How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

When approached correctly, your dissertation proposal will begin to form the foundations upon which your entire dissertation will be built. Although this statement might sound somewhat overwhelming, the importance of constructing a solid proposal really cannot be overstated.

As your proposal will ultimately go on to act as a comprehensive essay plan that you will refer to frequently as you begin to research and write your dissertation, investing time as early as possible in outlining the framework for one of the most important pieces of work you will produce during your academic career will contribute positively to the outcome of your dissertation.

With all that said, however, it is important not to panic. So, take a deep breath and as you are preparing to put your proposal together, think of this time as a prime opportunity to read widely and soak up as much knowledge as possible on a subject that you are passionate about. This time in your life should be something that you can look back on fondly, so take your time and work through our guide to writing an effective and compelling proposal.

Dissertation Proposals 101

In addition to being an essential document that will help you to thoroughly prepare for each stage of the work that lies ahead of you, your dissertation proposal must also convince your supervisor that your intended project is viable, manageable, and worthy of your time.

To properly advise you, your supervisor first needs to understand the primary motivations behind your chosen topic before they can critically evaluate your approach and provide suggestions that will ultimately enhance your research.

From highlighting areas in which they believe you might encounter difficulties or face limitations that you haven’t considered, to raising ethical concerns that you must review before commencing your research, it is imperative that you view your supervisor’s feedback as constructive criticism. They are not there to tear you down or discourage you from pursuing a project about which you are passionate, but they do want to help you to shape and refine your work so that the dissertation you submit is more accomplished than the work you might have produced if you were simply thrown in at the deep end on your own.

Ok, but what goes into Writing a Dissertation Proposal?

You should ideally begin by really focusing in on a specific topic that you find interesting. Remember, whatever you select must have the ability to sustain your curiosity and your attention because this is something you will be working closely on for several months. When you have a genuine interest in something, you will find it much easier to stay positive, motivated and engaged throughout, which will undoubtedly help the research, writing and editing phases of your dissertation to run far more smoothly.

Often you will find that the best place to start is to review your notes, previous assignments and material provided to you in lectures and seminars. If there is a particular topic that immediately jumps out at you or you remember really enjoying, you should probably follow your instincts. Perhaps you can identify a concept that you feel should be developed further. Or maybe you remember discovering a distinct lack of scholarship in an area when you were writing an assignment and you believe you can contribute some important knowledge.

Now, this might be something that you have already done. If you have reviewed all your notes and found the process unhelpful, you might find it more beneficial to first work towards settling on something slightly more generalised. If you have a favourite journal or publication, spending some time reading through articles it has published will likely begin to lead you in the right direction. Reading widely at the beginning of your dissertation process is no bad thing and will help you to build a detailed picture of your particular discipline.

When conducting your initial reading, make sure that you are critically engaging with every text and asking yourself a series of questions. Consider:

• When this source was published and whether new research now renders this text somewhat obsolete
• Whether there are any methodological mistakes that might undermine this source
• Whether this source raises any ethical concerns that should be addressed in future studies
• Whether you can identify any bias that might have affected the author’s conclusions
• Whether there are any other external factors that should be examined

This might seem a lot of preparatory work to undertake, however familiarising yourself with the process of critically evaluating and assigning value to the sources to which you choose to refer will help you to secure those all-important extra marks and a higher final grade.

It is important to note here that maintaining an ongoing bibliography to which you consistently add is crucial. You should include every relevant source you encounter, even if you ultimately decide that its findings have been superseded by a more contemporary piece of research. This will help you to prove that there are not any large gaps in your knowledge and that you are fully aware of the key developments that have occurred within your field.

Before we begin to break down each section of your proposal, it is critical that you are aware of both the word limit and the preferred format before delving into the nitty gritty of writing a dissertation proposal. This information should have been provided to you by your institution but if you need some additional clarification, don’t be afraid to ask for a meeting with your supervisor.

Right, with the question of how to write a dissertation proposal firmly at the forefront of your mind, let’s jump into the fundamentals of an excellent proposal.

Crafting a Title

It is firstly important to state that you do not need to spend hours meticulously crafting your title. At this stage, establishing a working title is perfectly acceptable because it will likely be refined and shaped once you begin delving into your research. What you must do, however, is clearly state the intentions of your research because this is your first chance to concisely explain what your dissertation will cover.

Although you might find it tempting to select a topic that is ultra-complex and with many intricacies, it is crucial that you accurately map out the scope of your project and ensure it is manageable within the time constraints to which you are working. Attempting to research an entirely new area will be much more difficult than building upon established or emerging concepts and ideas, but remember that you should also aim to ensure your work is original and will contribute something new to your field. This doesn’t mean you must develop an entirely new theory in just a few months, but it does mean that the fundamentals of your project should not have already been completed by somebody else.

So, with all this in mind, what exactly does a good dissertation title look like? Well, at its core your title should be:

• Precise
• Descriptive
• Explanatory

Avoiding using general words and terms that don’t effectively contribute to the communication of meaning is always advisable. Instead, carefully select words that accurately describe your subject and illustrate what readers should expect to find in your research.

Precision is crucial because although your title doesn’t necessarily have to be short, it must be concise. Rather than padding your title with vague words just because they look professional, focus on explaining the nature of your work using the fewest possible number of words.

You might, for example, choose to pose an intriguing question or authoritatively make a statement that you will go on to qualify in the main body of your dissertation. Regardless as to your approach, make sure that your title is immediately engaging and emphasises the core component of your research. Your supervisor needs to be able to clearly deduce what you want to cover, so aim for clarity and conciseness.

Constructing a Compelling Introduction

If you are finding the proposal process somewhat daunting, it might help to keep in mind that whatever you state in your introduction is not set in stone. Dissertation projects adapt and change all the time for a variety of reasons, so don’t panic too much about being held accountable for every statement you make here. In fact, while you should have a good understanding of the potential of your dissertation, you don’t necessarily even need to have a definite argument or hypothesis in mind at this stage.

Ideally, you should feel passionate about the subject you have selected and your proposal introduction is the ideal place to demonstrate and share this enthusiasm with your supervisor. Here you should begin to set the scene and provide some context for your topic. Your research will fit within a wider landscape of scholarship and you should endeavour to explain what you intend to do, how you intend to do it, and why you believe it is important.

You might find it helpful to include some quotes from the background reading you have undertaken. If this is the case, make sure that you carefully reference every source, theorist or critic according to the referencing style you will be required to use for your dissertation. In addition to helping your supervisor to follow your reasoning, this is also an excellent place to practise your referencing skills. After all, it will be far more helpful to understand if you are making any referencing mistakes now so you can avoid making them in your dissertation.

Outlining your Methodology, Aims and Objectives

Clearly outlining the methods you intend to use to obtain, process and evaluate the information that will inform your research will help your supervisor to establish whether you are approaching your work in the most appropriate way. Your methodology is crucial to the success of your dissertation and, as such, you must clearly explain why you have selected these particular methods and how they will help you to answer key questions and make a contribution to knowledge in your field.

In the beginning to think about the approaches you might want to take, you should first set out precisely what you want to achieve. Building a comprehensive understanding in your own mind of the questions you want to answer and the aims and objectives you want to achieve with your research will help you to identify the most appropriate methods that will help you obtain the specific pieces of information and evidence you require in the most effective ways.

If you don’t know what you want your research to do, you are always going to struggle to determine the best way to proceed. As starting is often the trickiest part, putting in the work here will help you to find your footing quickly and ensure you don’t waste any valuable time doubting your approach.

So, let’s take a few moments to break down your methodology into its core components. In this section of your proposal, you should endeavour to:

• Clearly explain how you plan to undertake your research
• Justify your reasons behind selecting these specific methods
• Describe why other approaches would simply not be as effective
• Outline the strengths and potential weaknesses of your chosen approach

Although arguably one of the most complex sections of your proposal, this is an ideal place to demonstrate that you are already making the most appropriate choices to complement the direction of your research and aren’t falling at the first hurdle.

Defending your Subject Selection and Demonstrating Originality with a Literature Review

To effectively uphold your reasoning behind selecting your topic, it is important that you demonstrate that you have read widely and that you understand the landscape of your chosen niche. At the very least you must demonstrate an awareness of the leading figures, critics and theorists within your discipline, together with an understanding of key developments, concepts and ideas.

If you don’t understand precisely where your research will fit within the past and present scholarship in your field, you are going to struggle to prove that the research you are intending to undertake is important or valuable. If your work will further the knowledge gathered from recent studies or enhance new debates currently being discussed within your niche, make sure this is something you explain clearly because your supervisor needs to understand this before giving you the go-ahead to begin.

When putting together your literature review you should:

• List the most valuable sources that you have engaged with so far
• Explain how each one has shaped your research
• Outline any flaws in the thinking or presentation, or concerns you have identified
• Use this knowledge to illustrate how and where your work fits into your chosen discipline

It can be tempting to get a little carried away and list every resource you have consulted to get to this point, but it is enormously important to resist doing this. Rather than making yourself look exceptionally well read, you run the risk of actually looking as though you haven’t put in the work required to critically engage with the material you are reading. If a source isn’t hyper-relevant in some way to your own research, don’t include it here.

Pre-empting Limitations, Addressing Ethics and Facing Up to Time Constraints

One of the most important but often overlooked parts of writing an accomplished dissertation is the need to pre-empt the limitations that you will undoubtedly experience. From time constraints to word limitations, taking the time to carefully address your limitations will demonstrate that you are fully engaged with your subject and understand the scope of the work in front of you. You are not expected to be able to do it all or perform miracles and clearly outlining your limitations will only strengthen your work, not undermine it.

Similarly, highlighting any ethical considerations your research faces is imperative. If you overlook the importance of this section, your research will ultimately be far more exposed and vulnerable to criticism. Writing your dissertation is going to be a lot of work and take a substantial amount of time to complete, so don’t leave the door open to denunciation simply by failing to pay close enough attention to ethics. Remember, even if you uncover something seriously revolutionary, your findings can and will be undermined if your research is proven to be integrally or morally flawed.

With regards to time constraints, in addition to acknowledging your final submission deadline and stating how you plan to complete your research on time, your proposal should also outline an estimated timeframe to deliver smaller sections of your work to your supervisor for evaluation. Whether you agree to submit your work chapter-by-chapter or decide to jointly review your research before you move on to the writing stage, ensure that you are setting yourself realistic deadlines that won’t leave you feeling constantly stressed or overworked. You should always aim to work consistently over a longer period of time rather than relying on unstainable periods of intense work that will likely negatively impact your productivity and overall motivation.

How to Construct a Conclusion Before You Have All the Answers

As your proposal must be submitted before you have the opportunity to delve deeply into your subject, it is probably impossible to say for certain what your final dissertation will conclude.

If you already have a pretty good idea as to what you think you will find, don’t be afraid to be bold and state your predictions here. If, on the other hand, you have very little idea of what you will find, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean you are already on the back foot and it certainly doesn’t mean your project is weak.

Instead, use this as an opportunity to further emphasise your intentions, what you hope to find, and why your research is valuable to your field. You might, for example, choose to explain:

• Your justification for undertaking this specific project
• An idea of what you might discover
• How you intend to avoid the errors made by previous studies
• How additional research from a slightly different perspective might further inform this topic in the future

Remember that although there are very clear sections you must cover within your proposal, your topic is unique and as such, you should ultimately aim to explain the scope of your proposed research in the most appropriate way you can identify.

Dissertation Proposal Help from UK Writers Hub

If the very thought of writing a dissertation proposal, brings you out in a cold sweat, why not give us a call to find out how we can help. Proposals are incredibly challenging and rather than struggling and burning yourself out so early in your dissertation journey, reaching out and obtaining help from leading academic writers in your field will help you to refine the proposal of your project and ensure you’re on the right track from the very beginning.


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