As a doctoral chair, it is my responsibility to help guide students through their doctoral dissertation process. In order to receive a doctorate through online courses, there is a series of courses that students take prior to the time they begin writing the proposal for their dissertation. Each online program varies to some degree. Based on the two programs I have either taken or taught, I can say that they were pretty similar. The following is what students might expect from an online doctoral program.
Students must first complete a series of online courses that address their field of study. For example, I received a degree that is titled: Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration with a Specialization in Management. That means that those initial courses included a specific focus on business management. Some students may combine their Master’s with their Doctorate. Assuming that students have already taken the thirty or so credits required for a Master’s degree, there may be another 10 or 15 courses required in the field of specialization. In this case, it would be to study business management. These courses are not that different from taking graduate-level classes.
After finishing those courses, students begin taking courses that are more specific to the proposal and final dissertation. It is difficult to state how many courses may be required at this point. Some students require fewer courses than others based on how much work they complete within the scheduled time for each course. I have had some students make it through the dissertation in the process by taking only three dissertation courses. Others may take a dozen or more courses to finish. It depends upon how much students have done on their own prior to beginning the doctoral courses, how quickly they work, and the type of research they do.
The steps in the doctoral process include writing the proposal (which describes how the study will be performed, aka chapters 1-3 of the final dissertation), obtaining proposal approval, doing the research, writing the final dissertation (updating Chapters 1-3 and writing Chapters 4-5), obtaining approval for the dissertation, defending the dissertation in an oral presentation, and finally having the doctoral chair, doctoral committee, and dean give a final seal of approval.
The hardest part generally seems to be writing the proposal or the first three chapters. This is difficult because students have to learn how to write in a very specific and scholarly way. There are templates that may provide helpful information regarding alignment, content requirements, and formatting. Students work very closely with their chair during this time. Students must also have at least two committee members. Some schools, like the one I attended, required an additional outside member to review the dissertation. All members of the committee must have a doctorate.
Students usually work strictly with the chair until Chapters 1-3 are ready to submit. At that point, the committee looks at the work to give input and make suggestions. After all adjustments are made, the proposal goes through several stages of approval. Students may need to submit more than once if there are changes requested. This is commonly the case. Once the proposal is approved, students can perform the study, and eventually write the last two chapters that describe the results. This final document goes through the chair and committee approval process again, and eventually must meet with the dean’s approval. The last step is for students to defend the dissertation in an oral presentation. Usually that is the easiest part of the process because students know their study inside and out by that time. It takes some students just a few years to go through the process. Others take much longer. Some never finish. It is a very difficult process. However, in the end, it is worth it.