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Use of a PERT chart to improve efficiency of the dissertation.


Efficiencies are needed to speed the dissertation process and graduation of prospective new faculty. We used a workflow process, the PERT chart, to organize and manage the many time-delimited tasks necessary for a complex dissertation. This article presents a case example that describes our experience and timely completion of the dissertation. PERT charts are useful tools to improve efficiency in nursing education.


Academic Dissertations--Theses and Dissertations--Academic Advisement--Graduate Nursing Education--Time Management


The aging of the nurse faculty workforce and the demand for more nursing faculty to educate the nurses needed to accommodate the anticipated volume of new patients entering the health care system due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is fueling a drive to speed the graduation of more nurses with PhDs (Institute of Medicine (IOM), 2011). The average PhD program in nursing takes four to six years to complete. While the timeline for completing course work is generally established and predictable, the time to complete a quality dissertation is less predictable.

The dissertation requires a complex process with interdependent tasks often involving many people. Delays in completing these tasks prolong completion of the dissertation and graduation. This article presents a time management strategy designed to help students and advisers improve efficiency and timeliness in completing the dissertation.


Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) charts were used by the United States Navy's Special Projects Office in the 1960s to produce ballistic missiles for the new Polaris submarine (Malcolm, Rosebloom, Clark, & Fazar, 1959). The process was so successful in managing complex projects that it has been adopted as a tool in many other industries.

The PERT chart is a visual representation of the "what" (what tasks are needed), the "who" (who does them), and by "when" (length of time and critical due date) necessary to complete a project. Each task must be completed by a set time so that subsequent tasks can be addressed. Elements of uncertainty are included in the project milestones to alert the individual or team to barriers to a timely achievement of the goal.

PERTs vary by complexity of the project and how much detail is desired, but overall, they are designed to simplify complex projects. To create the visual display, the PERT chart can be drawn by hand or can be created with a variety of software applications. PERT charts created with software are preferable as a one-page handout. Software permits critical tasks to be altered based on unforeseen delays, and charts can be reprinted and shared with those responsible for completing tasks in a timely fashion leading to the goal. In the case example presented here, the PERT was created using Microsoft Visio, 2010 edition (Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA) and served as a contract between student and adviser to monitor critical tasks leading to completion of the dissertation.


The college of nursing in this example has had its own PhD program since 2001. Forty-one students have graduated, and 69 are currently enrolled. In their final semester of didactic instruction, students take a course called Scientific Inquiry, which is designed to provide a quality online learning experience and facilitate timely completion of the dissertation.

During the course, students are required to create a PERT chart for the final product, a National Institutes of Health R21 proposal, and to receive scientific writing instruction from faculty in the university's writing center. The R21 assignment is also designed to further the students' progress toward designing their dissertations. After completing all didactic requirements and passing the comprehensive examination, students have the option to create a PERT chart for the dissertation and continue their work with the writing center.

This case example demonstrates how one former student used a PERT chart to manage her time, including time spent working with the writing center and dissertation committee, to complete a complex dissertation (Hudson, 2013). The dissertation was conducted using a mixed-methods design. Quantitative data (from retrospective medical records review) and qualitative data (from interviews and focus groups) were collected and analyzed concurrently, then merged to identify convergent and divergent findings.

First, the student identified the beginning point of the PERT chart, institutional review board approval, and the end point of the PERT chart, dissertation defense. Next, the student created a list of tasks that were critical to completion. These tasks were arranged in chronological order (some were to occur concurrently), and time required for each task was estimated. The dissertation chair and the student negotiated an anticipated defense date, and the student drafted a timeline beginning with this date and worked backward, using the times estimated for each task. The timeline draft included projected critical dates of completion for each task and, where appropriate, person(s) responsible.

Committee members reviewed preliminary versions of the PERT chart and provided feedback. This process was repeated in an iterative manner until a feasible PERT chart was created. The chart was shared with everyone listed so that each person was aware of the timeline. The student regularly reviewed the PERT chart to ensure tasks were being completed in a timely manner and to plan accordingly for future tasks.

The PERT chart was revised when unforeseen delays affected the timeline. For example, an unexpected lack of potential participants delayed qualitative data collection. Approximately three months before the anticipated defense date, the student reserved a location and equipment for the dissertation defense and revised the PERT chart to reflect the official defense date (see Figure). The PERT chart was an especially valuable tool toward end of the dissertation process, when timely exchange of manuscripts and feedback between the student and committee members was critical.


PERT charts are valuable tools to improve efficiency in complex projects involving many people. We use the PERT chart to establish a contract between the doctoral student and her committee so that everyone understands their role and time commitment to completing the dissertation. Charts are also useful to identify and work through barriers to completion, instead of allowing time to pass without a resolution. For example, glitches in data collection can be identified early and the committee can work with the student to propose strategies to collect data by the milestone indicated.

In the case study presented, the student encountered a delay in recruiting subjects to interview. The PERT chart alerted her to the barriers to planned completion of this task before significant time was lost and an alternative approach to recruiting was implemented, which minimized the delay in completing the dissertation. In summary, the PERT chart was found to be a very useful tool to improve efficiency and timely completion of the dissertation.

doi: 10.5480/13-1236


Hudson, S. M.. (2013). Risk and protective factors for hospital admissions and emergency department visits among children with complex chronic conditions (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3570237)

Institute of Medicine. (2011). The future of nursing: Leading change, advancing health. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Malcolm, D., Rosebloom, J., Clark, C., & Fazar, W. (1959). Application of a technique for research and development program evaluation. Operations Research, 7, 646-649.

Linda J. Caputi, Editor

Shannon M. Hudson, PhD, RN, Alumnus CCRN, is an instructor, and Marilyn A. Laken, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a professor, Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing, Charleston. For more information, contact Dr. Hudson at
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Title Annotation:Innovation Center
Author:Hudson, Shannon M.; Laken, Marilyn A.
Publication:Nursing Education Perspectives
Article Type:Report
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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