How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

Many people believe that selecting a topic and finding who can is the hardest part of beginning work on the doctoral dissertation. However, narrowing the topic down to a few tightly-knit research questions that relate to one another within a given body of research is often much more difficult. The dissertation proposal is the vehicle for doctoral students to communicate their ideas, and several key steps can make the process of writing a focused dissertation proposal less stressful.

Research the Dissertation Topic

The first step to writing a successful dissertation proposal is thoroughly researching the topic. Doctoral students have many resources available to them through their schools’ libraries, and these resources are commonly available on the internet so that research can be done at any time. Many local libraries also offer online subscriptions to research magazines. Whatever the source of the research, students should read as many books and articles as possible about their topic. Reading helps researchers to learn about the history of their topic, the current work that is being done on their topic, and the future research directions that are recommended for their topic.

Theoretical Framework


When students gain an in-depth knowledge of their topic through research, they must decide upon a philosophical or theoretical framework. The theoretical framework is where the student locates themselves as a researcher and scholar on a particular topic. Students must figure out whose ideas they agree with, whose ideas they disagree with, and what scholarship backs up their opinions. Additionally, students will want to decide what lens(es) they will view their research through. Is the research historical, sociological, philosophical, or phenomenological in nature? What theories in the field support the student’s dissertation topic? How will the student’s work add to the field?

Dissertation Research Methodology

Once students have done their research and worked toward building a theoretical framework, they can then begin to think about how to gather data in a manner that best suits their research. For research studying very large populations, quantitative methods can be very effective, while research studying smaller populations and contextual relationships, qualitative methods might be more effective. Learning about each of these methods in depth is necessary, as both quantitative and qualitative methodologies have varied strategies. Students should make sure that the methodology they choose helps them gather the best possible information to answer their research question. Special classes dealing with specific aspects of qualitative and quantitative methodologies are available at most colleges and universities.

The Complete Dissertation Proposal

Students should not be surprised if sections of the proposal change over time, especially as new research is encountered. Often, as information about one section of the proposal is learned, another section of the proposal may change, or may come into sharper focus. However, with thorough research, a solid theoretical framework, and a strong methodology, the dissertation proposal will evolve from a broad conceptual document into a concise and focused research plan.

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