How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal

When starting your thesis or dissertation process, one of the first requirements is a research proposal or a prospectus. It describes what or who you want to examine, delving into why, when, where, and how you will do so, stemming from your research question and a relevant topic.

The proposal or prospectus stage is crucial for the development of your research. It helps you choose a type of research to pursue, as well as whether to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.

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What should your proposal contain?

Prior to jumping into the research for your thesis or dissertation, you first need to develop your research proposal and have it approved by your supervisor. It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives.

Depending on your department’s requirements, there may be a defense component involved, where you present your research plan in prospectus format to your committee for their approval.

Your proposal should answer the following questions:

  • Why is your research necessary?
  • What is already known about your topic?
  • Where and when will your research be conducted?
  • Who should be studied?
  • How can the research best be done?

Ultimately, your proposal should persuade your supervisor or committee that your proposed project is worth pursuing.

Dissertation question examples

Strong research kicks off with a solid research question, and dissertations are no exception to this.

Dissertation research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
Examples: Strong dissertation questions
  • What are the main factors enticing people under 30 in suburban areas to engage in the gig economy?
  • Which techniques prove most effective for 1st-grade teachers at local elementary schools in engaging students with special needs?
  • Which communication streams are the most effective for getting those aged 18-30 to the polls on Election Day?

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What should your proposal look like?

An easy rule of thumb is that your proposal will usually resemble a (much) shorter version of your thesis or dissertation. While of course it won’t include the results section, discussion section, or conclusion, it serves as a “mini” version or roadmap for what you eventually seek to write.

Be sure to include:

The length of your proposal varies quite a bit depending on your discipline and type of work you’re conducting. While a thesis proposal is often only 3-7 pages long, a prospectus for your dissertation is usually much longer, with more detailed analysis. Dissertation proposals can be up to 25-30 pages in length.

Note
Sometimes, a research schedule or detailed budget may be necessary if you are pursuing funding for your work.

Dissertation prospectus examples

Writing a proposal or prospectus can be a challenge, but we’ve compiled some examples for you to get your started.

Frequently asked questions about proposals

How do I decide which research methods to use?

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question.

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis, use quantitative methods. If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods.
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables, use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.
What is a thesis or dissertation outline?

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.

Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation, such as:

Why is research design important?

A well-planned research design helps ensure that your methods match your research aims, that you collect high-quality data, and that you use the right kind of analysis to answer your questions, utilizing credible sources. This allows you to draw valid, trustworthy conclusions.

What do I need to include in my research design?

The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:

What is a dissertation prospectus?

A dissertation prospectus or proposal describes what or who you plan to research for your dissertation. It delves into why, when, where, and how you will do your research, as well as helps you choose a type of research to pursue. You should also determine whether you plan to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.

It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives, ready to be approved by your supervisor or committee.

Note that some departments require a defense component, where you present your prospectus to your committee orally.

How do I know I have a good main research question?

Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement.

However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  1. Researchability
  2. Feasibility and specificity
  3. Relevance and originality

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students. A well-designed natural experiment is her favorite type of research, but she also loves qualitative methods of all varieties.