1. Identify a problem in an area that interests you. This could be large, or small, but it needs to be something you feel that you could solve. Perhaps it's simply an investigation into why something continues to happen, or perhaps its a trial for a new method of teaching. In my case, I saw the "problem" being that education has become too standardized and lacks culture, context, and motivation. The way we teach is based too much on legacy models, and not on engaging ideas.
2. You need to design an experiment in which you investigate the problem, collect data, and reach conclusions. Along the way, you're expected to research a comprehensive amount of existing literature on the topic to show you're not copying something, but in fact adding to the field.
3. These first two steps must be carefully written up in three "chapters". Chapter 1 explores the problem and your ideas, Chapter 2 explores all existing research on the topic, and Chapter 3 details the exact elements of your study
4. You must present this "proposal" to a committee which consists of three people. The committee chair serves as your mentor through the process, though you require the signatures of all three in order to move on.
5. When your study has been approved (these initial few steps usually take around 6-9 months) you may begin to collect your data. This can take anywhere from weeks, to months, to years in some cases. I collected my data over the course of two and half months.
6. Once your data is collected, you have to write two more "chapters". Chapter 4 explains your data and findings in a clear, and manageable way. If your study involved numerical data, this is usually a brief section, but if it uses qualitative information, it's good deal longer.
7. Chapter 5 requires you to bring everything together and answer your research questions. Did your method work? If so, how much? Did it fail and achieve negative results? Were the results inconclusive? Ultimately, you need to decide what new information you found. Even a "failure" offers something new.
8. All of your chapters are sent back and forth and between you and the committee until everyone is on board with the study. This process can take months at times as the final documents is usually hundreds of pages in length.
9. Once everyone is content with the study, you schedule your final defense. At this event, you present your study to the general public, and then defend your ideas, methods, and findings to both the committee and the world at large (assuming the whole world comes to watch).
10. After the defense is complete, you meet the committee, discuss any final lexical changes, and then you're awarded the title of doctor. All in all, the process from conception to fruition takes 1-2 years. I wrote my first draft of Ch. 1 back in October 2013, and finished my final draft of the final chapter at the end of October 2014. Even so, there were months of research and planning before the writing began.
And so, I'm just a few hours away from completing step 9 and 10. Here goes nothing...
Update: Defense complete!