How to write a dissertation proposal
What is a dissertation proposal?
"A dissertation proposal is essential in preparing you for the writing process and will actually serve to make beginning your dissertation decidedly less frightening."
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?
Making a start: reading around your subject area and selecting a topic
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:
Editor(s) (edited books only)
URL (for online sources only)
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
It could be that you identify one particularly interesting study, but realise that its findings are outdated, or are not easily applicable to modern times.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?
Putting pen to paper: take a deep breath and…
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:
Main body of proposal
Conclusion (of sorts)
‘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...
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."
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.
What should I do differently when writing a postgraduate proposal?
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.
Be sure to include a bibliography detailing any sources you have used or literature you have referred to in writing your dissertation proposal.