Before I discuss “standards,” I want to mention what two other researchers have to say about the purpose of the dissertation. Barbara Lovitts and Ellen Wert state that “The dissertation shows mastery of the field, that the student is ready to be a professional in and contribute to the discipline.” They go on the say: “It is the capstone of the graduate education and research experience, a rite of passage from student to professional. It is a ‘union card’ or credential for admission to the profession.” Their book, Developing Quality Dissertations in the Social Sciences: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Achieving Excellence, should be required reading for all dissertation students. I suggest that all my clients have it available so that they can see the differences between outstanding, very good, acceptable, and unacceptable dissertations.

There are many issues, problems, and the challenges that dissertation students face. Without a doubt the one area that confounds students is “changing standards.” There are high expectations and standards which continue to increase as one moves through the dissertation process. This is where many students have difficulties. You wrote term papers for all your courses which were accepted – probably with a grade of “A” or “B.” Now, at the Proposal stage those same writing standards are no longer acceptable. The primary reason for this is that ultimately your dissertation becomes part of the accrediting evaluation of the university at some time in the future. Your dissertation will always be on file and available for future accrediting teams to review and critique. Term papers are almost never recorded, saved, and shared with the accrediting team.

After you complete the Concept Paper or Prospectus, you are generally asked to convert and expand it into a Proposal. Again, the standards go up, even higher than those preliminary documents. At most schools the full Proposal includes chapters one (introduction), two (literature review), and three (methodology). This document will need to be submitted, revised, and re-submitted numerous times. The level of writing and critical analysis required by the faculty is even higher at this stage than at earlier ones; yet the Proposal still represents only part of the dissertation. I like to make a very important point here: submission of various editions of your Proposal is not an endless process. In other words, sometimes universities put a limit on how many times a student can present their Proposal for review. I’ve talked to a number of doctoral students who seem to take the approach that they will continue to re-submit their Proposal revisions until ultimately it satisfies the university. No school wants to go through an endless parade of revision after revision after revision. This is not what they’re looking for. They are hoping that the Proposal meets their ultimate standards of excellence and that the student can demonstrate high quality writing, critical thinking, and APA research tone as they create their dissertation design.

Some universities only ask for a Proposal that addresses a few basic topics such as the problem, purpose, basic literature, research questions and/or hypotheses, methodology, and data collection procedures. I call this a “mini-proposal” because it is usually only about 20 to 25 pages. This shortened Proposal still requires a high level of conceptualization, organization, and writing.

Many schools require a Proposal that includes complete chapters one (introduction), two (literature review), and three (methodology). The standards of excellence at this stage are higher that those accepted for the Concept Paper or Prospectus. It is important that you understand that expectations and standards increase as you proceed through the dissertation process. If your chairperson is working with you and giving you feedback, that is a good sign that he/she cares about you and your research. The more often they give you a critique the more emotional investment they have in steering you through to completion. When you strive to do your best you are not only improving your dissertation, you are also creating a stronger bond with your chairperson. That is what you want. This is a subtle but powerful change in your relationship with your chair and by association, the committee. They are becoming more supportive and more vested in your success. It is still your responsibility to do the work and meet the university’s dissertation standards. But your strong work ethic is going to impress them. I have shared this reminder with many clients over the years. When you complete your dissertation and graduate, everybody wins. Obviously you win because you got want you came for – your degree. Your committee wins because they now have another student they have sheparded through. The university wins because they have another graduate, who will be a walking advertisement for their school. You are their graduate.    

The next major event in the dissertation process is the Institution Review Board (IRB) application. Recently, universities all seem to make the IRB the one document that has even higher standards than the dissertation proposal. Why is this true? The IRB application is filled with extremely focused sections and questions. Compared to the dissertation, it is very short. Shorter documents generally require higher levels of writing. Although the primary purpose of this document is to address the protection of human subjects, all aspects of the dissertation will be evaluated for accuracy and appropriateness. It will be judged independently from the Proposal, even though everything in it is based on the dissertation. After a few revisions it is usually approved. With the IRB application finally “blessed,” you are approved to start collecting data. Just expect that the standards for this document are much higher than the Proposal.

Data collection may take a few weeks or months. After you have all the data recorded and it has been analyzed, you are ready to write your Results chapter and the Discussion and Conclusions chapter. After numerous revisions these are also approved. One would think at this point in the process that all that is required is for the completed manuscript to be submitted to the committee and the oral defense scheduled.

Unfortunately this is usually not the case. The committee and/or the dean usually will go back and review all the chapters. They will almost always ask for changes, corrections, and/or additions. You may ask yourself at this question: “Why am I being required to go back to chapters one, two, and three? Those were previously approved months or years ago.” The painful fact is that the “changing standards” for dissertation completion have gone up throughout this process. Initially the first few chapters were not looked at as closely as they are in the final stage. The chair and/or the dean are looking at the completed manuscript with fresh eyes. Your manuscript is getting much closer scrutiny because it is almost finalized and therefore the standards for acceptance are much higher.

It is important to remember that after you complete your dissertation one or two copies will remain permanently on file with the university. As I mentioned earlier, your dissertation will be used as evidence of academic excellence during the university’s next accreditation visit. If you are attending a small or private university, these schools understand that accreditation is required for their ultimate long-term existence. This is why they will insist on higher and higher standards for your dissertation until they are convinced it will be acceptable if your dissertation is one of the few randomly selected for examination during the next accreditation evaluation.

Along the way you have received guidance and feedback from your chairperson, committee members, coaches, consultants, and/or editors. All of these individuals have assisted directly or indirectly in helping you to get to the final stage, the completion of your dissertation. The ultimate responsibility for appropriate academic standards belongs to you. The latest estimate I have found is that only about 50% of all doctoral students complete their dissertations and graduate. You want to be one of those completers. You want to be Dr. ____________.

To get to the final stage and have your dissertation approved, you have to embrace the concept of “standards of excellence.” If you have enough patience, energy, and persistence, regardless of how often you are asked to revise any and all parts of your dissertation, you will succeed and earn your doctorate.

A few years ago my client, Joe, sent me a message complaining about the constant revisions he was forced to make. Here was my response.

Yes, it is frustrating to continually revise your manuscript. Here are two insights that may help:

Number one, the further you go in this process; the higher the standards. This is true for one simple reason: as you get closer to completion, you get closer to an “accepted” document. This document, your dissertation, will represent the university during future accreditation evaluations. Only excellent dissertations assure the continued accreditation of the university.

Number two, I understand the difficulties in conducting reviews/critiques. I do it all the time. In reviewing a manuscript, all aspects of the work can not be fully comprehended simultaneously. What is accepted today may not be okay tomorrow because the evaluator is looking at your work with “fresh eyes.” This is what your chairperson is attempting to do. He or she, not only is considering what they think of your manuscript, but they also understand that they are representing the university in this process. And the university has expectations and requirements.

All this being said, writing a dissertation includes many things. But probably the most under-appreciated and misunderstood aspects of doing a dissertation is that it is a “process,” a process of writing, revising, writing, revising, until an acceptable “high-standard” manuscript is approved and defended.

I hope these comments help you better understand what you’re going through and encourages you to see that it is “par for the course.” Expectations and “changing standards” continue to increase during this process until the final draft of your dissertation is accepted. You can do it, when you maintain these two vital characteristics: a steady work ethic and persistence.

What I wrote to Joe is applicable to all dissertation students. There are changing standards of excellence that are applied to your writing as you get closer to dissertation completion.


Barbara E. Lovitts and Ellen L. Wert. (2009). Developing Quality Dissertations in the Social Sciences: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Achieving Excellence. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Recommended citation for this report:

Wargo, W.G. (2014). A.I.C. Report #23, Changing Standards for Dissertation Completion. Menifee, CA: Academic Information Center.

If you have questions or want additional information about this report, please contact me at or call 951-301-5557. Thank you.

Rev. 8-14


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