The dissertation proposal reflects the students' research interests in the form of a comprehensive statement. It is the first step towards writing a final dissertation for undergraduate, graduate or Doctorate level course. A well-developed dissertation proposal is unique, provides a clear guideline to the final project and sets the foundation for research. It is a skilful demonstration of why the particular research problem is chosen, what makes the topic interesting and how it contributes to current literature and/or plays its role in resolving the real world problems.
The most important part of any dissertation proposal is explaining and justifying its potential contribution to existing literature. At the proposal planning stage, the researcher must consider the previous research shortcomings to clarify the research purpose. A detailed research proposal communicates what researcher intends to examine, why there is a need to conduct research, what previous literature says about the problem, how proposed objectives will be accomplished (by collecting primary and/or secondary data) and why chosen methodological choices are the best for the proposed research.
The proposed plan may not be exactly followed at the dissertation writing stage, but proposal sets the direction for the whole research. Setting the appropriate research scope determines the quality of the dissertation proposal. The scope must be wide enough to make a substantial contribution and narrow enough to be realistic and achievable within the set deadline. The dissertation proposals allow the instructors or departments to ensure that students are on the right track and have set the right direction for their final dissertation.
Generally, the dissertation proposals answer these why, what, where, when, who, and how questions:
Why is research important?
What is the problem, what is already known and what is unknown?
How will this research contribute to knowing the unknown?
Where will research be conducted?
Who will be the target audience?
How will the research objectives be accomplished?
The ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions are mostly incorporated in the problem discussion and research rationale sections, while, research design/methodology incorporates all other questions in detail.
Structure/format of a dissertation proposal
On average, the dissertation proposal is 10-15 pages in length and has following sections and sub-sections:
Introduction Research rationale Problem statement Research aim, objectives and questions Dissertation structure
Literature review and conceptual/theoretical framework
Research methodology Theoretical aspects (like philosophy, strategy and approach) Methodological aspects (like data collection method, population/sampling and reliability/validity) Ethics and limitations
Findings and Analysis
Conclusion and dissertation timeline through a Gantt chart
The first chapter explains the research problem, justifies its importance and practical/theoretical contribution. It also outlines research objectives/questions and provides an overview of how the dissertation will be structured. The second chapter constructs the theoretical basis and presents a theoretical/conceptual framework. The third chapter justifies the methodological choices and explains the overall research design and route to conduct primary/secondary research. The fourth chapter explains how findings will be analysed and interpreted. Finally, a timeline mostly in the form of Gantt chart is presented with a brief conclusion statement.
Writing dissertation proposal
Writing an effective dissertation proposal requires continuous communication with the supervisor that my result into frequent alterations, adjustments and revisions in different areas. You need to take the criticism positively to develop a high quality work. A well-designed proposal makes the initial phases of dissertation writing less challenging. The section given below provides a ‘how to' guideline that offers help to get through various proposal development stages successfully.
Tips to write the dissertation proposal
Writing the dissertation proposal can be an exhaustive activity. However, the researcher can make the process easier by considering the following tips:
Conduct detailed research before finalising the topic. Choose the research area that is interesting and easily understandable to you. Selecting a non-interesting, difficult to understand topic can cause serious troubles during dissertation writing.
Take notes during reading and develop an understanding of how to answer the ‘what and why' related questions. Create an outline and discuss it with your supervisor or a senior before starting writing. The outline will briefly explain what will be covered in each proposal section.
Write the dissertation proposal in drafts. Prepare the first draft by discussing the research problem, rationale, significance, aim, objectives and questions. There is no need to polish anything as the content may undergo various revisions during the completion process.
If possible, discuss the first draft with your supervisor. Make sure that the research scope and objectives are clear as they set the basis for whole research.
Prepare the second draft by organising and writing the literature review. It can be time consuming, but this activity increases your theoretical knowledge and may result in making important revisions in the first draft.
After completing and reviewing the first two drafts, start developing the research methodology. This part requires assistance and guidance from your supervisor to set the right direction. Once the third draft is completed, review all three drafts, edit and proofread the content and ensure a flow from start to end.
It is important to review the finalised proposal after a couple of days to take a fresh look and identify overlooked improvement seeking areas.
How to avoid stress during proposal writing?
Writing the dissertation proposal can be a tiring activity, and it is important to keep the mind fresh. Do not overburden yourself. Follow the schedule but take some break when you are tired or bored as getting bored or tired can affect your ability to produce a high quality work. Switch to something different when you cannot concentrate anymore, possibly by doing some physical exercise, going for a walk, meeting friends or reading an interesting book. Do what reduce your stress and keeps you motivated.
How to start a dissertation proposal?
Start the process by exploring the current subject related literature.
Review different primary and secondary data sources to choose the appropriate research topic. Selection of the right research topic is highly important.
Highlight the possible areas of interest and discuss them with your instructor, friends and subject matter experts (if possible).
After selecting the topic, review some latest research articles on the same research topic to identify the specific knowledge gaps in that area.
Repeat the process if you are no more comfortable with the chosen research area.
Finalise the topic, develop research questions, briefly state the problem statement and arrange a meeting with your supervisor to take his/her feedback on chosen research area and topic.
Dissertation proposal Introduction
The introduction is the most important part of the dissertation proposal as it convinces the reader about the necessity and value of the proposed research. This section discusses what the problem is and why research is important.
Some common elements added in the dissertation proposal introduction section are discussed below:
Start by providing an overview of the selected research area and scope.
Discuss the research problem in detail, explain what is unknown and why it needs to be researched.
Provide an introduction to the key research questions and present research aim and objectives.
Add research goals and questions that will be answered.
Develop research objectives that are specific, realistic and measurable.
Communicate the study focus, what areas will be addressed and what areas will not be focused to limit the scope.
In the end, you may briefly discuss how the final dissertation will be structured.
The introduction section can either be divided into different subsections (like problem discussion, rationale, aim and objectives, questions and dissertation structure), or can be presented with fewer headings or even as a single piece of information. It depends upon the length of the introduction and dissertation proposal.
Dissertation proposal Literature Review
The literature review in the dissertation proposal provides an opportunity to show your understanding of the research problem and familiarity with the existing body of knowledge. The researcher can highlight the literature gaps and discuss how proposed research will contribute to overcoming those gaps.
Here is the list of some essential elements that must be added in the dissertation proposal:
Discussion of how previous scholars have approached the research topic.
Specific methodologies used by previous researchers and comparison of their arguments.
Discussion of major theories to derive the theoretical support for the chosen problem.
Identification of the previous research limitations, literature gaps and areas needing further research.
The researcher should develop a connection between previous work and proposed research to highlight the theoretical significance. A literature review is a good place to show how the proposed methods differ from or are built upon the previous work.
At the chapter end, the researcher can add the pictorial presentation of the conceptual/theoretical framework along with research hypotheses (if the proposed study is quantitative).
Dissertation proposal Methodology
The methodology in the dissertation proposal acts as the roadmap to whole research. Following common elements are present in almost every dissertation research proposal:
In the first part, the philosophical choice is stated along with a discussion of research design, strategy and approach.
Quantitative studies may choose the positivist philosophy; qualitative studies may prefer interpretive philosophy and mixed studies may go for realism. In any case, justify your choice by relating it to the research aim and objectives.
Similarly, choice of research design (e.g. exploratory, descriptive or explanatory) and research strategy (deductive or inductive) should also be elaborated, justified and linked with research objectives.
After explaining the theoretical aspects, the methodological choices are stated that may include data collection plan, sampling and population, discussion of reliability/validity/trustworthiness and relevant ethical considerations.
The data collection plan includes stating procedures to conduct the survey/interview/observation and explaining how to gain access to targeted population set.
The researcher may also add the research instrument and explain how it was developed and how previous scholarly work supports the variable operationalization.
If a previous research instrument is to be adopted, clearly mention the scholarly studies that used the instrument and highlight the reliability and validity.
You may attach the survey questionnaire or interview in the appendix.
Dissertation proposal Findings and Analysis
Usually, the findings and analysis chapter is included in the dissertation proposals to provide an overview of possible findings and selected analysis techniques. It also includes the presentation of preliminary research findings if the researcher decides to conduct the pilot study and adds its results in the proposal.
Following common elements are added in the findings and analysis part of the dissertation writing:
Clearly outline the analysis procedures to be used to convert the survey data into meaningful information.
Label the analysis techniques (such as PLS, HLM, ANOVA, etc.) if statistical data will be conducted. You may need to state the coding procedure if the thematic analysis technique is selected for analyzing the qualitative data.
Explain in detail how you will use the triangulation technique if you plan to analyze the data collected from multiple sources.
Mention the name of qualitative/quantitative research software (like SPSS, NVIVO, Atlas-ti or MAXQDA) that you plan to use as analytical tools.
Lastly, present a clear rationale of why you choose the particular analysis tools and techniques and how they will help you accomplish the research objectives.
Present the preliminary research findings from a pilot study in the form of graphs and tables with necessary interpretation.
Dissertation proposal Conclusion
Adding a conclusion to the dissertation proposal helps you summarise the key points and comment on the theoretical and practical significance of the selected topic. A well-developed proposal conclusion-
Integrates different issues discussed in the introduction part.
Briefly states how the proposed research will answer the previously unanswered questions
States the study limitations and offers some possible future research areas.
Do not add any new content in the conclusion as it will create confusion and affect overall research quality. Similarly, avoid simply restating the already discussed content. Instead, the focus should be on discussing the study's value and uniqueness. Acknowledging the challenges that you may encounter during the research process with a brief contingency plan may add value to the research proposal and show that your knowledge of the research process.
Lastly, the conclusion section conveys the instructor about your opinions and views framed from the whole proposal development process. Add important details to make the conclusion meaningful but avoid writing lengthy conclusions.
Dissertation proposal Gantlet chart
Finally, a dissertation proposal timeline preferably in the form of Gantt chart is presented. It involves breaking down the whole research plan into different activities to set the milestones and allocating estimated time to each activity. The activities are sequenced in a way to reflect the whole research process from start to end. You can use MS Excel, MS Project or simply MS Word to develop the Gantt chart.
Here is an example of a dissertation proposal Gantt chart:
The sequence of activities may alter depending on the underlying circumstances. However, the above shared Gantt chart provides a general guideline to how academic research is conducted to complete the dissertation for an undergraduate or graduate level course.
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