework. The content varies depending on your degree program, but students will likely learn how to identify a research problem and topic, conduct a literature review, develop a well-formed research question, select the correct research methodology and design, and begin developing a research strategy.

NOTE: Some universities may call this step colloquia. Additionally, it’s important to know that, depending on the context, a “residency” may have an entirely different function (such as a PsyD residency, which has different goals and objectives and is likely to include hands-on training in the field).

Scientific Merit Review (SMR): For a researcher to conduct ethical research, the research must demonstrate potential benefits that can offset potential risks to participants. Part of the IRB process is to consider the scientific merit of the study and determine if it has a reasonable risk/benefit ratio. The greater the risk a study presents, the more attentive the IRB must be to study design and scientific merit.

A study lacking in clear design or scientific merit has little benefit to justify participant risk. In contrast, a carefully designed study with clear potential for benefit may justify some degree of participant risk, presuming such risk is disclosed and minimized to the extent possible.

There are three criteria a dissertation must meet to receive approval on scientific merit:

  • Will the research advance the scientific knowledge base?
  • Will the research contribute to research theory?
  • Does the research meet certain hallmarks of good research methodology?

Terminal Degree: A PhD or professional doctorate are considered a terminal degree—the highest academic achievement that can be attained.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degrees in programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s doctoral degree programs.

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