Proposal, research, and writing—those are the three phases of dissertation work.

A dissertation is the crowning achievement of a PhD program and a monumental achievement.

It’s also a daunting undertaking. For any large project like this, understanding the steps and sequence can make it less overwhelming to approach.

At Capella University, there are three primary steps required to complete a dissertation—topic and research plan approval, data collection and research, and writing. Capella’s system of 16 milestones within the steps is intended to give doctoral students a concrete format to help plan and complete their program.


Step 1: The Proposal

By the time you’ve finished doctoral coursework, you should have narrowed down your choice of topics and be ready to begin formal research. This step encompasses the development of your research plan and methodology, as well as obtaining approvals of your topic and research plan from your mentor, your committee, and the Institutional Review Board (IRB).

At Capella, this step is broken down into the following milestones and an estimate of time to complete each, with the caveat that the timing will vary by field and the type of research required. Also, many of the phases will overlap. For example, while waiting for your approvals, you should continue researching and reviewing the related literature.

  • Research Ethics Education (2 weeks)
  • Topic Approval (8 weeks)
  • Mentor-Approved Research Plan (12 weeks)
  • Committee Approval of Research Plan (12 weeks)
  • Scientific Merit Review (12 weeks)
  • IRB Approval (12 weeks)


Step 2: Data Collection and Research

This is the deep-dive portion of your research. You should plan for a conference call with your mentor and committee before fully investing your time in research, both to present your by-now-approved proposal and to get some advice and guidance on approaching the research. Then the research itself begins. You will likely be in frequent contact with your mentor during this phase.

  • Data-Collection Conference Call (2 weeks)
  • Collect Data (12 weeks)


Step 3: Writing

Now is the time to take the learnings from your research and formalize them. 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.)

Just as in Step 1, there is likely to be some overlap here, as you may submit your first two chapters to your mentor for approval, and then begin writing chapter three while waiting for feedback and approval for the first two chapters.

  • Chapters 1-2 and Mentor Approval (12 weeks)
  • Chapters 3-5 and Mentor Approval (36 weeks)
  • School Approval of Dissertation (2 weeks)
  • Format Editing (2 weeks)
  • Final Conference Call (2 weeks)
  • Final Manuscript Approval (2 weeks)
  • Submit Manuscript for Publication (2 weeks)
  • Dean’s Final Approval (2 weeks)


Whatever step or milestone you’re on, one of the key factors to success is time management. Every step requires considerable work. Breaking down each step (as Capella does with the milestones) is a good approach, as is diligently scheduling time in every week to continue working. It may feel overwhelming to contemplate the entire process at once, but bundling it into smaller goals makes it become less daunting.

What’s more, as you progress through the milestones, your hard work will begin to pay off as you see the prospect of earning your PhD become a reality, and know that you’re contributing knowledge to your chosen field. Hard work, yes, but followed by an immense feeling of satisfaction when you reach the end.


Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and psychology to nursing. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs.