Writing your PhD dissertation proposal from choosing dissertation topics to formulating research questions

The dissertation proposal is different from that of other types of proposals such as the research paper proposal. Dissertations are the ultimate in research and report writing. After evaluating the many possibilities in dissertation topics, you will begin the process of creating the dissertation proposal that will form the roadmap for your dissertation.

The Path to Your Doctorate

In order to earn a doctorate degree, you will not only take advanced courses in your area of study, you will be required to choose a topic, conduct a research study, and document the process and results of your research. The final product of your research is called a dissertation and it is unlike any other type of report that you have ever been asked to create during your many years of schooling.

What it is Not

Leonard Cassuto has written about the dissertation more than once for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his September 11, 2011 article titled, “Demystifying the Dissertation Proposal,” Cassuto reminds readers that the dissertation is not a book. He encourages the doctoral candidate to take a practical view toward the process of completing the dissertation. When describing the dissertation proposal, Cassuto uses words such as “prospectus” and “implied contract with the advisor.”

According to Cassuto, the dissertation proposal is neither an essay nor is it a mini-dissertation. Your purpose is not to prove a thesis but to advance one. Rather than creating your dissertation in miniature, Cassuto asserts that you will create a roadmap to a place where you have not been.

While completing your dissertation can take over a year, creating the proposal should take from three to six months. To help you accomplish your goal, Cassuto advised, “You should not imagine that you will be writing your proposal on your own. Instead, draw on the experience of your peers, and especially your adviser, as you shape your topic so that it may be the most relevant, the most challenging, and the most marketable later on.”

What is Included in Your Proposal

Mark Bond provided advice and examples in his July 23, 2008 post for Knol Beta titled, “How to Write a PhD Dissertation Proposal & a PhD Dissertation.” It is important to know your audience when writing and Bond reminds us that the dissertation proposal is written for your academic advisor and your committee. These are the same people who will aid you in completing your dissertation and will eventually evaluate your final product.

“In short,” said Bond, “your proposal explains what you want to study, how you will study this thesis, why this thesis needs to be studied, and (generally) when you intend to do this work. (Occasionally, you may also need to explainwhere your study will take place.)”

Demonstrate Your Knowledge

One purpose of the dissertation proposal is to demonstrate your knowledge of the chosen topic. Your proposal will include such sections as:

  • Theory
  • Research design
  • Background and history
  • Concepts and terminology

In order to complete the section on theory, you will have chosen and read a multitude of research from others who have explored your chosen topic. Your proposal must show that you are familiar with their work. You will be expected to discuss any controversies and shortcomings in existing research and approaches, and how your research will help to solve them and add to the body of knowledge.

Research Questions

Central to your dissertation proposal are your research questions. Without well-defined questions you will find it impossible to create the research design that will form the basis of your dissertation. Formulating your questions will take time and many hours of research. You will want to review as many as 300 papers and dissertations on your topic and then narrow the field to about 100 that are the most relevant to your approach to the topic. Previous research often includes suggestions for further research that can spark your thought process and lead you in your proposal development.

When embarking on a journey, it helps to have a roadmap to show you the quickest way to your destination. All of the work you do up-front to create your dissertation proposal will pay off in the time that you save in completing your final dissertation.

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