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Last Revision: January 30, 2024

Doctoral Program Milestones

All doctoral program milestones must be completed successfully in order to continue progressing toward the degree. Failure to complete a program milestone will result in academic dismissal.  


The electronic portfolio provides a means for you to demonstrate that you have achieved the learning objectives of the program. This portfolio is developed throughout the doctoral courses by contributing artifacts from your courses and projects. You will be prompted to add polished artifacts (e.g., paper, project, multimedia presentation) as you complete your coursework. Before you may advance to the dissertation, you will complete an oral defense to demonstrate how you have met programmatic learning objectives. Your portfolios, written assessment, and oral defense are evaluated by a committee of doctoral faculty. 


In order to receive approval for your dissertation project, you will write a dissertation proposal and complete an oral defense with your dissertation committee. This proposal occurs in year three of the doctoral program.

Dissertation Proposal: The dissertation proposal establishes the background and need for the study, the literature review, the research questions or hypotheses, the theoretical framework, the methods, the data analysis procedures, and the significance of the study for the field. For more detailed information on the proposal, please see instructions from your program.

You must pass an oral defense of your proposal by your dissertation committee in order to proceed with the dissertation research. Outcomes of the oral defense may be “Pass,” “Pass with Revisions,” or “Fail.”

  • Pass - committee approves dissertation proposal and you may proceed with dissertation research.
  • Pass with Revisions - committee members designate specific revisions to the proposal and stipulate that you may proceed upon satisfactorily completing the revisions.
  • Fail - you are requested to substantially rewrite the proposal and then conduct another oral defense. You must pass the dissertation proposal defense within 3 attempts or you will receive a Fail.

Human Subjects Research: When the dissertation project involves human subjects research, you are required to seek approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before conducting the study. Before seeking IRB approval, you must first have the dissertation proposal approved by your dissertation committee via your Dissertation Proposal Defense. The Dissertation Chair should assist you in developing and submitting an IRB protocol and are responsible for overseeing the research project.

Dissertation Completion and Defense: Please see the Dissertation Manual for more detailed explanations of the dissertation process.

Dissertation Chair: You and your dissertation chair establish dissertation timelines, including a schedule for submitting work and providing feedback, in order to ensure timely progress on the dissertation project. You and your dissertation chair also agree on when to share dissertation drafts with committee members and what role each committee member plays in providing feedback on the project (e.g., methodological support, statistical advice).

Dissertation Committee: The dissertation committee is composed of your dissertation chair and at least one other faculty member from APUS. In addition, you are required to have one external member who must be approved by the Program Director and whose curriculum vitae must be submitted as part of committee formation. Students are responsible for forming their dissertation committees, gaining approval for their committees, and submitting appropriate committee forms. Dissertation committees must be formed and approved before you can defend your dissertation proposal. Each doctoral program at APUS provides guidance on the appropriate timeline for forming a dissertation committee and a specific deadline for committee approval. Please seek assistance from your Program Director if you are having difficulty creating a dissertation committee. Each member of the committee must approve your dissertation proposal and the final dissertation through the oral defense and review process.

Change in Committees: To request a change in committee chair or member a doctoral student must fill out the Change in Committee form and write a letter of justification to submit to the Program Director.  A change can only be made with the approval of the Program Director. 

In the event of a dispute between the student and members of the committee or between members of the committee, the committee chair will call a meeting to resolve the problem. If no solution is reached, the disagreeing party or the Program Director may request that the school doctoral leadership review the problem and recommend a solution. If no resolution is reached, the dispute can be appealed to the school dean. This will be the final level of appeal.

Defense Timeline: When the dissertation is determined by the chair to be complete, you submit a full copy of the dissertation to committee members at least four weeks in advance of the scheduled defense. If committee members have substantial reservations about the defensibility of the dissertation, they must inform the dissertation chair and you at least two weeks before the scheduled defense date.

Defense Format: At the defense, you will give an oral presentation, open to the public, which summarizes your project and the contribution of the dissertation to professional practice in the field. Following this public defense, including question and answer from audience members, the dissertation committee will hold a closed-door session with you, to address remaining questions with the study.

Defense Outcomes: Possible outcomes for the dissertation defense are “Pass with Distinction,” “Pass,” “Pass with Revisions,” or “Fail.” Committee members award a “Pass with Distinction” if they believe you have produced a study worthy of publication in a top-tier venue (either academic or trade publication).

  • Pass with Distinction - indicates that the dissertation is of superior quality and would meet standards for publication in a peer reviewed journal.
  • Pass-indicates that you have successfully completed the dissertation and are ready to submit it for graduation.
  • Pass with Revisions - indicates that you need to complete specific revisions and receive approval from the committee before submitting the dissertation for graduation.
  • Fail - indicates that the dissertation needs substantial revisions. You must schedule another oral defense within 6 months of the original defense, in coordination with the faculty advisor and committee.

Submitting the Dissertation: After the committee has approved the final draft of the dissertation, you are required to submit it to the APUS Repository and to the ProQuest Theses and Dissertations database in order to graduate.