What is a dissertation proposal?

Help is here for writing your dissertation proposal. If done correctly, a dissertation proposal works in much the same way as an in-depth essay plan, providing you with guidance when beginning to actually write your dissertation. In particular, outlining a strong methodology as a part of your proposal will ensure that you maintain consistency and conformity when gathering and analysing your data. Including ethical considerations, reasons for your choice of sample, and perceived limitations of your research will also help to protect your work from criticism.

"A dissertation proposal is essential in preparing you for the writing process and will actually serve to make beginning your dissertation decidedly less frightening."

Beginning to plan a dissertation is an undoubtedly daunting task. Writing an effective dissertation proposal is a necessary first step in deciding upon a subject area, focusing in on a research question, and identifying the methods that you will use in collecting and presenting your data. Whether you're writing an undergraduate or postgraduate proposal, it's vital you check your course and institution requirements prior to submission, since the word count and format can vary between universities.

According to usual practice, you'll likely be assigned a supervisor from your subject area, who'll guide you throughout the dissertation writing process.

Producing a coherent dissertation proposal helps you to communicate with your supervisor the aims and objectives for your research, and the methods you intend to use in making an assessment of your topic. Your supervisor may then present you with a critical evaluation of your proposal, highlighting areas in which they foresee difficulty, ethical concerns, or lack of transparency. They may suggest alterations to your methodology, or that you take a different approach to your subject matter in order to glean stronger results. Don’t be ‘put off’ by this process. Remember, your supervisor’s job is to offer you constructive criticism and it's an integral to ‘shaping’ your work. Focus on the changes that have been suggested and how you might incorporate them into your revised proposal for your next meeting.

Why is it so important?

Overall, a dissertation proposal is essential in preparing you for the writing process and will actually serve to make beginning your dissertation decidedly less frightening. Plus, it is not set in stone and will probably be subject to much change during the entire process. You might even find that your original research question changes - it may be that you decide that there is 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 certain to hold regular meetings with your supervisor, to adhere carefully to your university’s regulations and to 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 below sections will attempt to provide a ‘how-to’ guide that will help you through various stages of research, analysis and development:

Making a start: reading around your subject area and selecting a topic

It may be that the easiest way to begin to hone 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?

Perhaps you are better able to select a more general area of interest, in which case you can start by looking at relevant journals and publications until you find a more explicit direction. Make sure that you make notes of all publications that you use in your research, as you will need to include these in your bibliography later on. Depending upon the referencing system preferred by your university department, you will need the following information:

  • Book/Journal title

  • Author(s)

  • Editor(s) (edited books only)

  • Chapter Title

  • Page(s)

  • URL (for online sources only)

  • Publisher

Consult your departmental handbook or ask your supervisor if you need clarification of what information to use when referencing.

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:

Introduction

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.

Main body of proposal

This is usually composed of the following subsections:
  • Methodology

    The methodology section 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?

  • Aims and Objectives

    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?

  • Literature Review

    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.

  • Limitations

    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.

  • Ethical Considerations

    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.

  • Timeframe

    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 require a ‘conclusion’, but it might be a good idea to round off your dissertation proposal 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, and 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.

"Integrity and value should be upheld throughout your proposal, planning, research, and writing phases."

As a ‘starting point’ for your dissertation proposal, you should consider the following:
Making 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 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.

Anyone involved at any stage of your research, whether directly included as a participant or not, should be well-informed about 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 be told 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 a good way of making sure that you have covered all bases.

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 now required to show that you are able to adequately extend the existing literature, rather than simply 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, however:

  • 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?

  • Again, 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.

In summary

Concentrate on what your research will achieve, why it is important, and what it will add to your field of study.

Be sure to include a bibliography detailing any sources you have used or literature you have referred to in writing your dissertation proposal.

Good luck!

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