HPER Student Handbook

Approval Process for PhD Dissertation Research Proposal

1. Dissertation Research Committee

In consultation with the supervisor, the student selects members for his/her committee. The supervisor, who functions as chair of the dissertation research committee, must have his/her primary School of Graduate Studies (SGS) appointment through IHPME. Committee members are chosen on the basis of their expertise in the student’s area of research. Committee members are normally Continuing Members of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) of the University of Toronto. It is possible to appoint a committee member from another university who has similar graduate faculty status at her/his university. In this instance, the supervisor must obtain a copy of the outside member’s CV and forward it to the MSc/PhD Program Director who, in turn, will arrange temporary SGS graduate faculty status for the outside member. Most PhD dissertation research committees will consist of three working members (including the supervisor); the supervisor must be a full member of the School of Graduate Studies. When all committee members have been selected and have agreed to serve, the supervisor is responsible for notifying the MSc/PhD Program Director of the membership of the dissertation research committee. This information will be placed in the student’s file.

2. The Dissertation

2.1 Introduction

The dissertation is an original piece of scholarly research on a topic that has been selected by the student and approved by the supervisor and the student’s dissertation research committee. The dissertation is a major undertaking that reflects the highest standards of scholarship and makes a significant contribution to knowledge and practice in the field of health services research.

Work on the dissertation is conducted under the supervision of the supervisor and in consultation with the dissertation research committee. The first step is the completion of the dissertation  research proposal which is evaluated by the supervisor, the dissertation research committee and an external reviewer at a Dissertation Research Proposal Approval meeting. When the proposal is approved the student can proceed with obtaining ethics approval and, once achieved, can begin their reseaerch. The student should be meeting with their supervisor and committee at regular intervals. It is important that the student keep both the supervisor and the committee informed of her/his progress.

When the thesis is completed and has met with the approval of the thesis committee, the student proceeds to the Oral Examination. If at all possible, students are encouraged to present their research results in the Seminar Series prior to the final defence.

2.2 The Dissertation Research Proposal

The dissertation research proposal is developed with the supervisor and the supervisory committee in a series of iterative steps.  Normally the committee meets to discuss the dissertation research project generally, after which, drafts of the proposal are submitted to the supervisor and committee for feedback and revision .

The dissertation research proposal is usually 30-40 pages in length, double spaced, excluding references and the work plan.  The proposal should contain the following elements:

  • Title: The title should give a clear indication of the topic being studied.
  • The Problem: The proposal should contain a description of the study problem which includes specification of the study question(s), justification for their selection in relation to previous research and to the literature, and the potential relevance of the research findings.
  • Theoretical Framework and Background Information: Following a concise and critical review of the theoretical and research literatures, the proposal should discuss the major theoretical premises and the salient concepts which underlie the problem or question(s).  The proposal should then outline a framework, based on literature, for analyzing the problem and question(s).
  • Design and Methods (some aspects may vary depending on the nature of the study): The type of research design should be clearly explained (e.g., survey, archival, descriptive, interpretive, experimental) as should the reasons for selecting it, including its merits and limitations.  The questions and/or hypotheses for the dissertation research are formulated clearly and in such a way that all the study variables and their anticipated relationships are specified. The proposal should offer operational definitions of each of the study variables.Sampling procedures should be clearly outlined, including theoretical and practical reasons for selecting the population or date base from which the sample is to be drawn.  Sample size, or details of any data base, should be included.Data collection methods should be described in detail as should their relationship to the theoretical and conceptual issues associated with the dissertation research project.  Interview schedules, procedures for analysis of data bases, coding methods, coding methods, recording methods, instruments, or any other proposed data collection techniques must be included.
  • Data Analysis: The methods of analyses appropriate for the study design should be fully described and justified, including their strengths and weaknesses.  The proposal should be clear about any conceptual or theoretical issues relating to the analysis of the data.
  • Work Plan: The proposal should include a detailed work plan, with estimates of time needed to complete each phase of the proposed research. Alternatives should be outlined for those elements of the work plan which may prove problematic.

2.3 Proposal Approval

Once the supervisor, committee and student agree on the proposal, the supervisor sends a memo to the HPER PhD Program Director requesting a meeting of the Proposal Approval Committee. This committee is convened and chaired by the HPER PhD Program Director (or designate) and includes the supervisor, all committee members, and an external reviewer. The supervisor and the student should select the reviewer and inform the IHPME office of the reviewer’s name at least 2 weeks prior to the defense date. The reviewer should be selected using the following criteria:

  • The reviewer should be external to the committee but can be internal to IHPME
  • The reviewer should be someone who has sufficient expertise in the student’s area of research
  • The reviewer need not have an SGS appointment, as long as they are external to the student’s committee and a recognized expert in the field.

The student must submit copies of the dissertation research proposal to each member of the Committee at least two weeks prior to the meeting. The reviewer is expected to actively participate in questioning the student. Ordinarily, the reviewer will be the first questioner and will be given more time for questions than other attendees. Proposal Assessment Criteria (see 2.4 below) is provided to the reviewer and are intended to serve as guidelines for the assessment. No formal written comments are required from the reviewer.

The student can proceed to collection of data and preparation of their dissertation research ONLY AFTER APPROVAL of their proposal has been obtained from the Approval Committee and only after Ethical Approval has also been obtained.

During the Proposal Approval meeting, the student presents a brief summary (20 minutes maximum) of the dissertation research proposal to the committee and responds to questions raised. The student then leaves the room, and the committee votes to accept the Proposal as is, with corrections, with minor modifications or with substantial revisions based on their assessment of the written proposal and the student’s responses to questions. Voting procedures follow those used with the MSc or PhD defences. The supervisor is responsible for recording the discussion and recommendation and revisions. Following the meeting, the supervisor is responsible for meeting with the student to discuss revisions recommended during the Proposal Approval meeting. If corrections or minor modifications have been recommended, the student sends a memo, outlining her/her understanding of the revisions to be made to the supervisor, dissertation research committee and external reviewer (with a copy to the MSc/PhD Program Director). Once agreement is obtained on the revisions, the student, supervisor, and Program Director sign the Proposal Approval form. The form and attached description of the revisions are placed in the student’s file and the student status is updated to Candidate.

In those instances when major revisions have been recommended, the student revises the proposal accordingly. The Approval Committee is reconvened and a second adjudication of the proposal proceeds as described above. Only when final approval has been obtained may the student proceed with submissions for ethics approval.

2.4 Dissertation Research Proposal Assessment Criteria

The following criteria are to be considered by the Supervisor and Proposal Review Committee members in adjudicating the merits of the student’s Proposal.

  1. To what extent is the research question focused and researchable?
  2. To what extent is there a coherent and relevant review of the literature in support of the research question?
  3. To what extent are the design and methods appropriate and clearly articulated? Are sampling strategies and other sources of information well thought out and appropriate? Are the variables clearly described and their operational definitions outlined? Are the planned analyses appropriate?
  4. Is the proposal work plan feasible?

2.5 Dissertation Research Oral Defence

Please see Guidelines for the PhD Final Oral Examination – SGS

For the PhD Dissertation Oral Examination in IHPME, the  examination committee consists of  an examiner external to the University of Toronto (external), an examiner external to the student’s thesis committee (internal), an Institutional Representative (normally the Graduate Coordinator), two committee members and the thesis supervisor.  The internal and external examiners must not be in a conflict of interest position with the supervisor or student (i.e. no joint publications or research grants or working closely together). If a student has more than two members on their supervisory committee, they must elect (with their supervisor) who will be voting members at the final oral examination. Final oral examinations at the University of Toronto are closed examinations; if additional guests (such as additional committee members) would like to attend the final defence, a request in writing must be made to SGS.