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How to Write Dissertation Proposal

Before beginning to write a dissertation it will be necessary for you to write and submit a proposal outlining the work you intend to do. This applies no matter what level of study you are undertaking. It is essential you prepare a comprehensive proposal for the faculty or department you belong to in order to agree your dissertation’s topic, even though you may have to fine-tune this to some extent as writing progresses.

Several reasons for submitting a dissertation proposal

In the first place, your tutor and/or department needs to be sure the topic you want to write about is suitable and feasible. Put another way, it is important for them to see that the scope and breath of your proposed topic is not overly small (i.e. you might not be able to write enough words about it) or too broad ranging (i.e. the subject might be too big for you to do it justice). Your department will not be asking for this for the sake of being awkward. The aim of everyone will be to ensure you succeed and, therefore, they will use your proposal to try and steer you onto the right path before you begin writing.
In the second place, an expert will be needed to mark your work. Hence, your proposal will give department members an overview of the topic you are planning to cover and it will allow them to allocate a suitable supervisor to oversee your work – someone who is sufficiently knowledgeable and has the expertise to give you sound advice. This person will additionally need the skills to evaluate and mark your completed paper.
Once you have chosen a fairly general topic or area to start researching, you will need to develop a suitable title for your proposal i.e. a condensed description of your research focus, and there are a number of other matters you will probably need to comment on. Usually, these matters are fairly routine requiring around 1,000 words (excluding the paper’s proposed or initial bibliography). In general terms, it is usual to use the future tense in a proposal since the work is yet to be undertaken. Then there are a few other sections that will need to be included in your proposal although the precise nature of this list can differ from one discipline to another and from one school to another. Roughly, these sections are:

The title you propose to use for your dissertation

You should not feel unduly worried if the title of your dissertation seems a bit vague at this stage or if you have to alter it (slightly) while you are writing your paper. This is exactly what this is – a proposed piece of work – and so it is an “intention” statement and not a certainty that every detail within it will definitely be incorporated in the very final paper you submit.

The introductory and background sections

It will be necessary for you to describe or explain to your tutor and department why you wish to write a dissertation on the particular subject you are proposing and why and how the work you intend doing is significant or important. If your paper is for undergraduate level or you are studying for a Master’s degree, it is unlikely you will be doing any groundbreaking work or trying to discover something absolutely original or new. Instead, it is most likely you will be examining and interpreting data that already exists using a fresh perspective or looking at it in some way that is a little different (as well as additionally using primary sources). Or you may be examining a specific issue concerning your topic and associating existing knowledge to it.
You should sum up any relevant background information concerning your topic and your reasons for writing about it. This should be (approximately) a 150-word summary and, in roughly another 150 words, you should explain what approach you intend taking. In the introduction section of your research proposal, you should mention if you intend to use any fresh primary source material, if your work will review and analyze any literature that already exists, if you intend to undertake any interviews or circulate any questionnaires, etc. Accordingly, your introductory and background sections should set out your rationale for choosing a particular topic and outline the method or approach you will use.

Methodology section with a summary concerning ethics

This section will not be needed in every single dissertation. A lot of dissertations, those related to law for instance, will not need to dwell on methodology. However, this is something you should check. If your department does not want this part, you can take advantage of the extra words to enhance other parts of your dissertation proposal. If your department does require a section concerning methodology and ethics, it should roughly be a 250-word chapter.
A methodology chapter highlights the methods you plan on using to carry out your research (usual methods are primary sources, secondary sources, qualitative data, and quantitative data). In the methodology chapter of your proposal, you should refer to several notable books on your subject matter, comment on the approach you intend taking to your research, and your reasons for rejecting other methods and approaches.
A topic may have ethical considerations or there might not be any. For instance, if your dissertation is on a history subject, e.g., wool production in 18th century Scotland, it is likely there will not be any ethical issues to consider. However, if your dissertation is based on the topic of treating cancer patients in a hospital you are presently doing working experience in, it is likely there will be several considerations of an ethical nature.
Where there are ethical matters to consider, it is a good idea to demonstrate you have given careful thought to, for example, how you intend to maintain confidentiality in the case of people you interview or who complete questionnaires, how you will store and/or destroy sensitive survey information and other documents, and so on. It is advisable also to refer in some way to the best practice and codes of conduct your college or university adheres to (you will probably be able to obtain copies these from the relevant office in your academic institution).

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Review of literature for a dissertation proposal

Once you have reviewed all available literature concerning your topic, you should draw attention to some (or the most relevant) information that exists in respect of it and how this relates to the work you will be doing. What is very important is to show you are contributing to and/or adding to what is already known and that the work you are doing is founded on existing knowledge and opinion.
A 300-word to 500-word literature review is the normal expectation for a proposal paper (but much depends on your study program and your study level). Do not forget that a literature review section should be correctly referenced in accordance with the style prescribed by your college or university, e.g., APA, Chicago, Harvard, Oxford, MLA, etc. You should keep direct quotations to a minimum if indeed you use any (this differs in the actual dissertation paper itself).

Draft structure for your dissertation or its chapters

The following is a general idea of the structure of a dissertation and its component chapters. The precise contents for each chapter will depend on the course you are studying as well as the place you are studying. The reason for submitting this is to make your tutor or lecturer aware of how you intend to structure your research work. It is not entirely critical to follow the structure you initially propose but you can continue to use it as a guide while you are writing your dissertation. The number of words you have left from the word count you were given will be mostly devoted to this draft structure section and the one following it. Therefore, you should use these parameters when constructing the next two sections.

  • First Chapter: Dissertation Introduction and History/Background Information. Introductory sentences, some background information, setting out of research problem or question(s), paper’s aims and objectives, and your rationale for wanting to do this particular piece of research.
  • Second Chapter: Approach/Method(s). Discuss the value of the quantitative versus the qualitative approach, the suitability of open-ended and closed questions, any issues that might arise regarding the administrative aspects of using questionnaires, and any ethical matters that need to be considered.
  • Third Chapter: Review of Literature. Analyze any literature that currently exists on the topic and discuss how this relates to the specific and exact points set out in the thesis.
  • Fourth Chapter: Results Analysis. Examine the results or findings of your research (may involve SPSS Analysis (a statistical analysis package used in the social sciences) or the use of similar methods) and any themes extracted while you were reviewing available literature.
  • Fifth Chapter. This includes dissertation conclusion, evaluation of your study, any limitations in your research, and your recommendations.

Draw up a rough timetable for your research project

You can probably assume you will have somewhere in the region of ten to twelve months to complete your dissertation. Hence, it is usual to draft a proposed timetable to indicate how this time will be spent. Once again, you do not have to follow this exactly. You will probably find that certain tasks take more time than anticipated while others might take less. In any case, a rough timetable will a) give your tutor or lecturer the opportunity to provide some guidelines and comments i.e. they may indicate whether your timelines are realistic and b) help you clarify in your mind the amount of time you are likely to need to research your topic and then to write your dissertation. Tip: do your best to get most of your dissertation work done early on i.e. do not put everything off until the eleventh hour.

Proposed/Initial Bibliography for Your Dissertation

Do bear in mind that an initial or proposed bibliography – as is the case with virtually every bibliography – does not comprise part of a paper’s overall word count. You should aim to have around twenty book and journal article entries – at least – in your draft list. Somewhere in the region of three to four references to websites is sufficient. A proposed or initial bibliography should list the main texts you intend to use and it should additionally list any texts you cited in the literature review, methods, and/or ethical consideration chapters of your proposal.

November 20, 2017
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