How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

Before you write your dissertation you will be expected to write a dissertation proposal. This is true regardless of the level at which you are studying. You have to write a proposal for your department to agree to the topic of the dissertation, although some fine-tuning of the topic is usually available during the dissertation writing process. There are a number of reasons for the submission of dissertation proposals.

First, your department and/or tutor have to be convinced that the subject upon which you wish to write is feasible. In other words, they need to know that the breadth of the subject you propose is not too small (to ensure that there’s enough to talk about) or too wide (which would mean that you wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice). The department is not doing this to be awkward. It wants you to do well and the proposal is, therefore, a way of trying to help you to go in the right direction before you start to write your dissertation.

Secondly, your dissertation needs an expert to mark it. The proposal offers the department a ‘snapshot’ of your proposed topic and allows the department to assign a suitable tutor to you who has the knowledge to help and advise you, as well as the expertise to mark the finished piece of work.

Having decided on a general area for your research, the proposal document will require you to write a title (narrowing the focus of the research), and to comment upon a number of issues – these are usually quite routine and require you to write about 1,000 words (not including the initial/proposed bibliography). However, this can be longer; it depends on what your department has asked from you specifically. Generally, the proposal is written in the future tense as it is work that you have not yet undertaken. The following sections then usually need to be addressed within the dissertation proposal document (though the exact list may be different depending on where you are studying).

Dissertation Proposal Examples 

The Proposed Dissertation Title

Do not worry if your title is a little vague or if it changes slightly as you write the actual piece of work. The proposal is exactly that – a proposal – and thus it is a statement of intent, rather than an absolute guarantee that everything you mention within the proposal will be included in the final dissertation submission.

Introduction and Background

You need to explain to the department and your tutor why you want to write about your subject and how your work is important. If you are writing at undergraduate or Master’s level you are unlikely to be breaking ground in a radical manner or discovering something entirely new. Rather, you are likely to be interpreting existing data in a slightly different way (including through the addition of primary data) or looking at a particular issue and relating knowledge that already exists to your chosen subject.

The background to your subject, along with the reasons why you want to write about it, should be summarised in about 150 words. You then need to explain, in about 150 words, the approach you will take. As an introduction to your proposal, you will mention in this section whether you will include any new primary data, or whether the work will be a review and analysis of existing literature. Moreover, you will also need to discuss whether questionnaires or interviews will be undertaken if you are carrying out primary research. In addition, the introduction and background section should contain the rationale for your subject and an overview of your overall approach.

Methodology and Ethical Considerations

Not every dissertation will need to include this section. For example, many law dissertations do not require methodological considerations. You must check this. In the event of the department not requiring this section, you should use the word count to boost other sections of your proposal. However, if this chapter is required, the proposal should contain approximately 250 words on the methodology and the ethical considerations.

The methodology will highlight the research techniques that you intend to use (the main ones are quantitative and qualitative, and primary and secondary). The proposal document’s methodology section should make reference to a number of key books on the subject and should comment on the research approach you are taking as well as the reasons for you deciding not to use other approaches.

Ethical considerations may or may not exist. If, for example, you are writing a history dissertation on the wool trade in 14th century Suffolk, it is unlikely that you will face any such ethical considerations.

If, however, you are writing about patients presently receiving cancer treatment in the ward where you are doing your placement, there are a number of ethical considerations that will need to be addressed.

Such considerations could include that you need to show that you have deliberated on the storage (and destruction) of sensitive documents and how you will ensure confidentiality for those who answer questionnaires or who complete interviews. You should also make at least some reference to the code of ethical conduct that your university operates (you should be able to find a copy of this in either The University Calendar or the University Regulations for the institution that you are attending).

Literature Review

The literature review should highlight some of the existing knowledge on the subject chosen and how your own work will relate to it. It is important that you demonstrate that you are adding to the body of existing knowledge and that your work is also grounded in existing opinion.

Within the proposal document, it would be normal for the preliminary literature review to be somewhere between 300 and 500 words (depending upon both the course you are undertaking and the level at which you are studying). Remember that this section must be referenced according to the system preferred by your university (such as Harvard, MLA, Oxford, and so on). Direct quotes should be kept to the bare minimum if they are included at all (unlike in the dissertation itself).

Literature Review Examples

Draft Chapter Structure

Below is a very generalised draft chapter structure. The exact contents will depend upon both your course and place of study but the purpose of the draft chapter structure is to give your lecturer an idea of how you might structure your work. It is not essential that you follow the draft structure that you submit but it should remain a guide during the writing of the dissertation. This section and the one following shall use up the remaining available word count, so it must be written with these constraints in mind.

Chapter One: Introduction and Background

Introduction, background, research questions/aims/objectives, rationale

Chapter Two: Methodology

Discussion of qualitative versus quantitative approaches, the appropriateness of closed and open-ended questions and issues related to the administration of the questionnaires, ethical considerations

Dissertation Methodology Examples

Chapter Three: Literature Review

An analysis of the existing literature and how it relates to the exact and specific points addressed by this thesis

Example Literature Reviews

Chapter Four: Analysis

An examination of the findings of the research (this may include SPSS analysis or similar tools) and the themes noted in the literature review

Chapter Five: Conclusion

Conclusion, limitations of research, evaluation of study, and recommendations.

Draft Timetable of Research

Assuming that you have between ten and twelve months to write a dissertation it is normal to include a proposal as to how you will spend your time. Again, it is not essential that you follow it slavishly – you may find that some items take less time and others take longer. However, the draft timetable not only enables your lecturer to offer comments and guidance as to whether your suggestions are realistic but may also help to crystallise in your own mind how much time you will need to spend researching and writing the dissertation. A word of advice: do the bulk of the work of the dissertation early and do not leave everything to the last minute.

Initial/Proposed Bibliography

Do remember that the initial bibliography – like any other bibliography – is not part of the word count. Try to include at least twenty journal articles and books in the draft bibliography; do not include more than three or four websites. The proposed bibliography should give an indication of the key texts that you will use and should also include those texts you have cited directly within the proposal itself.


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