How to Write a Dissertation Proposal with Structure & Steps
Published byat August 14th, 2021 , Revised On October 26, 2023
“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 its course of action.”
The main purpose of a proposal paper is to showcase to your supervisor or dissertation committee members 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 remain pretty much the same.
However, it will still make sense to consult with your supervisor about the proposal formatting and structuring guidelines before working on your dissertation proposal paper.
You may lose out on scoring some important marks if your proposal paper does not follow your department’s specific rules. Here are some tips for you on how to structure a dissertation proposal paper.
Tips on Completing a Dissertation Proposal in Due Time
Consult your supervisor or department to find out how much time you have to complete your dissertation proposal. Each graduate program is different, so you must adhere to the specific rules to avoid unwelcome surprises.
You can learn about the rules and timelines concerning your dissertation project on the university’s online portal. If you are still unsure, it will be best to speak with your department’s admin clerk, the program head, or supervisor.
Look for Proposal Structural Requirements in the Guidelines
Most academic institutions will provide precise rules for structuring your dissertation proposal in terms of the document’s content and how to arrange it. If you have not figured out these requirements, you must speak with your supervisor to find out what they recommend. Typical contents and structure of a dissertation proposal include the following;
- Statement of the Problem
- Introduction(Justifying your Research)
- Research Questions or Hypothesis (Research aim and objectives)
- Literature Review
- Proposed Methodology
- Opportunities and Limitations
- Project Schedule
Have an unhelpful dissertation project supervisor? Here is some advice to help you deal with an uncompromising dissertation advisor.
How Long is a Dissertation Proposal?
The length of your dissertation proposal will depend on your degree program and your research topic. PhD-level dissertation proposals are much longer in terms of word count than Bachelors’s and Master’s level proposals.
- Bachelor’s level dissertation proposals are about 5-6 pages long.
- Masters and Ph.D. level proposals’ length varies from 15-25 pages depending on the academic subject and degree program’s specifications.
- If the word count or page length expectation is not mentioned in the dissertation handbook or the guidelines on the university’s website, you should check with your supervisor or program coordinator for a clear understanding of this particular requirement.
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Dissertation Proposal Formatting
Formatting your dissertation proposal will also depend on your program’s specific guidelines and your research area. Find the exact guidelines for formatting cover sheets and title pages, referencing style, notes, bibliography, 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 Approval Criteria
The process of writing your dissertation proposal paper and getting acceptance from the committee of members of your supervisor is tricky.
Consult your department’s academic assistant, supervisor, or program chair to learn about all the process stages. Here are a couple of points you will need to be aware of:
- You might be required to have your chosen research topic 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 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 submitting it for approval.
To help you organise your dissertation proposal paper correctly, we have detailed guidelines for structuring a dissertation proposal. Irrespective of the degree program you are developing your dissertation proposal for, you will find these guidelines equally important.
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 previous researchers have not explored so you can contribute to knowledge on the academic subject.
How to Choose a Suitable Research Topic
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 MaMasters’sevel 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 you might have written for your classes, any unsettled questions from your previous academic assignments that left you wondering, and the material you learned in classes taught by professors.
- For example, you learned about how natural gas is supplied to households in the UK in one of your coursework assignments 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 investigate your selected topics further.
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 deciding whether the topic you are interested in is appropriate and meets your degree program requirements.
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 if 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. Hence, your research explores an aspect of the topic that has not 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 in the UK on an industrial scale. But you noticed that the existing literature doesn’t count for one advanced gas processing method that helps the industry save millions of pounds every year. Hence, 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.
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 finalised your topic, you need to switch to writing your dissertation proposal paper quickly. As previously mentioned, your proposal paper’s exact structure 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 the 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, which 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.
This is your first chance to make a strong impression on the reader. Not only your introduction section should be engaging, contextually, but it is also 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 problems your research aims to address!
In the next paragraphs, summarise the statement of the problem. Explain what gap in the existing knowledge your research will fill and how your work will prove significant in your area of study.
For example, the focus of your research could be the stage of carbon monoxide removal from natural gas. Still, other similar studies do not sufficiently explore this aspect of 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. List the research questions or the research 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 have you decided not to investigate and why?
- How will your research contribute to the existing knowledge in your field?
The literature review section is your chance to state the key established research trends, hypotheses, and theories on the subject. Demonstrate to the reader that your research is a unique contribution to 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. Still, 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 hypotheses as reported by other researchers.
- Any specific arguments and/or methodologies that previous scholars used when investigating your topic.
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 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 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 undermine your research significance.
Some Masters and PhD level degree programs require students to include a project timeline or timetable to give readers an idea of how and when they plan to complete different stages of the project.
Project timeline can be a great planning tool, mainly if your research 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 is it a fixed program for carrying out your work. When developing the project timeline in your proposal, always consider 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 include 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.
References should back statistics, facts, and figures 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 are confused about structuring a dissertation proposal. In addition to these steps, look for different dissertation proposal examples on your research topic. A sample dissertation proposal paper can provide a clear understanding of how to go about the “pro”osal stage” of”the dissertation project.
Frequently Asked Questions
A dissertation proposal in research outlines the planned study. It includes research objectives, methods, scope, and significance. It’s a blueprint that demonstrates the feasibility and value of the research, helping gain approval before proceeding with the full dissertation.
A dissertation proposal outlines your research topic, objectives, methodology, and potential significance. Start with a clear title, state your research question, detail the methods you will use to answer it, and highlight the contribution it will make to the field. Ensure it is well-researched, concise, and compelling to gain approval.
A dissertation proposal’s length varies by field and institution. Typically, it ranges from 10 to 20 pages, but can be longer for complex topics. It includes an introduction, research question, literature review, methodology, and potential significance. Always consult department guidelines or advisors to ensure appropriate length and content.
Dissertation proposal types largely depend on the research’s nature and methodology. Common types include empirical (collecting data from the real world), non-empirical (theory or literature-based), and narrative (case studies). Each type dictates a different approach to data collection, analysis, and presentation, tailored to the subject and field of study.