A dissertation is a written document that summarizes research.

It is the final step of a PhD program, and the culmination of a student’s doctoral studies.

“The dissertation is a source of pride for doctoral students,” Dinah Manns, PhD, faculty chair at Capella University, says. “The dissertation is often a compilation of academic and practical knowledge, and in many cases, it can be the student’s first publication.”

Here, Manns explains the content and format of this important piece of scholarship.

From Student to Scholar

The major objective of any doctoral program is to assist a student in becoming an independent researcher, and a dissertation is a large part of that. “Not all doctoral programs require a dissertation, but all PhD programs do,” Manns notes. “Dissertation work varies by program.”

Initial coursework helps narrow down the research topic and develop it into something that will add to the body of knowledge in the chosen field. Sometimes the research contributes something entirely new to the field, and other times it expands or deepens previous studies.

By the time the doctoral coursework is finished, the topic should be selected and ready for formal research. At this point the student develops a proposal, which encompasses the research plan and methodology as it pertains to the selected topic.

At Capella, once the proposal has been approved by the student’s mentor, committee, and the Institutional Review Board (IRB), the research and analysis begin. The dissertation is largely an independent project that essentially turns the student into a scholar; they’ll dive more deeply into research and writing then they have done before.

“Capella PhD candidates will be prepared for this step through their coursework and residency,” says Manns, noting that they will have learned how to approach this critical phase as part of their pre-dissertation learning.

Format of the Dissertation

The dissertation is a much deeper exploration of a research topic than a traditional essay would be. It’s in the form of a book, with at least five chapters (some universities require a sixth chapter in the form of a recap of the previous chapters). Manns outlines the chapters this way:

  1. Overview. This is a brief look at the research question, containing a preview of the subsequent chapters.
  2. Literature review. The literature review is an extensive critique and synthesis of the current literature in the field.
  3. Methodology. This section contains details of the procedures and methods used to collect and analyze data.
  4. Analysis. The PhD candidate details how the data analysis applies to the collected data.
  5. Findings. This section provides interpretation of the data and comparison to existing literature, as well as future research possibilities.

The order of the chapters follows a logical progression in which PhD candidates build on their theories and explain research choices in detail before coming to the final chapter that gives weight to the value of the study itself.

Manns recommends that pre-dissertation students review completed dissertations in the field and research various types of methodology and design in the field as well. “That will help give them a feel for the depth of research and discussion, and see how the chapters work together,” Manns explains. “And remember—someday, it may be your dissertation being read!”

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