3: The thesis or dissertation proposal

If you are writing a thesis or a dissertation, you will most likely have to write a dissertation proposal or research proposal. While you might dread the thought of what feels like a lot more work, it is actually a great place to get off on the right foot with your dissertation or thesis. Think of it as a framework for organising your thoughts, planning your approach to the research, and getting your academic writing project completed within the allotted time.

Once you get approval on your research proposal from a supervisor or tutor, you will be able to move forward with your studies and get going on your plan or schedule of research, reading, writing and revising. The research proposal will guide that process and essentially become a roadmap for staying on task.

This chapter outlines what is involved in creating a research proposal or dissertation proposal. Key topics include:

  • Why it is beneficial to write a proposal;
  • The scope and methods for writing a proposal'
  • How a research proposal is assessed; and
  • How to write and revise a proposal.

The chapter closes with some other recommendations and key thoughts that get you moving toward the time management process, which is also a key component of preparing your research proposal for your dissertation or thesis.

Chapter 3 contents:

3.1: The benefits of a research proposal

As the introduction to this chapter noted, there is a major benefit to writing a research proposal, which is that it serves as a framework, model, and roadmap for all the work you will be doing on your dissertation or thesis. Here are some other benefits to think about as you begin work on your research proposal:

  • It is a great exercise in learning how to approach such a significant academic research and writing project.
  • It puts you in the right frame of mind for doing such a project.
  • It ensures that your research aim, objectives, and question are relevant and realistic for achieving in the time provided.
  • It gets you to read and review more background material that can also be included in the final dissertation or thesis.
  • It pushes you to check if you are really using the right research methodologies before you get too far into your research.
  • It helps you to focus on the resources, including time-frame, you might need to accomplish the research.
  • It is a way to ensure that you have considered all ethical and safety issues that could come up as a result of that particular research.
  • It essentially becomes the outline for the larger report that you will submit to your supervisor or tutor.

Lastly, a research proposal helps match you to the most appropriate supervisor based on the interests, needs, and topic you have submitted within the proposal. This brings up a side point about another way to get a good start - developing a productive relationship with your supervisor or tutor. Typically, they are a member of the University staff like a lecturer or tutor. Their job is to help mentor you an often have extensive experience in research and writing. While they cannot necessarily provide any research for you or comment on the draft, they can answer questions and point you in the right direction that will alleviate certain issues. Be prepared with your questions because they are typically very busy and you want to maintain a good relationship with your supervisor.

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3.2: What's included in a research proposal?

Before you start putting your research proposal together and understand how it is assessed, it is good to know what makes up the research proposal. While a thesis proposal and dissertation proposal may vary by specialty area and level of degree, this is a list of the typical components as well as the content and certain aspects that you should consider when preparing each of these sections:

  • Personal details: This helps to identify you as the author and provides a way to contact you, if necessary.
  • Degree course or program details: This identifies the type of degree you are working toward as well as the course you are taking while doing the thesis or the dissertation.
  • Proposed research title: Keep your title short but to the point so the main subject or topic can be fairly easy to identify and understand.
  • Subject area description/problem statement/background: This section briefly provides the context for the area of study, including a summary of previous work in the area, the key problem and issues that provide relevance for studying the subject area, and any background information that could provide more credibility for your dissertation or thesis.
  • Research aim and objectives: This can be two sections, but the aim and objectives are usually combined in the same section. The research aim provides the overall purpose to the research study or what you intend to do. The research objectives list the specific outcomes that you will need to do in order to achieve that research aim.
  • Literature review: This includes the sources that you plan to review during the course of your research. You will want to provide a couple articles or pieces of research in greater detail to show the relevance of what you will be reviewing.
  • Research methodology: This section of your research proposal will describe the type of research methods you feel will be effective for the research topic and why, including whether it is qualitative or quantitative, primary or secondary research or a combination thereof, ethical considerations and data analysis strategies.
  • Preliminary bibliography: This is a more detailed list of the main sources that you have already read or reviewed, which led you to this research topic.
  • Any special resources: Depending on your subject matter, you may also have some special resources, including people, sources of information, and samples that will be used to achieve your research aim and objectives.
  • Outline plan of the dissertation or thesis: This will list the chapter titles of your dissertation or thesis. You may even go as far as to include subheadings if you have created this level of detail to an existing outline.
  • Timetable: This is a breakdown that shows how you will accomplish the entire research study, including a detailed description of how long it will take to handle each phase with accompanying milestones. Typically, you will need to work backwards from the date the final dissertation or thesis is due toward the starting point of reading and reviewing the data.
  • Statement of declaration: This is a statement that says you understand the University's ethical rules and safety framework and you will comply with these.
  • Name of supervisor: You may have already had a supervisor assigned to you so you would list their name. If this is not the case, then you can list who you would like to have work with you on this dissertation or thesis based on their understanding and experience with your subject area.

The next section will help shape how you write your research proposal for your dissertation or thesis because you can learn how it will be assessed by the key decision makers that will either green light it or tell you it needs to be revised.

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3.3: How your research proposal is assessed

Your research proposal must be compelling and convincing because it does need to be approved in order to allow you to go forward and begin your thesis or dissertation. It may be one person who assesses it or it could be a group who reads your research proposal. When there are many people who have the power to make the decision, you will be faced with multiple perspectives about what you have written.

As you prepare your research proposal, you need to keep this assessment process in mind as it will help you shape and refine it. Here is a list of questions that you can ask yourself as you read over your research proposal or even write it:

  • Are you applying the most recent viewpoint to the research area?
  • Have you done enough background reading to understand the area of study, including current problems, issues, and potential gaps in the research that you can focus on?
  • Have you provided a detail outline that provides the background and research rationale for the primary area of study you plan to undertake?
  • Is the scope of your research realistic in terms of completing within the allotted amount of time for your thesis or dissertation?
  • Is your research topic original?
  • Is your research challenging for where you are in your studies as an undergraduate or graduate?
  • Does the research illustrate your specific academic skills as well as enhance those skills?
  • Are the research methods and tactics aligned with what you are studying and do you know how their limitations could impact your research study? If so, do you have back-up strategies if those limitations do, in fact, limit your ability to collect data?
  • Will you be able to get access to all the data you will need to achieve your research aim?
  • How are you addressing safety and ethical issues associated with your research study?
  • Is the proposed structure of your dissertation or thesis clear and logical in its framework?
  • Does your research proposal meet all the requirements for your academic department as well as your University?

If you have answered yes to these questions and are realistic in your answers, then you know that your research proposal is likely to be approved as meeting the required standards. If you are not sure or have answered no to any of these questions, then you will need to take some time to refine your research proposal.

Remember that the main assessment criteria will focus on the core hypothesis or main idea that underscores your dissertation or thesis, so you need to make sure that it is clear and succinct. In addition, you need to show that you have looked at the topic from many angles and perspectives, including gathering evidence from different theorists or experts related to the subject matter. Then, by providing a compelling set of reasons about why the research is necessary and the type of benefits the research will deliver.

Those that assess and approve research proposals typically prefer those that original, novel, and relevant to a critical issue or problem. This may mean that you take an unusual perspective on a certain subject that makes it a stand out, or it could be that there is a clear research gap that your assessors feel you might be able to add more information to that will somewhat close that gap.

It may well be that your assessment may conclude that your subject area is too broad or that you may need to refine the subject area in some way. Don't stress! It just means a little regrouping and refining. Often, the feedback you receive as to why it was not approved can help you know which direction to take or how to adapt the subject so that it will be approved. Or, it may just mean altering your research methodology to something the assessor or assessment team believes would be more realistic. After all, they want you to be successful so it makes sense to follow their advice. If you are unsure of what any of their feedback means, be sure to ask for clarification.

The next section provides the key recommendations for writing a successful research proposal so you can increase your chances that the assessment will lead to approval and the ability to proceed and to ensure that your thesis or dissertation is headed in the right direction.

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3.4: Recommendations for crafting a successful research proposal

To help you succeed with your research proposal, we have put together some key recommendations on crafting the perfect research proposal for your dissertation or thesis. Here are some tips to follow as you begin:

  • Follow the form and guidelines for the research proposal provided by your University. It is very closely aligned with the section of this chapter where we reviewed the common components of a research proposal for a thesis or a dissertation.
  • Spend time doing a lot of background reading in advance as well as sourcing of available literature. Focus on the most recently published research to make sure you are aware of the recent trends in perspectives and theories on your subject area and field of study. These are likely to prompt ideas that will help shape your research proposal.
  • Do not think of this project as a complete project as this point. Remember that this is just a framework and detailed outline that shows your assessor or committee where you are headed and offers the relevance for what you are trying to accomplish. Save many of the details and more complex analytical thinking for the dissertation or the thesis.
  • Pay close attention to the formatting and neatness of your work. It should be word-processed and adhere to the word count, font, spacing and margin specifications.
  • Be as succinct as possible. No one wants to read anything that is rambling or goes off tangent. Help the assessor or assessment committee see the points and aims as easily and clearly as possible.
  • Give yourself a good amount of time. It will be obvious that you produced the research proposal in a rush if you do. Leaving more time allows you to reflect and revise the research proposal for a higher probability of success.
  • During this extra time you have allotted, get feedback from peers or academic professionals to see if others understand what you want to study, why you want to study it, and how it can provide a specific benefit.
  • Make sure you adhere to the academic writing style, including the most appropriate language and terminology that illustrates that you understand the jargon and technical subject matter.

These recommendations are your formula for research proposal success. It's time for you to get started on researching, reading, reflecting, writing and revising your research proposal.

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Chapter 3: In Summary

What's Next?

As you complete your research proposal for your dissertation or thesis, here are a few more ideas and tips to reflect on related to this part of the academic writing project:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the assessor or assessment committee. Once you finish the draft of your research proposal, go through the check-list in this chapter and ask each of those questions and then formulate an answer based on what you are reading in the proposal. Find the places that need improvement and make these before submitting the research proposal.
  • Take the time to work on your research study title, including making a list that has many options and variations on the titles you have selected. Get feedback from other students and academic professionals on what they think about these titles and which ones resonate the most with them and why. This should help you narrow them down and get closer to the most appropriate title for your research study.
  • Keep working on your timetable. Managing your time is one of the most important things you can do to be a success when it comes to your dissertation or thesis. Establish key milestones while also making time in the schedule for slippage or potential setbacks. These setbacks or time wasters will pop up so planning in advance will help ensure you still stay on target. And, speaking of time management, this is the main theme for our next chapter. Read on!

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