How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

Updated 1 June 2020

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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.

Why Is Your Dissertation Proposal so Important?

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:

  • What you plan to do
  • How you plan to collect your data
  • Your chosen analysis
  • What you expect to find as a result

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.

Practical Tips to Help You Choose Your Dissertation Topic

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:

  • Make sure it’s original. We’ve already mentioned that your PhD proposal should showcase your interest in conducting original research. It’s important that you choose a topic area which has the scope for new research and not one which is attempting to use already-collected data from previous research studies.

  • What interests you? We recommend that you work through your previous course content and see what stands out to you. Writing a proposal document and subsequent thesis will many hours, so you need to feel confident that you can maintain your levels of interest throughout. Perhaps there was a particular lecture that you enjoyed, or maybe you think you’ve found an area that lacks specific academic research. Perhaps you want to focus on an area of research that will aid your professional ambitions; think about how you can use your knowledge in a professional context as well as an academic perspective.

  • Avoid unconscious bias. When formulating your dissertation proposal, you should work with your advisors to ensure that your topic isn’t impacted by unconscious bias. It is easy to choose a specific topic merely because you have access to a data population or you believe that it fits in with your preferred research methodology. Your advisors should help you to make the right decisions which will have a positive impact on your overall dissertation.

  • What information is already available? Have a read through of previous PhD topics and see what fellow alumni have written. You may be inspired by them, or you may find yourself disagreeing with their findings. There’s nothing wrong with conducting your own research to provide evidence questioning theories put by others.

  • Speak to professionals within the chosen field. Whilst you will gain fantastic advice from your dissertation committee, they will likely have spent considerable time working solely in academia. When choosing your final topic, you should speak to industry/sector leaders/professional bodies and find out their viewpoints as to new theories and models. and learn how your research could have an impact on the sector itself.

Dissertation Proposal: Example Template

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.

Introduction

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.

Methodology

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.

Objectives

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.

Literature/Research Review

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.

Limitations

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.

Ethics

Beyond your limitations, there may also be ethical ramifications to consider as part of your dissertation proposal.

For instance:

  • If you have easy access to data subjects due to a familial relationship, you may need to disclose the information to retain authority.

  • If you’re recruiting external subjects to respond to a survey, you might need to consider incentivisation to encourage responses and, if so, you should consider the effect this might have on the integrity of the data.

  • Consider how you might avoid any risks of bias within your research questions themselves.

  • How will you obtain the consent of participants to publish their responses?

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.

Timescales

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.

Five Tips for Writing Your Dissertation Proposal

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:

  1. Check the required length and format – More important than anything else, make sure you are clear on what your university is looking for. Whilst the information in this article gives guidance for a dissertation proposal example, it might not be what your school requires. Make sure you’re aware of word length, preferred format, specific headings and deadline dates before you start writing.

  2. Make use of your dissertation supervisor – Your advisor is there to help you throughout the whole process. If you have an idea, make sure you speak to them about it – they may know of similar research or be able to shape your idea into a new form. They can answer basic questions (such as deadlines or word lengths) or they can help you make decisions on methodology and research processes. When you’re working on a PhD, it may feel that you’re working alone, but your supervisor is there to be part of your team – so use them.

  3. Be aware of what you want to achieve – As you head deep into research and analysis, it can be easy to find yourself down a never-ending rabbit hole. Make sure you bring everything back to your original objectives – you need to be clear of what you are looking to find with your research and what you want to achieve.

  4. Remember, the dissertation proposal is a fluid document – As we stated at the start of this article, you may find that your proposal is a different beast to your final written thesis. Use your proposal as a guide to what you want to do and how, but if your data is telling you something different then, clearly, you’ll need to adapt.

  5. Think beyond academia – Finally, try to consider how you can use the knowledge you gain throughout your PhD studies in the professional world. You should think about the wider implications of what you are researching and how it can impact different sectors. Make use of industry leaders and professional bodies to give you a different perspective and train of thought.

Further Reading

You might be interested in these other WikiJob articles:

How to Write Your Dissertation Methodology

How to Choose a Good Dissertation Topic

What Exactly Is a Postgraduate Degree? A Guide

What Is a PhD

5 Key Differences Between Postgrad and Undergrad Study

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