Updated 1 June 2020
If you’re working on your PhD, you’ll know how important it is to ensure that your dissertation proposal is on-point.
Your dissertation (or doctoral thesis) will be the crowning glory of your academic achievements. It’s typically written after you’ve completed your PhD classes and passed your exams.
The purpose of a doctoral PhD dissertation is to demonstrate to a committee that you can conduct a thorough research project that will provide an original contribution to your chosen field. Regardless of what subject you are studying, we know that thinking about your thesis and preparing a proposal can be daunting.
At WikiJob, we’re here to help – which is why we’ve pulled together a dissertation proposal template as well as general advice on how you can make the most of your proposal.
When it comes to postgraduate studies, academic research is based on original findings and contributions. It’s not about re-hashing something which has already been written before – it’s about finding new niche areas that haven’t yet been explored in any depth.
Your dissertation proposal is the start of this process. You need to be able to show to your dissertation committee:
While the proposal may differ slightly from your final written thesis, it should be used as a guide to formulate the strategy of your approach.
The proposal is also an important tool for your dissertation committee to ensure that you are given the right support throughout the research and writing process.
When you submit your proposal to the committee, they will have the opportunity to help you shape and develop your plans before you begin your research, as well as make sure that you are advised by the most suitable member of the team.
Choosing your dissertation topic may be one of the most important decisions you make during your postgraduate course.
Here are a few practical tips which will help you choose the right topic for your dissertation:
Once you’ve come to your final decision, it’s time to start crafting your dissertation proposal.
Knowing what to include can be a minefield – it’s always worth speaking with your advisors to confirm the word length and format before writing. You may find that some universities have specific requirements for proposal submissions, so make sure that you’re clear on what is expected.
To help you prepare, we’ve created a sample dissertation proposal template. This should guide you through what you need to include and why.
The first part of any proposal document is the outline introduction which will explain your dissertation topic choice and rationale for the research.
You may wish to provide an overview of the wider background of your dissertation topic so that the committee can understand how your research fits into the sector.
You will need to describe what your hypothesis is and explain what you are hoping to achieve within the research itself.
Academic panels will be interested in your rationale behind your chosen methodology. They will want to know how you plan to conduct your research; not just how you plan to collect your data but also how you intend to analyse your findings.
You need to confirm if you plan to take a quantitative or qualitative approach; how you plan to gain access to your data subjects and how you plan to conduct the analysis. You need to have a strong rationale for your decision-making process – it’s the role of the panel to continually ask ‘Why?’ so you need to feel confident that you have the answers.
In your methodology, you may also want to reference how you plan to eliminate matters of bias (conscious or unconscious) and explain the scope of the research. If you are conducting personal interviews, how many will you choose to do and why? If you’re sending out a survey, how many responses do you need to be able to generalise the findings on a larger scale?
Knowing the details behind your methodology from the very start of the dissertation process will ensure greater ease and success as you start to make your conclusions.
As with any sort of proposal, you should always be clear of your aims and objectives. Simply put, this is what you want to achieve and why.
When it comes to PhD dissertations, your research needs to be as specific as possible. Therefore, you want to have only one or two clear and defined objectives.
Your committee will also want you to have a strong rationale to back up your reasons why – in some cases, you may be required to outline this within your proposal.
Understanding the importance of aims/objectives is a unique skill and one which will take you far in the professional world. Those who understand the importance of ‘what’ and ‘why’ will be able to use this style of rational thinking in business proposals and marketing strategies, making it a hugely valuable skill in the workplace.
The literature review will provide evidence for why you believe your research is needed using an analysis of published works. It makes sense that this process should be carried out at proposal stage as it will be the rationale for the project.
You may find that it is useful to keep a lookout for newly published research throughout the process of writing your dissertation.
You can use the literature review to justify your chosen methodology or to showcase why you feel a different perspective may be needed. The literature review is more than just listing academic references, you should try to provide a critique of each of the works on your list – can you see areas for improvements in any of the findings? How will it inform your research project?
Make sure you keep a comprehensive list as you go of all your research to inform your bibliography. Don’t forget, it will need to be written in an academic referencing style.
This section will link your literature review back to your rationale. Through your extensive study, you will likely have come to your own conclusion about what you expect to find, so you need to know what constraints may limit your research.
Consider the limitations of similar projects – you may find yourself coming up against something similar. If so, how can you work beyond these limitations to improve your research? Your limitations may involve basic practical issues which you need to consider before starting your study.
For example, if you’re going to send out an online research survey, how will you gain access to subjects’ email data to send out your survey? In a post-GDPR world, you need to have auditable consent from your data subjects to email them.
You may also need to consider open rates, bounce backs and incentives for completion – after all, you need to gain as much data as possible to be thorough.
Beyond your limitations, there may also be ethical ramifications to consider as part of your dissertation proposal.
You will also need to factor in the legal requirements of how you store and protect your participants’ personal data. Can you remove any identifying information before publishing your results?
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider. Whilst you may not necessarily be required to include details of ethics within your written proposal, you should assume that the panel will ask you about this so it’s wise to consider your answers.
The final consideration for your dissertation proposal is that of timeliness. How long do you think it will take you to complete each element and is this realistic?
You may think that it could take you three weeks to conduct your research but check if there is anything scheduled during that period that could cause a delay.
Even the best-laid timetables will inevitably fall behind schedule. Your PhD may take up to four years so you’ll likely be well aware of the difficult balance between study and life – not to mention adding in work as well.
When you are estimating your timeframe, it’s always wise to add in a few breaks. This will not only allow you some much-needed rest but will give you an opportunity to catch up if you fall behind.
Your dissertation advisors will use your timescale plan to help keep you on track and ensure that you finish on time.
Hopefully, by now, you’ll be feeling a little bit more confident about what a sample dissertation proposal entails. To recap, we’ve listed our final few tips on how you can make the most of your proposal:
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