How do I Write a Dissertation Research Proposal?

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  • Written By: M. K. McDonald
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Academic disciplines and individual graduate programs have their own set of requirements for dissertation research proposal, but any proposal will contain several elements. A good proposal will begin with a novel and important research question, any necessary background information on the topic, a literature review that places the dissertation project in context within the discipline, a discussion of research design and methodology, a description of the empirical evidence to be collected and a strong conclusion. To write a dissertation research proposal after you have decided on a topic, make sure you have the information you need, and be sure to include each of these essential elements.

Your dissertation research proposal should begin with a novel and important research question, which can be drawn from the academic literature on your topic or from real-world events. Dissertation research is expected to make a new and meaningful contribution to the field, so the starting point is a paradox or disagreement in the theoretical literature, a prediction in the literature that is not borne out in the real world or a situation in which competing theories predict different outcomes. Your dissertation research proposal should begin with a discussion of the research question that makes it clear why your topic is important and how your results will constitute a significant contribution. You also should state up front what you expect the answer to your question will be; this is your thesis statement.


Before getting into the details of your research proposal, you probably will need to provide some background information on your dissertation topic. Just about any topic will have a long and complicated history in your field, so present only the background information that is directly relevant and necessary to understand your project. You can assume that the faculty members reading your dissertation research proposal already are familiar with the topic, so do not get bogged down in background discussion.

The next element is the literature review, which in many cases will be the longest portion of the dissertation research proposal. The literature review places your project in context with the existing research done on you topic. It also demonstrates the need for the research that you are proposing to do.

In reviewing the relevant literature, be sure to discuss holes or gaps in what is known about your topic. Look for alternative explanations and hypotheses that you will need to account or control for, and look for consensus and conflict among the scholars you review. Bad literature reviews can sound like a laundry list of journal articles: author A say this; author B says that. Good literature reviews are organized around themes and make it clear that the research being proposed is necessary and valuable.

After providing the background information and existing research on your topic, you will describe your own research design and methodology. The expectations for this stage of your dissertation research proposal can vary based on academic discipline and faculty preferences. Many dissertation proposals will employ either an inductive or deductive approach and either a qualitative or quantitative methodology.

Inductive approaches are useful for generating hypotheses and building theory because they begin with large-scale observations and proceed to specific conclusions based on those observations. Deductive research formulates specific testable and falsifiable hypotheses and proceeds to examine the empirical evidence in a rigorous analysis. Inductive research usually relies on case studies, data mining and other qualitative methodologies, and deductive research usually involves statistical, quantitative methods. When appropriate, discuss the theory you plan to draw upon, identify dependent and independent variables, and discuss alternative hypotheses that would disprove your argument and how you will control for them.

Whether you choose an inductive or deductive approach and whether you plan to employ qualitative or quantitative methodology, you will need to gather and analyze empirical evidence. Discuss the data that you will use, where it will come from and any ethical questions or logistical problems that your research might face.

The final section of your dissertation research proposal is your conclusion. Here you will restate your research question and your own hypotheses. You should mention what the potential implications for theory and future research will be if you are correct as well as what the implications will be if you are wrong. You also should mention what the next steps should be in researching this topic. Finally, in the conclusion, you should make the case for why your dissertation is important.


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Post 3

When I had to write mine I looked at endless samples and examples of research proposals. Pity I forgot to pay close attention to what my supervisor really expected! It's so important to have regular meetings and check your work is going along the right lines, from the start.

Post 2

@Bakersdozen - If you already have some research proposal ideas I would plan on spending anything up to a couple of hundred hours on it. Don't panic though! Despite all the work at the start you will benefit later, when you can incorporate the proposal into the actual dissertation writing stage.

Post 1

I just enrolled on an online post graduate course and thought I'd get a head start with some much needed research proposal help. I can't believe that I have to submit it so early in the course.

How long does it take the average person to write this? There seems to be a lot more to it than I thought, which makes me quite nervous about time management.

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