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Dissertation proposal tips for overwhelmed students

Dissertation proposal tips for overwhelmed students

Your dissertation proposal (also known as dissertation prospectus) may be some of your hardest writing to date. The depth needed to write a successful dissertation proposal catches PhD students off guard. Most other papers you have written to date were likely shorter and less preemptive than the proposal you are about to craft. A good dissertation proposal demands that you document meticulous plans for actions that you will not take for another 12 months or more.

Rest assured that the overwhelming feeling you are facing (or are about to face) is natural and even part of the process of extracting a focused dissertation topic and writing a convincing proposal. The proposal will require that you mentally extract your research topic from a general area of study.

How to write your dissertation proposal

The best advice to take to bed tonight is that the sanest approach to crafting your proposal is to follow a few organizational principles. Chances are that you already have a lot of the content you need for the proposal. If you have written papers leading up to your dissertation proposal, you have a plethora of (unorganized) content awaiting.

1. Clearly understand that the purpose of your proposal is to help design a roadmap for the rest of your dissertation research. It’s a plan that can be executed. Similar to how a business plan is a document that can be simulated or executed by a company, your dissertation proposal is the blueprint you will follow to conduct research. When you get approval of your proposal from the dissertation committee, think of it as a green light to execute the blueprint. It’s a contract between you and your dissertation committee.

2.  Print all the previous papers you have written related to your field of study. Don’t limit your scope to just papers. Print relevant notes from courses, conferences, and outside research related to your topic. Yes, print them all and surpress your inner environmentalist – the time to save trees will come later.

3. Organize your papers and notes into buckets of similar themes. Each theme bucket will serve as a major section in your dissertation proposal that will support your research question.

 4. Use an upside-down pyramid model. The broad top is the general field of study you are in. The pointed bottom is the fundamental research question your dissertation addresses. First, describe why your general field of study is relevant in the discipline you are in. Second, describe why further research must be done in this field. Put your salesman cap on because your aim behind this section is to sell the reason your research is required. Third, present your specific research question and offer your hypothesis. Provide reasons how your arrived at your hypothesis. Fourth, detail the research methodology, subjects, and data analysis. The key to this step is to get very specific. Do not make the mistake of “keeping your options open” and expecting your dissertation committee to help conduct this thought-exercise for you. They will not. You must come up specific methodologies and research subject classifications for your committee to approve/disapprove. Yes, this is the meat. Massage the wonderful content from your previous papers and notes into this section. Think about what primary research you will conduct. Where will you conduct this? How will you go about finding subjects? What characteristics will those subjects have? What system(s) will you employ to capture data? How will you analyze this data? What variables and/or assumptions exist?

5. Write, write, and write. The best advice from students who have gone through this process is to write every day even if you feel you are writing aimlessly. The biggest hurdle students face in the dissertation proposal process is disciplined daily writing.

6. Take your first draft to your advisor and get their feedback. Don’t waste time editing our revising your draft until you know your ship is pointed in the right direction.

Final tips on your dissertation prospectus

Your dissertation represents your finest hour and the zenith of your academic career. Your dissertation proposal is the first pillar of your finest hour. Well-crafted proposal are a goldmine to earning the trust of a powerful dissertation committee who will in turn fuel your path to completion. Conversely, if you fail to produce a materially convincing dissertation prospectus, you are in for a long and lonely journey.