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Demystifying the Dissertation Journey: Helping Doctoral Students Succeed

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Published on: 02/02/2023
Last Updated: 05/12/2023
6 minute read

To many doctoral students, the design, implementation, and publishing of the dissertation seems like an overwhelming series of formidable tasks. Just when students feel they can see the light at the end of the tunnel as they complete their studies, many fear that it’s just an oncoming train! It is true that there is the possibility of completing the units required to graduate a doctorate program without ever completing the dissertation, which leads to the dreaded label of ABT, ‘All But Dissertated’. However this typically occurs when the student has run out of time and out of extensions. Thankfully, this is the exception. 

The reality is that doctoral students at Alliant International University have a number of safety barriers that help guide you towards completing your dissertation. One of the first challenges out of the gate is not knowing what doctoral level study to even pursue. It’s challenging for many students to identify a substantial doctoral level problem that qualifies as an acceptable quantitative, qualitative, or hybrid study. What many students don’t realize is they can use existing published dissertations to help them identify a well aligned topic to research. Most published dissertations have a section that most students don’t know about. This section typically covers what the researcher would have done to expand the scope of their chosen and approved study if they had been given more time. A student should conduct due diligence to see if the recommendations in the published study were already expanded upon yet, however typically these gaps still exist, providing a terrific opportunity for new doctoral candidates to use that as a baseline for his or her own study. 

Doctoral candidates often fear being alone in the process with no life guard on duty, however the reality is students will pitch their study concept to a number of aligned SME (Subject Matter Expert) professors who have already earned their doctorate degrees and are very familiar with the dissertation publication process. Students will have both a primary chair, and a secondary reader. Both of these experts will be available for questions, advice, and critical feedback along the way. Usually the faculty selected have a number of years of experience in the research subject matter providing excellent perspective for the student. 

IRB and Dissertation Document:  Writing a dissertation is similar to writing a research thesis at a graduate level, however it’s much more involved in terms of length, breadth, and depth. Extensive research is required to expand on a required literature review which helps build out the citations and references required to build the foundation of the study. The actual data collection and research analysis of the study will not even begin until the literature review is complete, the introduction and problem are defined, and the IRB (Institutional Review Board) has granted approval for the study to commence.  Receiving IRB approval is a crucial step in the research process when human subjects are involved, and dates all the way to the Nuremberg Trials of Nazis in World War II who conducted   disallowable acts on human subjects in their research. This led to the formation of research ethics that help monitor, moderate, and ensure human subjects are protected in any research study at an international level. 

A Tradition of Useful Feedback all the Way:  Prior to submitting for IRB approval, doctoral students will provide their dissertation committee with a presentation of the problem and proposed research. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to receive needed critical feedback to refine and fine-tune the dissertation chapters one and two in preparation to IRB submission. This feedback comes from lengthy experience from the committee members having had previous students submit to IRB, and the types of questions and issues that will be presented by the IRB in response. Previously it could take several months to receive an IRB decision, however many process improvements have been made by the IRB where the turn around time is typically closer to three weeks on average to receive a response. These responses are usually very detailed, and typically provided as a list of change requirements that need addressed prior to resubmission for final approval by the IRB.

Helpful Guidelines:  There are helpful guidelines that your dissertation committee will encourage you to apply continuously as well. These helpful suggestions include starting early, setting goals, establishing a plan, writing often and regularly, managing and prioritizing your time, making time for your dissertation, staying motivated, practicing good healthy self-care, seeking feedback, and staying organized, among others. One of the most important lessons you’ll learn is to make a plan, plan to work, and to work the plan. It may sound simple, however it’s filled with complex nuance that one must consider. For instance, maintaining a continuously recurring block of time for writing is essential. Even if you hit a roadblock, write anyways. Many students think they’ve bombed the process and failed if they don’t know what to write or get it wrong. What they either forget or don’t realize is that they’re in a continuous feedback loop with their committee. They will submit what they’ve written for guidance and feedback. This will act as a means to gain a True North compass bearing to stay focused, on topic, and with an end-state goal in mind. Students must gain the mindset that nothing written is set in stone, and will change through multiple iterative adjustments until the writing is spot on aligned. 

Writing Style:  Finally, students should spend time becoming comfortable with the writing style required by the university. Alliant International University uses APA style (American Psychological Association). Spend time gaining a comprehensive familiarity with APA style for references, citations, figures, indentions, formatting, etc. This will give you a substantial boost initially and helps ensure your focus is where it should be, on the actual study and research rather than the formatting and logistics.  For some, a dissertation may seem like an exhausting slug of a climb to the highest lofty peaks that are simply beyond reach and unattainable. However, for others, who prepare in advance and take this guidance to heart, they won’t find that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. Instead, they will find an amazing breath-taking view at the end of their dissertation journey filled with grand horizons and double rainbows. In other words, they will have successfully published their dissertational research and earned the title of “Doctor”. 


Dr. Aaron M. Wester is a professor and Coordinator for the Master of Science in Data Analytics (MSDA) program for the California School of Management and Leadership (CSML). Dr. Wester holds a BS in Business Management, an MBA in Technology Management, and a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, Information Studies and Technology from the University of Phoenix. He has led innovative global analytics and business intelligence initiatives for clients including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Paypal, Sony, Intel, T-Mobile, Apple, The Walt Disney Company, Intuit, Intel, Allstate, Anthem, NBC News, Bonneville International, and a number of other Fortune 500 organizations. Dr. Wester has previously instructed at Brigham Young University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Tianjin University in China. Dr. Wester is a published author and public speaker. His research interests include calm analytics strategies in Internet-of-Things (IoT) device constructs, organic owned media optimization tactics and behavioral user engagement influences in predictive machine learning environments.

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