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Taking the Fear out of a Dissertation

By March 15, 2023No Comments


I think all nurses agree that evidence-based practice is a priority to achieve positive patient outcomes, but how can nurses make evidence-based decisions without enough evidence? This is where the PhD degree can contribute to nursing in significant ways.

The field of nursing is severely lacking research. In addition to this problem, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2022) reported that enrollment in PhD programs has declined over the past several years (down 13% from 2013-2021). This decrease contributes to a lack of nurse researchers, educators, and leaders at the PhD level.

I believe some nurses may be wary of getting a PhD because of the fear of doing original research through a dissertation. I want to explain the process of a dissertation to help reduce some fears and encourage more nurses to get a PhD and contribute to nursing through research.  

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation involves designing and implementing original research and then writing about it. The purpose of a dissertation is to generate new knowledge on an identified problem and contribute to the literature.

What should I research?

What aspect of nursing are you most passionate about exploring? What problem do you see every day that needs a solution? Are evidence-based solutions lacking? This lays the foundation of your study. Choose a topic you love and want to know everything about because you will be deeply involved in this topic. When the topic matters to you, you will want to learn more, and I think this helps you persevere.

How do I complete a dissertation?

The basic parts of your dissertation are five chapters. Different PhD programs will have some variations, but the process below depicts the guided dissertation used at William Carey University (WCU), as an example. William Carey’s guided dissertation process includes a specific timeline for each part of the process due in each dissertation course.

Throughout the dissertation courses, the committee, provided by WCU, guides the student in creating the research study and writing the dissertation. The benefit of this guided process is enabling the student to complete the dissertation efficiently and grow as a researcher. WCU’s dissertation process is 18 months from the research classes to the last dissertation course.

One of my favorite books for an overview of the dissertation is A Nurse’s Step-By-Step Guide to Publishing a Dissertation or DNP Project. The book is concise yet wonderfully depicts what students can expect.

Chapter 2: Literature Review. Does it sound weird that I am starting with the second chapter? Probably so, but it is crucial. Once you have chosen your topic, dig into the literature to see what has already been researched. The goal is to complete an in-depth analysis of past research to determine what has and has not been studied, so you can find a gap that your study fills. In this chapter, you report on each study found related to your topic and synthesize the findings and gaps. This chapter is not complete until the final submission of your dissertation because you must continually search the literature to observe and add any new publications related to your topic.

Chapter I: Introduction. This chapter introduces the reader to your topic’s background, problem, the significance of your study, purpose, research questions/hypotheses, definitions, assumptions, delimitations, and theoretical or conceptual framework.

Chapter 3: Methodology. This chapter provides an in-depth explanation of study details, including the design, setting, sample procedures, instruments, data collection, and data analysis. In this chapter, you will also explain ethical and legal protections, including participant protection, data protection, and permissions from the IRB, agency, and participants through informed consent. The chapter concludes with a step-by-step procedure for the research study beginning with seeking IRB permission and ending with final data analysis and interpretation of findings.

*Between writing Chapter 3 and 4, the research proposal must be approved by the dissertation committee through an oral defense. The committee may have suggestions for revision to your plans, but don’t lose hope. Simply, make the changes and resubmit. When approved, the next steps are to implement Chapter 3, which is an exhilarating time in your dissertation process!

Chapter 4: Results. At this point, your research study is complete, and your data has been analyzed. This chapter explains the details of your sample (size, demographics, etc.) and your quantitative/qualitative findings. This section may include charts/graphs to display the data.

Chapter 5: Discussion. Finally, you’ve come to the end! This chapter may be the most important because you get to provide meaning to your results. You will compare and contrast your findings to the literature and relate your findings to the theoretical/conceptual framework. You will also discuss the implications to practice, policy, education, etc.; limitations to your study; issues/problems encountered during the study; and future recommendations for research. Lastly, you will summarize the key findings and implications to highlight the most important takeaways from your research.

*After all chapters are written, you must complete a final defense to gain approval from your committee. This was the scariest and most exciting part when I finished my dissertation! Once the committee approves, you revise the document to a final work ready for publication, usually in ProQuest. You also should plan to reduce the dissertation to one or more manuscripts and submit the research for publication.

In addition to knowledge, what do I need?

Patience, perseverance, and a support system. Doing a dissertation is a challenging process and does take a considerable amount of time and determination. The keys to making it through are:  believe in yourself, give yourself grace, remember your career goals, lean on your family, friends, and peers for encouragement, and not give up.

My Journey

When I first made plans to get a PhD degree, I immediately felt incapable and afraid that I would not be able to be a researcher and complete a dissertation. All I had heard previously about a dissertation was (1) be afraid (2) it will take several years (3) you will hate it. Yikes! Who wants to sign up for that?

Well, I was working at WCU early in my career in academia with two young children at home, and WCU created a PhD in Nursing Education and Administration program. My peers encouraged me to do the program with them, and I am forever thankful they did. I initially thought I wanted to wait until my kids were grown, but I could not pass the opportunity to get my PhD with my peers.

Now, as the coordinator of the nursing PhD programs at WCU, I have the privilege of helping other nurses get their PhDs, and as a dissertation chair, I love watching our students learn and implement their own research.


If you are interested in getting your PhD but are afraid of doing a dissertation, what should you do?

1.Research which PhD program is right for you. There are various focuses of PhD programs that include research, education, administration, leadership, and more. Consider what you want to do with your degree and select a program that you feel will best prepare you for your career goals. Also, find out about their dissertation process. Although most elements of a dissertation are similar, there are some differences in the processes. Determine which program will best match your needs.

WCU has a PhD in Nursing Education and Administration program that can be completed in 2 or 3 year options and a DNP to PhD in Nursing Education program that can be completed in 2 years primarily part-time. If you feel WCU’s PhD program would meet your needs or if you have any questions about a PhD or dissertation, please feel welcome to contact me at

2.Begin reading research articles on your topic of interest and consider problems related to your favorite topic. Once you get more comfortable reading research articles and looking through the literature, I think you will find that (a) there is not enough research on your topic and (b) you have ideas on potential solutions. This idea is likely a wonderful topic for your dissertation!

3.Lastly, get started! The only way you’ll know if you can succeed is to take the first step. I found that once my dissertation was done, my preconceptions were wrong. I shouldn’t have been afraid, and now I am proud of what I accomplished and learned.


If a PhD will best help you attain your career goals, do not be afraid of a dissertation but, instead, look forward to making a difference in nursing for the topic you research.


What topic in nursing are you most passionate about, and what problems are you seeing related to that topic?

What are your fears related to getting a PhD, and what can you do to overcome them?

Closing Thoughts

Having a PhD may open the door to amazing career opportunities and advancement. Don’t let the dissertation keep you from choosing the PhD degree that could potentially enable positive outcomes for the rest of your career. The dissertation will be challenging and rewarding, and with perseverance, dedication to learning, and focus on the impact your study can make, you can do it!

Recommended Resources

Roush, K. (2019). A nurse’s step-by-step guide to writing a dissertation or scholarly project (2nd ed.). Sigma Theta Tau International.

There are many different books on research, and some are specific to nursing research. I recommend previewing these books and determining which you prefer. These will give detailed information on the elements of research you need to know to create your study. When you are in a PhD program, the faculty will likely have specific required and recommended books.


American Association of College of Nursing. (2022). Nurse faculty shortage.

Roush, K. (2019). A nurse’s step-by-step guide to writing your dissertation or capstone (2nd ed.). Sigma Theta Tau International.

Jenna Barton, PhD, RN, PCCN-K, CNE is the Graduate Nursing Program Coordinator and a Professor of Nursing at William Carey University. Dr. Barton began her full-time academic career at William Carey University in 2011 using experience from the emergency department, plastic surgery ambulatory care, practice-based nursing education, and long-term acute care areas.

She currently teaches Christian Ministry in Nursing in the pre-licensure BSN program, Role Development for the Nurse Educator in the MSN and PhD programs, and Research Development and Processes in the PhD programs.

Dr. Barton currently serves as a dissertation chair and has served on dissertation committees in the roles of Major Professor, Second Reader, and Chair since 2019. As the Graduate Nursing Program Coordinator, Dr. Barton oversees the MSN, PhD in Nursing Education and Administration, and DNP to PhD in Nursing Education programs.

For more information, please contact me at and check out the website for the PhD programs at WCU (Nursing Education & Administration – Carey Health Sciences and DNP to PhD: Nursing Education – Carey Health Sciences)

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