Dissertation Proposal Writing Guide

Guidelines on writing a research proposal

by Matthew McGranaghan

This is a work in progress, intended to organize my thoughts on the process of formulating a proposal. If you have any thoughts on the contents, or on the notion of making this available to students, please share them with me. Thanks.

Introduction

This is a guide to writing M.A. research proposals. The same principles apply to dissertation proposals and to proposals to most funding agencies. It includes a model outline, but advisor, committee and funding agency expectations vary and your proposal will be a variation on this basic theme. Use these guidelines as a point of departure for discussions with your advisor. They may serve as a straw-man against which to build your understanding both of your project and of proposal writing.

Proposal Writing

Proposal writing is important to your pursuit of a graduate degree. The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual scholastic (not legal) contract between you and your committee. It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, and how you will interpret the results. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is done. In approving the proposal, your committee gives their best judgment that the approach to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results. They are implicitly agreeing that they will accept the result as adequate for the purpose of granting a degree. (Of course you will have to write the thesis in acceptable form, and you probably will discover things in the course of your research that were not anticipated but which should be addressed in your thesis, but the minimum core intellectual contribution of your thesis will be set by the proposal.) Both parties benefit from an agreed upon plan.

The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and what you expect will result. Being clear about these things from the beginning will help you complete your thesis in a timely fashion. A vague, weak or fuzzy proposal can lead to a long, painful, and often unsuccessful thesis writing exercise. A clean, well thought-out, proposal forms the backbone for the thesis itself. The structures are identical and through the miracle of word-processing, your proposal will probably become your thesis.

A good thesis proposal hinges on a good idea. Once you have a good idea, you can draft the proposal in an evening. Getting a good idea hinges on familiarity with the topic. This assumes a longer preparatory period of reading, observation, discussion, and incubation. Read everything that you can in your area of interest. Figure out what are the important and missing parts of our understanding. Figure out how to build/discover those pieces. Live and breathe the topic. Talk about it with anyone who is interested. Then just write the important parts as the proposal. Filling in the things that we do not know and that will help us know more: that is what research is all about.

Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don't make the project too big. Our MA program statement used to say that a thesis is equivalent to a published paper in scope. These days, sixty double spaced pages, with figures, tables and bibliography, would be a long paper. Your proposal will be shorter, perhaps five pages and certainly no more than fifteen pages. (For perspective, the NSF limits the length of proposal narratives to 15 pages, even when the request might be for multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars.) The merit of the proposal counts, not the weight. Shoot for five pithy pages that indicate to a relatively well-informed audience that you know the topic and how its logic hangs together, rather than fifteen or twenty pages that indicate that you have read a lot of things but not yet boiled it down to a set of prioritized linked questions.

Different Theses, Similar Proposals

This guide includes an outline that looks like a "fill-in the blanks model" and, while in the abstract all proposals are similar, each proposal will have its own particular variation on the basic theme. Each research project is different and each needs a specifically tailored proposal to bring it into focus. Different advisors, committees and agencies have different expectations and you should find out what these are as early as possible; ask your advisor for advice on this. Further, different types of thesis require slightly different proposals. What style of work is published in your sub-discipline?

Characterizing theses is difficult. Some theses are "straight science". Some are essentially opinion pieces. Some are policy oriented. In the end, they may well all be interpretations of observations, and differentiated by the rules that constrain the interpretation. (Different advisors will have different preferences about the rules, the meta-discourse, in which we all work.)

In the abstract all proposals are very similar. They need to show a reasonably informed reader why a particular topic is important to address and how you will do it. To that end, a proposal needs to show how your work fits into what is already known about the topic and what new contribution your work will make. Specify the question that your research will answer, establish why it is a significant question, show how you are going to answer the question, and indicate what you expect we will learn. The proposal should situate the work in the literature, it should show why this is an (if not the most) important question to answer in the field, and convince your committee (the skeptical readers that they are) that your approach will in fact result in an answer to the question.

Theses which address research questions that can be answered by making plan-able observations (and applying hypothesis testing or model selection techniques) are preferred and perhaps the easiest to write. Because they address well-bounded topics, they can be very tight, but they do require more planning on the front end. Theses which are largely based on synthesis of observations, rumination, speculation, and opinion formation are harder to write, and usually not as convincing, often because they address questions which are not well-bounded and essentially unanswerable. (One 'old saw' about research in the social sciences is that the finding is always: "some do and some don't". Try to avoid such insight-less findings; finding "who do and who don't" is better.) One problem with this type of project is that it is often impossible to tell when you are "done". Another problem is that the nature of argument for a position rather than the reasoned rejection of alternatives to it encourages shepherding a favored notion rather than converging more directly toward a truth. (See Chamberlain's and Platt's articles). A good proposal helps one see and avoid these problems.

Literature review-based theses involve collection of information from the literature, distillation of it, and coming up with new insight on an issue. One problem with this type of research is that you might find the perfect succinct answer to your question on the night before (or after) you turn in the final draft --- in someone else's work. This certainly can knock the wind out of your sails. (But note that even a straight-ahead science thesis can have the problem of discovering, late in the game, that the work you have done or are doing has already been done; this is where familiarity with the relevant literature by both yourself and your committee members is important.)

A Couple of Models for Proposals

A Two Page (Preliminary Proposal) Model

Here is a model for a very brief (maybe five paragraph) proposal that you might use to interest faculty in sitting on your committee. People who are not yet hooked may especially appreciate its brevity.

In the first paragraph, the first sentence identifies the general topic area. The second sentence gives the research question, and the third sentence establishes its significance.

The next couple of paragraphs gives the larger historical perspective on the topic. Essentially list the major schools of thought on the topic and very briefly review the literature in the area with its major findings. Who has written on the topic and what have they found? Allocate about a sentence per important person or finding. Include any preliminary findings you have, and indicate what open questions are left. Restate your question in this context, showing how it fits into this larger picture.

The next paragraph describes your methodology. It tells how will you approach the question, what you will need to do it.

The final paragraph outlines your expected results, how you will interpret them, and how they will fit into the our larger understanding i.e., 'the literature'.

The (Longer) Standard Model

The two outlines below are intended to show both what are the standard parts of a proposal and of a science paper. Notice that the only real difference is that you change "expected results" to "results" in the paper, and usually leave the budget out, of the paper.

A Basic Proposal Outline: Introduction Topic area Research question Significance to knowledge Literature review Previous research others & yours Interlocking findings and Unanswered questions Your preliminary work on the topic The remaining questions and inter-locking logic Reprise of your research question(s) in this context Methodology Approach Data needs Analytic techniques Plan for interpreting results Expected results Budget Bibliography (or References) The Basic Thesis Outline Introduction Topic area Research question (finding?) Significance to knowledge Literature review Previous research others & yours Interlocking findings and Unanswered questions Your preliminary work on the topic The remaining questions and inter-locking logic Reprise of your research question(s) in this context Methodology Approach Data needs Analytic techniques Plan for interpreting results Results Discussion and Conclusions Bibliography

Another outline (maybe from Gary Fuller?).

Introduction Topic area Research Question and its significance to knowledge Literature review Previous research Your preliminary work on the topic The remaining questions and their inter-locking logic Reprise of your resulting question in this context Methodology Approach to answering the question Data needs Analytic techniques Plan for interpreting results Budget Expected results Bibliography / References

Each of these outlines is very similar. You probably see already that the proposal's organization lends itself to word-processing right into the final thesis. It also makes it easy for readers to find relevant parts more easily. The section below goes into slightly more detail on what each of the points in the outline is and does.

The Sections of the Proposal

The Introduction

Topic Area

A good title will clue the reader into the topic but it can not tell the whole story. Follow the title with a strong introduction. The introduction provides a brief overview that tells a fairly well informed (but perhaps non-specialist) reader what the proposal is about. It might be as short as a single page, but it should be very clearly written, and it should let one assess whether the research is relevant to their own. With luck it will hook the reader's interest.

What is your proposal about? Setting the topical area is a start but you need more, and quickly. Get specific about what your research will address.

Question

Once the topic is established, come right to the point. What are you doing? What specific issue or question will your work address? Very briefly (this is still the introduction) say how you will approach the work. What will we learn from your work?

Significance

Why is this work important? Show why this is it important to answer this question. What are the implications of doing it? How does it link to other knowledge? How does it stand to inform policy making? This should show how this project is significant to our body of knowledge. Why is it important to our understanding of the world? It should establish why I would want to read on. It should also tell me why I would want to support, or fund, the project.

Literature Review

State of our knowledge

The purpose of the literature review is to situate your research in the context of what is already known about a topic. It need not be exhaustive, it needs to show how your work will benefit the whole. It should provide the theoretical basis for your work, show what has been done in the area by others, and set the stage for your work.

In a literature review you should give the reader enough ties to the literature that they feel confident that you have found, read, and assimilated the literature in the field. It might do well to include a paragraph that summarizes each article's contribution, and a bit of 'mortar' to hold the edifice together, perhaps these come from your notes while reading the material. The flow should probably move from the more general to the more focused studies, or perhaps use historical progression to develop the story. It need not be exhaustive; relevance is 'key'.

Outstanding questions

This is where you present the holes in the knowledge that need to be plugged, and by doing so, situate your work. It is the place where you establish that your work will fit in and be significant to the discipline. This can be made easier if there is literature that comes out and says "Hey, this is a topic that needs to be treated! What is the answer to this question?" and you will sometimes see this type of piece in the literature. Perhaps there is a reason to read old AAG presidential addresses.

Research Questions in Detail

Your work to date

Tell what you have done so far. It might report preliminary studies that you have conducted to establish the feasibility of your research. It should give a sense that you are in a position to add to the body of knowledge.

Methodology

Overview of approach

This section should make clear to the reader the way that you intend to approach the research question and the techniques and logic that you will use to address it.

Data Collection

This might include the field site description, a description of the instruments you will use, and particularly the data that you anticipate collecting. You may need to comment on site and resource accessibility in the time frame and budget that you have available, to demonstrate feasibility, but the emphasis in this section should be to fully describe specifically what data you will be using in your study. Part of the purpose of doing this is to detect flaws in the plan before they become problems in the research.

Data Analysis

This should explain in some detail how you will manipulate the data that you assembled to get at the information that you will use to answer your question. It will include the statistical or other techniques and the tools that you will use in processing the data. It probably should also include an indication of the range of outcomes that you could reasonably expect from your observations.

Interpretation

In this section you should indicate how the anticipated outcomes will be interpreted to answer the research question. It is extremely beneficial to anticipate the range of outcomes from your analysis, and for each know what it will mean in terms of the answer to your question.

Expected Results

This section should give a good indication of what you expect to get out of the research. It should join the data analysis and possible outcomes to the theory and questions that you have raised. It will be a good place to summarize the significance of the work.

It is often useful from the very beginning of formulating your work to write one page for this section to focus your reasoning as you build the rest of the proposal.

Bibliography

This is the list of the relevant works. Some advisors like exhaustive lists. I think that the Graduate Division specifies that you call it "Bibliography". Others like to see only the literature which you actually cite. Most fall in between: there is no reason to cite irrelevant literature but it may be useful to keep track of it even if only to say that it was examined and found to be irrelevant.

Use a standard format. Order the references alphabetically, and use "flag" paragraphs as per the University's Guidelines.

Tips and Tricks

Read. Read everything you can find in your area of interest. Read. Read. Read. Take notes, and talk to your advisor about the topic. If your advisor won't talk to you, find another one or rely on 'the net' for intellectual interaction. Email has the advantage of forcing you to get your thoughts into written words that can be refined, edited and improved. It also gets time stamped records of when you submitted what to your advisor and how long it took to get a response.

Write about the topic a lot, and don't be afraid to tear up (delete) passages that just don't work. Often you can re-think and re-type faster than than you can edit your way out of a hopeless mess. The advantage is in the re-thinking.

Very early on, generate the research question, critical observation, interpretations of the possible outcomes, and the expected results. These are the core of the project and will help focus your reading and thinking. Modify them as needed as your understanding increases.

Use some systematic way of recording notes and bibliographic information from the very beginning. The classic approach is a deck of index cards. You can sort, regroup, layout spatial arrangements and work on the beach. Possibly a slight improvement is to use a word-processor file that contains bibliographic reference information and notes, quotes etc. that you take from the source. This can be sorted, searched, diced and sliced in your familiar word-processor. You may even print the index cards from the word-processor if you like the ability to physically re-arrange things.

Even better for some, is to use specialized bibliographic database software. Papyrus, EndNote, and other packages are available for PCs and MacIntoshs. The bib-refer and bibTex software on UNIX computers are also very handy and have the advantage of working with plain ASCII text files (no need to worry about getting at your information when the wordprocessor is several generations along). All of these tools link to various word-processors to make constructing and formating your final bibliography easier, but you won't do that many times anyway. If they help you organize your notes and thinking, that is the benefit.

Another pointer is to keep in mind from the outset that this project is neither the last nor the greatest thing you will do in your life. It is just one step along the way. Get it done and get on with the next one. The length to shoot for is "equivalent to a published paper", sixty pages of double spaced text, plus figures tables, table of contents, references, etc. is probably all you need. In practice, most theses try to do too much and become too long. Cover your topic, but don't confuse it with too many loosely relevant side lines.

This is not complete and needs a little rearranging.

The balance between Introduction and Literature Review needs to be thought out. The reader will want to be able to figure out whether to read the proposal. The literature review should be sufficiently inclusive that the reader can tell where the bounds of knowledge lie. It should also show that the proposer knows what has been done in the field (and the methods used).

The balance may change between the proposal and the thesis. It is common, although not really desirable, for theses to make reference to every slightly related piece of work that can be found. This is not necessary. Refer to the work that actually is linked to your study, don't go too far afield (unless your committee is adamant that you do ;-).

Useful References:

Krathwohl, David R. 1988. How to Prepare a Research Proposal: Guidelines for Funding and Dissertations in the Social and Behavioral Sciences . Syracuse University Press.

Recent National Science Foundations Guidelines for Research Proposals can be found on the NSF website, www.nsf.gov.

Chamberlain, T.C. "The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses", reprinted in Science, Vol 148, pp754-759. 7 May 1965.

Platt, J. "Strong Inference" in Science, Number 3642, pp. 347-353, 16 October 1964.

Strunk and White The Elements of Style

Turabian, Kate. 1955 (or a more recent edition) A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations, University of Chicago Press.

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. 1940 ('67, '72 etc). How to Read a Book. Simon and Schuster Publishers. New York City, NY.

Last edited: 16 December 2014

Beginning the Proposal Process

As with writing a regular academic paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty-five pages in length. However, before you begin, read the assignment carefully and, if anything seems unclear, ask your professor whether there are any specific requirements for organizing and writing the proposal.

A good place to begin is to ask yourself a series of questions:

  • What do I want to study?
  • Why is the topic important?
  • How is it significant within the subject areas covered in my class?
  • What problems will it help solve?
  • How does it build upon [and hopefully go beyond] research already conducted on the topic?
  • What exactly should I plan to do, and can I get it done in the time available?

In general, a compelling research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and demonstrate your enthusiasm for conducting the study. Approach it with the intention of leaving your readers feeling like--"Wow, that's an exciting idea and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!"


In general your proposal should include the following sections:

I.  Introduction

In the real world of higher education, a research proposal is most often written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project or it's the first step in getting approval to write a doctoral dissertation. Even if this is just a course assignment, treat your introduction as the initial pitch of an idea or a thorough examination of the significance of a research problem. After reading the introduction, your readers should not only have an understanding of what you want to do, but they should also be able to gain a sense of your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes. Note that most proposals do not include an abstract [summary] before the introduction.

Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:

  1. What is the central research problem?
  2. What is the topic of study related to that problem?
  3. What methods should be used to analyze the research problem?
  4. Why is this important research, what is its significance, and why should someone reading the proposal care about the outcomes of the proposed study?

II.  Background and Significance

This section can be melded into your introduction or you can create a separate section to help with the organization and narrative flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail why it's important. Approach writing this section with the thought that you can’t assume your readers will know as much about the research problem as you do. Note that this section is not an essay going over everything you have learned about the topic; instead, you must choose what is relevant to help explain the goals for your study.

To that end, while there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to address some or all of the following key points:

  • State the research problem and give a more detailed explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction. This is particularly important if the problem is complex or multifaceted.
  • Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing. Answer the "So What? question [i.e., why should anyone care].
  • Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Be sure to note how your proposed study builds on previous assumptions about the research problem.
  • Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research. Clearly identify the key sources you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
  • Set the boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what is excluded from the study.
  • If necessary, provide definitions of key concepts or terms.

III.  Literature Review

Connected to the background and significance of your study is a section of your proposal devoted to a more deliberate review and synthesis of prior studies related to the research problem under investigation. The purpose here is to place your project within the larger whole of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses. For more information on writing literature reviews, GO HERE.

Since a literature review is information dense, it is crucial that this section is intelligently structured to enable a reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study in relation to that of other researchers. A good strategy is to break the literature into "conceptual categories" [themes] rather than systematically describing groups of materials one at a time. Note that conceptual categories generally reveal themselves after you have read most of the pertinent literature on your topic so adding new categories is an on-going process of discovery as you read more studies. How do you know you've covered the key conceptual categories underlying the research literature? Generally, you can have confidence that all of the significant conceptual categories have been identified if you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations that are being made.

To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:

  1. Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
  2. Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
  3. Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
  4. Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
  5. Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?

IV.  Research Design and Methods

This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research, yet, your reader has to have confidence that it is worth pursuing. The reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. Thus, the objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the problem and that the methods will provide the means to effectively interpret the potential results. Your design and methods should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.

Describe the overall research design by building upon and drawing examples from your review of the literature. Consider not only methods that other researchers have used but methods of data gathering that have not been used but perhaps could be. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to obtain information, the techniques you would use to analyze the data, and the tests of external validity to which you commit yourself [i.e., the trustworthiness by which you can generalize from your study to other people, places, events, and/or periods of time].

When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover the following:

  • Specify the research operations you will undertake and the way you will interpret the results of these operations in relation to the research problem. Don't just describe what you intend to achieve from applying the methods you choose, but state how you will spend your time while applying these methods [e.g., coding text from interviews to find statements about the need to change school curriculum; running a regression to determine if there is a relationship between campaign advertising on social media sites and election outcomes in Europe].
  • Keep in mind that a methodology is not just a list of tasks; it is an argument as to why these tasks add up to the best way to investigate the research problem. This is an important point because the mere listing of tasks to be performed does not demonstrate that, collectively, they effectively address the research problem. Be sure you explain this.
  • Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers and pitfalls in carrying out your research design and explain how you plan to address them. No method is perfect so you need to describe where you believe challenges may exist in obtaining data or accessing information. It's always better to acknowledge this than to have it brought up by your reader.

V.  Preliminary Suppositions and Implications

Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, it doesn't mean you can skip talking about the analytical process and potential implications. The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you believe your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the subject area under investigation. Depending on the aims and objectives of your study, describe how the anticipated results will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policymaking. Note that such discussions may have either substantive [a potential new policy], theoretical [a potential new understanding], or methodological [a potential new way of analyzing] significance.
 
When thinking about the potential implications of your study, ask the following questions:

  • What might the results mean in regards to the theoretical framework that underpins the study?
  • What suggestions for subsequent research could arise from the potential outcomes of the study?
  • What will the results mean to practitioners in the natural settings of their workplace?
  • Will the results influence programs, methods, and/or forms of intervention?
  • How might the results contribute to the solution of social, economic, or other types of problems?
  • Will the results influence policy decisions?
  • In what way do individuals or groups benefit should your study be pursued?
  • What will be improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
  • How will the results of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?

NOTE:  This section should not delve into idle speculation, opinion, or be formulated on the basis of unclear evidence. The purpose is to reflect upon gaps or understudied areas of the current literature and describe how your proposed research contributes to a new understanding of the research problem should the study be implemented as designed.


VI.  Conclusion

The conclusion reiterates the importance or significance of your proposal and provides a brief summary of the entire study. This section should be only one or two paragraphs long, emphasizing why the research problem is worth investigating, why your research study is unique, and how it should advance existing knowledge.

Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:

  • Why the study should be done,
  • The specific purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer,
  • The decision to why the research design and methods used where chosen over other options,
  • The potential implications emerging from your proposed study of the research problem, and
  • A sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship about the research problem.

VII.  Citations

As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. In a standard research proposal, this section can take two forms, so consult with your professor about which one is preferred.

  1. References -- lists only the literature that you actually used or cited in your proposal.
  2. Bibliography -- lists everything you used or cited in your proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.

In either case, this section should testify to the fact that you did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate the efforts of other researchers. Start a new page and use the heading "References" or "Bibliography" centered at the top of the page. Cited works should always use a standard format that follows the writing style advised by the discipline of your course [i.e., education=APA; history=Chicago, etc] or that is preferred by your professor. This section normally does not count towards the total page length of your research proposal.


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