PhD Candidacy and Dissertation Guidelines (Updated)

Candidacy Exam Process

Note: The following guidelines are for use within the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing (FPB). They are congruent with School of Graduate studies guidelines. It is important to note that all PhD students and their advisors need to be familiar with specific Graduate Studies guidelines, particularly related to the dissertation process and format. However, please be aware that students are required to present a copy of their proposal to all committee members at least three weeks prior to their oral candidacy exam and proposal defense.

To advance to candidacy for the PhD, students are required to write a candidacy proposal (Step 1) and pass an oral examination (Step 2) as evidence of the student's ability to synthesize knowledge and apply research methodologies. The student should consult with his/her Academic Advisor to identify a candidacy chair and committee prior to completion of course work. It can be helpful to seek the advice of the student's assigned academic advisor to prepare for and consider options for selection of committee members.

View FPB School of Nursing PhD Forms & Guidelines

A candidacy committee consists of at least three faculty members in the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. The chairperson for the candidacy committee is to be selected by the student. The chairperson of the student's candidacy committee must hold the rank of Assistant Professor or above; be tenured or on the tenure-track; have served on a minimum of two candidacy committees at the FPB School of Nursing or a comparable institution; and have considerable expertise in the student's content and/or research area. Expertise is determined by the faculty member's authorship of research publications in refereed journals and recognition by peers as an expert in the student's content and/or research area. The student must consult with the Chair to identify and select two additional members of the FPB faculty with research doctorates to serve as candidacy committee members. Selection these two members should be based on faculty expertise in the student's substantive area of study, theoretical and conceptual expertise, or methodological expertise. The PhD Program Director must approve the composition of the candidacy committee and candidacy proposal topic.

This step examines the student's ability to create a written argument to support a scientific study. The candidacy proposal will include the following three chapters: Chapter 1 Introduction, Chapter 2 Literature Review, and Chapter 3 Methods. The written candidacy proposal is in essence the written component of the candidacy exam. The student, who is required to be registered for NURS 671 for 3 credits, is supervised in proposal development by his/her Candidacy Committee Chair in consultation with the candidacy committee members. The written candidacy proposal should be based on the research problem the student intends to explore for his/her dissertation research. However, the written candidacy proposal should demonstrate the depth and breadth of knowledge the student has obtained through PhD course work, synthesized, and now is applying.

For example, in Chapter 1 (Part 1 if using manuscript option) of the candidacy proposal, the student wants to demonstrate in writing an understanding of the philosophical, theoretical and conceptual issues that have been considered and his/her rationale for the choices s/he has made. In Chapter 2 or Part 2 if manuscript option, the student should demonstrate his/her knowledge of substantive literature relevant to the population and problem of interest, critically analyze the state of knowledge, and demonstrate ability to write an integrated literature review. Chapter 3 or Part 3 if using manuscript option should demonstrate the student's knowledge regarding methodological issues demonstrating in writing what the design, measurement, analyses, and ethics issues are with rationale for the student's methods choices.

Note: Some candidacy committees may choose to schedule a pre-examination meeting in advance with the respective student but it is not required.

The student must have completed required course work and the research practicum, and have a GPA of 3.0 to schedule the oral candidacy exam. In addition, the members of the candidacy committee must have read the written candidacy proposal and agreed that the student is ready for the oral candidacy exam.

The oral examination requires the student to demonstrate the knowledge s/he has obtained as result of completing the PhD curriculum.

The oral examination should test the depth and breadth of the student’s knowledge and comprehensive ability to synthesize and apply that knowledge.The content foci of the oral candidacy exam are: 1) the nursing discipline (theory, research, profession); 2) research methods and statistics; 3) review and evaluation of literature concerning content/competing theories/competing methods (includes disciplinary literature and relevant literature from other disciplines including historical perspective); and 4) articulation of the above. The examination is the culmination of a research proposal development process guided by a candidacy committee. Participation in the oral exam is limited to the student and the student's candidacy committee members.

Advancement to candidacy status is based on candidacy committee recommendation signed by the PhD Program Director. The student must have completed his/her research practicum and submitted an updated Program of Study Plan for Graduate Studies to take action to advance the student to candidacy status

A student who fails the candidacy examination may be permitted to retake the examination following completion of additional course work and/or revision of the proposal and/or a written response to questions from the committee. The respective candidacy committee has the responsibility to determine which option should be selected for a specific student and to inform the student of the course of action verbally and in writing. The candidacy committee chair will inform the PhD Program Director of the course of action the committee has determined in writing

A student who is refused admission to candidacy may not undertake further study within the School of Nursing for credit toward the Ph.D. With the approval of both FPB and the School of Graduate Studies, such a student may take a limited number of additional courses to complete a Master's degree or enter the graduate program in another department.

Dissertation Process

Note: The following guidelines are for use within the School of Nursing. They are congruent with School of Graduate studies guidelines. It is important to note that all PhD students and their advisors need to be familiar with specific Graduate Studies guidelines, particularly related to the dissertation process and format. View FPB School of Nursing PhD Forms & Guidelines.

All candidates for the Ph.D. degree must submit an electronic dissertation as evidence of their ability to conduct independent research at an advanced level. The dissertation must represent a significant contribution to existing knowledge in the student’s field, and at least a portion of the content must be suitable for publication in a reputable professional journal or as a book or monograph. Students must prepare their own dissertations. Joint dissertations are not permitted. The dissertation must conform to regulations concerning format, quality, and time of submission as established by the Dean of Graduate Studies.

Detailed instructions on submitting an electronic version of your dissertation can be obtained from the School of Graduate Studies website.

Research work connected with a dissertation is to be carried out under the direct supervision of a member of the university faculty selected by the student in consultation with departmental faculty and approved by the chair of the department.

  • Each doctoral student is responsible for becoming sufficiently familiar with the research interests of the School of Nursing faculty to choose in a timely manner a faculty member who will serve as the student’s research Advisor. The research Advisor is expected to provide mentorship in research conception, methods, performance and ethics, as well as focus on development of the student’s professional communication skills, building professional contacts in the field, and fostering the professional behavior standard of the field and research in general.
  • The research Advisor also assists with the selection of at least two other School of Nursing faculty to serve as members of the dissertation advisory committee. At a minimum, the dissertation defense committee must consist of a minimum of four members of the university faculty, including the advisor/chair, the two nursing members and at least one whose primary appointment is outside the student’s program, department or school.
  • The committee is appointed by the Dean of Graduate Studies upon recommendation of the PhD Program Director in the School of Nursing.
  • The student’s dissertation Advisor must be a member of the dissertation advisory committee and serves as chair. The chair of the committee must be a Case Western Reserve University tenured or tenure-track faculty member in the School of Nursing. Any tenured or tenure-track Case faculty member, and any full-time Case faculty member whose primary duties include research who is authorized to serve on a Ph.D. dissertation committee by the school of nursing, may serve on a Ph.D. dissertation committee.
  • Any appropriate outside researcher may serve on a Ph.D. committee upon approval by the Dean of Graduate Studies. A petition with the rationale for the request must be presented to the Dean along with the proposed member’s curriculum vitae.
  • Under special conditions, a former faculty member whose time of leaving the university has not exceeded 18 months may be approved as a voting university member by the Dean of Graduate Studies.

Following successful advancement to candidacy, the student will revise the written candidacy proposal in consultation with his/her dissertation committee members. This document then becomes the written dissertation research proposal. The student in consultation with his/her dissertation committee will set the date and time for oral defense of the dissertation research proposal. Please be aware that students are required to present a copy of their proposal to all committee members at least three weeks prior to their oral candidacy exam and proposal defense.

Before beginning dissertation research, the candidate must defend his/her proposal. The dissertation research proposal defense is a separate meeting, activity, and focus from the oral candidacy exam. It is specific to the proposed research study which will be the respective student’s dissertation research. Thus the defense questions and discussion specifically focus on the conceptualization and methods of the proposed study.

The dissertation research proposal defense is done in the presence of a committee consisting of three nursing faculty and one faculty member from Case Western Reserve University, but whose appointment is outside of the School of Nursing. The purpose of this defense is to present and defend the significance, design, methods, and contribution of the proposal research and to address the committee's questions related to the line of inquiry. Upon successful defense of the dissertation research proposal, the student can submit IRB applications and begin the research once IRB approval(s) have been obtained. The dissertation chair and committee members will continue to supervise the student’s implementation and completion of the dissertation research.

Throughout the development and completion of the dissertation, members of the dissertation defense committee are expected to provide constructive criticism and helpful ideas generated by the research problem from the viewpoint of their particular expertise. Each member will make an assessment of the originality of the dissertation, its value, the contribution it makes, and the clarity with which concepts are communicated, especially to a person outside the field. The doctoral student is expected to arrange meetings and maintain periodic contact with each committee member. A meeting of the full committee for the purpose of assessing the student’s progress should occur at least once a year until the completion of the dissertation.

Proposal development includes three chapters (parts: introduction, review of the literature, and methods). During NURS 671, students need to discuss with their adviser the type of dissertation format. The types are the traditional 5-chapter parts) dissertation or the manuscripts option (4-5 parts). See webpage for details for the dissertation manuscript option. Three credits of NURS 671 (proposal development) are required. These credits are to be taken all at once. However, if more time is needed to complete the written proposal and oral candidacy exam, additional credits can be taken in 1 credit increments in subsequent semesters. Table 1 includes activities suggested to be addressed in NURS 671.

Table 1. NURS Proposal Development Activities
Note: Activities may not be sequential

Activities Traditional Manuscript Option
Discussion of IRB issues Yes Yes
Approval of topic & selection of chair Yes Yes
Selection and approval of committee Yes Yes
Completion of part 1 Chapter 1: Introduction Introduction
Completion of part 2 Chapter 2: Literature Review Manuscript for synthesis of the literature
Completion of part 3 Chapter 3: Methods Methods for the study
Setting dates for candidacy and proposal defense Yes Yes
Completion of candidacy exam Yes Yes
Completion of proposal defense - if possible Yes


Some other suggestions to facilitate the progression of NURS 671:

  • Ongoing discussions of conceptual and methodological ideas with adviser during PhD coursework are important, especially during NURS 530 and NURS 531.
  • Students will likely take NURS 671 with other classes but it can also be taken alone.
  • Communication with chair during NURS 671 is essential. Plan to meet or provide written work weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, in agreement with chair.
  • Predoctoral standing may be an option for students who do not advance to candidacy during NURS 671. In predoctoral standing, a student who has not yet advanced to candidacy may register for 701 dissertation credit hours with approval of the PhD in nursing program director and the School of Graduate Studies. It is expected that the student will take all qualifying exams and advance to candidacy no later than the semester following the one in which Predoctoral Standing is granted. A student with Predoctoral Standing may register for a maximum of 6 credit hours total of NURS 701 research before advancing to candidacy. Once registration for NURS 701 research begins, the student must register for NURS 701 every semester until graduation. Doctoral students have 5 years from the first NURS 701 registration to complete degree requirements. Predoctoral standing should be used only in RARE circumstances

Students should be advised of the following activities for progression during dissertation credits (18 required credits) (see Table 2). The suggestions below are a guide only and will ensure that students meet and do not exceed the minimum of 18 credit hours required for the dissertation.

Please note:

  • NURS 701 Credits must be taken over a minimum of 2 semesters; students must be enrolled in NURS 701 during the semester of their final defense.
  • Once a student enrolls in dissertation credits (NURS 701), the student must be enrolled continuously in a minimum of 1 NURS 701 credit (not including summer).
  • Students should plan to distribute their NURS 701 credits across their dissertation phase. If the student will not defend their dissertation within 2 semesters, it is advisable to save some 701 credits.
  • Students unable to meet the graduation deadline for May graduation may complete their final defense by the last day of spring classes and can participate in May graduation ceremonies but will receive their diploma in August.
Table 2. NURS 701 Guide for Allocating Credits for Dissertation Activities
Note: Activities may not be sequential
NURS 701 Credits Suggested Milestones Reached
Traditional 5 Chapters
Suggested Milestones Reached
Manuscripts Option 4-5 parts
2 Completion of proposal defense Completion of proposal defense
3 Completion of IRB process and revisions of chapter 3 Completion of IRB process and finalizing manuscript 1
4 Subject recruitment and data collection Subject recruitment and data collection
3 Data analysis Data analysis
2 Completion of chapter 4 Completion of manuscript 2 and possibly manuscript 3
2 Completion of chapter 5 Completion of summary of manuscripts (part 5)
2 Defense - and revisions and submission of dissertation Defense - and revisions and submission of documents
18 Total    


Final Oral Examination: Defense of Dissertation

Each doctoral candidate is required to pass a final oral examination in defense of the dissertation. The examination may also include an inquiry into the candidate’s competence in the major and related fields.

  • The defense must be scheduled with the School of Graduate Studies no later than three weeks before the date of the examination.
  • The chair of the examining committee should give approval to schedule the defense when the written dissertation is ready for public scrutiny.
  • The candidate must provide to each member of the committee a copy of the completed dissertation at least three weeks before the examination so that the committee members have an opportunity to read and discuss it in advance.

Please note that these guidelines differ from those described in the School of Graduate Studies handbook–the dissertation document is to be submitted sooner (at least three weeks in advance rather than two weeks in advance) for students in the School of Nursing.

  • Scheduled defenses are made known through on-campus publication, and any member of the university may be present at that portion of the examination pre-designated as public by the chair of the dissertation defense committee. Others may be present at the formal defense only by invitation of that chair.

It is expected that all members of the dissertation defense committee be present at the defense. Exceptions to this rule: a) must be approved by petition to the Dean of Graduate Studies and only under extraordinary circumstances, b) no more than one voting member can ever be absent, c) the absent member must participate through real-time video conferencing at departmental expense; however, if such video conferencing is not available, the absent member may participate through telephone conferencing; and d) the student must always be physically present.

The dissertation defense committee is responsible for certifying that the quality and suitability of the material presented in the dissertation meet acceptable scholarly standards. A student will be certified as passing the final oral examination if no more than one of the voting members of the committee dissents.

PhD students choosing the manuscript option to the traditional dissertation should plan to configure it into "Chapters" for the final submission through the electronic process. Chapter 1 should consist of an introduction to the two or three manuscripts that follow. Each manuscript will comprise a chapter. A final chapter should summarize the foregoing manuscripts and provide recommendations for future research, practice, education, policy, etc. For example:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Manuscript 1
  • Chapter 3: Manuscript 2
  • Chapter 4: Manuscript 3 (if applicable)
  • Final Chapter: Summary and Recommendations