Chapter 4 – Ph.D. programs

The Iowa State University School of Education Ph.D. in Education is bound by a commitment to preparing graduates who engage in methodologically rigorous, substantively rich, and socially meaningful work in the field of education. This document outlines the milestones in the Ph.D. program in Education and situates these in the process of pursuing the degree. It is intended to provide guidance to doctoral students and School of Education faculty.

4.1 – Coursework for the Ph.D.

The Ph.D. program is designed to offer students both the rigorous methodological preparation required to undertake educational inquiry at the highest levels and the flexibility for students to work with their Program of Study Committees (POSCs) to pursue coursework and experiences that support the students’ individual research interests and professional paths.

The Ph.D. requires a minimum of 72 credits.

4.2 – Ph.D. competencies

Graduates of the program will demonstrate the following doctoral competencies:

  • Working knowledge of the field, including its research, prominent individuals and their contributions, and its issues and trends
  • Synthesize knowledge and demonstrate skills associated with the field
  • Communicate orally and in writing at a level of sophistication commensurate with the dissertation
  • Contribute to scholarly conversations in the field and/or create a viable solution to problems in the field.

Iowa State University expects that the requirements for a Ph.D. will be completed within seven years. The average time to completion for students in the School of Education is 4-6 years.

4.3 – School of Education core requirements for students entering summer 2018 or later

All Ph.D. students in the SOE are required to take the following three courses:

  • C I 601: Foundations of Educational Inquiry (3 credits)
  • ResEv 603: Foundations of Qualitative Inquiry in Education (3 credits)
  • ResEv 604: Advanced Qualitative Inquiry in Education (3 credits)

All Ph.D. students must also take statistics up through multiple regression. The SOE strongly prefers that students take the following courses, which are SOE educational statistics classes that will ground students in educational research and design.

  • ResEv 552: Basic Educational Statistics
  • ResEv 553: Intermediate Educational Statistics

There are, however, other pathways to meet the statistics requirement, including 404 and 568 (formerly STAT 401) in the Department of Statistics. If you are entering the Ph.D. program already versed in multiple regression, please discuss with your POSC in order to determine whether the requirement has been met.

In addition to these SOE-wide core requirements, both the Division of Teaching, Learning, Leadership & Policy and the Division of Higher Education have division-specific requirements. Some areas of emphasis (e.g. Instructional Technology) also have area-specific requirements.

All additional coursework is determined in consultation with the student’s POS Committee. While not required, all students are strongly encouraged to take coursework outside the School of Education.

Note: Students who started prior to Summer 2018 may have different requirements. Consult with your major professor about your core requirements. 

4.4 – Ph.D. annual review

All Ph.D. students in the School of Education are required to complete an annual report summarizing their academic and professional accomplishments of the past calendar year as well as to outline goals for the upcoming year.  The student completes the form online.  You will receive an email from the graduate support specialist in January with the link to complete the form. The form should be submitted electronically no later than March 1.  The student and major professor should then meet between March 1 and May 1 to discuss the adviser evaluation and mutually agreed upon goals.  The major professor will share the completed Ph.D. student annual review form with the DOGE by May 1. Students must complete an annual review to be eligible for SOE travel funding in the subsequent academic year.

Steps to complete annual review:

  • Complete the online annual review form online by March 1
    • All students should have a current CV prepared and be ready to upload CV to annual review form. The CV will be reviewed with your major professor when you meet.
  • Schedule a time to meet with your major professor(s) to discuss the annual review before May 1

Note: Students should plan for at least 30 minutes to complete the online annual review form.

4.5 – Temporary adviser and major professor 

When students are admitted to the Ph.D. program in education they are assigned temporary advisers who will guide them through the initial selection of courses. In most cases, the temporary adviser is a faculty member who has a particular interest in working with the new student.

Once students have begun coursework and had an opportunity to interact with several faculty members in the school, they will need to choose a major professor. We recommend that students make this decision no later than their third semester in the program. While students may choose to ask their temporary adviser to serve in this capacity, students are not required to do so. Students who wish to seek a major professor other than their temporary adviser are encouraged to discuss this with their temporary adviser. Once students have decided whom they would like to serve as major professor, they need to contact this individual and invite the faculty member to serve in this role.

Note: Some faculty may not be able to take on additional advisees at the present time and students may need to select another faculty member.

Once identified, students should maintain regular contact (at least once per semester) with the major professor to review their progress and obtain guidance for any advising needs.

4.6 – Ph.D. milestones & timelines

Five milestones (and their associated meetings with the POSC) mark the pathway to completing a Ph.D. in Education. At each of these, students will meet with their committee. Milestones 3 and 5 (preliminary oral examination and final oral examination) represent formal requirements of Iowa State University’s Graduate College. As such, they require advance scheduling and are governed by specific policies and associated documentation. One of these requirements includes face-to-face meetings between students and their POSCs (see the Graduate College handbook for guidance regarding participation of students or committee members from a distance). In the School of Education, the other three meetings should be synchronous but may involve the use of conferencing technology. The milestone meetings allow students to engage in ongoing conversations with the POSC as they progress in the program and shape and refine an area of inquiry. Students are responsible for scheduling the milestone meetings. Once a date and time has been agreed upon, students can initiate the room scheduling process with the graduate support specialist.

Milestone 1: Program of Study and Committee (completed by end of third semester)

This milestone marks students’ determination of their committees, as well as the coursework they will complete as part of their graduate studies. Students should hold a meeting of their committee to review and approve the planned set of coursework. Students should complete and submit their POSCs no later than the third semester of doctoral study. Students must have an approved POSC the semester prior to the preliminary oral examination (see Graduate College deadlines for specific dates).

Selection of the Program of Study Committee (POSC)

ISU requires that the doctoral POSC consist of five members, though larger committees are permissible. A majority must come from the major or program. In addition, at least one member must serve as an “outside” member of the committee, representing a field outside the area of emphasis (note: this person may be “inside” the School as long as they are not in the student’s area of emphasis). Students should discuss potential members of the POSC with their major professor and then invite these individuals to serve on the committee. When selecting the major professor, students should be aware that faculty members are not always able to accept additional student committee responsibilities. Students are encouraged to discuss any availability and scheduling constraints (such as professional development leaves, international travel, etc.) with faculty when forming their POSC.

Program of Study

The POSC lists the courses students will complete to meet the requirements of the degree. Students will consult with their major professors for assistance in planning the Program of Study. It will need to include the core courses required of all students within the School, as well as any other courses required for the program the student is pursuing. Students are advised to be aware of and comply with Graduate College and School of Education policies for over-age (expired) and transfer courses.

The POSC is completed online through AccessPlus. Additional information about the POSC process, including a paper worksheet that can be used with the committee, is available on the Graduate College website. Once the committee has reviewed and approved the Program of Study, students submit the POSC form via AccessPlus for electronic routing to the committee members and the director of graduate education (DOGE) for approval.

Non-Degree Courses Policy: With the approval of the POSC, Ph.D. students may use up to 9 credits taken at ISU as a non-degree seeking student on a Ph.D. POSC.

Transfer Courses Policy: With the approval of the POS Committee, the School of Education allows up to 24 credits of coursework taken at other institutions to be used on a doctoral program of study. The parameters of these credits can be found in the Expired Courses Policy below and in the Graduate College transfer requirements. Students may NOT transfer in credits for courses that are explicitly named in the SOE core requirements (i.e., C I 601; ResEv 603, 604) that are in effect at the time of the student’s admission to the program.

Expired Courses Policy: Maximum numbers of expired credits that may be included on School of Education programs of study (with the approval of the POS Committee) are listed below. The age of the course is dependent on the date of expected graduation provided in the POSC. If the student does not complete the degree by the expected date, additional current coursework may be required to conform to the limits established below.

Degree Max. Expired Credits 8-10 years 11-16 year 17+ years
Ph.D. 24 Up to 24 Up to 12 Up to 6

Changes in the committee or to the Program of Study

On occasion, students will need to make changes to their committees or to their Programs of Study (visit chapter 6 of the School of Education graduate program handbook for further guidance on making committee changes). These changes are made through AccessPlus and routed electronically for approval by the committee members, the DOGE, and the Graduate College.

The POSC serves as a guide for completing the doctoral coursework POSC. If students find they want to take additional coursework as part of their graduate studies, these courses do not need to be added to the POSC document once it has been approved, unless you are replacing a course on the POSC or it is deemed appropriate to add to the POSC by your committee. As students approach the end of their coursework, they should begin planning for the preliminary exam with their major professor and committee.

Milestone 2: Preliminary examination proposal (completed by no later than the semester prior to the preliminary examination)

The purpose of the second milestone is to prepare for the preliminary examination. The preliminary examination in the School of Education, which has both a written and an oral component, is intended to determine the student’s readiness to continue on to the dissertation phase. The preliminary exam should provide the student with an opportunity to demonstrate that he/she has met the doctoral competencies. Students work with their major professor and committee to choose one of the three formats (outlined below) allowed for the written component in the School of Education. Students will then develop a written document outlining the proposed format and content for the written component. The proposal provides documentation of the agreed upon parameters for the written component. This maintains the integrity of the examination process.

The proposal is shared with the POSC prior to the meeting (two weeks is the expected timeline for faculty review of materials; deviations should be discussed and approved by the committee in advance). At the Preliminary Proposal meeting, the committee reviews and approves the proposal (modifications may result). In addition to determining the content of the written component, the POSC should also determine the procedures and timeline that will be used to evaluate the written materials.

If the preliminary exam will involve completing a capstone project or conducting a pilot/pre-dissertation study, students are required to obtain Institutional Review Board (human subjects) approval.

The three format options for the written component are outlined below:

Option 1: Capstone project

The capstone format requires students to use their knowledge, skills, and abilities in a specific problem-based situation in a public or private sector organization. The purpose of the capstone is twofold. First, to engage students in doing educational leadership and second, to collaboratively support educational organizations with assistance in addressing a need.

The capstone can be completed individually or in a team of students working in the same organizational setting. The length of time is variable, depending on the nature of the experience. Students work within the framework of their organizations, assist in carrying out their mission, and engage in reflective and scholarly endeavors suitable to advanced graduate studies.

In completing this requirement, students:

  • Work with the major professor or an approved mentor to identify an experience in a public or private, profit or non-profit organization
  • Develop a capstone (preliminary examination) proposal and present it to the POSC for review and approval
  • Complete the experience
  • Prepare a report for both the organization and the POSC
  • Are examined over the capstone experience at the time of the preliminary oral exam

The primary responsibility for the organizational placement for the capstone experience rests with the student and the major professor. If more than one doctoral student is to be working with the same organization, each student must have a line of inquiry (not necessarily the problem itself) and scholarly, analytical work that is independent from and clearly identifiable as separate and distinct from other students. The primary capstone mentor may be the major professor or suitable designee as determined by the POSC. A site supervisor who occupies a position in the host organization where the capstone experience occurs should also be identified. The site supervisor is encouraged to be involved in the preliminary oral examination either in person, via video conference or phone.

Option 2: Traditional sit-down exam

This format involves identifying a series of topics that will frame the examination, as well as determining question authors from among the committee. This format involves students responding to questions during a specified time frame (e.g., 2 to 3 hours per question) and specified conditions (e.g., whether access to notes or the Internet is allowed), as determined by the committee. Once the parameters for the preliminary written component are established and agreed upon by the POSC, the question authors may provide students with a reading list and/or guidance in preparing for the exam. The major professor generally acts as the proctor for the examination, arranging the location, monitoring the agreed upon access to resources, and collecting students’ responses after each examination session.

Option 3: Alternative format

There are two common alternative approaches to the written component. One involves developing a set of questions or topics with the POSC and a fixed period of time (e.g., 3 or 4 weeks) to develop a paper for each. Generally, the papers provide students with an opportunity to synthesize scholarly ideas across topics and/or to deepen their knowledge in preparation for undertaking the dissertation. The POS committee will determine the number, content, and evaluation process for the papers.

Another alternative approach involves creating and compiling a collection of artifacts that demonstrate the student’s proficiency. The collection should not consist solely of a compilation of previously completed course assignments. The collection of artifacts may include a report or manuscript reporting the results of a small-scale or pilot study, critiques of research articles, products developed (technology applications, professional development materials), or a range of other possibilities. The POSC will determine the number, content, and evaluation process for the collection of artifacts.

Evaluation of the written component

After students have completed the written component, the major professor will share the written component with the POSC. Members will apply the agreed upon evaluation procedures to determine if students’ written work is acceptable to move on to the preliminary oral examination. If members of the committee have concerns about the written component, the committee will confer to determine an appropriate course of action. This may include requiring students to revise or redo portions of the written component before moving on to the oral examination.

Milestone 3: Preliminary oral examination (completed by the end of the third year, no later than the fourth year)

The purpose of the third milestone is to determine eligibility for doctoral candidacy. Within the School of Education, faculty expect that students pursuing their degrees on a full-time basis will generally reach the candidacy stage by the end of their third year and no later than their fourth year.

For the preliminary oral examination, students meet with the full committee (see note below about scheduling the examination) and may be questioned over all aspects of the doctoral experience. Typically, students will be asked to clarify/defend aspects of the written component. At the end of this examination, the committee determines whether the student has passed or failed the preliminary oral examination. The POSC members sign the preliminary examination report form, which indicates the outcome of the examination. If students pass they are officially considered Ph.D. or doctoral candidates, rather than doctoral students. If a student fails the preliminary oral exam, he/she may be allowed to retake the exam, but at least six months must elapse between the failed attempt and the next exam.

Students must pass the preliminary oral examination before beginning dissertation work, except in very rare circumstances and with the approval of the full committee. The Graduate College requires a minimum of six months from the time of the preliminary oral examination until the time of the final oral examination (i.e., dissertation defense).

NOTE: Once you have confirmed a date and time for your preliminary examination with your committee, contact the graduate support specialist at least two weeks in advance of the exam date to reserve a room. The graduate support specialist will also submit the online request for preliminary oral examination to the Graduate College. Also, please let the graduate support specialist know if you have a committee member who intends to participate in the exam from a distance.

Milestone 4: Dissertation proposal (completed by no later than semester prior to final oral examination)

The dissertation proposal and the proposed study will reflect the nature of the question(s) central to the student’s inquiry and the methodological and disciplinary tradition(s) in which the inquiry is situated. The proposal is submitted to the full committee at least two weeks prior to the dissertation proposal meeting. Students must submit these materials to the major professor for approval prior to submitting to the full committee. In most cases, this is an iterative process of drafts and revisions. The major professor must approve the materials that go to the full committee. Students are required to obtain Institutional Review Board (human subjects) approval for all dissertations. This approval may occur before or after the POSC approves the proposal. Students are advised, however, that it is not uncommon for the POSC to require changes to the study as part of the approval process.

At the proposal meeting, the committee provides the student with feedback on the proposal and may recommend changes to the study. Students should not begin data collection activities until the POSC has approved the proposed study and the student has obtained Institutional Review Board approval for the study. At the conclusion of the dissertation proposal meeting, the committee will have reached consensus about the parameters of the proposed study or determined that further work is needed on the proposal and requested a future proposal meeting be held to review the revised proposal.


Students conduct the dissertation research and write the dissertation with guidance from the major professor. This is an iterative process that typically entails multiple drafts and revisions. Once the major professor has approved the final draft, the student may schedule the final oral examination (two hours).

Students submit the dissertation to the full committee at least two weeks prior to the final oral examination. (Be aware there are other deadlines involving the Graduate College and the thesis office.)

Milestone 5: Final oral examination/dissertation defense (completed by the end of the fifth year)

Students meet with the full committee and are questioned/examined on their dissertation research. Typically, students are asked to begin the meeting with a brief overview of the dissertation research and the written product. At the end of this examination/meeting, the committee determines whether the student passes. The possible outcomes of the final oral examination are pass, conditional pass, and fail. The POSC will record the outcome of the examination and sign the report of final oral examination, which is submitted to the Graduate College.

Students who earn a pass may still have to complete minor revisions to the written dissertation before it is submitted. If students earn a conditional pass, the POSC establishes additional criteria that must meet prior to earning a pass and determines who (major professor, some committee members, full committee) is responsible for reviewing and evaluating students’ work on the additional criteria; these are documented on the examination report form. If a student earns a fail on the examination, the committee will determine (and note on the form) whether the student is allowed to retake the final oral examination (at least two months must elapse before the exam can be retaken.

If students pass the final oral examination and resolve any outstanding issues identified by the Graduate College, they have officially completed their doctoral studies. Be aware of Graduate College deadlines and requirements for submission of the final dissertation.

Note: Once you have confirmed a date and time for your final oral examination with your committee, contact the graduate support specialist at least three weeks in advance of the exam date to reserve a room. She will also submit the online request for final oral examination to the Graduate College. Also, please let the graduate support specialist know if you have a committee member who intends to participate in the exam from a distance.

Ph.D. timeline overview

Milestone 1: Program of Study and committee approved by the end of the third semester

Milestone 2: Preliminary examination proposal completed no later than the semester prior to the preliminary examination

Milestone 3: Preliminary oral examination completed by the end of the third year, no later than the fourth year

Milestone 4: Dissertation proposal completed no later than the semester prior to the final oral examination/dissertation defense

Milestone 5: Final oral examination/dissertation defense completed by the end of the fifth year