Dissertation Proposal | Examples, Steps & Structure

The research proposal in the dissertation stage of a doctoral program is a critical step that sets the tone for the research to be conducted. Read more about the dissertation proposal and how it contributes to the doctoral research process.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is the dissertation proposal process?
  3. What is the difference between a dissertation and a dissertation proposal?
  4. What are the elements of a dissertation proposal?
  5. What does a good dissertation proposal look like?
  6. How do you present a dissertation proposal?


With the dissertation as the culminating work that leads to successful completion of a doctoral degree, the dissertation proposal or thesis proposal serves as the backbone of the research that will ultimately inform your research agenda in the dissertation stage and beyond. A well-crafted proposed study details the research problem, your research question, and your methodology for studying the dissertation topic.

In this article, we will provide a brief introduction of the components of a good dissertation proposal, why they are important, and what needs to be incorporated into a proposal to allow your committee to conduct further study on your topic.

A good dissertation proposal sets the stage for the research required to complete a doctoral program.

What is the dissertation proposal process?

A typical doctoral program requires a dissertation or thesis through which a doctoral student demonstrates their knowledge and expertise in the prevailing theories and methodologies in their chosen research area. By the time a student is ready for the dissertation proposal stage, they will have taken the necessary coursework on theory and research methods or have demonstrated their expertise in lab work or written publications.

Most doctoral programs also require students to complete comprehensive examinations (these may go by other names such as qualifying exams or preliminary exams). These assess the ability to understand and synthesize scientific knowledge in a given research field. What separates the dissertation proposal from these examinations is that the dissertation proposal asks students to create an entirely new study that builds on that existing knowledge, separating fully-fledged researchers and scientists from merely scholars familiar with expert knowledge.

What is the difference between a dissertation and a dissertation proposal?

Needless to say, the dissertation proposal is the precursor to the eventual dissertation. Think of the proposal as a request for permission to conduct the study that you need to conduct to write and defend your dissertation.

Because a rigorous research process is also extensive and drawn out, the proposal is also a reflection of the expertise you have about the dissertation topic. Committee members want to know if you have the necessary knowledge about the existing research to be able to generate empirical knowledge through a full dissertation study.

Once you have conducted your research, the dissertation itself will often take components from your written proposal in providing a comprehensive report on the scholarly knowledge you have generated and how you generated it. That said, the overall scholarly work will likely evolve between the proposal stage and the final dissertation, making the proposal a useful foundation on which your entire research agenda is built.

What are the elements of a dissertation proposal?

By this point in a doctoral program, a student is already familiar with components in a research paper such as a thesis statement, a research question, methodology, and findings and discussion sections. These aspects are commonly found in journal articles and conference presentations. However, a dissertation proposal is most likely a lengthy document as your dissertation committee will expect certain things that may not always belong in a journal article with the level of detail found in a proposal.

Problem statement

A clear dissertation proposal outlines the problem that the proposed research aims to address. An effective problem statement can identify the potential value of the research if it is approved and conducted. It also elevates the research from an inquiry generated from pure intellectual curiosity to a directed study that the greater academic community will find relevant and compelling.

Identifying a problem that research can solve is less about a personal interest and more about justifying why the research deserves to go forward. A good dissertation proposal should make the case that the research can expand theoretical knowledge or identify applications to address practical concerns.

Research questions are the product of a good problem statement. Whereas a useful problem statement will establish the relevance of the study, a research question will focus on aspects of the problem that, when addressed through research, will yield useful theoretical developments or practical insights.

Research background

Once the proposed project is justified in terms of its potential value, the next question is whether existing research has something to say about the problem. A thorough literature review is necessary to be able to identify the necessary gaps in the theory or methodology.

A thorough survey of the research background can also provide a useful theoretical framework that researchers can use to conduct data collection and analysis. Basing your analytical approach on published research will establish useful connections between your research and existing scientific knowledge, a quality that your committee will look for in determining the importance of your proposed study.

Proposed methodology

With a useful theoretical background in mind, the methodology section lays out what the study will look like if it is approved. In a nutshell, a comprehensive treatment of the methodology should include descriptions of the research context (e.g., the participants and the broader environment they occupy), data collection procedures, data analysis strategies, and any expected outcomes.

A thorough explanation of the methodological approach you will apply to your study is critical to a successful proposal. Compared to an explanation of methods in a peer-reviewed journal article, the methodology is expected to take up an entire chapter in your dissertation, so the methods section in your proposal should be just as long. Be prepared to explain not only what strategies for data collection and analysis you choose but why they are appropriate for your research topic and research questions.

The expected outcomes represent the student's best guess as to what might happen and what insights might be collected during the course of the study. This is similar to a research hypothesis in that an expected outcome provides a sort of baseline that the researcher should use to determine the extent of the novelty in the findings.

At this point, dissertation committee members are looking at the extent to which a doctoral student can design a transparent and rigorous study that can contribute new knowledge to the existing body of relevant literature on a given research topic. Especially in the social sciences, the approach a researcher takes in generating new knowledge is often more important than the new knowledge itself, making the methods section arguably the most critical component in your proposal.

The dissertation proposal is a key test of your ability to demonstrate your expertise through writing. Photo by Christin Hume.

What does a good dissertation proposal look like?

Successful dissertation proposals serve both as compelling arguments justifying future research as well as written knowledge that can be incorporated into the eventual dissertation. Oftentimes, students are advised that the dissertation proposal has a similar structure to that of the first few chapters of a dissertation, as they describe the research problem, background, and methodology.

In that sense, a good proposal will help the student save time in writing what will be an even lengthier dissertation. To your advisor and your committee, a successful proposal is less an examination than it is a tool or formal process to help you through the doctoral journey.

Throughout the process of writing your proposal, it's important to communicate with the members of your dissertation committee so they can clarify their expectations regarding what belongs in the proposal. Ultimately, beyond the accepted norms regarding what goes into a typical dissertation proposal, it is up to your committee to determine if you have the expertise and appropriate methodological approach to conduct novel research.

How do you present a dissertation proposal?

The proposal will most likely be the longest report you will write in your doctoral program, with the exception of the dissertation itself. That's because you will need to describe your research design in the kind of painstaking detail that often isn't included in a typical peer-reviewed research article or academic presentation.

In general terms, the more detail that you can provide in your proposal, the clearer your research agenda as you collect and analyze data, and the easier your dissertation will be to write. However, a dissertation proposal is more than simply a word or page count. It is a document that is intended to "sell" the value of your research to your committee.

Your committee will be made up of your advisor and other faculty members in your university (with some exceptions depending on your doctoral program). These members need to be convinced that your research can contribute to the larger body of scholarly knowledge within the university and in the greater academic community as a whole. As a result, a good proposal is not an encyclopedic presentation of knowledge, but an informed synthesis of theory and methodology that points out where research in a particular topic should be conducted next.

In addition to the substance of your proposal, also pay attention to the packaging of your proposal. Little details such as the title page and reference list also provide indicators that you have carefully thought about the research you want to conduct, and show your level of commitment as a future career scholar. As with submitting a research paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, developing the dissertation proposal should also be done with the necessary care that demonstrates a professional attitude toward literacy practices and best practices in academic research.

Typically, the dissertation proposal will need to be presented in person to your committee. This is a chance for your committee to confirm they have read the proposal, offer feedback to strengthen the research design, and offer their approval for you to go ahead and conduct your research if it is a strong enough proposal. In many respects, the proposal meeting is a dry run for the kind of questions you will likely face from your committee when it comes time to defend your dissertation.

Even if you successfully defend your proposal, your advisor may ask for revisions to the written proposal based on the feedback your committee provides. These revisions are not only crucial to the eventual data collection and analysis but to strengthening the argument you will make about the validity and novelty of your research later on.