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How to Structure a Dissertation Proposal

A dissertation proposal is a stepping stone towards writing the final dissertation paper. It’s a unique document that informs the reader of the aim & objectives of dissertation research, and the course of action taken by the researcher.

The main purpose of a proposal paper is to showcase to your supervisor or members of the dissertation committee that your dissertation research will add value to existing knowledge in your area of study.

Although the exact structure of a dissertation proposal may vary depending on your academic level, academic subject and size of the paper; the contents and structure will remain pretty much the same.

However, it will still make sense to consult with your supervisor to learn about the proposal formatting and structuring guidelines before starting to work on your dissertation proposal paper.

You may lose out on scoring some important marks if your proposal paper does not follow the specific rules of your department. Here are some tips for you on how to structure a dissertation proposal paper.

Tips on How to Structure a Dissertation Proposal

Work on Your Assigned Timeline

Consult your supervisor or department to find out about how much time you have to complete your dissertation proposal. It is important to recognise the fact that each graduate programme is different, and so you must adhere to the specific rules to avoid unwelcome surprises.

Depending on the degree programme you are enrolled onto, you may have to start working on your chosen topic right away or you might need to deal with some assignments and exams first.

You can learn about the rules and timelines concerning your dissertation project on the online portal for your degree programme. If you are still unsure, it will be best to speak with your department’s admin clerk, the head of the programme or your supervisor.

How Long is a Dissertation Proposal?

The length of your dissertation proposal will depend on your degree prorgamme and your research topic. PhD level dissertation proposals are much longer in terms of word count as compared to Bachelors and Masters level proposals.

  • Most Bachelors level dissertation proposals are about 5-6 pages long.
  • Masters and PhD levels proposals’ length varies from 15-25 pages depending on the academic subject and degree programme specifications.
  • If the word count or page length expectation is not mentioned in the dissertation handbook or the guidelines on university’s website, you should check you with your supervisor or programme coordinator for a clear understanding of this particular requirement.

Look for Proposal Structural Requirements in the Guidelines

Most academic institutions will provide precise rules for how to structure your dissertation proposal in terms of what the content of the document should be and how to arrange it.  If you have not been able to figure out these requirements then you must speak with your supervisor to find out what they recommend. Typical contents and structure of a dissertation proposal include the following;

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Dissertation Proposal Formatting

Formatting of your dissertation proposal will also depend on your degree programme’s specific guidelines and area of research. Find out the exact guidelines pertaining to formatting of cover sheets and title pages, style of referencing, notes and bibliography, and margin sizes, page numbers and fonts. Again if you are unsure about anything, it is recommended to consult with your project advisor.

Find out About the Exact Acceptance Process

The process of writing your dissertation proposal paper and getting the acceptance from the committee of members of your supervisor is a tricky one.

Consult your department’s academic assistant, your supervisor or the programme chair to find out about all stages of the process. Here are a couple of points you will need to be aware of:

  • You might be required to have your chosen topic of research approved by your academic supervisor or department chair.
  • Submit your proposal and have it formally signed and approved so you can continue with your research.

You may find the dissertation proposal writing process to be perplexing and challenging if this is the first time you are preparing such a document. All the essential elements of a dissertation proposal paper need to be present before you submit it for approval.

“Any feedback received from the tutor or the supervising committee should be taken very seriously and incorporated into your planning for dissertation research. Do not start working on your final dissertation paper until the proposal has been accepted by your supervisor.”

To help you organise your dissertation proposal paper correctly, we have put together detailed guidelines on how to structure a dissertation proposal. Irrespective of the degree programme you are developing your dissertation proposal for, you will find these guidelines equally important.

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Select a Topic

Selecting an appropriate topic is the key to having your research work recognised in your field of study. Make sure your chosen topic is relevant, interesting and manageable.

Ideally, you would want to research a topic that has not been explored by previous researchers so you can contribute to knowledge on the academic subject.

But even if your topic has been well-researched previously, you can make your study stand out by tweaking the research design and research questions to add a new dimension to your research. Here are some guidelines on how to choose a suitable research topic.

List all the topics that you find interesting and relevant to your area of study. PhD and Masters level students are already well aware of their academic interests.

Bachelor students can consider unanswered questions that emerged from their past academic assignments and drove them to conduct a detailed investigation to find answers.

  • Think about all your past academic achievements and associations such as any research notes that you might have written for your classes, any unsettled questions from your previous academic assignments that left you wondering and the material you learnt in classes taught by professors.
  • For example, you learnt about how natural gas is supplied to households in the UK in one of your coursework assignment, and now eagerly wish to know exactly how natural gas is processed at an industrial scale.


Conduct initial research on your chosen topic(s). This will include reading authentic text material on the topic(s) to familiarise yourself with each potential topic. Doing so will help you figure out whether there really is a need to further investigate your selected topics.

Visit your university’s library or online academic databases such as ProQuest, EBSCO, QUICKBASE to find articles, journals, books, peer-reviewed articles and thesis/dissertation papers (by other students) written on your possible research topic.

Ignore all academic sources that you find methodologically flawed or obsolete. Visit our online research topics library to choose a topic relevant to your interests.

Consult your academic supervisor and show them your list of potential topics. Their advice will be crucial for you to decide whether the topic you are interested in is appropriate and meets the requirements of your degree programme.

It is recommended to set up an appointment with your supervisor to see them in person to discuss your potential topics, even though you can do the same in email too.

  • If the topics you are interested in are too broad or lack focus your supervisor will be able to guide you towards academic sources that could help narrow down your research.
  • Having several topics in your list of potential topics will mean that you will have something to fall back onto in case they don’t approve your first choice.

Narrow the Focus of Your Research - Once a topic has been mutually agreed upon between you and your academic supervisor, it is time to narrow down the focus so your research explores an aspect of the topic that hasn’t been investigated before.

Spend as much time as possible examining different aspects of the topic to establish a research aim that would truly add value to the existing knowledge.

  • For example, you were initially interested in studying the different natural gas process techniques employed in the UK at industrial scale, but you noticed that the existing literature doesn’t account for one certain advanced gas processing method that is helping industry save millions of pounds every year so you decide to make that the focus of your research.
  • Your topic could be too broad as you start your research, but as you dig deep into your research the topic will continue to narrow and evolve. TIP – It is better to work on a topic that is too broad rather than on something there is not enough text material to work with.

Follow this process, and you’ll be able to choose the most appropriate topic for your research. Not only will this make your dissertation unique, but also increase chances of your proposal being accepted in the first attempt.

Structure of a Dissertation Proposal

The key elements of a great dissertation proposal are explained in detail under this section ‘structure of a dissertation proposal’. Once you’ve finalized your topic, you need to quickly switch to writing your dissertation proposal paper. As previously mentioned, the exact structure of your proposal paper may vary depending on your university/college requirements.


A good dissertation proposal title will give the reader an insight into the aim/idea of your study. Describe the purpose and/or contents of your dissertation proposal paper in fewest possible words.

A concise and focused title will help you gain the attention of the readers. However, you might need to adjust your title several times as you write the paper because your comprehensive research might continue to add new dimensions to your study.

  • Your title must be as categorical as possible. For example, instead of “Natural Gas Processing Techniques in the UK”, use a more specific title like, “Investigating various industrial natural gas processing technologies employed in the UK” so the reader can understand exactly what your research is about.


Write a brief executive summary or an abstract of your proposal if you have been asked to do so in the structural guidelines. Generally, the abstract is included in the final dissertation paper with a length of around 300-400 words.

If you have to write an abstract for your proposal, here are the key points that it must cover;

  • The background to your research.
  • Research questions that you wish to address.
  • Your proposed methods of research that will either test the hypothesis or address the research problem.
  • The significance of your research as to how it will add value to the scientific or academic community.

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This is your first chance to make a strong impression on the reader. Not only your introduction section should be engaging, contextually it is supposed to provide a background to the topic and explain the thesis problem.

Here is what the first paragraph of the introduction section should include:

  • Explain your research idea and present a clear understanding as to why you’ve chosen this topic.
  • Present a summary of the scope of your research study taking into account the existing literature.
  • Briefly describe the issues and specific problem your research aims to address!

In the next paragraphs, summarize statement of the problem. Here you will be expected to explain what gap in the existing knowledge your research will fill and how your work will prove to be significant in your area of study.

For example, the focus of your research could be the stage of carbon monoxide removal from natural gas but other similar studies do not sufficiently explore this aspect of the natural gas processing technology.

Here is a comprehensive article on "How to Write Introduction for Dissertation Paper"

Aim & Objectives

This is the most critical section of the proposal paper because this is where you explain your research aim and objectives. List the research question or objectives your study will address. When writing this particular section, it will make sense to think of the following questions:

  • Are there any specific findings that you are expecting?
  • What aspects of the topic you have decided not to investigate and why?
  • How will your research contribute to the existing knowledge in your field?

Literature Review

The literature review section is your chance to state the key established research trends, hypothesis and theories on the subject. Demonstrate to the reader that your research is a unique contribution in your field because it explores the topic from a new angle.

In a dissertation proposal, you won’t be expected to provide an extensive list of all previous research studies on the topic but all the key theories reported by other scholars should be briefly referred to.

Take into consideration the following when writing the literature review section:

  • The gaps identified in the previous research studies on the topic which your own research aims to fill. State the limitations of previous studies whether lacking sufficient evidence, invalid or too broad.
  • The key established research trends, theories and hypothesis as reported by other researchers.
  • Any specific arguments and/or methodologies that previous scholars used when investigating your topic.

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A focused and well-defined methodology in a proposal paper can help you explain to your readers how you plan to conduct your research and why your chosen research design can provide reliable answers to your research questions.

The choice of research design and analytical approach will depend on several factors including but not limited to your own area of study and research constraints.

Depending on your topic and the existing literature, you will need to decide whether your dissertation will be purely descriptive or also use primary (quantitative/qualitative data) as part of the research design.

Any research limitations and ethical issues that you expect to deal with should be clearly stated. For example, you might not be able to use a large sample size of respondents due to financial constraints. Small sample size can affect the significance of your research so any such limitations cannot be overlooked.

How to Write a First Class Dissertation Proposal or Research Proposal.

Project Schedule

Some Masters and PhD level degree programmes require students to include a project timeline or timetable to give readers an idea of how and when you plan to complete different stage of the project.

Project timeline can be a great planning tool especially if your research work includes experiments, statistical analysis, designing, and primary data collection. However, it may have to be modified slightly as you progress into your research.

By no means, it is a fixed programme for carrying out your work. When developing the project timeline in your proposal, always take into account the time needed for practical aspects of the research such as travelling, experiments and fieldwork.

Referencing and In-Text Citations

Underrated, but referencing is one of the most crucial aspects of preparing a proposal. You can think of your proposal as the first impression of your dissertation.

You would want everything to be perfect and in place, wouldn’t you? Thus, always make sure that your dissertation consists of all the necessary elements.

You will have to cite information and data that you’re including in your dissertation. So make sure that the references that you include are credible and authentic.

You can use well-known academic journals, official websites, past researches and concepts presented by renowned authors and writers in the respective field.

The same rule applies to in-text citations. Make sure that you cite references accurately according to the required referencing style as mentioned in the guidelines.

Statistics, facts and figures should be backed by references at all times. It is highly recommended to back every 100-200 words written with at least one academic reference. The quantity of references does not matter; however, the quality does.

These are the basic elements of a dissertation proposal. Taking care of all these sections will help you when you’re confused as to how to structure a dissertation proposal. In addition to these steps, look for different dissertation proposal examples that are similar to your research topic. A sample dissertation proposal can provide a clear understanding of how to go about this “proposal stage” of the dissertation project.

“If you’re unable to pull off a first-class proposal, we’re here to help. We at Research Prospect make sure that our writers prepare a flawless dissertation proposal for you. Our highly qualified team of writers will also help you choose a topic that is relevant to your subject area. Get in touch with us today and let us take care of all your dissertation worries! Learn more about our dissertation proposal writing service"


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