How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

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Brace yourself: the next sentence is going to sound major. Writing a dissertation is the culminating event of your graduate school career.

It's also a source of great anxiety for many students. However, even though writing a graduate dissertation involves several steps, if you take them one at a time, the process may not seem so . . . dreadful.

The first step of your dissertation proposal process is—brace yourself again—writing a dissertation proposal.

According to the American Heritage® Dictionary, a dissertation proposal is a "lengthy, formal treatise, especially one written by a candidate for the doctoral degree at a university; a thesis." More simply, it is your chance to convince your faculty thesis committee that your research question is one worth pursuing in your dissertation.

Dissertation proposal preparation

As you start to think about your dissertation proposal, begin by thinking about the bigger picture, and pare down from there. Write down all of your ideas even if they don't seem to all fit together. You can go back later and choose what interests you. Keep in mind that your dissertation is meant to fulfill an academic requirement—so it is a learning experience and quite a serious endeavor.

Now is the time to do preliminary research to pare down your thoughts and determine whether there is enough information available to explore and test your ideas. However, you don't have to engage in extensive reading and research on every relevant piece of literature you come across. This is simply a time to get enough background and information to ensure that your dissertation will be successful and original.

Discuss your ideas for the proposal with your thesis/dissertation advisor and with the professors you would like to have on your thesis committee. Heed their advice and criticism (and remember that they will eventually be your audience). You will also want to include a timeline in your proposal, as your committee will want to know how long you believe it will take you to meet your specific dissertation goals.

As you prepare to write your dissertation proposal, ask yourself if you have the necessary understanding, ability and motivation to complete your dissertation on the subject you have chosen. You also want to be sure that you are familiar with other research in that area. It is important to read other proposals to get a better idea of what is expected, as well as to ensure that your research is focused. Borrow successful proposals from your graduate school friends [see our article on the important of having friends in grad school], or ask a professor to share proposals submitted in the past by other graduate students.

Begin writing a dissertation proposal

One way of going about writing your dissertation proposal is to organize it around a set of questions with an appropriate methodology to answer those questions. Your problem statement should define and present an issued framed with specific questions. Your dissertation proposal should explain the importance of the problem, as well as the need for research within the context you have established.

Your dissertation proposal should answer the following questions:

  • What problem are you going to pursue?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • Why is it important to address?
  • Where are you going to look for answers?
  • Why are you going there?

Your dissertation proposal should revolve around a significant problem or issue that is of interest to you, your committee and the research community at large. It should include information about who will benefit from the research and what practical applicability your findings could have. You need to express the intention of your research, and be sure that your questions are concise and in question form.

The dissertation proposal should demonstrate that you:

  • have defined and delimited an interesting research question;
  • can explain the importance of the question to someone not intimately familiar with it;
  • can formulate testable hypotheses; and
  • have a detailed plan for testing the most promising hypotheses.

Dissertation proposal structure

Dissertation proposals should be written in the present tense and should contain an introduction, conceptual framework, methodology, literature review, a bibliography and appendices. The introduction should summarize the broad concepts and issues, and present your main research question. Get to the point in your introduction—there is no room for editorializing.

In your conceptual framework, be sure to define the terms you will be using and how they will be used. You must also detail your methodology, explaining what you plan to do and why. It is imperative to indicate how your methodology helps to answer your research questions. You will want to list the materials, evidence and data that you will use in order to prove your thesis, as well as what contribution you hope your research will make in the field.

With your literature review, identify the conceptual and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the existing research on your subject. The literature review is your opportunity to locate the gaps in existing research that your work could fill. The bibliography is rather self-explanatory. Your appendices should support and define your research.

You would be well-advised to write several drafts of your dissertation proposal before arriving at the final proposal. Most graduate students shy away from making bold claims for their work or potential work, but you need to step forward in your proposal and attempt to answer the big question: "So What?" Do your best to project the potential research outcomes and the importance of those outcomes. In short, how will your thesis contribute to the body of knowledge in your field of study?

Your final dissertation proposal should be titled, and include a title page and table of contents. Include a detailed timeline in your proposal. Most dissertation proposals are no less than 10 pages. However, the average length falls between 15 and 20 pages. Don't panic—if you have a strong hypothesis, identify the importance of your research and the prior research, and employ the proper methodology, you will be on your way to writing a successful dissertation proposal.

Next step: getting anagrammed items with "Dr." printed on it.

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