Higher Learning Commission

Doctoral Dissertation Process: Streamlining for Quality, Consistency and Clarity

Michigan School of Professional Psychology

Overview of the Quality Initiative

The Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (PsyD) program at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology was approved by the Higher Learning Commission in 2000. In 2002 the first degrees were awarded to 8 PsyD candidates. The degree consists of coursework, practicum and internship training, and culminates in the dissertation defense. Since the inception of the program in 2000, 157 PsyD degrees have been awarded.

There have been significant alterations in the PsyD program since its inception. The faculty are responsible for monitoring the curriculum, clinical training standards and research requirements of the degree and have made revisions to the program as necessary in order to keep pace with best practices and the changing needs of the profession. New faculty have been hired to accommodate changes such as increased enrollment and curricular modifications. The school has actively pursued American Psychological Association (APA) accreditation and designation by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards/National Register (ASPPB/NR), receiving ASPPB/NR designation in April 2014.

Although retention in the doctoral program has been strong, with the majority of students completing dissertation after progressing through all other components, an increase in the number of students who seemed to flounder in the dissertation process was identified. As a full-time program, the average time to complete the program is 4-5 years. In 2010, the faculty became concerned about the number of students who needed 6-7 years to complete. The program administration noted a lack of clarity among students and faculty related to the dissertation process. In addition, dissertation quality was mentioned as a concern in a site visit report from the American Psychological Association (APA) dated August, 2013. Specifically, student literature reviews were cited as needing improvement, and the site visitors expressed concern over the small number of dissertations using quantitative and mixed methods research models available for evaluation. Although historically the program has emphasized qualitative research methodology in recent years there has been an increase in students employing quantitative and mixed method research models. Regardless of the research methodology, the program is concerned about time to completion, clarity of process, and quality.

The dissertation process undergoes continual assessment and modification as necessary, with changes made to evaluation forms and processes, requirements, and committee credentials, all of which are incorporated into the dissertation manual that is published each year. However, motivated by program administration’s increased awareness of the need for a consistent application of standards and procedures, coupled with concern regarding student matriculation through to graduation, a formal analysis of the dissertation process began in the fall of 2013.

The dissertation improvement initiative, which was started by the doctoral faculty in the fall of 2013, has been identified as the Quality Initiative for MiSPP. It will consist of a step-by-step analysis of the dissertation process from its introduction to doctoral students through the defense meeting and completion. As a result of the analysis, process improvements will be made to address clarity of process, quality of the end product, and successful and timely completion of the doctoral degree. Measurable outcomes of this process will be: 1) increased clarity for students, faculty and committee members; 2) improvement in the quality of literature review; 3) demonstration of quality in final published dissertation that demonstrates adherence to the research methodology model selected; and 4) successful and timely completion of the dissertation defense and final dissertation.

Sufficiency of the Initiative’s Scope and Significance

Dissertation is the culminating requirement of the doctoral program. The PsyD is a post-masters degree program, consisting of coursework, clinical training (1800 hours of practicum training and 2000 hours of internship), and research that is conducted, presented and defended in the dissertation. The successful completion of these three components fulfill the requirements of the degree and the program’s mission, which is to educate and train individuals to become ethical and reflective practitioner-scholars with the competencies necessary to serve diverse populations as professional psychologists.

Doctoral students proceed through the program as a cohort, attending full-time. They are enrolled in and complete all coursework in the first 3 years of the program. Clinical training begins with practicum in the 2nd and 3rd years of the program which is completed in conjunction with coursework. The internship is in the 4th year, followed by dissertation. There is some variation in enrollment options; students may choose a part-time internship that spans 2 years, or a full-time internship completed in 1 year. Students may work on the dissertation while enrolled in internship or delay that work until having fulfilled the internship requirement.

During the internship and dissertation stages, students move away from the cohesion, sequencing and support of their cohort and classroom experiences into an increasingly independent and self-directed completion of requirements, working primarily with their internship supervisors and dissertation chairs. It is during this time that there is the possibility of confusion about process and lack of progress towards completion. There are many steps to follow (Institutional Review Board [IRB] approval, literature review, gathering and analyzing research data, coordination of committee members) in an unstructured setting; the student must create his or her own structure. Barriers to success at this stage may come in the form of disorganization, writing skill, availability of research subjects, confidence with statistical analysis, and maintaining momentum. Lack of progress in any of these areas can create roadblocks to successful completion of the degree; consequently, an explicit, clear, and supportive process is essential to finish the dissertation.

The dissertation demonstrates mastery of competencies inherent in being a practitioner-scholar, which is central to the PsyD program’s mission. The following description of the dissertation process is provided to illustrate the complexity inherent in the sequence of its execution. While this process has been regularly reviewed and adjusted to accommodate changes as program expectations have evolved, there is an increased awareness of a lack of consistency in the application of those expectations across multiple dissertation committees.

Preparing for and writing the dissertation is integrated throughout the doctoral program. Preparation begins in the 1st year with foundational coursework in statistics (PSYC 621 Statistics and PSYC 624 Psychometrics) and continues into the 2nd year with quantitative and qualitative research (PSYC 664 Quantitative Research and PSYC 651 Qualitative Research).

At the end of the 2nd year, students enroll in PSYC 652 Dissertation Preparation I: Planning. This course provides an overview of the entire dissertation process. Students refine their respective research question and design, select their doctoral dissertation committee members and develop each section of the research proposal. In this course, the Dissertation Manual is reviewed in detail. Students also gain an understanding of how to conduct a review of relevant scientific literature, write a literature review and complete a first draft of the doctoral research proposal.
At the beginning of the 3rd year, students enroll in PSYC 653 Dissertation Preparation II: Preliminary Research Applications. In this course a pilot study is completed on individual dissertation topics using a qualitative, quantitative or mixed method design. As part of this process students complete an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, collect and analyze data, and present a final report of the pilot study. As part of this course, students are required to meet with their dissertation committee chair to begin working on their dissertation proposals. This enables them to refine their plan for dissertation research. Concurrently, students are enrolled in PSYC 699 Doctoral Research: Dissertation Proposal Development, which spans the 3rd year of the program and is a formal means of assisting in the completion of the dissertation proposal in preparation for a proposal meeting. The goals of this course are for the students to: 1) complete the proposal, and 2) receive approval from their dissertation committee to begin research, pending IRB approval. For most students, the proposal meeting occurs at the end of the 3rd year or beginning of the 4th year.

Following a successful proposal meeting and approval of the proposed research by the IRB, the student is ready to begin data collection. The student enrolls in PSYC 701 Dissertation, which provides the structure for the implementation and completion of the dissertation process. Along with the guidance of the doctoral committee chair and committee, the Dissertation Manual serves as a procedural reference. The dissertation work culminates in a defense meeting where the full dissertation is reviewed for approval by the committee.

On average, doctoral students complete the degree in 4 to 5 years. There is a 7 year time limit for completion of the degree. However, it is essential for students to complete the dissertation in a timely manner and any institutional barriers to completion, such as lack of clarity of expectations and process, must be removed.

Clarity of the Initiative’s Purpose

The purpose of the quality initiative is to examine and standardize each step of the processes and procedures that facilitate dissertation development and execution. This initiative will 1) create internal consistency across all phases of the dissertation process; 2) ensure that program faculty consistently apply the evaluation standards of each step of the process; 3) provide clarity and consistency for students; and 4) provide a guide that will standardize requirements among various research models. Additional outcomes of a revised process will be timely completion of dissertation as well as improved student scholarship. Consistent assessment methods will be developed to evaluate and modify processes throughout the sequence. This initiative will include an analysis of the current evaluation tools such as proposal and defense meeting rubrics. Additional methods of measuring student progress and quality of dissertation work will be developed as necessary.

In meetings facilitated by the Vice President, doctoral program faculty have already begun the process of documenting each step of the dissertation process and identifying inconsistencies between dissertation chairs, areas of discrepancy, and points of confusion for students and/or committee members. A sub-committee of the doctoral program faculty created a dissertation defense rubric that was approved for use beginning with the 2014-15 academic year. The efficacy of this revised rubric will be included in the outcome assessment of evaluation tools. During the 2014-15 academic year, this review process will be completed and areas for improvement will be identified.

Consequently, the goals of this initiative are to:

  • Review and document the entire dissertation process
  • Conduct a focus group with doctoral students who have recently completed the dissertation process to identify any points of confusion or barriers.
  • Review the roles and responsibilities of all committee members (chair, advisor and external consultant)
  • Address any areas of inconsistency, confusion, or disagreement for the intended purpose of clarity and quality
  • Incorporate any changes identified into the Dissertation Manual.
  • Provide training for and establish measurable expectations of dissertation committee chairs
  • Establish benchmarks for measuring outcomes of the revised process as demonstrated in evaluation forms (for proposal and defense), IRB applications, and progression towards completion as measured through the timeliness of proposal and defense meetings
  • Assess the quality initiative outcomes (beginning with the 2015-16 academic year)

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

In the 2012-13 academic year the school launched a formal strategic planning process and identified seven strategic goals inclusive of academic excellence. Excellence in scholarship as demonstrated through dissertation quality is fundamental to program success, institutional longevity and ultimately the institution’s reputation.

Internally, this concerns administration, faculty, staff, students and the Board of Trustees. Each has a vested interest in doctoral program quality and institutional achievement. The most directly impacted are doctoral students, the faculty that serve on dissertation committees, and dissertation committee consultants. Externally, student retention, academic success and graduation rates critically impact the school’s reputation and are a measure of success monitored by accrediting bodies, for federal compliance, and by prospective students.

The level of support for this project is high and a commitment to the work has been made by those who will be responsible for carrying it forward. In the fall of 2013 the President of MiSPP proposed to the faculty that the dissertation process review that they had embarked upon would become the institution’s Quality Initiative. Faculty, along with the academic administration, embraced this proposal.

This initiative requires faculty and administrative engagement and continual assessment as each step is examined and refined. The development of the dissertation occurs in an orderly progression; consequently, each step of review and revision will follow that progression.

The quality review will be led by the Vice President. Participants in the review include the President, the Academic Program Director, all doctoral Core Faculty (6), and Master of Arts program faculty (3) who are involved in dissertation committees as advisors. In addition administrative support personnel will be involved as needed. The dedication of all involved represents a significant commitment of human and, indirectly, financial resources to this initiative. Over the course of the 2014-15 academic year, time will be designated for this initiative at the weekly faculty meetings; ad hoc or task groups will be assigned to take this work forward between meetings as necessary.

Appropriateness of the Timeline for the Initiative

As previously stated, the process of a quality review of the dissertation process began in 2013. During the 2014-15 academic year the following will be completed:

  1. Complete the analysis and assessment of each phase of the dissertation process and modify as necessary
  2. Identify areas of confusion
  3. Revise and standardize procedures; provide training
  4. Utilize the dissertation defense meeting rubric developed by dissertation subcommittee; revise as necessary
  5. Incorporate any necessary revisions in the Dissertation Manual and coursework
  6. Develop an overall measure for dissertation scholarship quality. Identify assessment/outcome measures based on dissertation points of progress (course work, proposal and defense meetings, final submission of dissertation)
  7. Identify changes to the process to be implemented in the 2015-16 academic year

By the end of the 2014-2015 academic year, the sequence of the dissertation process will be analyzed, standards will be revised, new practices and procedures recommended, coursework modified, and assessment markers developed with the intention of a 2015-2016 academic year implementation.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, full implementation of changes to the dissertation process is expected. Ongoing study of assessment markers will indicate any necessary modification for the 2016-2017 academic year.


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