Dissertation Conceptualization

Dissertation Conceptualization

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a research degree. The Intercultural Open University Foundation and the Universidad Azteca and the Universidad Central de Nicaragua requires that each PhD learner complete a significant scholarly work, the dissertation. Your dissertation gives you the opportunity to engage in scholarly inquiry and research and to make an original contribution to knowledge. Excellence in scholarship is the primary criterion for your dissertation.

A sound dissertation proposal will help you to design and conduct your research and to create your document. As you develop your proposal, you should become familiar with the approaches, methods, and critical questions asked by researchers in your particular
field(s) of study. You should keep in mind the following issues as you begin to formulate your proposal:

  • The form of your dissertation,
  • The design of your research project and the approach/methods you will use, and
  • Other considerations.

1. Forms for the Dissertation

Intercultural Open University Foundation accepts dissertations in several forms: a traditional dissertation, a creative/artistic research project, and a social action project. Regardless of form, the dissertation must add to the learning you have accomplished in your program. The dissertation gives you an opportunity to exercise your originality and creativity, so that your work will provide both new knowledge and new approaches to the larger scholarly community.
The dissertation also addresses the appropriate intellectual, cultural, and/or artistic traditions of your fields and demonstrates your grounding in the theoretical and critical scholarship in these fields. Finally, the dissertation demonstrates academic excellence and makes an original contribution to human knowledge.

Traditional Dissertation

A traditional dissertation is based on the collection and analysis of relevant data in the investigation of an empirical question, exploration of a phenomenon of scholarly interest, testing of a hypothesis, and /or examination of a generalization or theoretical proposition. It presents both new knowledge and new approaches to the larger scholarly community; it addresses the intellectual traditions of your fields, and demonstrates your knowledge of the theoretical and critical scholarship in these fields. Your dissertation must make an original contribution to human knowledge and demonstrate excellence in scholarship in your field of study. Your research methods should be appropriate to the nature of the scholarly inquiry, whether those methods are experimental, naturalistic, phenomenological, laboratory-based, field-based, or some other scientific or social scientific approach, including combinations of methods.
A traditional dissertation may also be conceptual, philosophical, critical, or theoretical. Not only will it demonstrate your knowledge of what your predecessors in the field have written, it will incorporate a demonstrably original concept, system or application. Dissertations of this type include: theory and knowledge constructions, intellectual histories, and studies of the history of ideas.

In a dissertation that takes the form of a biography or other historical, critical, or analytical inquiry, you will build upon earlier scholarship and explore new territory. If you choose to do a dissertation of this type, you are expected to properly document and critically appraise source materials; use both primary and secondary sources; and interpret individuals and events in suitable theoretical, historical, cultural, or other contexts. Your work must have implications for understanding the past and the present.

Artistic/Creative Project

If you choose to do doctoral research that takes the form of an artistic/creative project, your plan will explore something new, demonstrate seriousness of purpose, convey a sense of depth, and communicate your discoveries and insights. Your dissertation should provide clear evidence of your contribution to your chosen genre, furthering the work of other artists, past or present.

When you choose to do a creative/artistic dissertation, you become a scholar-artist. A pertinent, scholarly contextual essay(in dissertation format) must accompany your artistic/creative project. As an example, a research project based on poetry will include a contextual, scholarly component placing your poetry into a historical, literary, and/or theoretical context. The contextual essay will show how your work relates to relevant literature. The contextual essay may take the form of a research project in the arts related to the same genre as the artistic project itself. It may incorporate research methods related to the arts, such as historical methods, content analysis, theoretical and critical methods, or arts-based research. A project of this type does not automatically exclude quantitative methods.

Your contextual essay incorporates the elements of a traditional dissertation not addressed in the creative component of your PhD project. The essay clearly addresses the scholarly aspects of your work, including sections on methodology, the epistemological framework for your creative choices, and the method—within the conventions of your craft—used to bring your project to fruition. The essay describes the process of conceptualizing and creating within the internal context of your creativity and the external context of understanding the larger world.

Each contextual essay incorporates a literature review that places your work within the tradition, influences, and scholarly contexts of your chosen genre. The literature review creates the bridge from artist to scholar. It should demonstrate the interplay or dialogue between your work and the work of earlier and contemporary artists and theorists. The essay must include an analytic section in which you reflect, as scholar-artist, on the relationship of your created work to contemporary and past theory in the field.

Social Action Project

As with artistic/creative research projects, if you choose to do a dissertation that takes the form of a social action project, you must plan to explore something new, demonstrate seriousness of purpose, convey a sense of depth, and communicate your discoveries and insights. The project should further others’ understanding and social efforts, clearly bearing your stamp.

For a social action project you will develop and assess the impact of social structures, actions, or interventions in actual operation on the topics that you study. An evaluation of the project or program will include documentation of the results you achieved. If your study will result in a product, such as a handbook or training program, the product must be field-tested and evaluated, and results documented.

The most commonly chosen research designs for social action projects are: action research, action advocacy research, case studies, and evaluation research. You may incorporate qualitative and quantitative research methods or other methods appropriate to the research problem and your discipline.

When you choose a social action research project, you become a scholar-practitioner. As such, you will be expected to speak convincingly to two audiences: scholars and activists/practitioners. Practitioner knowledge complements and strengthens academic capacity for theory building and development.
A social action project describes the development and institution of the project and the scholarly context for it, addressing its methodological, historical, critical and theoretical implications. Depending on the design of your project, you may be able to incorporate both components in a single document; in other instances, a second text—a contextual essay—may be necessary.Your contextual essay addresses both audiences, incorporating the elements of a traditional dissertation that are not addressed in the presentation of the “social action.” Your contextual essay must clearly express—through careful presentation and analysis—how scholarly components are related to the social action. The contextual essay includes a section that clearly describes your research methodology, your reason for choosing it, and its application to the study.

Your literature review places your work in a context of scholarship associated with your project, showing the relationship between your project, those that preceded it, and the work of contemporary practitioners, activists and theorists. Theoretical underpinnings of the work might include: history, policy, strategies for collective action, issues of culture and identity, psychology, communication, and so on. It is important that you create the bridge from practitioner to scholar-practitioner toward a more critical and effective social engagement. Finally, the presentation of your social action project must contain an analytic section in which you reflect on the relationship of your project to contemporary and past theory in relevant field(s) of study.

2. Research Design and Methodology

In order to develop a sound proposal for your dissertation, you must be conversant in both general research methods and the research methods that characterize your field(s) of study.

A thorough grounding in research methods, both quantitative and qualitative and in the literature related to your area of inquiry, will prepare you to read and evaluate others’ research, to conduct your own PhD level research.

To achieve proficiency in research design and methodology, you need to develop proficiency in at least two research areas before you engage in your own research:

  • A “survey” of research methods will familiarize you with different types of qualitative and quantitative research methods including the skills needed to read and critique others’ research.
  • A focused reading program will develop proficiency in the specific research method(s) you intend to use for your research.
There are many types of research methods available to PhD learners at IOU Foundation, both traditional and nontraditional. The foundation recognizes that scholarship on the interdisciplinary margins may lead to new research concepts. Qualitative and quantitative and research methods acceptable in the PhD Program include, but are not limited to the following:
  • Case studies
  • Heuristic, phenomenological and hermeneutic research methods
  • Content analysis
  • Field studies
  • Ethnographic studies
  • Participant observation
  • Action and action-advocacy research
  • Evaluation research
  • Biographical, literary and historical research
  • Theoretical and conceptual bibliographic research
  • Feminist research methods
  • Arts-based research methods
  • Critical methods research (used in the arts)
  • Exploratory research

Regardless of which research design and methods you choose, your dissertation proposal must include an explicit, detailed discussion of the research methods you propose to use and a rationale for your selection of methods. Discussion of methods should be framed in such a way that other scholars will understand and can critically evaluate them.

If your project will involve the human participants/subjects, you will ensure their safety by designing a project in accordance with international standards, and the standards of your discipline.

3. Other Considerations

A. Preparing the Dissertation Proposal 
You will need to submit a detailed proposal for your dissertation that includes all of the following elements:

  • A description of your topic and why you have chosen it.
  • A statement of your research problem, goal or purpose, artistic challenge, or social action objective.
  • An explanation of the nature of the intended contribution to current scholarly knowledge in your field.
  • A preliminary literature review, including current research that reflects the range of disciplines needed to carry out your PDE.
  • A description of and rationale for the methods you will use to gather, analyze and interpret your research data, frame your theoretical inquiry, create your artwork, or accomplish your social action project.
  • A discussion of your competency in the proposed methodologies or a description of how you will acquire that competency.
  • A description of the content and form of your dissertation, including how it will be presented and its intended audience.
  • For social action or creative/artistic projects, a preliminary description of the scholarly contextual essay.
  • A preliminary working bibliography.

If you propose to develop a new theory and examine how it may be applied to research, you may present your dissertation proposal as a conceptual scheme, which includes:

  • A preliminary literature review.
  • The scholarly basis for the theoretical construct(s) you will use in developing a researchable question or hypotheses.

B. Guiding Questions/Principles for the Dissertation
Your dissertation is a challenging component of your doctoral program. It demonstrates to others in your field(s) and to the larger intellectual community that you have achieved excellence in scholarship and proficiency in your chosen fields and that you have made an original and significant contribution to knowledge.

Throughout the dissertation process—from the development of the proposal through completion of the document—keep the following guiding questions/principles in mind. You may find it helpful to use these guiding questions/principles as a checklist, referring to them throughout the process of developing your proposal and creating your dissertation.

General Guidelines

  1. Have I clearly stated the purposes of my study?
  2. Have I formulated and stated the problems, concerns, or the issues to be addressed?
  3. Is the scope of my work appropriate for doctoral study?
  4. Do the purposes of the study follow logically from the identified problems, concerns, or issues?
  5. Does the research question (hypotheses to be tested, model to be examined, phenomenon to be understood, artistic challenge to be considered) capture the
  6. purpose(s) of the study?
  7. Have I made an adequate case for the professional or theoretical importance of the study?
  8. Have I explicitly stated limitations and assumptions and discussed limitations on generalizability, where relevant, from a quantitative or qualitative perspective?
  9. Have I adequately defined, explained, analyzed, and critically discussed concepts with special or technical meanings?

Critical Review of Related Literature

  1. Is it systematically organized with clear relationships among topics?
  2. Is it thorough and synthetic?
  3. Does it incorporate a critical analysis and summary of the current status of the topics and, where necessary, an appropriate meta-analysis or other literature synthesis?
  4. Does it explore alternative conceptions of the problem, where appropriate?
  5. Does it present a reasonable argument for choosing one concept rather than another?
  6. Does it include materials from an appropriate array of sources, including scholarly journals, recent and classic texts in the field?

Design and Methodology

  1. Does the research strategy provide the structure and data necessary for addressing the research question(s) or problem(s)?
  2. Are the research strategy/design, data collection and data analysis/interpretation adequately described?
  3. Is there a clear rationale for the choice of research strategy/design?
  4. Is there a clear description of the artistic or social action project in relation to the process of discovery (research methods)?
  5. For an artistic project, e.g., dance, music, theater, film, creative writing, fine art, does a clearly articulated process of discovery support the theoretical framework, including appropriate processes for using relevant criticism?
  6. Are questions of scholarly rigor adequately addressed?
  7. How will validity and reliability of each measure, where relevant, be addressed?
  8. How will trustworthiness of the analytic process (for aggregated qualitative data) be addressed?
  9. If survey and other data gathering instruments will be used, are the concepts or constructs sufficiently operationalized?
  10. If qualitative ethnographic data will be gathered, are the procedures specified?
  11. Have issues related to population sampling (e.g. sample size, method of sampling, risk of Type I and Type II errors, generalizability of results) been addressed, when applicable?
  12. Will a pilot study be conducted (as appropriate) to test expectations on obtaining the data and to identify possible difficulties in data collection procedures?
  13. Has ethical treatment of human and/or animal subjects been addressed?
  14. If human subjects are involved, are there appropriate procedures for informed consent within ethical guidelines appropriate to the discipline?

Social Action and Creative/Artistic dissertations

  1. Have I accurately described situations and actions so that my project will improve the lives of those involved? [Social Action]
  2. Will my project address targeted populations and/or improve the quality of their lives? [Social Action]
  3. How will I measure and evaluate the effectiveness of my study? [Social Action]
  4. What elements make my project different from others’ work, and have I provided a rationale for those differences? [Social Action and Creative/Artistic]
  5. Have I provided a framework for my creative choices? [Creative/Artistic]


  1. Is the dissertation title appropriate to the subject? (Clear, concise, accurate)
  2. Does the field of study I have designated accurately reflect my program?
  3. Is each bibliographic entry consistent with the applicable style manual for my field?
  4. Is the document presented with consistent chapter and headings format, correct grammar and spelling, and free of typographical errors?

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