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The Dissertation Proposal

by Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation

The dissertation proposal represents a major commitment on your part to doing a particular kind of study. It can be changed only at a price ? a longer timetable for completion of your dissertation. Target 200 hours to write your dissertation proposal. Avoid the temptation to start writing before you have thoughtfully worked through the pre-proposal and proposal for your dissertation.

The Dissertation Pre-Proposal is a "short" (7-hour) step that will help clarify your dissertation topic and save you from starting to write before you're ready. The pre-proposal is a one-page document ? it's an outline of your actual dissertation proposal.

  • Formulate your Research Question - Clearly identify the theoretical construct and how your study contributes to the understanding of the theoretical construct.
    Suggested Prompts:
    • What is the nature of
    • How do ? perceive
    • What strategies are used
    • What are the effects of
    • How are ? defined
  • Select your Data - Consider accessibility and limitability
  • Align your Research Data and your Data - If the data you want to analyze can't answer the research question you have proposed, you have to change either the research question or the data.
    Note: Your data doesn't have to be the ONLY data that are appropriate for answering your research question!
  • Identify your Method of Data Collection
  • Indentify your Method of Data Analysis
  • Indentify the Literature to Review
  • Indentify the Significance of your Study
    Common ways of talking about significance include:
    • The study constitutes a starting place from which to understand a phenomenon
    • How a phenomenon is understood comes from one perspective and the study provides a different perspective that will expand understanding
    • A complex relationship exists between two phenomena and this study helps explain it
    • This study provides a missing piece in the understanding of a phenomenon
    • Those who work in this area or with this population will find the study useful because it provides information that enables them to be more effective in some way
  • Indentify your Chapters
  • Write your Pre-Proposal - A pre-proposal is a one-page summary of your dissertation that contains these elements:
    • Research question
    • Research design
      • Data
      • Method(s) for collecting data
      • Method(s) for analyzing data
    • Categories of literature to cover in the literature review
    • Reasons why the study is significant
    • Outline of the chapters of the dissertation
  • Assess your Decisions - Check your pre-proposal for internal consistency among all the elements
    • Does everything align with the research question?
    • Are the data a good example of the phenomenon you want to study?
    • Can your question be answered with the method you have proposed?
    • Do the reasons for doing the study relate to the research question?
    • Can the dissertation be done with the resources and time that you have?
    • Is this project of interest and even exciting to you?
  • Commit to the Pre-Proposal with your Advisor

Once you've written your pre-proposal, build on it to write your actual proposal. Start by finding out what the norms are for dissertation proposals at your university. Consider:

  • Format - What are the expectations for the format of a dissertation proposal in your department? Is the proposal intended to be the first chapter of your dissertation? Is it the first three chapters?
  • Length - How long should your dissertation proposal be? If you have a choice, write your proposal as though it's going to be your actual chapter or chapters so that the proposal itself constitutes major progress on your dissertation. In such a case, the proposal is usually between 30 and 50 pages long.

Find out what you need to do by talking with your advisor.

The sections of a dissertation proposal include the pre-proposal elements, along with an introduction and an outline of the study. Some things to remember about these additional sections:

  • Introduction- The Introduction should be three to five pages long if your proposal will become the first chapter; 10 to 15 pages long if your proposal turns into the first three chapters of your dissertation
    • Invite the reader to consider the general problem of your dissertation
    • Provide the context for the question you're investigating
    • Explain how you became interested in the question
    • Make sure your introduction flows into the discussion of the research question
    • Stay focused on the theoretical debate to which your dissertation will be contributing
    • Stay away from discussing the data you'll be using to answer your research question
  • Outline of the Study - You decided how to organize your study in your dissertation proposal, so you have nothing new to work out for this last section.
    • Turn the outline of the study that is in the pre-proposal into a narrative paragraph that tells how many chapters your study will have and what each one will contain.
    • The discussion of how the study is organized should take between one paragraph and one page of your proposal. It goes in the first chapter, whatever form your proposal assumes.

Adapted from Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters (2007).
Related resources:
ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis Database

Sonja Foss and William Waters

About the author

Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver and Dr. Waters is assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown. They are co-directors of Scholars' Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis, or writing project.

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