A Guide for Planning a PhD Dissertation

Page content

As a copy editor who specializes in academic manuscripts, I have found that nothing is more frustrating for a doctoral student than the completion of the dissertations. However, as a PhD student, you can reduce the chances that you will not finish your PhD dissertation on time by following some important advice about understanding the purpose of the dissertation, choosing the right dissertation chair, and properly planning the individual chapters of your study.

The Purpose of the Dissertation

Not surprisingly, most doctoral students see the dissertation as another hurdle to overcome in completion of a PhD program. Unlike coursework and other pedagogical hurdles, the dissertation is a chance to prove to the university, your dissertation chair, and your committee that you have made the transformation from student to independent scholar.

The dissertation, therefore, is the proving ground that once completed, gives you the right to be called a doctor in your field. Your professors are looking for as much evidence as possible that they have not made an error in raising you to the status of doctoral candidate. By the time you finish the dissertation you will have quelled any doubt that you are ready to go out into the world as an independent research, scholar, and thinker who has the tools necessary to create new knowledge. This is why the dissertation is long, difficult, and the most likely stage in the doctoral process where you will fail to complete the program.

Selecting the Right Dissertation Chair

The dissertation process is as much a social one as it is a rite of passage. Choosing the right chair is one of the most important decisions you can make to help get you through the dissertation and ultimately through the PhD program.

Although the chair’s job is to make sure that you produce a quality final product, there is no guarantee that he/she knows how to do that. Just like being a good basketball player doesn’t necessarily make you a good basketball coach, being a professor, no matter how experienced, does not necessarily make a good dissertation chair.

Your chair must be someone with whom you can work over a period of one to several years. You should ask yourself the following questions about the person you want to chair your dissertation:

  1. Does this professor have a good track record of seeing former students through the dissertation process?
  2. Does this professor have the time to see me through the dissertation?
  3. Does this professor believe that to do his/her job he/she must constantly be critical of every little thing I do?

The last one is the most important. Some professors faking their way through as a dissertation chair put the PhD student through too much agony and chaos by challenging every decision the student makes. Look to someone with experience and excellent referrals from past students before you make your final dissertation chair choice.

Planning the Dissertation

Your dissertation may move from chapter 1 to chapter 5 but that’s not the best way to complete the dissertation itself. Your best bet is to start with chapter 1 (introduction) and then immediately proceed to data collect and analysis to see whether you have good results to report in the dissertation.

Then, building off chapter 1 and your proposal, complete chapter 2 (literature review), chapter 3 (current study), chapter 4 (results), and chapter 5 (discussion of findings). By doing the data analysis earlier than you might expect, you can proceed knowing that you won’t have to rethink your model, hypotheses, etc. had the data not supported your research questions.


As a copy editor of many dissertations, I have seen a number of mistakes made by PhD student in the completion of their programs. Many times, my clients don’t come to me until after everything has started to fall apart. Using the information in this PhD dissertation guide, you may be able to avoid some of the most common errors made by doctoral candidates and experience a smoother transition from student to independent scholar.