What to include in a dissertation proposal to make it pass

author By Mary Boies

In this guide, you will learn how to write a dissertation proposal step by step, including tips and some insights on the chapters you should include.

As a paper describing the type of research you intend to do, you must convince the dissertations committee that your research will be within the norms and standards. You must write a proposal before commencing a dissertation for the undergraduate or postgraduate programs.

A proposal is a condensed version of the thesis or dissertation without including the results, discussion, recommendations, and conclusion sections. Look at it as a roadmap for the dissertation or thesis.

A good dissertation or thesis proposal has a succinct introduction that contains the background and problem statement (including the rationale). It also has a concise literature review and a basic outline for the research methods you intend to apply when answering the research question or testing the hypothesis. Some proposals include the budget and the timelines, especially if you are receiving a grant or funding for the research.

Its length varies depending on the program: some schools prefer short and detailed thesis proposals about 3-10 pages long, while others will ask you to write a dissertation prospectus that can be as long as 20-30 pages.

Table of Contents

What is a Dissertation Proposal?

To give a proper answer to this, it'd be better to have an understanding of what a dissertation is in the first place.

A dissertation is a long piece of academic writing compiled at the end of a student's coursework to show the student's prowess in academic research. It differs from an essay in that it is much longer and also requires the student to come up with their own topic.

The dissertation paper is thus the proof that a student has acquired expertise in their course work and can conduct research in particular areas of interest.

Therefore the dissertation proposal is a piece of writing that details everything about the research the students want to conduct.  

It outlines/ plans out the full process they intend to go about in their research by stating what the research is about, what methods they'll use to conduct the research, what they hope to achieve, and the significance of the research.

Who Writes a Dissertation Proposal?

A dissertation proposal is usually written by undergraduate or postgraduate students as the final part of their coursework.

For this reason, it is imperative that the argument the student makes in their proposal is clear, compelling, and feasible enough to warrant a go-ahead from their supervisor or review committee.

How to Come up with a Relevant/Valid Dissertation Topic

The first step to writing anything to do with the dissertation is to choose the topic. This is known as the dissertation title.

The process can be hectic for some as it is the most vital determinant of the turnout of the entire research, but really this decision can be based on one question; WHAT ARE YOU INTERESTED IN?

To come up with the best topic, you will need to:

1. Find an Area of Interest

The topic that you settle on has to be interesting enough that you will be able to study it over a long period of time. But how exactly do you find a topic that you are interested in?

Firstly, you can study related works to your field of study and use the following questions to help you come up with an idea of what you may study or research:

These questions will guide you in the right direction.

Other sources of potential areas to investigate can be found by attending professional conferences, interviewing experts in your field of interest or referring to previous lecture slides, notes and assignments to see what sparks your interest the most.

Alternatively, you can search for a personal area of interest that has always been on your mind. It may even arise from an issue at the workplace or your institution of study.

Just be sure that whatever topic you settle on has relevance to your course of study at the university.

2. Use the SMART Principle

The project needs to be feasible for it to be approved. The S.M.A.R.T principle, based on an acronym, has been helpful in determining whether a topic of choice is a great topic to pursue. Essentially it involves,

SPECIFIC: is the topic clear and concise?

The topic should not be too broad but, instead, deal with a specific issue.

For instance, if e-commerce is your area of interest, then you need to narrow it down to a specific niche within it. What about e-commerce captivates you the most? Is it the growth, effects or dangers of e-commerce?

You can then settle on Cybercrime as an effect of e-commerce

Therefore the narrowed spectrum for your dissertation topic would appear as follows:

e-commerce » effects of e-commerce » cybercrime as an effect of e-commerce.

MEASURABLE: can the problem be analyzed through the collection and analysis of data?

There has to be a way through which you can test your hypothesis and find conclusive results for the research to be feasible.

For instance, in our example above, we could measure the growth rate of cybercrimes since the conceptualization of e-commerce. Within a period of time, we can thereby create a new theory that correlates crime and internet business.

ACHIEVABLE - does the researcher have the skills and resources necessary to conduct the research?

In our example, it is possible to interview business entities that participate in e-commerce versus those that do not and determine the level of crime that they have been affected with. We can also interview customers who purchase online and compare them to those who do not, and in turn, determine if there is a risk of crime to those who do not transact online.

REALISTIC: does investigating the problem have any practical or theoretical significance/ reason?

You must be able to identify a meaningful topic that allows you to either gain a better understanding of a concept or find a solution to a problem.

Whether the dissertation helps give a better understanding of a concept in your field of study or it is a solution to a long-existing problem, the goal is to contribute to the knowledge base such that future researchers can build from it or humanity, in general, can benefit from it.

TIME-BOUND: is the scope of the problem manageable within the student's limits of time?

The biggest mistake you can make is to present a project with too many goals; that is often unachievable.

The tell-tale signs of an overambitious topic is having too many countries to visit, too many revisits to one area, and too many years needed to accomplish the research results.

3. Formulate Research Questions

Once you have an idea of what topic you want to pursue, you need to find a way to frame research questions from it. There needs to be a main question which will be the main focus of your study as well as other subsidiary ones that emerge from the study.

These questions will then be answered by the results you get at the end of your research process.

The key principle here is that the research questions shouldn't be too broad or too narrow. If the questions are too broad, you run the risk of generalization and even running out of space to fit within the recommended word count.

As such, how you frame the questions needs to be specific.

With these in mind, you can start writing the dissertation proposal.

Key Elements of a Dissertation Proposal

Writing the proposal is very procedural- it follows various steps, which are critical in developing every part of the proposal. Therefore, creating a structure/ outline of your proposal helps the writing process.

Usually, most proposals comprise the following key segments, which we will elaborate on individually;

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review

3. Limitations

4. Ethical Considerations

5. Research Schedule

6. References/ Bibliography

Other components may be added to the proposal depending on the specifics of the proposal. For instance, one proposal may include a ˜DEFINITION OF TERMS' segment if there are terms that may not be easily understood by the average reader, while another may lack this segment.

Essentially, the dissertation paper compiled after the research will have two key additional segments that distinguish it from the proposal. These are the results and the conclusion segments which inevitably follow the research.

Statement of the Problem

The problem statement usually configures 250 to 300 words.

Basically, what happens in your introduction is you are presenting the idea that you came up with. Of utmost significance in a proposal is the correct statement of the problem.

This is the specific focus of your research.

The reader should have a clear grasp of your main topic in the opening statement of the proposal. That said, the problem statement includes 3 key segments

  1. A description of the problem
  2. Evidence of the problem's existence (background information)

When stating the problem, you need to mention all the major points of your research problem clearly. You will elaborate further during the actual project, so save the preliminaries for the next step.

As you state your points/ problems, do so in a hierarchical order such that the key problem you will investigate comes first while the rest follow.

The whole point is for the reader to know what the project is about from the words go. This will also translate to a greater weight attachment to the most important parts of your project.

Background Information

Next, you must orient the reader with relevant facts about the topic and how it links to the questions posed. Background information on the problem provides evidence of the actual existence of the problem.

In this segment, you will explain how you identified the problem. This will involve a bit of literature review to paint a clearer picture of the problem because the actual literature review will be carried out later in the proposal.

The importance of background information is to make the proposal ˜reader-friendly essentially'. Consequently, you may need to explain terms that are key to your entire research so that a reader who is totally new to the field will have an understanding of your problem.

Rationale/ Justification

In this segment, the writer must state why research into that particular area is important. It doesn't make sense to identify a problem without giving reasons why you term it as a problem.

To justify the problem, you should show how the research contributes to a larger body of work or solves the problems affecting humanity.

How will your research contribute to your field? Will it fill a gap? Will it change the way we think about certain topics? In other words, why is your research important?

To justify your topic, answer the following questions in written form:

Show how you came to that conclusion. For instance, you could state that In the Umbrella theory, Robert Chandler failed to highlight how based on the inability to apply this concept in succeeding tests, this theory is faulty in that

If your project will contribute to more than one scholarly field, mention them. It is not uncommon for a piece of research to enhance multiple fields of study. 

Purpose Statement

The purpose statement is a statement that shows how you will address the problems that you have pointed out.

In other words, this is a statement of the aims and objectives of your research. It goes without saying that the goals should be achievable to get authorization to proceed with the research.

Literature Review

The literature review is an appreciation of the work done by previous researchers in the same field. It entails a broader (although not too lengthy) explanation of the search strategy for literature relevant to your topic of study as well as a brief outline of relevant theoretical frameworks.

Note, however, that the literature review is not just a catalog of previous works but a brief analysis that aims to link to the problem statement.

The proposal should cover the reading you have done until now. It is significant to show whether or not other researchers have investigated similar concepts and what angle they approached it.

Mentioning existing literature will help elaborate the importance of your research. You can argue how your research contributes to a wider field with effectiveness.

You want to connect your research to similar research, showcase it as an extension of existing studies or point out flaws that you have noticed in existing work. If you show any flaws in existing literature, you must also state how you will avoid them in your dissertation. 

The rule of thumb is that the mentioned literature must be relevant to your question.

The most important step during this initial research stage is to note down all your sources. You will need to include them later in your bibliography. This will make the process much easier in the end.

Methodology and Theoretical Framework

The common denominator of your topic of choice, the gaps in the field, and aspired results is the approach you will use to conduct the research. The methodology shows the actual intent and process of the project, making it the ˜meat' of the entire proposal.

Your approach here is to mention "HOW and WHAT".

If your course is of a scientific or mathematical nature, then you will more than likely use quantitative analysis as you aim to get definitive results. These include questionnaires, surveys, and medical measurements such as blood pressure and weight, grades, etc.

Because you are keen on finding a definitive answer, you need to mention the specifics, such as how many participants will be involved in your research.

However, if your course is of a theoretical nature, then you will use qualitative analysis that will either approve or disprove your hypothesis. You can use secondary source analysis, content analysis, interviews, texts, transcripts etc. 

When writing a dissertation, it is assumed that you are doing so within a theoretical framework. We mean that it is based on a theory/ hypothesis that explains a certain concept. Therefore the paper may either approve or disprove a theory.

Hypotheses are based on links between two or more variables. When proven, they become a theory. Until proven successful, a hypothesis remains a hypothesis.

It is, therefore, important to identify, name, and define the studied variables when using qualitative analysis.

You are not confined to one or the other method of research. Therefore, combining qualitative and quantitative analysis methods is acceptable depending on your topic of choice.

The methodology segment may or may not involve justification of your methods of choice. The choice is yours to make.

If you determine that it is essential to defend your method of choice, then you can do so by stating how successful your method has been, how that method relates to your specific field or the specific reasons for your choice of data sample.

The next task is to state what you hope to achieve using your research methods. This will conclude the methodology segment of your proposal.


This segment requires you to clearly state what issues will be researched and elaborate on the boundary of your research. The limitations point out what will be excluded; and thereby paint a clearer picture of what will be explored in the research.

Ethical Considerations

For any dissertation proposal to be approved, the review board must determine that there is no ethical breach while conducting the research; especially when human and animal samples are involved.

As such, you have to state how you will address any ethical issues.

Generally, most proposals will include the following disclaimer; The author will attempt to maintain high levels of objectivity in discussions and analyses throughout the research.

With reference to the proper citation, you can state that The works of other authors that will be used in any part of this proposed study will be acknowledged with the use of the APA/ Vancouver or Harvard referencing system...

Lastly, when using primary data collection methods, you can address likely ethical issues by stating;

  1. Questionnaire/ interview/ focus group questions will contain respectful language. No offensive, discriminatory, or other unacceptable language will be used.
  2. Respondents will only participate in the survey voluntarily


Research Time Frame

In some cases, you might have to include a detailed structure of the entire timeline of the projects and the exact length of period you expect to complete a certain task

It is a timetable of sorts that keeps the researcher accountable and also shows the supervisor how achievable the research is.

This segment usually utilizes a Gantt-chart, network diagrams, simple task lists, or advanced dashboard software to demonstrate the timeframe allocated to each task pertaining to the research.

References/ Bibliography

As with almost every academic work, the dissertation proposal requires you to create a reference list or bibliography. This is to avoid being penalized for using someone's work to contribute to your research without accrediting them.

Two factors are key when creating the reference list.

  1. You need to consult the referencing style of your institution or department of study to determine the best style appropriate to your primary field of study.
  2. Ensure that the sources used are relevant to your topic of study.

This summarizes the dissertation proposal. Let's look at the dos and don'ts when writing a dissertation proposal.

Dos and Don'ts when Writing a Dissertation Proposal

The tips we've mentioned below will help indicate some of the common mistakes that would make your proposal rejected; and that you should definitely avoid.


The key to a good proposal is to have all the major points laid out orderly. If there is no flow to the proposal, it shows that there probably won't be a pattern to your actual research.

This will give the reader a clear idea of where the entire research will be based on.

Rather than hiding the main point of your arguments within long clauses and risking the chance of losing your reader, maintain shorter sentence structures. This is especially imperative when stating major points.

If there is a disconnect between your methodology and the topic of choice, then your project is headed nowhere.


While the writer may be eager to showcase the gaps that they have identified in theory, they should state what their topic is first. You do not want to have the reader speculate what the topic of your paper is. Maintaining clarity throughout is your safest bet.

How to edit a Dissertation Proposal and Make It Stand Out

After writing your proposal, you must edit it to ensure that the work you present is in the best condition possible for it to be approved. To make your work stand out, you have the following options:

1. Set the time to proofread

Plan your work ahead so that you can complete your proposal ahead of schedule.

This will allow you to set the work apart for a week once completed; then look at it with a fresh mind. Ultimately, you will be able to proofread it more efficiently.

2. Consult with your supervisor

Your supervisor will quickly correct any mistakes and ensure your work is excellent. Consulting them is a sure way to remove any errors from your work.

3. Use online editing services

There are professional proofreading sites that charge for editing academic works. These services guarantee that your work will be top-notch, as their primary work is to correct even the minutest errors.

4. Compare with online samples

Examining pieces of proposal samples from the hundreds online will help you get a pattern you should avoid when writing your proposal and one that you should stick to. You can also find features you can adopt to make your proposal stand out.

5. Check for plagiarism

The best way to get your proposal rejected is if it contains any plagiarized work. Eliminated any plagiarism using plagiarism checkers such as Grammarly and Copyscape.

Dissertation Proposal Structure/Outline

The typical dissertation proposal ranges between 1500 to 4000 words in the word count. It is written in Times New Roman font and is double-spaced, although the format is subject to change from one institution to the other.

Before submission, it is, therefore, essential to confirm from the institution what format is advisable for your work.

As for the structure, the general outline is as follows:

1. Title PageIncludes the proposed title of your project, your official names, supervisor's name, institution, and department.  (Check with your supervisor for the preferred dissertation title page format - some schools have pre-designed proposal title pages)
2. Statement of the Problem

Clearly state the research problem. 

In this video (external link) Fung Chorng Yuan explains how to write a problem statement, step by step. 

3. Background and HistoryFeatures background information that proves the existence of the problem. May or may not include a proposal abstract.
4. Aims and ObjectivesIncludes the purpose statement/ goals of the research; utilizing the SMART principle. 
5. Justification for the topic

Requires the researcher to defend the significance of their research.

Could be eliminating a gap in the literature, or eliminating a problem that would otherwise harm humanity.

6. Literature Review

Here you are expected to state the main terms of the research, the relevant theoretical frameworks that define your problem and influence your research generally.

Unless the concepts you are exploring require that you refer to a primary source, it is good to limit your choice of literature to the most recent ones, say the past 5-8 years.

7. MethodologyState what methods you will use to collect data and analysis. They are either qualitative or quantitative. 
8. Scope of Research and LimitationsClear state what issues are going to be researched and elaborate on the boundary of your research. The limitations point out what will be excluded, and thereby paint a clearer picture of what will be explored in the research. 
9. Ethical Considerations Clearly state how you are going to address any issues of concern related to how you are going to go about the entire research. You can rope in the ethical principles and theories relating to research.
10. Research Time Frame/Schedule

Use Gantt-chart, network diagrams, simple task lists, or advanced dashboard software to demonstrate the timeframe allocated to each task pertaining to the research.

Most commonly utilizes a Gantt-Chart.

11.AppendicesHere you have to include any images, tables, or figures that you referred to in your proposal write-up.
12. References/BibliographyAccurately lists the references for all the relevant sources used in the research. 

How to Find a Perfect Dissertation Proposal Example

If you still need a clear elaboration of what we have discussed above, various sources can be resourceful in showing you exactly how your proposal should turn out. These include:

1. Online research

The internet has been a very resourceful tool in learning for today's students. Just about any information can be found with the click of a finger. Going beyond the classroom and looking for extra help on the internet is a great way to get further clarity on academic subjects.

You can consult fellow students to find the links with the best samples if you are unsure where to start.

2. Dissertation proposal repositories

One of the best ways to get dissertation proposals is from warehouses that collect and store these specific papers.

3. Examples given by schools on their writing center websites

Academic institutions must provide the necessary learning tools for all the coursework. Therefore, you are sure to get good examples of proposals from your school website.

4. Friends and family members who've written one before

This is one of the easiest and surest ways to get a dissertation proposal. Friends and family will lend a helping hand when necessary, so you can count on them.

5. From the supervisor

Your supervisor is only qualified to supervise your work if they have knowledge of the work you are doing; there, you can be sure to get a proposal from them that will guide you through. Just ask!

6. From the school library

The school library is the primary resourceful place within an institution where a student can get further help beyond their classrooms. You can find loads of examples of dissertation proposals buried within textbooks.

7. From your instructor or professor

There's no need to avoid seeking further help from your professors. They will be more than willing to give you further clarification.

8. Proposal writing services

Lastly, numerous proposal writing services avail their services at a fee; and are keen on helping students in their coursework. These sites are useful in giving the student the option to receive a generic example of a dissertation proposal or custom-written examples for those who want specific examples.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between thesis and dissertation proposals?

Often, the terms thesis and dissertation are used interchangeably in various institutions. Both of these terms refer to lengthy academic pieces of work that depict that the student has understood and can thereby conduct research on a subject matter conclusively and effectively.

While the term ˜thesis' can be used instead of a ˜dissertation'; there is a clear difference between a thesis and a dissertation proposal. The former is the entire research and results that arise from it, while the latter refers to the written plan for conducting the research.

So the thesis can refer to the complete body of work, while the term dissertation proposal refers to the introduction that presents the intent to investigate a body of work.

How long does it take to write a dissertation proposal?

It typically takes 12: 18 months to complete a dissertation. Therefore the estimated writing time for a proposal is about 1-2 months.

How many pages should a dissertation proposal be?

There is no absolute measure of how long a dissertation proposal should be as they tend to vary in terms of length and structure. Typically, a bachelor's or master's dissertation proposal can be a few pages while proposals for Ph.D. dissertations are usually much longer and more comprehensive.

However, as a rule, the proposal should not exceed 5000 words.

The best way to confirm the appropriate length is to confirm from the guidelines of your institution or with your supervisor.

What is an abstract?

The abstract is a short piece of writing composed after the research. It narrates what exactly the dissertation is about as well as a brief summary of what your research questions and answers are.

It is strictly mandated that the abstract should not exceed a page.

What is the role of supervisors when writing a dissertation proposal?

Most institutions require the student to discuss their proposal with their appointed supervisors.

The role of a supervisor is to give you the best advice to help complete your research.

You are required to schedule a meeting with them from time to time (usually weekly or bi-weekly) for them to gauge your progress and advice you on any changes you should make both during the proposal and actual research.

What is the difference between a purpose and a problem statement?

The problem statement states the actual problem, provides evidence of its existence, and explains the consequences of not solving it while the purpose statement states the study's aims by combining the problem and the gap that the research will fill. The purpose statement shows how the research will address the problem.

Can I outsource the dissertation proposal writing process?

There is nothing wrong with getting help. In fact, some projects may require research assistants to complete them, and certain tasks, such as transcription, may require outsourcing. If that is the case then you need to mention that in your proposal as well as how much you will pay those assistants.

Does getting an external editor help fix issues in a dissertation proposal?

Certainly! Getting another pair of eyes is always great for anybody at work. They are especially helpful as they are unbiased in assessing your work and will quickly point out any errors.

Additionally, because they haven't experienced the fatigue that you, as the researcher, have from the beginning of the writing process, they will be quick to denote and fix any errors.

Can I use the first person in a dissertation proposal?

First-person can be used; however, it should be used sparingly.

Most academics advise against the use of first-person when writing the dissertation, as there is a general preference for the use of passive voice and the role that it plays. Because the proposal deals with a lot of facts, it is of no use to include first-person and draw the attention away from the facts.

For instance, when stating procedures, ˜I dissolved compound X in water, using passive voice is more effective than stating that Chemical X was dissolved in water.

It is already assumed that you are the researcher who conducted the study. Therefore there is no need to include the first person in such cases.

However, passive voice is also not appropriate in cases where you are referring to yourself. This is especially so when referring to beliefs or opinions. It would be better to state I believe' rather than the researcher believes that

What tense do I use in my dissertation proposal?

Because the dissertation proposal is an outline of the research you intend to carry out in the future, it should be written in the future tense. This is especially when referring to actions. For instance, when stating the methodology, you should state; A close-ended questionnaire will be used to gather data.

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