April 11, 2006 Features

From Program Completion to Dissertation Defense

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An important question to keep in mind throughout doctoral study is: "Why am I doing this?" When advising entering doctoral students, I always ask them to write down their reason(s) for undertaking doctoral study and suggest they keep this brief document handy as a reminder of why they chose to return to the classroom and to enter the laboratory to conduct basic and/or clinical research. It also comes in handy at 2 a.m. when you're still up studying for a statistics exam while your partner is in the other room sleeping away.

The other question I often suggest is, "If others have been able to do this, why can't I?" Many doctoral students in communication sciences and disorders are practicing clinicians who have experienced the autonomy of being working professionals. Entering the classroom again can be a difficult transition for some, and an exciting process for others. Students will need to focus on their goals and accept that there is still much to learn.

Completing the Coursework

Once accepted into a doctoral program, you'll be faced with three major phases to tackle: coursework, required comprehensive examinations, and the dissertation.

Recent trends tell us that making it through the coursework may not be easy for some, as we are more often seeing "nontraditional" doctoral students on our campuses. The increasing number of part-time students, students who are single heads-of-households, and students who are from racial/ethnic minorities must be paid attention to if our doctoral programs are to move forward.

ASHA's Joint Ad Hoc Committee on the Shortage of PhD Students and Faculty, 2005, found that 67% of doctoral students are full-time and that 77% entered doctoral programs with master's degrees (11% in other fields; see PhD Program Survey Results). The most recent data suggest that about 12% of all students enrolled in research doctoral programs are from a racial/ethnic minority group (CAPCSD, 2001). Reductions in funding for doctoral studies coupled with increasing cost of living make it very difficult for many interested in pursuing a doctorate to do so on a full-time basis.

During the initial stages of coursework, the student should look into developing a plan of study (Ezell, 2002). This plan will serve as a guide to address strengths and weaknesses as well as identify interest areas for further study. As individuals, we enter doctoral programs for different reasons and with different goals. Some students enter programs without much of an idea of what they'd like to study; others enter with a clear idea of what they'd like to research and why. The latter often choose the doctoral program based on available faculty expertise. The plan of study will allow you to schedule required coursework and electives or seminars that may be more suitable to your special interests.

It is during this early phase that a doctoral mentor is usually identified. Depending on the university, your mentor may be within or outside the department. In most cases, a primary on-site faculty person must also be chosen to guide you through your university's requirements and deadlines. This person may serve as your advisor and may or may not also be your mentor.

Most doctoral programs allow up to 10 years for completion of the degree, with coursework usually taking two to three years of this time, depending on full or part-time status. The remaining time is usually spent in the laboratory, acquiring research experience, and/or in the classroom, attaining teaching experience. Concurrently, doctoral students are researching a topic for their dissertation-the final test of doctoral worthiness.

Completing the Comprehensive Exams

Every doctoral program has a different set of requirements, including the type, scope, and design of comprehensive exams. In some universities, doctoral students first pass a general exam, followed by a more narrowly focused exam, followed by the ultimate exam: the dissertation defense.

Make sure you find out which exams you need to take, and talk to as many people as you can regarding preparation and scope of the material to be tested. At this point you'll probably be in class with students who have made it through the process and so can advise you well. Listen to as many perspectives as possible and incorporate whatever suggestions work for you.

Dissertation: Making Important Decisions

The doctoral dissertation is a scientific study that demonstrates the candidate's ability to conduct research in a specific area of interest. The dissertation is not intended to be ground-breaking and must be conducted and completed within a realistic timeframe.

Be direct with your mentor as you design your study. Your study may be preliminary, with further research to be conducted later (e.g., once you've completed your degree). Start thinking in terms of general topics, then narrow it down to an area of interest within that topic.

Once you've narrowed it down as much as you can, it's time to ask tough questions. Many questions you'd like to answer may require elaborate research designs to answer; some may require longitudinal studies. These are not good questions to tackle at the dissertation stage.

So far, it all sounds simple. Just choose a topic, select an area within that topic, raise some questions and design a study to answer them. It might be easy this far, but the design stage can be a battle. In my own experience, I found it very helpful to discuss my design with people outside my area of interest. For example, I discussed my "dysphagia study" design with classmates in child language and in audiology. The comments my classmates made were very helpful and made me re-think some aspects of my study and its design and helped me recognize additional questions.

Once your design is approved by the committees your institution requires, including the Institutional Review Board, it's time to start collecting data. This is the fun part. Learning how to do research is probably one of the reasons you chose to pursue a PhD, and this is the stage where you get to do it, as the primary investigator and not as the research assistant.

Then it's off to some faraway place to write. By now you're friendly with some statistician who has helped you crunch your data in unexpected ways, and so you have many results available to you. Now you need to make sense of them, and explain it all, in narrative form. This is the dissertation. Finally, to have all your data available and be able to put your personal and professional life on hold, to go to a secluded island and just write…

Yes, it is a fantasy. No, life cannot go on hold for you to write your dissertation, but you certainly need to figure out how you're going to do it. It may be scheduling writing time in your weekly agenda, or it very well may be going away somewhere just to write. You'll know what you need when you get there.

And then the big day arrives: the dissertation defense. This is when your committee interrogates you for several hours to ensure you "know what you're talking about." It usually includes a small presentation, followed by a question-and-answer period. Depending on your institution, this can be a very formal process, or a more informal one. In all cases, the end is signified by the committee making the final decision about your skills, presentation, and worthiness of being granted the PhD degree.

The words we all want to hear when we're called back into the room are, "Congratulations, Doctor."

Luis F. Riquelme, is an assistant professor at Long Island University/Brooklyn and director of Riquelme & Associates, PC. Contact him by e-mail at luisslp@aol.com.

cite as: Riquelme, L. F. (2006, April 11). From Program Completion to Dissertation Defense. The ASHA Leader.


ASHA Joint Ad Hoc Committee on Shortage of PhD Students and Faculty

Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (2001). Demographic survey of undergraduate and graduate programs

Ezell, H. K. (2002). Preparation for the research doctoral degree. Adapted for the Web from Guide to Success in Doctoral study and Faculty Work.


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