How to write a great PhD dissertation proposal

Track and Field © Pixabay 2021 image: e_stamm

The importance of a quality dissertation proposal

Described as “the crowning achievement of the graduate study years”, the PhD dissertation proposal is the first step towards two major engagements that will shape your future.

In the short term, and the term ‘short’ is used very loosely, an effective proposal will shave years off the all-absorbing journey towards completing your doctoral dissertation programme. In the longer term, the relevance of your dissertation topic and the quality of your research (and writing) will become the stepping-stones for career development and the potential of tenure.

This could be compared to being at basecamp attempting to climb Everest! Consistently making the right choices will get you to summit on a sunny day.

Yet, this academic climb will require more endurance and patience, given that some research shows the average PhD student graduates at around age 33 after 8.2 years of study, research and writing.

What should give further pause for thought is the staggering 50%+ of ABD’s (All But Dissertation) candidates who gave up along the way. First-time attempts at Everest have a better success rate at about two-thirds!

Clearly, things have a high propensity to derail… 

And, unlike the well-documented route to the top of the world’s highest mountain, there is no single dissertation proposal pathway that fits all. As with a successful ascent, there are important markers to observe as you craft your direction.


What is a doctoral dissertation proposal?

In essence, a dissertation proposal is a draft document for discussion with a committee of advisors that lays out a thesis on your chosen topic showing:

  • The candidate’s interest in addressing an identifiable gap or significant problem encountered with current research in the field, as observed through a preliminary literature review.
  • An organised plan for collecting and organising new information or developing new theory, whether from the literature, body of existing theory, or through obtaining additional data, to seek solutions to the problem.
  • An argument developed showing that the problem is best addressed by the methodology the candidate has decided upon.


Four red flags to observe at the outset

  1. The stance of the advisors

Your dissertation committee members are called “advisors”, and for good reason.

If your work is of interest to them, and fits into their broader research agendas, your dissertation committee members will alert you to potential pitfalls and be more inclined to allocate time to your needs.

They can also help you establish relevance for your work by pointing you towards the critical mass of research in the field and alerting you where your research topic or approach may be too esoteric. It stands for good reason that where a dissertation advisor recommends a research topic, rather than the candidate pursuing a personal interest, the candidate will have a better chance of success.

  1. The state of the field

Given that the completed dissertation will be your treasure trove for future publications, research funding proposals, and your career trajectory, the development of the dissertation research proposal, research topic and research question must be central to the interest of your current and future academic community.

There is only one way to establish whether this holds true.. 

And that is with a comprehensive literature review that identifies the authoritative journals and researchers clustered around the research topic. As most thesis proposals include only a preliminary literature survey, once again, a good faculty member advisor will be indispensable in guiding you towards the community of researchers’ focal point.

  1. The impact of your title

Your title should be short and descriptive of the proposed thesis and must be self-explanatory. Of course, this is but a working title for now. Your title may change in small ways by the time you have been awarded your PhD degree and are looking for publishers to assist with the publication of your dissertation. Avoid slang, humour, or quirky word play.

Some academics get away with such clever style elements, such as the ‘inverter’.  For example: “The Culture of Ethics and the Ethics of Culture.” These do not work for everyone. The main idea is that you want to attract the attention of your target audience and pique their interest. Living in the digital era with indexing and SEO, it is imperative that your title includes the correct keywords that will bump you up on any search in your field.

  1. The choice of the right dissertation topic

A good dissertation proposal requires you to be very clear in your own mind and words about the problem you intend to research. A good test is whether, outside the hallowed halls of academia, say at a family dinner, you could offer a short explanation to any interested family member, with or without an advanced degree.

Your advisors are there to help you find the correct focus, so start with a list of topics you find interesting, weighted against prior research and reading interests; its status in relevant journals and existing literature as an emerging topic in your field (while not yet over-used); and the topic’s fit with your committee members’ own research agendas. It helps to do a final reality check whether you will practically be able to collect the data you intend to gather. Not everyone gets to visit the Galapagos Islands!


What should a successful dissertation proposal include?

Your thesis proposal should ideally contain the following elements and in a particular order. Each of these elements has its own gold standard worth further research before you get started. Consider the following dissertation proposal template:

  • Title page: This must be short and state what your research problem intends addressing, in a tone and style that draws the attention of researchers.
  • Abstract: The abstract should not exceed 300 words and offers a description of the intended research project, centred around the importance of the problem and your approach to finding answers.
  • Table of contents (TOC): The roadmap showing your chapters. So yes, the headings do require thought, maybe not so much with regard to scholarly searches (yet). The TOC in the proposal rather serves as evidence of the ability to come up with a coherent and useful structure.
  • Introduction: This is akin to the elevator speech, or an executive summary for your dissertation prospectus, where the scene is set to draw the interested audience into what will follow.
  • Thesis statement: Having concluded your preliminary literature review and identified your topic and research question, you now state your hypothesis and what you intend to prove or disprove.
  • Methodology: This section not only needs to explain why you see your method-of-choice as the most appropriate approach, but also demonstrate your knowledge of using the approach.
  • Preliminary results and discussion: Should you have been engaged in elements of the research prior to submitting the dissertation proposal, this section may be the most compelling part to get the dissertation committee on your side.
  • Implications of research: Here, you may express your hopes for your research to yield significant results with real impact.
  • List of references: Make sure from the start that you set up the correct style your final submission requires.
  • Work plan with timetable: All good things must come to an end. Set realistic project goals at the outset. And, as most ABDs will tell you with regret — stick to the plan.


Key Takeaways

There are those who reckon you can find your way through the world as long as you have a credit card, toothbrush, passport and a roll of duct tape with some cable ties. However, that is not how one climbs Everest. Nor is it how one completes an actual dissertation on paper. Planning and being prepared and on time each step of the way is the only way to go…


© Pixabay 2021 / Foto: e_stamm