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How to Write a Project Proposal
What is a project proposal.
A project proposal is your opportunity to sell your idea and get people on board. The goal of a project proposal is to share the pertinent details to demonstrate the merits of the project. Having done your due diligence, you will use a project proposal to outline the project and counter any obvious objections, presenting your case in a genuine and persuasive tone.
Key Features of a Project Proposal
An effective project proposal has several key features that will help you attain your goals.
- Introduction :The introduction is a succinct outline of the project, including history, time-frame and goals. Ideally, this is the hook that engages your readers.
- Context : Provide some context for the project with a bit of history. This is your chance to demonstrate how your project ties in with overall company goals and any existing projects.
- Problem : Identify the problem the project will address and resolve. Include the time-line of the project and any other pertinent details.
- Solution : Present the scope of the project as the solution to the problem. If possible, anticipate any objections, and address these issues in your overall solution.
A Winning Tone
The tone of your project proposal is a crucial element of the document. You want your readers to be able to relate to your message and get on board, so engagement will be the key. Establishing common ground can help you be more persuasive. Pay attention to your target audience too. Who are they? What’s important to them? How do they view themselves? Above all, you want to establish yourself as an expert with the experience necessary to launch and see the project through to fruition. Be careful not to come across as condescending though. Your proposal should persuade to answer your target audience’s question of why they need to participate.
Use a Project Proposal Sample
If you’re struggling with crafting your project proposal, you might peruse a few samples and templates to get some ideas for format and tone. Once you get ideas for overall organization, you can begin to fill in the sections with your introduction, history, problem identification and scope of the project.
What to Avoid
There are definitely a few things to avoid when writing your proposal:
- Writing a project proposal can be a competitive endeavor. Make sure your proposal hits the target by avoiding a few common pitfalls.
- Customize your proposal to suit your target audience. Never submit a generic proposal without specific details, or you risk having it ignored.
- Keep your proposal succinct and as brief as possible. Provide the required details directly without excess fluff.
- Proofread your proposal carefully to make sure it’s free of typos and errors.
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How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal
Published on September 21, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on November 15, 2022.
When starting your thesis or dissertation process, one of the first requirements is a research proposal or a prospectus. It describes what or who you want to examine, delving into why, when, where, and how you will do so, stemming from your research question and a relevant topic .
The proposal or prospectus stage is crucial for the development of your research. It helps you choose a type of research to pursue, as well as whether to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.
You can download our templates in the format of your choice below.
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Table of contents
What should your proposal contain, dissertation question examples, what should your proposal look like, dissertation prospectus examples, frequently asked questions about proposals.
Prior to jumping into the research for your thesis or dissertation, you first need to develop your research proposal and have it approved by your supervisor. It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives .
Depending on your department’s requirements, there may be a defense component involved, where you present your research plan in prospectus format to your committee for their approval.
Your proposal should answer the following questions:
- Why is your research necessary?
- What is already known about your topic?
- Where and when will your research be conducted?
- Who should be studied?
- How can the research best be done?
Ultimately, your proposal should persuade your supervisor or committee that your proposed project is worth pursuing.
Strong research kicks off with a solid research question , and dissertations are no exception to this.
Dissertation research questions should be:
- Focused on a single problem or issue
- Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
- Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
- Specific enough to answer thoroughly
- Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
- Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
- What are the main factors enticing people under 30 in suburban areas to engage in the gig economy?
- Which techniques prove most effective for 1st-grade teachers at local elementary schools in engaging students with special needs?
- Which communication streams are the most effective for getting those aged 18-30 to the polls on Election Day?
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An easy rule of thumb is that your proposal will usually resemble a (much) shorter version of your thesis or dissertation. While of course it won’t include the results section , discussion section , or conclusion , it serves as a “mini” version or roadmap for what you eventually seek to write.
Be sure to include:
- A succinct introduction to your topic and problem statement
- A brief literature review situating your topic within existing research
- A basic outline of the research methods you think will best answer your research question
- The perceived implications for future research
- A reference list in the citation style of your choice
The length of your proposal varies quite a bit depending on your discipline and type of work you’re conducting. While a thesis proposal is often only 3-7 pages long, a prospectus for your dissertation is usually much longer, with more detailed analysis. Dissertation proposals can be up to 25-30 pages in length.
Writing a proposal or prospectus can be a challenge, but we’ve compiled some examples for you to get your started.
- Example #1: “Geographic Representations of the Planet Mars, 1867-1907” by Maria Lane
- Example #2: “Individuals and the State in Late Bronze Age Greece: Messenian Perspectives on Mycenaean Society” by Dimitri Nakassis
- Example #3: “Manhood Up in the Air: A Study of Male Flight Attendants, Queerness, and Corporate Capitalism during the Cold War Era” by Phil Tiemeyer
The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question .
- If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis , use quantitative methods . If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods .
- If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
- If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables , use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.
A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.
Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation , such as:
- Your anticipated title
- Your abstract
- Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review , research methods , avenues for future research, etc.)
A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims, that you collect high-quality data, and that you use the right kind of analysis to answer your questions, utilizing credible sources . This allows you to draw valid , trustworthy conclusions.
The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:
- Your research questions and/or hypotheses
- Your overall approach (e.g., qualitative or quantitative )
- The type of design you’re using (e.g., a survey , experiment , or case study )
- Your sampling methods or criteria for selecting subjects
- Your data collection methods (e.g., questionnaires , observations)
- Your data collection procedures (e.g., operationalization , timing and data management)
- Your data analysis methods (e.g., statistical tests or thematic analysis )
A dissertation prospectus or proposal describes what or who you plan to research for your dissertation. It delves into why, when, where, and how you will do your research, as well as helps you choose a type of research to pursue. You should also determine whether you plan to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.
It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives , ready to be approved by your supervisor or committee.
Note that some departments require a defense component, where you present your prospectus to your committee orally.
Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement .
However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:
- Feasibility and specificity
- Relevance and originality
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Students are urged to begin thinking about a dissertation topic early in their degree program. Concentrated work on a dissertation proposal normally begins after successful completion of the Second-Year Review, which often includes a “mini” proposal, an extended literature review, or a theoretical essay, plus advancement to doctoral candidacy. In defining a dissertation topic, the student collaborates with her or his faculty advisor or dissertation advisor (if one is selected) in the choice of a topic for the dissertation.
The dissertation proposal is a comprehensive statement on the extent and nature of the student’s dissertation research interests. Students submit a draft of the proposal to their dissertation advisor between the end of the seventh and middle of the ninth quarters. The student must provide a written copy of the proposal to the faculty committee no later than two weeks prior to the date of the proposal hearing. Committee members could require an earlier deadline (e.g., four weeks before the hearing).
The major components of the proposal are as follows, with some variations across Areas and disciplines:
- A detailed statement of the problem that is to be studied and the context within which it is to be seen. This should include a justification of the importance of the problem on both theoretical and educational grounds.
- A thorough review of the literature pertinent to the research problem. This review should provide proof that the relevant literature in the field has been thoroughly researched. Good research is cumulative; it builds on the thoughts, findings, and mistakes of others.
- its general explanatory interest
- the overall theoretical framework within which this interest is to be pursued
- the model or hypotheses to be tested or the research questions to be answered
- a discussion of the conceptual and operational properties of the variables
- an overview of strategies for collecting appropriate evidence (sampling, instrumentation, data collection, data reduction, data analysis)
- a discussion of how the evidence is to be interpreted (This aspect of the proposal will be somewhat different in fields such as history and philosophy of education.)
- If applicable, students should complete a request for approval of research with human subjects, using the Human Subjects Review Form ( http://humansubjects.stanford.edu/ ). Except for pilot work, the University requires the approval of the Administrative Panel on Human Subjects in Behavioral Science Research before any data can be collected from human subjects.
Registration (i.e., enrollment) is required for any quarter during which a degree requirement is completed, including the dissertation proposal. Refer to the Registration or Enrollment for Milestone Completion section for more details.
As students progress through the program, their interests may change. There is no commitment on the part of the student’s advisor to automatically serve as the dissertation chair. Based on the student’s interests and the dissertation topic, many students approach other GSE professors to serve as the dissertation advisor, if appropriate.
A dissertation proposal committee is comprised of three academic council faculty members, one of whom will serve as the major dissertation advisor. Whether or not the student’s general program advisor serves on the dissertation proposal committee and later the reading committee will depend on the relevance of that faculty member’s expertise to the topic of the dissertation, and his/her availability. There is no requirement that a program advisor serve, although very often he or she does. Members of the dissertation proposal committee may be drawn from other area committees within the GSE, from other departments in the University, or from emeriti faculty. At least one person serving on the proposal committee must be from the student’s area committee (CTE, DAPS, SHIPS). All three members must be on the Academic Council; if the student desires the expertise of a non-Academic Council member, it may be possible to petition. After the hearing, a memorandum listing the changes to be made will be written and submitted with the signed proposal cover sheet and a copy of the proposal itself to the Doctoral Programs Officer.
Review and approval of the dissertation proposal occurs normally during the third year. The proposal hearing seeks to review the quality and feasibility of the proposal. The Second-Year Review and the Proposal Hearing are separate milestones and may not occur as part of the same hearing or meeting.
The student and the dissertation advisor are responsible for scheduling a formal meeting or hearing to review the proposal; the student and proposal committee convene for this evaluative period. Normally, all must be present at the meeting either in person or via conference phone call.
At the end of this meeting, the dissertation proposal committee members should sign the Cover Sheet for Dissertation Proposal and indicate their approval or rejection of the proposal. This signed form should be submitted to the Doctoral Programs Officer. If the student is required to make revisions, an addendum is required with the written approval of each member of the committee stating that the proposal has been revised to their satisfaction.
After submitting the Proposal Hearing material to the Doctoral Programs Officer, the student should make arrangements with three faculty members to serve on her or his Dissertation Reading Committee. The Doctoral Dissertation Reading Committee form should be completed and given to the Doctoral Programs Officer to enter in the University student records system. Note: The proposal hearing committee and the reading committee do not have to be the same three faculty members. Normally, the proposal hearing precedes the designation of a Dissertation Reading Committee, and faculty on either committee may differ (except for the primary dissertation advisor). However, some students may advance to Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status before completing their dissertation proposal hearing if they have established a dissertation reading committee. In these cases, it is acceptable for the student to form a reading committee prior to the dissertation proposal hearing. The reading committee then serves as the proposal committee.
The proposal and reading committee forms and related instructions are on the GSE website, under current students>forms.
Printing Credit for Use in GSE Labs
Upon completion of their doctoral dissertation proposal, GSE students are eligible for a $300 printing credit redeemable in any of the GSE computer labs where students are normally charged for print jobs. Only one $300 credit per student will be issued, but it is usable throughout the remainder of her or his doctoral program until the balance is exhausted. The print credit can be used only at the printers in Cubberley basement and CERAS, and cannot be used toward copying.
After submitting the signed dissertation proposal cover sheet to the Doctoral Programs Officer indicating approval (see above), students can submit a HELP SU ticket online at helpsu.stanford.edu to request the credit. When submitting the help ticket, the following should be selected from the drop-down menus for HELP SU:
Request Category : Computer, Handhelds (PDAs), Printers, Servers Request Type : Printer Operating System : (whatever system is used by the student, e.g., Windows XP.)
The help ticket will be routed to the GSE's IT Group for processing; they will in turn notify the student via email when the credit is available.
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Writing a dissertation proposal.
What is a dissertation proposal?
Dissertation proposals are like the table of contents for your research project , and will help you explain what it is you intend to examine, and roughly, how you intend to go about collecting and analysing your data. You won’t be required to have everything planned out exactly, as your topic may change slightly in the course of your research, but for the most part, writing your proposal should help you better identify the direction for your dissertation.
When you’ve chosen a topic for your dissertation , you’ll need to make sure that it is both appropriate to your field of study and narrow enough to be completed by the end of your course. Your dissertation proposal will help you define and determine both of these things and will also allow your department and instructors to make sure that you are being advised by the best person to help you complete your research.
A dissertation proposal should include:
- An introduction to your dissertation topic
- Aims and objectives of your dissertation
- A literature review of the current research undertaken in your field
- Proposed methodology to be used
- Implications of your research
- Limitations of your research
Although this content all needs to be included in your dissertation proposal, it isn’t set in stone so it can be changed later if necessary, depending on your topic of study, university or degree. Think of your dissertation proposal as more of a guide to writing your dissertation rather than something to be strictly adhered to – this will be discussed later.
Why is a dissertation proposal important?
A dissertation proposal is very important because it helps shape the actual dissertation, which is arguably the most important piece of writing a postgraduate student will undertake. By having a well-structured dissertation proposal, you will have a strong foundation for your dissertation and a good template to follow. The dissertation itself is key to postgraduate success as it will contribute to your overall grade. Writing your dissertation will also help you to develop research and communication skills, which could become invaluable in your employment success and future career. By making sure you’re fully briefed on the current research available in your chosen dissertation topic, as well as keeping details of your bibliography up to date, you will be in a great position to write an excellent dissertation.
Next, we’ll be outlining things you can do to help you produce the best postgraduate dissertation proposal possible.
How to begin your dissertation proposal
1. Narrow the topic down
It’s important that when you sit down to draft your proposal, you’ve carefully thought out your topic and are able to narrow it down enough to present a clear and succinct understanding of what you aim to do and hope to accomplish in your dissertation.
How do I decide on a dissertation topic?
A simple way to begin choosing a topic for your dissertation is to go back through your assignments and lectures. Was there a topic that stood out to you? Was there an idea that wasn’t fully explored? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then you have a great starting point! If not, then consider one of your more personal interests. Use Google Scholar to explore studies and journals on your topic to find any areas that could go into more detail or explore a more niche topic within your personal interest.
Keep track of all publications
It’s important to keep track of all the publications that you use while you research. You can use this in your literature review.
You need to keep track of:
- The title of the study/research paper/book/journal
- Who wrote/took part in the study/research paper
- Chapter title
- Page number(s)
The more research you do, the more you should be able to narrow down your topic and find an interesting area to focus on. You’ll also be able to write about everything you find in your literature review which will make your proposal stronger.
While doing your research, consider the following:
- When was your source published? Is the information outdated? Has new information come to light since?
- Can you determine if any of the methodologies could have been carried out more efficiently? Are there any errors or gaps?
- Are there any ethical concerns that should be considered in future studies on the same topic?
- Could anything external (for example new events happening) have influenced the research?
Read more about picking a topic for your dissertation .
How long should the dissertation proposal be?
Aiming for 1,000 words or more, your dissertation proposal will give an outline of the topic of your dissertation, some of the questions you hope to answer with your research, what sort of studies and type of data you aim to employ in your research, and the sort of analysis you will carry out.
Different courses may have different requirements for things like length and the specific information to include, as well as what structure is preferred, so be sure to check what special requirements your course has.
2. What should I include in a dissertation proposal?
The introduction will state your central research question and give background on the subject, as well as relating it contextually to any broader issues surrounding it. Read more about picking a topic for your dissertation .
The dissertation proposal introduction should outline exactly what you intend to investigate in your final research project.
Make sure you outline the structure of the dissertation proposal in your introduction, i.e. part one covers methodology, part two covers a literature review, part three covers research limitations, and so forth.
The dissertation methodology will break down what sources you aim to use for your research and what sort of data you will collect from it, either quantitative or qualitative. You may also want to include how you will analyse the data you gather and what, if any, bias there may be in your chosen methods.
Depending on the level of detail that your specific course requires, you may also want to explain why your chosen approaches to gathering data are more appropriate to your research than others.
Consider and explain how you will conduct empirical research. For example, will you use interviews? Surveys? Observation? Lab experiments?
In your dissertation methodology, outline the variables that you will measure in your research and how you will select your data or participant sample to ensure valid results.
Finally, are there any specific tools that you will use for your methodology? If so, make sure you provide this information in the methodology section of your dissertation proposal.
- Aims and objectives
Your dissertation proposal should also include the aims and objectives of your research. Be sure to state what your research hopes to achieve, as well as what outcomes you predict. You may also need to clearly state what your main research objectives are, in other words, how you plan to obtain those achievements and outcomes.
Your aim should not be too broad but should equally not be too specific.
An example of a dissertation aim could be: ‘To examine the key content features and social contexts that construct successful viral marketing content distribution on Twitter’.
In comparison, an example of a dissertation aim that is perhaps too broad would be: ‘‘To investigate how things go viral on Twitter’.
The aim of your dissertation proposal should relate directly to your research question.
- Literature review
The literature review will list the books and materials that you used to do your research. This is where you can list materials that gave you more background on your topic, or contain research carried out previously that you referred to in your own studies.
The literature review is also a good place to demonstrate how your research connects to previous academic studies and how your methods may differ from or build upon those used by other researchers. While it’s important to give enough information about the materials to show that you have read and understood them, don’t forget to include your analysis of their value to your work.
Where there are shortfalls in other pieces of academic work, identify these and address how you will overcome these shortcomings in your own research.
Constraints and limitations of your research
Lastly, you will also need to include the constraints of your research. Many topics will have broad links to numerous larger and more complex issues, so by clearly stating the constraints of your research, you are displaying your understanding and acknowledgment of these larger issues, and the role they play by focusing your research on just one section or part of the subject.
In this section it is important to Include examples of possible limitations, for example, issues with sample size, participant drop out, lack of existing research on the topic, time constraints, and other factors that may affect your study.
- Ethical considerations
Confidentiality and ethical concerns are an important part of any research.
Ethics are key, as your dissertation will need to undergo ethical approval if you are working with participants. This means that it’s important to allow for and explain ethical considerations in your dissertation proposal.
Keep confidentiality in mind and keep your participants informed, so they are aware of how the data provided is being used and are assured that all personal information is being kept confidential.
Consider how involved your patients will be with your research, this will help you think about what ethical considerations to take and discuss them fully in your dissertation proposal. For example, face-to-face participant interview methods could require more ethical measures and confidentiality considerations than methods that do not require participants, such as corpus data (a collection of existing written texts) analysis.
3. Dissertation proposal example
Once you know what sections you need or do not need to include, it may help focus your writing to break the proposal up into separate headings, and tackle each piece individually. You may also want to consider including a title. Writing a title for your proposal will help you make sure that your topic is narrow enough, as well as help keep your writing focused and on topic.
One example of a dissertation proposal structure is using the following headings, either broken up into sections or chapters depending on the required word count:
- Research constraints
In any dissertation proposal example, you’ll want to make it clear why you’re doing the research and what positives could come from your contribution.
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Dissertation Proposal Guidelines
You should establish dissertation proposal expectations in consultation with your faculty advisors. All dissertation proposals should include the following features. However, you may depart from these guidelines if it helps you more effectively present the problem in your study.
An Outline for Writing the Dissertation Proposal
I. cover page.
A. Title of dissertation B. Student's name and special field (e.g., English Education, Elementary Education) C. Names of committee members: D. Committee Chair: Professor E. Committee Members: Professor
The abstract should be a one page statement of the purposes and methods of the dissertation. The abstract should enable the reader to ascertain the general plan of investigation without further study of the proposal. It is probably best to write the abstract after the rest of the proposal has been completed.
III. Background of the Problem to Be Investigated
The first section of the body of the proposal should indicate the relation of this study to the developing stream of educational thinking. This statement will rarely be more than 600 words. It may discuss the prior studies in the same area, a field situation to which the study relates, or the conceptual framework out of which the study arises. This section should make clear why the study is of value in extending educational theory, technology, or practice: i.e., the contribution to present knowledge which the proposed study will make.
IV. Problem to Be Investigated
The specific assignment to be undertaken should be stated explicitly in this section. This involves definition of any crucial terms or concepts connected with the problem and a statement of the major problems to be investigated. One of the best ways to state the problem is to list one or more questions that the study is intended to answer. It is also acceptable, but not always necessary or possible, to state these as hypotheses to be tested. The hypotheses stated must be research hypotheses not null hypotheses. It is only rarely that a null hypotheses is of any interest or is germane to the research proposal.
V. Design of the Study
This section should explain exactly how the study is to be conducted. It will be necessary to define in operational terms the specific questions to be answered. Inevitably, some aspects of the technique must be developed as the study proceeds, but this statement should be as definite as possible. Three points must be considered: sources of data, data collection procedures, and data analysis and presentation procedures.
A. SOURCES OF DATA
Persons: The discussion should state explicitly to what population (e.g., students, classrooms, school districts, etc.) the findings are to be applied. The writer should state the exact procedures for sampling this population and point out any sampling assumption made and any characteristics of the selected groups that limit the application of the findings to other groups. The proposal should discuss what generalizations are possible from a sample of the type used. For most investigations, it is necessary to indicate the approximate number of cases to be studied.
Materials: What materials will be examined and how they will be identified should be stated. If the study will include sampling a population of materials, the writer should explain how the population will be defined and listed, and the writer should also show how the materials will be sampled from this population.
B. PROCEDURES FOR COLLECTING DATA: EVIDENCE TO BE OBTAINED
The proposal should describe in detail the procedures to be used to obtain data. The discussion should point out what precautions are being taken to ensure objectivity, reliability, and validity. If a prerequisite to the main study requires the establishment of the reliability or validity of certain procedures or materials, the writer should identify how such will be accomplished and evaluated. It is not necessary to discuss reliability of standard techniques or sources of data (e.g., standardized tests).
C. TREATMENT AND PRESENTATION OF DATA
In some studies, where treatment follows routine and well-known methods, this section may be brief; in other studies writers will need to explain at length how they intend to proceed from data to conclusions.
Any notable assumptions about the conduct of the study should be made clear. It is not important to list a large number of conventional assumptions, but the writer should indicate those assumptions about education, human nature, or the data used that are necessary to interpret the data and to accept the findings of the study.
Studies that are quantitative in nature and include statistical analyses (e.g., parametric, non- parametric, correlational) must attach an appendix that displays an example of the variety of tables and figures the dissertation will include. These tables and figures should be numbered, titled (according to APA style) and include all pertinent column spanners, column heads, stubheads, stubs, etc. The only part of the tables and figures that cannot be included is, of course, the actual data to be presented.
Studies that are qualitative in nature (e.g., historical, reviews, descriptive-qualitative) should attach an appendix specifying an outline of the topics to be presented. The outline should include major headings of the broad topics to be presented, sub-headings for data to be reported, sub-topics, etc. In some ways this outline will have the appearance of the dissertation's Table of Contents.
VI. Significance of the Study/Need of the Study
In one paragraph of about 100 words, the writer should indicate the importance of the investigation for educational theory and practice. This is an extension of the statement of the problem stipulated in Section III of this proposal outline. In some studies, the significance is fairly obvious, but it must still be stated. In other studies, the implications will require explanation. The statement should answer the question: After completing this investigation, how may we be able to advance educational practice, research methodology, or scientific theory?
The second paragraph of this section should provide sufficient information to convince the advisor that there is a need for this study. That is, after having explicitly stated the research problem and convinced the advisor that it is significant, the writer must now show such mastery of the related literature as to inspire confidence in the advisor that the problem has not been satisfactorily resolved in previous research.
How To Write A Research Proposal
5 essential ingredients for a top-notch dissertation or thesis proposal.
By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | August 2019
Writing up a strong research proposal for a dissertation or thesis is much like a marriage proposal. It’s a task that calls on you to win somebody over and persuade them that what you’re planning is a great idea. An idea they’re happy to say ‘yes’ to. This means that your dissertation proposal needs to be persuasive , attractive and well-planned. In this post, I’ll show you how to write a winning dissertation proposal, from scratch.
Before you start:
– Understand exactly what a research proposal is – Ask yourself these 4 questions
The 5 essential ingredients:
- The title/topic
- The introduction chapter
- The scope/delimitations
- Preliminary literature review
- Design/ methodology
- Practical considerations and risks
What Is A Research Proposal?
The research proposal is literally that: a written document that communicates what you propose to research, in a concise format. It’s where you put all that stuff that’s spinning around in your head down on to paper, in a logical, convincing fashion.
Convincing is the keyword here, as your research proposal needs to convince the assessor that your research is clearly articulated (i.e., a clear research question), worth doing (i.e., is unique and valuable enough to justify the effort), and doable within the restrictions you’ll face (time limits, budget, skill limits, etc.). If your proposal does not address these three criteria, your research won’t be approved, no matter how “exciting” the research idea might be.
How do I know I’m ready?
Before starting the writing process, you need to ask yourself 4 important questions . If you can’t answer them succinctly and confidently, you’re not ready – you need to go back and think more deeply about your dissertation topic .
You should be able to answer the following 4 questions before starting your dissertation or thesis research proposal:
- WHAT is my main research question? (the topic)
- WHO cares and why is this important? (the justification)
- WHAT data would I need to answer this question, and how will I analyse it? (the research design)
- HOW will I manage the completion of this research, within the given timelines? (project and risk management)
If you can’t answer these questions clearly and concisely, you’re not yet ready to write your research proposal – revisit our post on choosing a topic .
If you can, that’s great – it’s time to start writing up your dissertation proposal. Next, I’ll discuss what needs to go into your research proposal, and how to structure it all into an intuitive, convincing document with a linear narrative.
The 5 Essential Ingredients
Research proposals can vary in style between institutions and disciplines, but here I’ll share with you a handy 5-section structure you can use. These 5 sections directly address the core questions we spoke about earlier, ensuring that you present a convincing proposal. If your institution already provides a proposal template, there will likely be substantial overlap with this, so you’ll still get value from reading on.
For each section discussed below, make sure you use headers and sub-headers (ideally, numbered headers) to help the reader navigate through your document, and to support them when they need to revisit a previous section. Don’t just present an endless wall of text, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph…
Top Tip: Use MS Word Styles to format headings. This will allow you to be clear about whether a sub-heading is level 2, 3, or 4. Additionally, you can view your document in ‘outline view’ which will show you only your headings. This makes it much easier to check your structure, shift things around and make decisions about where a section needs to sit. You can also generate a 100% accurate table of contents using Word’s automatic functionality.
Ingredient #1 – Topic/Title Header
Your research proposal’s title should be your main research question in its simplest form, possibly with a sub-heading providing basic details on the specifics of the study. For example:
“Compliance with equality legislation in the charity sector: a study of the ‘reasonable adjustments’ made in three London care homes”
As you can see, this title provides a clear indication of what the research is about, in broad terms. It paints a high-level picture for the first-time reader, which gives them a taste of what to expect. Always aim for a clear, concise title . Don’t feel the need to capture every detail of your research in your title – your proposal will fill in the gaps.
Need a helping hand?
Ingredient #2 – Introduction
In this section of your research proposal, you’ll expand on what you’ve communicated in the title, by providing a few paragraphs which offer more detail about your research topic. Importantly, the focus here is the topic – what will you research and why is that worth researching? This is not the place to discuss methodology, practicalities, etc. – you’ll do that later.
You should cover the following:
- An overview of the broad area you’ll be researching – introduce the reader to key concepts and language
- An explanation of the specific (narrower) area you’ll be focusing, and why you’ll be focusing there
- Your research aims and objectives
- Your research question (s) and sub-questions (if applicable)
Importantly, you should aim to use short sentences and plain language – don’t babble on with extensive jargon, acronyms and complex language. Assume that the reader is an intelligent layman – not a subject area specialist (even if they are). Remember that the best writing is writing that can be easily understood and digested. Keep it simple.
Note that some universities may want some extra bits and pieces in your introduction section. For example, personal development objectives, a structural outline, etc. Check your brief to see if there are any other details they expect in your proposal, and make sure you find a place for these.
Ingredient #3 – Scope
Next, you’ll need to specify what the scope of your research will be – this is also known as the delimitations . In other words, you need to make it clear what you will be covering and, more importantly, what you won’t be covering in your research. Simply put, this is about ring fencing your research topic so that you have a laser-sharp focus.
All too often, students feel the need to go broad and try to address as many issues as possible, in the interest of producing comprehensive research. Whilst this is admirable, it’s a mistake. By tightly refining your scope, you’ll enable yourself to go deep with your research, which is what you need to earn good marks. If your scope is too broad, you’re likely going to land up with superficial research (which won’t earn marks), so don’t be afraid to narrow things down.
Ingredient #4 – Literature Review
In this section of your research proposal, you need to provide a (relatively) brief discussion of the existing literature. Naturally, this will not be as comprehensive as the literature review in your actual dissertation, but it will lay the foundation for that. In fact, if you put in the effort at this stage, you’ll make your life a lot easier when it’s time to write your actual literature review chapter.
There are a few things you need to achieve in this section:
- Demonstrate that you’ve done your reading and are familiar with the current state of the research in your topic area.
- Show that there’s a clear gap for your specific research – i.e., show that your topic is sufficiently unique and will add value to the existing research.
- Show how the existing research has shaped your thinking regarding research design . For example, you might use scales or questionnaires from previous studies.
When you write up your literature review, keep these three objectives front of mind, especially number two (revealing the gap in the literature), so that your literature review has a clear purpose and direction . Everything you write should be contributing towards one (or more) of these objectives in some way. If it doesn’t, you need to ask yourself whether it’s truly needed.
Top Tip: Don’t fall into the trap of just describing the main pieces of literature, for example, “A says this, B says that, C also says that…” and so on. Merely describing the literature provides no value. Instead, you need to synthesise it, and use it to address the three objectives above.
Ingredient #5 – Research Design
Now that you’ve clearly explained both your intended research topic (in the introduction) and the existing research it will draw on (in the literature review section), it’s time to get practical and explain exactly how you’ll be carrying out your own research. In other words, your research design.
In this section, you’ll need to answer two critical questions :
- How will you design your research? I.e., what research methodology will you adopt, what will your sample be, how will you collect data, etc.
- Why have you chosen this design? I.e., why does this approach suit your specific research aims, objectives and questions?
In other words, this is not just about explaining WHAT you’ll be doing, it’s also about explaining WHY. In fact, the justification is the most important part , because that justification is how you demonstrate a good understanding of research design (which is what assessors want to see).
Some essential design choices you need to cover in your research proposal include:
- Your intended research philosophy (e.g., positivism, interpretivism or pragmatism )
- What methodological approach you’ll be taking (e.g., qualitative , quantitative or mixed )
- The details of your sample (e.g., sample size, who they are, who they represent, etc.)
- What data you plan to collect (i.e. data about what, in what form?)
- How you plan to collect it (e.g., surveys , interviews , focus groups, etc.)
- How you plan to analyse it (e.g., regression analysis, thematic analysis , etc.)
- Ethical adherence (i.e., does this research satisfy all ethical requirements of your institution, or does it need further approval?)
This list is not exhaustive – these are just some core attributes of research design. Check with your institution what level of detail they expect. The “ research onion ” by Saunders et al (2009) provides a good summary of the various design choices you ultimately need to make – you can read more about that here .
Don’t forget the practicalities…
In addition to the technical aspects, you will need to address the practical side of the project. In other words, you need to explain what resources you’ll need (e.g., time, money, access to equipment or software, etc.) and how you intend to secure these resources. You need to show that your project is feasible, so any “make or break” type resources need to already be secured. The success or failure of your project cannot depend on some resource which you’re not yet sure you have access to.
Another part of the practicalities discussion is project and risk management . In other words, you need to show that you have a clear project plan to tackle your research with. Some key questions to address:
- What are the timelines for each phase of your project?
- Are the time allocations reasonable?
- What happens if something takes longer than anticipated (risk management)?
- What happens if you don’t get the response rate you expect?
A good way to demonstrate that you’ve thought this through is to include a Gantt chart and a risk register (in the appendix if word count is a problem). With these two tools, you can show that you’ve got a clear, feasible plan, and you’ve thought about and accounted for the potential risks.
Tip – Be honest about the potential difficulties – but show that you are anticipating solutions and workarounds. This is much more impressive to an assessor than an unrealistically optimistic proposal which does not anticipate any challenges whatsoever.
Final Touches: Read And Simplify
The final step is to edit and proofread your proposal – very carefully. It sounds obvious, but all too often poor editing and proofreading ruin a good proposal. Nothing is more off-putting for an assessor than a poorly edited, typo-strewn document. It sends the message that you either do not pay attention to detail, or just don’t care. Neither of these are good messages. Put the effort into editing and proofreading your proposal (or pay someone to do it for you) – it will pay dividends.
When you’re editing, watch out for ‘academese’. Many students can speak simply, passionately and clearly about their dissertation topic – but become incomprehensible the moment they turn the laptop on. You are not required to write in any kind of special, formal, complex language when you write academic work. Sure, there may be technical terms, jargon specific to your discipline, shorthand terms and so on. But, apart from those, keep your written language very close to natural spoken language – just as you would speak in the classroom. Imagine that you are explaining your project plans to your classmates or a family member. Remember, write for the intelligent layman, not the subject matter experts. Plain-language, concise writing is what wins hearts and minds – and marks!
Let’s Recap: Research Proposal 101
And there you have it – how to write your dissertation or thesis research proposal, from title page to final proof. Here’s a quick recap on the key takeaways:
- The purpose of the research proposal is to convince – therefore, you need to make a clear, concise argument of why your research is both worth doing and doable.
- Make sure you can ask the critical what, who, how questions of your research before you put pen to paper.
- Title – provides the first taste of your research, in broad terms
- Introduction – explains what you’ll be researching in more detail
- Scope – explains the boundaries of your research
- Literature review – explains how your research fits into the existing research and why it’s unique and valuable
- Research design – explains and justifies how you will carry out your own research
Hopefully, this post has helped you better understand how to write up a winning research proposal. If you enjoyed it, be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach Blog . If your university doesn’t provide any template for your proposal, you might want to try out our free research proposal template .
Psst… there’s more (for free)
This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.
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Thank you so much for the valuable insight that you have given, especially on the research proposal. That is what I have managed to cover. I still need to go back to the other parts as I got disturbed while still listening to Derek’s audio on you-tube. I am inspired. I will definitely continue with Grad-coach guidance on You-tube.
Thanks for the kind words :). All the best with your proposal.
First of all, thanks a lot for making such a wonderful presentation. The video was really useful and gave me a very clear insight of how a research proposal has to be written. I shall try implementing these ideas in my RP.
Once again, I thank you for this content.
I found reading your outline on writing research proposal very beneficial. I wish there was a way of submitting my draft proposal to you guys for critiquing before I submit to the institution.
Thank you for the kind words. Yes, we do provide a review service. The best starting point is to have a chat with one of our coaches here: https://gradcoach.com/book/new/ .
Hello team GRADCOACH, may God bless you so much. I was totally green in research. Am so happy for your free superb tutorials and resources. Once again thank you so much Derek and his team.
You’re welcome, Erick. Good luck with your research proposal 🙂
thank you for the information. its precise and on point.
Really a remarkable piece of writing and great source of guidance for the researchers. GOD BLESS YOU for your guidance. Regards
Thanks so much for your guidance. It is easy and comprehensive the way you explain the steps for a winning research proposal.
Thank you guys so much for the rich post. I enjoyed and learn from every word in it. My problem now is how to get into your platform wherein I can always seek help on things related to my research work ? Secondly, I wish to find out if there is a way I can send my tentative proposal to you guys for examination before I take to my supervisor Once again thanks very much for the insights
Thanks for your kind words, Desire.
If you are based in a country where Grad Coach’s paid services are available, you can book a consultation by clicking the “Book” button in the top right.
Best of luck with your studies.
May God bless you team for the wonderful work you are doing,
If I have a topic, Can I submit it to you so that you can draft a proposal for me?? As I am expecting to go for masters degree in the near future.
Thanks for your comment. We definitely cannot draft a proposal for you, as that would constitute academic misconduct. The proposal needs to be your own work. We can coach you through the process, but it needs to be your own work and your own writing.
Best of luck with your research!
I found a lot of many essential concepts from your material. it is real a road map to write a research proposal. so thanks a lot. If there is any update material on your hand on MBA please forward to me.
GradCoach is a professional website that presents support and helps for MBA student like me through the useful online information on the page and with my 1-on-1 online coaching with the amazing and professional PhD Kerryen.
Thank you Kerryen so much for the support and help 🙂
I really recommend dealing with such a reliable services provider like Gradcoah and a coach like Kerryen.
Hi, Am happy for your service and effort to help students and researchers, Please, i have been given an assignment on research for strategic development, the task one is to formulate a research proposal to support the strategic development of a business area, my issue here is how to go about it, especially the topic or title and introduction. Please, i would like to know if you could help me and how much is the charge.
This content is practical, valuable, and just great!
Thank you very much!
Hi Derek, Thank you for the valuable presentation. It is very helpful especially for beginners like me. I am just starting my PhD.
This is quite instructive and research proposal made simple. Can I have a research proposal template?
Great! Thanks for rescuing me, because I had no former knowledge in this topic. But with this piece of information, I am now secured. Thank you once more.
I enjoyed listening to your video on how to write a proposal. I think I will be able to write a winning proposal with your advice. I wish you were to be my supervisor.
Dear Derek Jansen,
Thank you for your great content. I couldn’t learn these topics in MBA, but now I learned from GradCoach. Really appreciate your efforts….
I have got very essential inputs for startup of my dissertation proposal. Well organized properly communicated with video presentation. Thank you for the presentation.
Wow, this is absolutely amazing guys. Thank you so much for the fruitful presentation, you’ve made my research much easier.
this helps me a lot. thank you all so much for impacting in us. may god richly bless you all
How I wish I’d learn about Grad Coach earlier. I’ve been stumbling around writing and rewriting! Now I have concise clear directions on how to put this thing together. Thank you!
Fantastic!! Thank You for this very concise yet comprehensive guidance.
Even if I am poor in English I would like to thank you very much.
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How to write a dissertation proposal
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
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If you’ve been tasked with writing a proposal for your dissertation, you may be among the many students who at first feel a little overwhelmed by putting it together. What is a proposal? How should it be presented? What should I include? What should I leave out? What is my supervisor looking for? These are all common questions that we hear students ask over and again.
To help answer these questions and more, this guide will walk you through what a dissertation proposal is, the reasons for its existence and the steps you can take to ensure yours hits the mark.
What is a dissertation proposal?
To answer this, it helps to first touch base on what a dissertation is. Much like an essay, a dissertation is a long-form piece of academic writing. However, it differs to an essay in that you are usually responsible for deciding on the topic or focus of the piece yourself.
The first step, therefore, is to choose your topic (also known as a dissertation title). After that, you’ll need to formulate a research question, which is where the dissertation proposal comes in.
A dissertation proposal should cover in detail the research question you are going to analyse and how you plan to conduct your primary and secondary research . It should include the reading you have done up until this point and any outcomes of discussions with your supervisor. To help guard you from criticism when your work is marked, it should also cover any expected limitations in your research, ethical considerations and reasons for your choice of data sample.
A dissertation proposal will usually comprise the following sections:
- Main body, comprised of: o Methodology o Aims and objectives o Literature review o Limitations o Ethical considerations o Timeframe
Not all departments of a university will require you to write a proposal as part of the dissertation, but many will. Once written, you should schedule a meeting with your supervisor to discuss it. You can then use their feedback to make any changes before you begin conducting your research and writing the main body of the dissertation.
Bear in mind that a dissertation proposal can be fluid; it can manifest and develop as you move through your dissertation journey. The research you carry out and the findings you get may prompt you to tweak your research question, or possibly rewrite it altogether.
Tip: whether you're writing an undergraduate or postgraduate proposal, it's vital you check your course and institution requirements prior to submission. The word count and format can vary between universities and between departments.
Why is a proposal so important?
Overall, a dissertation proposal is essential in preparing you for the dissertation writing process . If done correctly, it will work in much the same way as an in-depth essay plan, providing you with guidance you can use when writing the main body of the work. What's more, it will actually serve to make beginning your dissertation decidedly less frightening.
It's important to note that your dissertation proposal doesn't need to be set in stone. It can and should be subject to much change during the entire dissertation process. You may even find that your original research question changes entirely. Perhaps you'll discover that there's not enough evidence to support your original line of argument, or that your chosen topic is too broad and requires further refinement.
Either way, make sure you a) book in regular meetings with your supervisor, b) adhere carefully to your university’s regulations and c) list the sources that you come across as you do your research , to make sure that they are ready to be included in your bibliography at the end of your work.
The steps before the proposal: reading and selecting a topic
As mentioned at the top of this article, the first stage in your dissertation process will be to read around your subject area and choose a topic. Sounds simple enough, but deciding what to research can be an overwhelming task for some.
One of the easiest ways to begin honing in on a specific topic is to go back through all of the lecture slides, notes and assignments that you have completed so far. Was there a topic that you were particularly interested in? Was there a concept that you thought could have been developed further? Or have you noticed a stark lack of scholarship in your research for an assignment, that suggests to you that further research into this particular subject area is needed?
If you answered no to these questions, then try going with a more general area of personal interest. In this case you can start by looking at relevant journals and publications until you find a more explicit direction.
However you go about choosing your topic, make sure that you make notes of all publications that you use in your research. You will need to include them in your bibliography later on, so it makes life easier if you note them now. Depending upon the referencing system preferred by your university department, you will need the following information:
- Book/Journal title
- Editor(s) (edited books only)
- Chapter Title
- URL (for online sources only)
Consult your departmental handbook or ask your supervisor if you need clarification of what information to use when referencing.
Tip: Above all, make sure that your topic is something that you find exciting/interesting enough to study in depth over a long period of time – getting fed up halfway through will not help with your motivation!
Getting down to business: narrowing your focus and choosing existing literature to include
The more reading that you do, the more you should be able to refine your research questions. If you aim to address an area that is too broad, you will risk generalisation and run out of space in your word count.
It could be that you identify one particularly interesting study, but realise that its findings are outdated, or are not easily applicable to modern times. You may decide that you want to investigate whether the findings would be the same in more recent research.
Remember: thinking critically about your sources is integral to achieving high marks. You should consider:
- The date of publication – is the source outdated?
- Has there been any significant development that would affect the field of research since the study was carried out?
- Can you identify any methodological errors that would undermine the results that the authors presented?
- Are there any ethical concerns that you believe should be rectified in any future studies of the same topic?
- Is there any other type of bias that you can cite when considering the author’s characteristics?
- Are there external factors, or events happening simultaneously to the research, that would affect the author’s findings or provide the potential for bias?
Showing that you are able to attribute value to the sources you have used based upon their ‘fallibility’ will represent critical engagement with the literature and you will be awarded with higher marks.
Putting pen to paper: take a deep breath and…
Don’t worry if you are not completely certain of your hypothesis at this point. With the guidance of your supervisor, you will be able to alter the direction of your research as you go. Although by now, you should have a clear idea of the potential for your research, and what your conclusions might be . Depending upon whether your course is of a scientific or mathematical nature, meaning that you are likely to be dealing with experiments providing you with definitive results and quantitative analysis; or a more theoretical nature, meaning that your research will mainly be qualitative; your hypothesis will be proven or disproven throughout the course of your dissertation.
The first step in creating your dissertation proposal should be planning its structure. Like the dissertation itself, your proposal will require an introduction, a main section and a conclusion. As a brief guide:
This is where you will need to introduce your topic. It should provide a ‘backdrop’ to your more specific research by exploring the background to the wider subject area. You should also lay out your main thesis/hypothesis here, and explain why you feel that research into this area is important.
This is usually composed of the following subsections:
The methodology section of your proposal is where you will outline the methods through which you will collect and process your data. You should include how and what you are going to do. If your research is quantitative in nature, this will probably include a reference to a questionnaire, survey, or data source, and you should make clear the scope of your research (e.g how many participants are going to be involved). You will also need to explain why you have selected the methods that you have – are they more specific to your research area? How?
Here you will highlight the main issues that you are attempting to explore. What is it that you want to achieve? What are the main questions that you are looking to answer? What predictions can you make?
The literature review gives you the opportunity to make a really good argument for the importance of your research, and connect it to similar research, or present it as an extension to other existing studies. You will need to list the most important sources that you have consulted thus far in your research, and how they helped you to guide your own research. If you can, placing your work alongside others to show how it further elaborates or contributes to the more general field will show that you have adequately prepared for your proposal. There is potential to include any flaws that you may have identified within this existing work, and how you will avoid this in your own dissertation. Only include sources that you can show will add value to your work.
Part of writing an effective and informative piece of research is recognising the limits that are imposed upon your ability to explore and present your findings. Some limitations may refer directly to the word count, explaining that there are further issues that you will not have a chance to or space to address. Completing this section clearly shows that you have engaged with your subject matter and are familiar with the wider concepts relating to your topic.
Are there any ethical concerns relating to your research? Have you secured permission from your subject(s)/participants to be interviewed or included in your research? More information on ethics can be found in the following section below.
Often, dissertation proposals will include an estimated timeframe for the delivery of work to their supervisor. This may be on a chapter-by-chapter basis, or you may begin with the actual research, so that you are able to perfect this part before moving on to writing about it. Make sure that you are realistic, and allow some time for your initial research before jumping straight in to getting words on the page.
Conclusion (of sorts)
You do not necessarily need to include a ‘conclusion’ in your proposal, but it might be a good idea to round off with a reminder of your reasons for choosing the topic, the type of research you will be carrying out and your expected outcomes. For example:
"I have chosen to investigate the relationship between ___ and ___ since I believe that proving a positive correlation would have serious implications for ___, and that carrying out further qualitative research in this area will be integral to improving understanding. After having identified the limitations of previous studies in this field, I have worked on producing a methodology that will avoid these same pitfalls, and predict that the research will portray a strong enough relationship between the two factors to encourage further scholarship."
Ethics, ethics, ethics...
A dissertation proposal, or indeed a dissertation, without reference to ethics, leaves itself dangerously ‘open’ to criticism. It does not matter how ground-breaking your findings are, they can be seriously undermined if you have not allowed room for ethical considerations within your planning, preparation, and research phases.
The term ‘ethics’ is used academically to refer to moral principles or concerns that can be found throughout any kind of research. You will perhaps have noticed that a large amount of the criticisms of existing studies are in relation to their neglect of consideration for ethical principles. Although this might sound complicated, once you begin to go over the basics, and continue to repeat the process for each of the studies you incorporate into your work, it will soon become second nature.
As a ‘starting point’ for your dissertation proposal, you should consider the following:
Make it clear why you are doing this research. Proving that you have a solid basis upon which to suggest further investigation of your topic, and highlighting what you hope to gain from carrying it out, means that you are justifying your work in this area and the contribution that you will make to your field. Outlining your aims and objectives is also a way to mitigate any claims that you are completing your research for some ‘self-serving’ purpose. Integrity and value should be upheld throughout your proposal, planning, research, and writing phases.
Keep participants well-informed. Anyone involved at any stage of your research, whether directly included as a participant or not, should be told the reasons for your work and the way that their ‘data’ will be incorporated and used in your eventual paper. Participants should be made aware of their participation and should know exactly what to expect, what is expected from them and what the ‘risks’ of their involvement are. Planning to utilise a ‘consent form’ and providing participants with a ‘fact sheet’ reminding them of this information would be two good ways of making sure that you have covered all bases.
Keep it confidential. Confidentiality and anonymity are central to research participation, and it is your duty as a researcher to do everything in your power to ensure that your participants can not be identified within your work and that their information is protected and/or encrypted whilst in your possession. Using pseudonyms such as ‘Person A’ and ‘Person B’ can be helpful in writing up and labelling your transcripts.
Your supervisor should be able to help you take all necessary precautions when tailoring your methodology to your specific research proposal.
What should I do differently when writing a postgraduate proposal?
Essentially, there is little difference when approaching a master’s dissertation proposal , except that you are expected to present a more in-depth methodology section and perhaps be a little more critical of existing literature within your literature review section. A more complete awareness of the subject area is a requirement, but this should come fairly easily as a result of the extra study you have completed already.
When writing a PhD thesis proposal however, you must remember that you are now expected to do more than simply regurgitate the theories and studies of others. You are required to show that you are able to adequately extend the existing literature, as well as interpret and criticise it. This may mean that you spend a lot longer searching for a topic, as you will want to identify a concept that still has room for exploration.
There are several things that you will need to include that have not already been mentioned above:
- As a PhD research proposal is usually submitted directly to your department of choice, you should make clear your reasons for choosing that particular university over other competitors. Does this department have a history of research in the specific area you are writing in? Is there a research grant you are hoping to apply for?
- Within your methodology section, it is important to include a description of the research techniques that you are planning to use. Are these ‘new’? Or have they been used effectively in similar studies previously?
Tip: be sure to follow any departmental guidance in terms of word count, and if you are applying for a research grant be sure to relate everything back to the aims and objectives outlined within the accompanying details.
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Dissertations 1: getting started: writing a proposal.
- Starting Your Dissertation
- Choosing A Topic
- Devising An Approach/Method
- Thinking Of A Title
- Writing A Proposal
What is a Proposal?
Before you start your dissertation, you may be asked to write a proposal for it.
The purpose of a dissertation proposal is to provide a snapshot of what your study involves. Usually, after submission of the proposal you will be assigned a supervisor who has some expertise in your field of study. You should receive feedback on the viability of the topic, how to focus the scope, research methods, and other issues you should consider before progressing in your research.
The research proposal should present the dissertation topic, justify your reasons for choosing it and outline how you are going to research it . You'll have to keep it brief, as word counts can vary from anywhere between 800 to 3,000 words at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral levels.
It is worth bearing in mind that you are not bound by your proposal. Your project is likely going to evolve and may move in a new direction . Your dissertation supervisor is aware that this may occur as you delve deeper into the literature in your field of study. Nevertheless, always discuss any major developments with your supervisor in the first instance.
Reading for your Proposal
Before writing a proposal, you will need to read. A lot! But that doesn’t mean you must read everything. Be targeted! What do you really need to know?
Instead of reading every page in every book, look for clues in chapter titles and introductions to narrow your focus down. Use abstracts from journal articles to check whether the material is relevant to your study and keep notes of your reading along with clear records of bibliographic information and page numbers for your references.
Ultimately, your objective should be to create a dialogue between the theories and ideas you have read and your own thoughts. What is your personal perspective on the topic? What evidence is there that supports your point of view? Furthermore, you should ask questions about each text. Is it current or is it outdated? What argument is the author making? Is the author biased?
Approaching your reading in this way ensures that you engage with the literature critically. You will demonstrate that you have done this in your mini literature review (see Proposal Structure box).
If you have not yet started reading for your proposal, the Literature Review Guide offers advice on choosing a topic and how to conduct a literature search. Additionally, the Effective Reading Guide provides tips on researching and critical reading.
So, how is a dissertation proposal typically structured? The structure of a proposal varies considerably.
This is a list of elements that might be required. Please check the dissertation proposal requirements and marking criteria on Blackboard or with your lecturers if you are unsure about the requirements.
Title : The title you have devised, so far - it can change throughout the dissertation drafting process! A good title is simple but fairly specific. Example: "Focus and concentration during revision: an evaluation of the Pomodoro technique."
Introduction/Background : Provides background and presents the key issues of your proposed research. Can include the following:
Rationale : Why is this research being undertaken, why is it interesting and worthwhile, also considering the existing literature?
Purpose : What do you intend to accomplish with your study, e.g. improve something or understand something?
Research question : The main, overarching question your study seeks to answer. E.g. "How can focus and concentration be improved during revision?"
Hypothesis : Quantitative studies can use hypotheses in alternative to research questions. E.g. "Taking regular breaks significantly increases the ability to memorise information."
Aim : The main result your study seeks to achieve. If you use a research question, the aim echoes that, but uses an infinitive. E.g. "The aim of this research is to investigate how can focus and concentration be improved during revision."
Objectives : The stepping stones to achieve your aim. E.g. "The objectives of this research are 1) to review the literature on study techniques; 2) to identify the factors that influence focus and concentration; 3) to undertake an experiment on the Pomodoro technique with student volunteers; 4) to issue recommendations on focus and concentration for revision."
Literature review : Overview of significant literature around the research topic, moving from general (background) to specific (your subject of study). Highlight what the literature says, and does not say, on the research topic, identifying a gap(s) that your research aims to fill.
Methods : Here you consider what methods you are planning to use for your research, and why you are thinking of them. What secondary sources (literature) are you going to consult? Are you going to use primary sources (e.g. data bases, statistics, interviews, questionnaires, experiments)? Are you going to focus on a case study? Is the research going to be qualitative or quantitative? Consider if your research will need ethical clearance.
Significance/Implications/Expected outcomes : In this section you reiterate what are you hoping to demonstrate. State how your research could contribute to debates in your particular subject area, perhaps filling a gap(s) in the existing works.
Plan of Work : You might be asked to present your timeline for completing the dissertation. The timeline can be presented using different formats such as bullet points, table, Gantt chart. Whichever format you use, your plan of work should be realistic and should demonstrate awareness of the various elements of the study such as literature research, empirical work, drafting, re-drafting, etc.
Outline : Here you include a provisional table of contents for your dissertation. The structure of the dissertation can be free or prescribed by the dissertation guidelines of your course, so check that up.
Reference List : The list should include the bibliographical information of all the sources you cited in the proposal, listed in alphabetical order.
Most of the elements mentioned above are explained in the tabs of this guide!
Literature-based dissertations in the humanities
A literature-based dissertation in the humanities, however, might be less rigidly structured and may look like this:
- Short introduction including background information on your topic, why it is relevant and how it fits into the literature.
- Main body which outlines how you will organise your chapters .
- Conclusion which states what you hope your study will achieve.
- Bibliography .
Check your proposal!
Have you shown that your research idea is:
Feasible with the timeframe and resources available?
Identified a clear research gap to focus on?
Stated why your study is important?
Selected a methodology that will enable you to gather the data you need?
Use the marking criteria for dissertation proposals provided by your department to check your work.
Locke, L.F., Spirduso, W.W. and Silverman, S.J. (2014). Proposals that Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals . Sage.
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- Last Updated: Jan 26, 2022 4:55 PM
- URL: https://libguides.westminster.ac.uk/starting-your-dissertation
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Department of Anthropology
Guide to writing a dissertation proposal.
By Elizabeth Ferry, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University (updated November 17, 2021)
Once you have passed your comprehensive exams, the time has come for you to complete the dissertation proposal. In this memo, I give you some of my thoughts on ways to approach the proposal. Also, I asked students who already completed the requirement to tell me what they wished they had been told beforehand and have included some of their comments in this document. Of course, since everyone’s project, mind, and life circumstances differ, not all of these suggestions will work for all of you. I have tried to write something that is sufficiently general to apply to many of you, but that still has practical, specific suggestions.
What is a dissertation proposal and what is it good for?
The dissertation proposal is intended to take you from the comprehensive exam stage, in which you demonstrated your control over particular areas of theoretical and anthropological literature, to a coherent and detailed statement of your own proposed project and its relevance to the field. It is thus, for many of you, your first extensive experience of bringing together your own ethnographic or archaeological example (with some of your own data, if you have already done preliminary research) and anthropological theory. Bringing these two levels together is the best, but also the hardest, part of anthropology. Your task in this proposal is to make a first attempt at that.
The proposal can be roughly divided into three sections: Project Statement and Research Questions; Literature Review (both theoretical and area); and Methodology. In particular, a successful dissertation proposal will discuss the following:
- What are the basic research questions that I wish to examine?
- What is the ethnographic/archaeological situation or case that I have chosen to examine these questions?
- Why is this an appropriate situation or case for these questions?
- What have other anthropologists (and others) written about this case and the surrounding research area?
- What have other anthropologists (and others) written about these research questions?
- How will my research add to, differ from, or change these previous studies?
- What data will I need to examine these questions?
- How will I gather these data?
- What tools, skill, permissions, etc. do I need to gather these data and how have I or will I obtain these (language training, IRB approval, local affiliations, access issues, etc.)?
In most cases, answers to questions 1-3 would be included in the Project Statement and Research Questions section, 4-6 in the Literature Review section, and 7-9 in the Methodology section.
You are writing a proposal for what you plan to do in the future, not a discussion of what you have already done. Nobody expects you to know everything yet, and every dissertation project undergoes substantial changes in the field. (In fact, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to do fieldwork!) Just write as clearly as possible about what you want to find out and how you hope to do so.
How do I start?
Armed with a general idea of what kind of document you are trying to write and what a successful example might look like, you are now ready to prepare the ground. If you break down what you need to do into smaller steps, you will be less intimidated and more likely to make steady progress.
Here’s what one student had to say about beginning the process:
“Even though we might feel that we are writing the proposal for the first time, in reality I believe that by the time we get to this stage, we have most likely written different versions or sections of it in class assignments, presentations, the comprehensive exams, fieldnotes, small grant proposals, and so forth. Using these different papers was enormously helpful for me.”
Another student writes:
“If I could do it over, I would keep going after the comps, [consulting] the literature in the comps to [help] write the literature review section of the proposal. With that part done, I think it would have been easier to move on to other sections of the proposal.”
You might begin by looking back over what you have already done, in seminar papers, grant proposals and, perhaps most importantly, for your exams. This will not only remind you of places you can mine for portions of the document, but also of the fact that you already know much, if not most, of what you need to know to write the dissertation proposal. Remember, however, that you will no doubt need to revise these earlier writings substantially to mold them to your current purposes. They are a jumping off point, rather than a finished product.
Your first section should be the Project Statement and Research Questions, since these are the heart of your project and intended to guide the Literature Review and Methodology sections. However, if you feel you will be more able to begin the first section if you have already written the Literature Review, you could start there too (as long as you already have a clear idea in your mind of your basic research questions). I don’t recommend starting with the Methodology section (though you could do it second if you wanted to).
Several students mentioned, and I agree, that it is helpful to set yourself a deadline to complete a draft of this first section (whichever one you choose to begin with). It should not be too long, though of course it depends on what else is going on in your life. Something between two weeks and one month is probably good. You can let your advisor know that you plan (hope) to send them the draft at this time. If you are part of an established group with whom you can share the draft, perhaps you can set up a meeting a week or two after the deadline to discuss the draft. This will force you to write and provide you with some immediate practical feedback. If you are not part of an established group, you should form one , either with others at the same stage or other students in the department.
Of course, you may always ask other faculty members on your committee (or not on your committee) to read the draft, but you should bear in mind that they may not have time to get back to you before you need to move on, and that feedback from your peers can often be as or more helpful than from faculty.
[Note: If you are commenting on someone’s dissertation proposal, you should remember that specific, constructive criticism is always more helpful (and kinder) than general, negative criticism. Comments should be aimed at the level of development of the draft, so that a first draft should receive a different kind of comment than a final draft. Reading others’ work will allow you to get a feel for different modes of commenting and will also help you improve your own writing.]
At the same time, you should always feel welcome approaching any member of the department, whether or not they are on your committee. For instance, as you are working, you may encounter a series of questions or themes related to the work of a particular scholar or body of literature and wish to consult a faculty who you know has some expertise. In those cases, it helps faculty know how to contribute if you come with specific questions or topics. “What do you think about the difference between Gramsci and Foucault with respect to the concept of agency?” works better than “My advisor told me to come talk to you and here I am” or even “I need to think more about agency, can you help me?”
Once you have received feedback, you will need to decide whether you want to revise the section you have already drafted or move on and come back to it later. The answer to this depends on your personality, work habits, your schedule and other commitments, and the kinds of comments you received. Ideally, you will be able to move on and draft all three sections and then revise all three later. However, if there are serious issues of conceptualization or if you are a perfectionist, you may need to do another round of revisions before moving on. However, you should not try to make each section absolutely perfect before you move to the next section, as this can lead to delays and discouragement.
Writing each section of the proposal should basically follow this process: you write one or more drafts and elicit feedback from both your advisor and a writing group of some sort. If possible, there should be at least some overlap in your readers throughout the process (that is, at least some of the same people should read all the different sections of the proposal). Also, watch out for burnout on both sides. If your readers read the same section too many times, they will lose perspective, and their comments will not be as effective (the law of diminishing returns). On the other hand, if you give the drafts to too many different readers, you may become overwhelmed and unable to process the comments you get, especially if they are quite varied. With practice, you will get a feel for a proper balance of number of readers and number of drafts per reader.
Once you have drafted each section, you will need to revise the entire thing at least once and probably a number of times. At this point, it may help you to look back at questions 1-9 I listed earlier. Not only should you have answered all nine questions, but the answers should flow into each other. For instance, the answer to question 3 (why is this case a good one for my chosen research questions?) should lead to the answer to question 6 (how will my research add to other work on these questions?) and questions 7- 8 (what data do I need and how will I gather these data?). I don’t mean that one section has to come right after another, but that the ideas should go together conceptually. You should be checking this as you go along. If they don’t fit together, you may need to revise either your case, your research questions, or your lit review section. This is something that should become clear to you in the process of writing, revising, and discussing your drafts.
A note from one of your peers on how to manage transitions:
“Starting a new section was a somewhat tedious process and to reduce my boredom and general inertia I would do less demanding things like laying out the table of contents, revising titles and subtitles for the various sections, organizing margins, font size, and such stuff. I know this sounds silly, but I kept telling myself that I am still putting in time towards my proposal. Another strategy that worked for me is that when I felt weary I would work on the section that I was most confident in so that that was one other thing taken care of, even if it wasn’t the most important section. For instance, when beginning the methodology section, I first started writing the stuff on language training, which is what I knew most about. Once that was done, I told myself that I had already finished one-third of the methodology so now what remained was significantly less work.”
How do I manage my time? Or, am I going to be defending this thing from a nursing home? And, you do realize I have to eat and pay rent during this time, too, right?
I would say that three to five months from exams to dissertation proposal defense is ideal, depending on what else you need to do during that time. You will likely need to do something else, such as working as a course assistant or research assistant. In addition, you may also wish to continue acquiring whatever field language(s) you need. Indeed, I think a moderate schedule of other activities may help give structure to your time and keep you from feeling isolated, overwhelmed, or depressed.
Here are some suggestions from your peers on how to manage your time:
“I would organize my time so that I had to finish, say, two pages before my favorite TV show or else I would feel really guilty and would not be able to enjoy it! Another such incentive I created for myself was a 10-day holiday with my husband one-and-a-half months into my proposal writing (the February break). This might sound crazy given that I was in the middle of a semester and surely had no time to spare. But knowing that I really wanted to enjoy this holiday and would not be able to unless I finished another section or two before leaving was a really strong incentive for me. Moreover, my husband would keep reminding me that we had X number of days left before leaving and I had to finish such and such section by then. Although this got me really annoyed and irritated with him, in the end it worked. I had written out another section and a half before we left. Basically, what I am suggesting is that a reward system and a few breaks now and then are a good idea. For instance, after we returned from our holiday, I found myself with no excuse but to get back to work. I had had my fun and now that I was relaxed, I could resume my work with fresh energy.”
"What worked best for me was looking at the calendar and figuring out how much time I had to work on the dissertation proposal. I then allocated the hours. I made a point of writing at least five days a week and, lo and behold, I actually got work done.”
I hope these thoughts help some of you manage this rather stressful, but ultimately rewarding, exercise. I have two final points to emphasize. The first is simply to underscore what I said earlier: break down the task into manageable steps, and you will be far more likely to succeed. The second is also simple and, I hope, inspiring: the dissertation proposal is an extension of the comprehensive exams. Where the comprehensive exams established you as an expert in various fields of anthropological literature, the dissertation proposal establishes you as an expert in your project and its significance. You should feel free to enjoy and explore that sense of expertise.
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- 1 Definition: Dissertation Proposal
- 3 Dissertation Proposal Structure
- 4 Step-by-Step Guide
- 5 Why Write a Dissertation Proposal?
- 6 In a Nutshell
Definition: Dissertation Proposal
A dissertation proposal outlines your plan to write a dissertation based on a particular research question . It demonstrates the work you have done up to this point including academic research, discussions with your advisor and any other relevant activities. Your proposal outlines not only how you plan to tackle the question but why it is important that you do so and what effect your dissertation might have on your field.
Writing a dissertation proposal is not easy and if you have been asked to prepare one, it is normal to feel overwhelmed. Do not worry, you are not alone and all of the questions you have can be answered. This guide will tackle all of the most common issues students face when writing their dissertation proposal such as how long it needs to be, what it should contain and more.
How long is a dissertation proposal?
The minimum length of a dissertation proposal is 10 pages. However, if you’re planning to write a longer dissertation , you may need 15-20 pages for the dissertation proposal. It depends on the dissertation topic, your institution and why you’re writing the dissertation.
What makes a good dissertation proposal?
A good dissertation proposal covers your research question and outlines how you plan to tackle it. Good proposals include relevant reading up to this point and any discussions you have had with your supervisor. You should also include any limitations you expect to face and how you’re going to overcome them.
What should a dissertation proposal include?
A dissertation proposal follows the structure of a dissertation in the way that it is split into three sections; an introduction, the main body and a short conclusion. The main body is further split into your methodology, your aims and objectives, a literature review, your expected limitations, any relevant ethical considerations and the project timeframe.
What are the different types of dissertation proposals?
Like dissertations , your dissertation proposal can come in one of two types. There are empirical dissertations and library-based dissertations. The former involves carrying out original research whilst the latter focuses on answering a research question using existing data.
Why is a dissertation proposal important?
Your dissertation proposal functions as a small-scale version of your final dissertation proposal. When done well, your dissertation proposal will inform the structure of your dissertation and its contents in a way that will make it much easier to write, while improving its quality. The dissertation proposal will give you an outline to work with when you begin writing.
How do you choose a dissertation topic?
Choosing a dissertation topic can be overwhelming so the best thing to do is look over your studies for the part you found the most interesting and enjoyable. Then, try and identify areas where you felt the material did not sufficiently answer all the questions you have on the subject, this is an excellent place to begin forming a topic.
How do you keep the subject narrow?
The more research you do, the easier narrowing your focus is. In particular, you may find that the papers on an aspect of your topic are outdated, so perhaps you could conduct research or perform an experiment to see if those papers are still correct. It’s very important that your topic is not too broad, otherwise you’ll have trouble forming your research questions and writing your dissertation proposal.
Dissertation Proposal Structure
Your dissertation proposal will be divided as follows:
The area in which you state your research question and explain why this question has been chosen and why it is worth answering.
The first part of your proposal’s main body in which you explain how you are going to gather the data you need to answer your research question.
Aims and Objectives
This part of the main section explains what you hope the outcome of your research and experimentation will be and how you plan on achieving these results.
The literature review goes over significant academic research you have already conducted and how it supports your research question and how it informs your experiment if you are conducting one.
This area of the main body acknowledges the areas of your research question which your research and experimentation will fail to address and how you plan to compensate for this and why these limitations will not have a significant impact on your results.
Every research question has some common ethical considerations which you must acknowledge here. However, it is particularly important that you highlight any ethical issues that are unique to your project as well as how you plan to deal with them.
The final part of the main section. You only have so long to write your dissertation so you must show how this time will be divided, demonstrating your understanding of the requirements of each of the tasks you must perform to answer your research question.
Your conclusion sums up the rest of your dissertation proposal. It acts as a reminder of the most important topics you touched on as well as the methods you have chosen to incorporate.
Select a Topic
One aspect of your studies will interest you more than the rest. Go back and look over all of the lecture information you have about this area and look for a subtopic that you want to expand upon.
Narrowing your Focus
Start looking outside of your lecture materials for more information about your chosen topic. Begin by reading anything that seems relevant and look for an area that requires an update or does not have sufficient research.
Choosing Relevant Literature
Once you have sufficiently narrowed your focus, look again at the reading you have done so far. Keep any academic journals, textbooks or high-authority sources and then find more related works of similar quality.
Begin Writing the First Draft
Previously, we outlined all of the sections of your dissertation proposal. Write as much as possible about each of those sections remembering that order is not important right now, getting all your ideas down is.
Meetings and Refinement
Arrange to meet your supervisor and show them the progress you have made. They will have advice on what your next step should be, follow this advice and then make another meeting. Repeat as often as possible until your deadline.
Why Write a Dissertation Proposal?
Your proposal does several jobs. Firstly, it creates a format in which you can outline the ideas and methods you will explore in more depth during your dissertation. This lets you form a detailed plan making the final paper much easier to write. Also, it is the best early chance you have to receive feedback not only on your topic but the methods you are using to explore it and the areas you have neglected.
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In a Nutshell
Your dissertation proposal might seem like a complex, intimidating task but it can be broken down into several manageable sections. By tackling each part individually you will find that it quickly becomes a simple project that will surprise you with its depth, complexity and quality once complete.
Discover more useful articles:
This article includes helpful tips on how to write a research paper:
Check this article if you want information about the apa cover page:
In this article we show you some conclusion examples:
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