A dissertation is a written document that summarizes research. It is the final step of a PhD program, the culmination of a student’s doctoral studies and successful completion of the comprehensive exam.

“The dissertation is a source of pride for doctoral students,” says Dana Gonzales, a research chair at Capella University. “In many cases, it’s likely that their future career path depends on it.”

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


From Student to Scholar

Dissertation work varies by program. (Not all doctoral programs require a dissertation, but all PhD programs do, Gonzales notes.) Regardless of the field of study, research will be a large component. Initial coursework will help 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.

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; it’s a much more intensive form of investigation and writing than has previously been done. “PhD candidates will be prepared for this step through their coursework and residencies,” says Gonzales, 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). Gonzales outlines the chapters this way:

  1. This is a brief look at the research question, containing a preview from the subsequent chapters.
  2. This chapter explains what types of research were done, including a literature review.
  3. What type of research methodology did the student use? What form(s) of data analysis?
  4. The PhD candidate details the research results.
  5. What do the research results mean? Where do the conclusions fit in with the existing literature and research? Is it what the student expected? What are areas for future research?

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.

Gonzales recommends that pre-dissertation students review completed dissertations in the field to get a feel for the depth of research and discussion and see how the chapters work together. And remember—someday, it may be your dissertation being read!


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 programs.