Through your dissertation or doctoral study, you have the opportunity to address a real-world problem and make an original contribution to your field. In September, award recipients Dr. Vicky D. Woodruff ’12, a PhD in Health Services alumna, and Dr. Kristal D. Ayres ’11, a Doctor of Education (EdD) alumna, shared tips with students at a Walden University residency in Atlanta, Ga., to help them complete their degrees.

Start with your passion. Dr. Ayres is driven to ensure that all high school students have equitable opportunities, including the option to enroll in AP courses. “I wanted to create a level playing field,” she explained. Using this as a starting point, she looked into the existing research conducted on a program that was recently implemented in her school district, which led to the next logical step—data.

Find available data. “I was sitting on a gold mine of data,” said Dr. Ayres, who used a study conducted from 2003–2010 to capture comparative data before and after her school district implemented a new curriculum. Dr. Woodruff agrees, and added that you should develop good working relationships with the people who are in charge of the data. You may also need a written legal agreement. Sort through those details first, she advised.

Interview your committee. Dr. Jeff Snodgrass brought expert experience to the committee that fit with Dr. Woodruff’s policy and clinical needs for her dissertation, which examined the predictors of specific patients’ risks for complications after surgery. “Build a committee that understands and is passionate about your goals,” she explained. “It would be impossible to do the work alone. With the support of your committee, you’ll have a great team on your side.”

Only ask questions that can be answered. Use your “rich and powerful data” to your full advantage, Dr. Ayres said, but stick within its confines. Also, determine early on if there are any biases in the data, added Dr. Woodruff. Your goal is to create an airtight study.

Think about your work as part of an international dialogue. What else is published on your topic? “Understand your data in a broader context,” Dr. Ayres said. “Be actively engaged and ask a lot of questions until you get answers.” In sum, “Identify a problem and become an expert. Ask questions until you get answers,” she concluded.

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