White woman with buzzcut in white button-up shirt sitting at desk, pen in hand

Writing a Strong Dissertation Proposal for Grad School

We won't sugarcoat it. Your dissertation is a big deal, but you can conquer it. Here's some advice on writing a dissertation for your master's or doctorate.

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.

Do your research

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.

Talk to your advisor and professors

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're familiar with other research in that area. It's 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, or ask a professor to share proposals submitted in the past by other graduate students.

Related: The Importance of Finding Balance as a Graduate Student

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.

Related: 4 Tips to Take Your Writing to the Graduate Level

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.

Your conceptual framework

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's imperative to indicate how your methodology helps to answer your research questions. You will want to list the materials, evidence, and data that you'll use in order to prove your thesis, as well as what contribution you hope your research will make in the field.

Your literature review

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.

Going through several drafts

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?

Final formatting

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.

Related: Why Time Management Is Your Best Friend in Grad School

Writing your dissertation is a major milestone that you’ll remember for most of your life, but don’t let that psyche you out. You’ve done the work and put in the time because you wanted to qualify yourself to pursue your passions. Your dissertation is a culmination of all that hard work—admittedly with quite a bit more work left to do. But you can do it. And you will do great!

Are you prepared to enter the workforce after grad school? Check out our Quick List of Job Search Tips for Graduate Students if you're still looking for opportunities!

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo

$10,000

Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

Hannah Nelsen

Hannah Nelsen

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has helped me look at colleges that fit my interests by taking my profile and matching it to colleges that have the programs I'm looking for. It has the ability to connect me to colleges so I can be contacted by them and look at them more in-depth to find what's right for me. Additionally, the scholarship database is super beneficial for getting scholarships for college. Not only does it help lift the financial burden of college but it shows all the opportunities available. Overall, CollegeXpress has been very helpful to me.

Caitlin Eaton

Caitlin Eaton

$10,000 Scholarship Winner, 2021

I first discovered CollegeXpress during my sophomore year of high school while researching colleges that interested me. My SAT prep class the following year further familiarized me with the opportunities available through the organization. CX has personally helped me by exposing me to a diverse selection of schools as well as scholarships and life tips that have provided valuable guidance in my college search.

This scholarship will help me adjust to college life without worrying as much about tuition. This gives me more room to truly explore and benefit from all aspects of higher education. I plan to study Conservation Biology and work protecting species/ecosystems. I’m looking forward to getting field experience and seeing firsthand the problems research is solving.

Casey Kammeyer

Casey Kammeyer

$500 Refer-A-Friend Scholarship Winner

I love the site CollegeXpress; it has been very helpful finding colleges and getting them to send me information. It has also been very, very helpful with finding tons of scholarships. Also, I told many of my friends about it and they love it as well!

Maya Ingraham

Maya Ingraham

October 2021 Mini Scholarship Winner, Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has given me more confidence in my college process. With easy-to-access resources and guidance such as the CX Weekly Roundup, I have been able to find the best colleges for me. Most importantly, there’s a surplus of scholarship opportunities for every student to support their education.

Michael

Michael

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress showed me that Western New England University was a great match for me both with curriculum and location. CollegeXpress is an excellent resource both future and current college students.

College Matches