Guide to Writing a Ph.D. Dissertation

An Independent Research Project for Ph.D. Candidates

A dissertation, also known as a doctoral thesis, is the final required part of completing a student's doctoral study. Undertaken after a student completes coursework and passes a comprehensive examination, the dissertation is the final hurdle in completing a PhD or other doctoral degree. The dissertation is expected to make a new and creative contribution to a field of study and to demonstrate the student's expertise.

In social science and science programs, the dissertation usually requires conducting empirical research.

Elements of a Strong Dissertation

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a strong medical dissertation relies heavily on the creation of a specific hypothesis that can be either disproven or supported by data collected by independent student research. Further, it must also contain several key elements starting with an introduction to the problem statement, conceptual framework and research question as well as references to literature on already published on the topic. 

A dissertation must also be relevant (and proven to be such) as well as capable of being researched independently by the student. Though the required length of these dissertations varies by school, the governing body overseeing the practice of medicine in the United States standardizes this same protocol.

Also included in the dissertation is the methodology for research and data collection as well as instrumentation and quality control. A stated section on population and sample size for the study is imperative to defending the thesis once it comes time to do so.

Like most scientific publications, the thesis must also contain a section of published results and an analysis of what this entails for the scientific or medical community.

The discussion and conclusion sections let the review committee know that the student understands the full implications of his or her work as well as its real-world application to their field of study (and soon, professional work). 

Approval Process

Although students are expected to conduct the bulk of their research and pen the entire dissertation on their own, most graduate medical programs provide an advisory and review committee to the student upon starting their studies. Through a series of weekly reviews over their course of schooling, the student and his or her advisor hone in on the hypothesis of the dissertation before they submit it to the review committee to begin work on writing the thesis. 

From there, the student can take as long or as short of a time as they need to complete their dissertation, often resulting in students who have finished their entire courseload achieving ABD status ("all but dissertation"), just shy of receiving their full Ph.D. In this interim period, the student — with the occasional guidance of his or her advisor —  is expected to research, test and write a dissertation that can be defended in a public forum. 

Once the review committee accepts the finalized draft of the thesis, the doctoral candidate will then get the chance to publicly defend his or her statements.

If they pass this test, the dissertation is submitted electronically to the school's academic journal or archive and the candidate's full doctoral degree is issued once the final paperwork has been submitted.