How to write a dissertation proposal



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Choosing a Great Dissertation Topic: Part 1
A Guide for Developing Dissertation Topics & Ideas

 Choosing a dissertation topic is one of the most crucial decisions you will make as a doctoral candidate. When choosing a dissertation topic, the first thing to consider is that you are not simply choosing a dissertation topic from a list of dissertations, but that you are creating a unique proposal that builds on the contemporary topics and current research in your field. Choosing a dissertation topic is not easy, but if you take time to read over some of the tips we outline below, you will be on the fast track to having your dissertation proposal approved.

The Dissertation Proposal

Before you start your dissertation, you must first complete the dissertation proposal. Choosing a dissertation topic is the first step towards completing the proposal. The dissertation proposal is the groundwork for the rest of your study. Thinking about the dissertation proposal is important when choosing a topic, because the proposal is like a miniature dissertation in itself. It proves that you have developed an adequate dissertation topic for which you have conducted enough research. 

It is important when choosing a dissertation topic to keep in mind that the proposal must be precise enough to outline what you want to do for the dissertation. When choosing a dissertation topic, it is important to think about the proposal and about what kinds of questions you will be asking in your dissertation. It is also important to think about the relevance of your dissertation topic in your area of study. 

Keeping in mind the requirements for both your dissertation proposal and the rest of the dissertation chapters, there are some general things to consider when deciding on a topic. We will guide you through the dissertation topic development process step by step, outlining and discussing the primary problems to consider when deciding on a topic. The primary problems to consider when choosing a dissertation topic are:

Is my dissertation topic interesting to me?

Is everyone in my dissertation committee on board with my topic?

Is my dissertation topic based on work in which I have a solid background?

Is my dissertation topic manageable?

Is my dissertation topic original?

What academic abilities do I have to improve upon in order to complete my dissertation?

How much interest do I have in my dissertation topic?


Before you start working on your dissertation proposal, take time to thoroughly consider the following tips when choosing a dissertation topic.

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Tip #1: Is my dissertation topic interesting to me?

This is perhaps the most important advice for completing your dissertation. Many dissertation candidates have gotten bogged down because they choose a great dissertation topic, demonstrate doctoral-level ability and get their topic approved, but later loose interest in their topic. If your dissertation topic is not that interesting at the beginning of the dissertation process, think about how interesting your dissertation will be a year from now! Choosing an interesting dissertation topic requires some forethought. 

A good way to determine whether your dissertation topic will hold your interest is to look over the topics you have covered in your academic career prior to the commencement of the dissertation process. What are the topics that continually raise burning questions that could be used to create a dissertation? Try to imagine a dissertation that you wish had your name on it. What is the title of that dissertation? Thinking through these issues when choosing a dissertation topic will help you decide on a topic that truly interests you. 

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Tip #2: Is my dissertation topic based on work in which I have a solid background?

In many ways, the dissertation represents not only the culmination of your academic career, but will also provide direction about the areas of research you may want to pursue in the future. When choosing a dissertation topic and developing your proposal, you may come across a number of potential dissertation topics. Sometimes, just before choosing a dissertation topic, doctoral candidates have the desire to change their topic based on new ideas they have studied in preparation for the dissertation proposal. This can lead to a lot of confusion and bog down both the process of choosing a topic and preparing the dissertation proposal. 

In another scenario, dissertation candidates may be influenced by an advisor to pursue a dissertation topic that they are not well prepared for. If you pursue a dissertation topic that you know well, you have already completed half of your research. You have compiled many of the topics and references you will use in your dissertation and are familiar with the topics in the field of study. This prior work may facilitate the writing of the dissertation proposal and help you in preparing for your dissertation defense. However, you must balance what is best for getting your dissertation completed efficiently, with your level of interest. If you are bored with a research topic that you have investigated thoroughly, it may be better to pursue a different topic that will sustain your interest throughout the dissertation proposal and writing process. 

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Tip #3: Is my topic a manageable dissertation?

It is important that the dissertation topic you choose is focused enough to finish your dissertation on time, but rich enough that your dissertation is appropriate in length. To decide if you have chosen a manageable dissertation topic, you want to choose both a dissertation topic that explores a narrowly focused topic and a topic that has enough depth and complexity. Many doctoral candidates start out with a dissertation topic that is too large to cover for a dissertation. There are several ways to narrow the scope of your dissertation topic. For example, if you decide you want to study �aggression� for your dissertation, you may want to ask yourself what kind of aggression study would generate the best dissertation material. Good dissertation topics focus on specific phenomena. Will your dissertation topic focus on aggressive driving? Will your dissertation topic focus on aggression and alcohol use, etc. 

You can also limit the target population of your dissertation. For example, if your dissertation focuses on men�s issues, depending on the topic of the dissertation, you might limit the participants studied in order to narrow the scope of your dissertation. Then, instead of studying all men for your dissertation topic, your topic might focus on white middle aged men who live in the Midwest. Therefore, your dissertation topic, instead of being about “aggression” in “men” becomes a dissertation on, aggression and alcohol use among white middle aged Midwestern men. Of course, this dissertation topic could get even narrower, but in the beginning of your dissertation topic search, it is good to make sure you leave room to grow. 

The above example is focused on dissertation topics within the social sciences, but similar rules apply to dissertations in other fields. Your dissertation may be in a field that studies animals. If so, think through the primary characteristics of your population in relation to your dissertation topic to help you limit your topic. For each new set of vagaries involved in your dissertation topic search, go through the same limiting process to create a succinct dissertation proposal. 

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Tip #4: Is my dissertation topic original?

Another major obstacle in choosing a dissertation topic is coming up with a dissertation topic that is unique. In some ways, dissertations represent the vanguard of new research in a given field. A review of dissertation candidates� dissertations in your field of study will give you a good idea of new paradigms and areas for future research. Therefore, there is some pressure on doctoral students to develop original dissertation topics that contribute to their field of study. This can make many doctoral candidates nervous and overwhelm them when choosing a dissertation topic. A few simple pointers can help you choose an original topic. 

Keep your dissertation topic in mind when reading academic articles that are relevant to your topic. Look for problems in academic research and ask yourself if you have an interest in this area of research. In addition, many articles and other dissertations will have a section called “limitations”. This section can help you develop your dissertation topic. When choosing a dissertation topic, read articles and dissertations in your field of interest and think about these “limitations” as a possible dissertation. Also, in looking for a dissertation topic, it is useful to look over recently defended dissertations in your field, especially the dissertations from students of your academic institution. By reading other dissertation topics, you can find topics that interest you. Some of these dissertations may raise questions that you could answer in your own dissertation.  

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Tip #5: What academic abilities do I have to improve upon in order to complete my dissertation? How much interest do I have in my dissertation topic?

Regarding the uniqueness of your dissertation topic, another question you might ask yourself is, “does my dissertation topic fit with my current academic abilities?” Often dissertation candidates who are working on their dissertation topics come to understand their strengths and weaknesses as a scholar. Your dissertation is a time when you must face your limitations and work towards improving your academic abilities. 

Dissertation topics that address more personal issues often sustain your interest longer, and represent dissertation topics that you are already familiar with. However, extremely personal or emotionally charged dissertation topics run the risk of turning your dissertation into a soapbox to air your personal demons. This is an important dynamic to balance when choosing your dissertation topic. However, different fields and dissertation topics have their standards, and dissertation advisors and consultants often help keep you on track. 

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Tip #6: Is everyone on my dissertation committee on board with my topic?

Many dissertation candidates have trouble finishing their dissertation because they have chosen a dissertation topic that is not in line with the expectations of all of their committee members. Dissertation committees, which are often made up of three or more professors, often have disagreements over the direction of the topic. The dissertation candidate often gets caught in the crossfire. Thus, part of choosing an appropriate dissertation topic (if you want your dissertation proposal to be approved) is making sure that the topic you choose is in line with the interests of your dissertation committee members. 

The most important person involved in helping you choose a dissertation topic is your primary advisor. He or she should be the primary advocate for your dissertation topic. The best way to make sure your committee is on board with your dissertation topic is to read over their past work, current research and other dissertations they have sponsored. In addition, it is sometimes advantageous to pick dissertation committee members from a pool of professors who have liked your past work. 

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Writing a Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal is an important first step towards writing your final dissertation  on a taught or research masters course, or a PhD level course. Your proposal needs to be unique  and it sets the stage for your research and should help you make a clear plan for your final project.  Read more about planning your dissertation here .


Dissertation proposals are like the table of contents for your research, and will help you explain what it is you intend to examine, and roughly, how you intend to go about collecting and analysing your data. You won’t be required to have everything planned out exactly, as your topic may change slightly in the course of your research, but for the most part writing your proposal should help you better identify the direction for your dissertation.

When you’ve chosen a topic for your dissertation , you’ll need to make sure that it is both appropriate to your field of study, and narrow enough to be completed by the end of your course. Your dissertation proposal will help you define and determine both of these things, and will also allow your department and instructors to make sure that you are being advised by the best person to help you complete your research.

Narrow the topic down

It’s important that when you sit down to draft your proposal, you’ve carefully thought out your topic, and are able to narrow it down enough to present clear and succinct understanding of what you aim to do and hope to accomplish by doing it. Aiming for 1,000 words or more, your proposal will give an outline of the topic of your dissertation, some of the questions you hope to answer with your research, what sort of studies and type of data you aim to employ in your research, the sort of analysis you will carry out.

Writing a Dissertation Proposal

Different courses may have different requirements for things like length and the specific information to include, as well as what structure is preferred, so be sure to check what special requirements your course may have.  

What should I include in a dissertation proposal?

Your dissertation proposal should have several key aspects, regardless of the structure: the introduction, the methodology , aims and objectives, the literature review, and the constraints of your research.


The introduction will state your central research question and give background on the subject, as well as relating it contextually to any broader issues surrounding it. Read more about picking a topic for your dissertation . 

Dissertation methodology

The dissertation methodology  will break down what sources you aim to use for your research, and what sort of data you will collect from it, either quantitative or qualitative. You may also want to include how you will analyse the data you gather and what if any bias there may be in your chosen methods. Depending on the level of detail that your specific course requires, you may also want to explain why your chosen approaches to gathering data are more appropriate to your research than others.

Aims and Objectives

Your dissertation proposal should also include the aims and objectives of your research. Be sure to state what your research hopes to achieve, and what outcomes you predict. You may also need to clearly state what your main research objectives are, in other words, how you plan to obtain those achievements and outcomes.

Literature Review

The literature review will list the books and materials that you used to do your research. This is where you can list materials that give you more background on your topic, or contain research carried out previously that you refer to in your own studies. It’s also a good place to demonstrate how your research connects to previous academic studies, and how your methods may differ from or be building upon those used by other researchers. While it’s important to give enough information about the materials to show that you have read and understood them, don’t forget to include your analysis of their value to your work.

Constraints of your research

Lastly, you will also need to include the constraints of your research. Many topics will have broad links to numerous larger and more complex issues, so by clearly stating the constraints of your research, you are displaying your understanding and acknowledgment of these larger issues, and the role they play by focusing your research on just one section or part of the subject.

Dissertation proposal example

The structure of your dissertation proposal will depend on your specific course requirements. Some courses may specify that the aims and objectives of your research be a separate section in your proposal, or that you do not need to include a methodology or literature review section.

Once you know what sections you need or do not need to include, then it may help focus your writing to break the proposal up into the separate headings, and tackle each piece individually. You may also want to consider including a title. Writing a title for your proposal will help you make sure that your topic is narrow enough, as well as help keep your writing focused and on topic.

One example of a dissertation proposal structure is the following headings, either broken up into sections or chapters depending on the required word count:

  • Introduction
  • Aims and Objectives
  • Methodology
  • Literature Review
  • Research Constraints

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