Phd Dissertation & Master’s Thesis

Phd Dissertation & Master’s Thesis

How to Write a PhD Dissertation Proposal & a PhD Dissertation


Many aspects of writing a dissertation are the same as those for preparing a Master’s Thesis. However, PhD dissertations are somewhat more involved and complex but yet they can be broken down in stages and completed part by part making them much more manageable. Just as with a Master’s thesis, a dissertation involves the assignment of a supervisor, a mentor, or a tutor depending on where you are going to school. Additionally, there is also a committee that must be selected which consists of different professors from a variety of disciplines that will act to review the final dissertation document and approve or disapprove it. Bear in mind, between your tutor or mentor and the committee, you are going to deal with a lot of intellectual phlegm from academics who make a career out of being critical.

That said, just stay focused on your research project and work on it one stage at a time. The first thing that you should do is examine the outline of what a completed dissertation should include. For your benefit I have included a detailed table of contents below that you can look over to get an idea of the type of work and thesis you must become familiar with. You would be surprised at how many people enter aPhD program without any idea of what is involved in terms of the final completed project which is the dissertation. Just by looking over the various chapters and stages of the typical dissertation you can get better grasp of what you need to do and where you should start:






Background of the Problem

Statement of the Problem

Purpose of the Study

Significance of the Problem

Nature of the Study

Research Questions


Theoretical Framework

Definition of Terms







Literature Review

First Subthesis – Heading level Two

Second Subthesis – Heading level Two Title Case

Subheading Level Three Title Case

Subheading Level Three – Title Case




Research Design

Appropriateness of Design

Research Questions


Informed Consent

Sampling Frame


Geographic Location


Data Collection

Data Analysis

Validity and Reliability












One of the first things that you should notice is the level of detail that you must achieve in relation to a specific thesis and that is where you should first focus you energies on—identifying an appropriately refined thesis. Basically, if you thesis is specific enough and, better yet, is one that you are actually interested in then half the battle is over because you will enjoy doing the project except for dealing with the bloated heads who you are going to have kowtow to in order to get your project approved. So, before beginning your dissertation I have detailed some steps that you should take in preparation for getting started on your PhD dissertation proposal which is usually the first three chapters, in shortened form:

*Identify a narrow thesis that is interesting to you

*Identify a methodology which is going to be either qualitative or quantitative (Hint: if you have a choice select a qualitative methodology and go with the case study or bracketing method if you can. However, if you must choose a quantitative methodology then utilize descriptive statistics because these are relatively simple statistical analysis procedures and can be accomplished in Excel. If you go with a more complex statistical analysis method such as ANOVA or MANOVA then you will need SPSS or a similar statistical analysis application)

*Do a brief online database search for similar research reports or articles

These simple steps will accomplish much in preparing you to formulate your proposal and crystallize your overall dissertation project.

Writing Thesis/Dissertation Proposals

Your thesis/dissertation proposal provides an overview of your proposed plan of work, including the general scope of your project, your basic research questions, research methodology, and the overall significance of your study. In short, your proposal explains what you want to study, how you will study this thesis, why this thesis needs to be studied, and (generally) when you intend to do this work. (Occasionally, you may also need to explain where your study will take place.)


Dissertation/Thesis proposals are designed to:

* Justify and plan (or contract for) a research project.

* Show how your project contributes to existing research.

* Demonstrate to your advisor and committee that you understand how to conduct discipline-specific research within an acceptable time-frame.


Most proposals are written specifically for your academic advisor and committee.

Proposal Writing and Anxiety

General Advice:

* Establish a writing schedule, preferably writing at the same time and place each day.

* Begin by free-writing. Remember that no one but you has to see the initial draft.

* Keep a small notebook with you throughout the day to write down relevant thoughts.

* Say parts of your writing into a recording device and then play it back to yourself.

* Compose different parts of the proposal in different computer files or on different index cards to help with arranging and rearranging.

* Start with more “clear cut” stages first, rather than with the Introduction, since it may be the most difficult part to write.

Proposal-Specific Advice:

* Understand that the proposal will be a negotiated document, so be prepared to draft, redraft, and resubmit it.

* Think of the proposal as an introduction to your thesis—not a chapter, not an extensive literature review, not an opportunity to rehearse the major conflicts in your field. You are “bridging the gap” between existing work and your work.

* Remember that the proposal is not a contract that determines what your thesis will demonstrate. You will likely modify and refine your scope, argument, and methods.

* Remember that your proposal is not meant to limit your ideas, but to help you think in practical terms about how you intend to research and write your dissertation.

* Ask colleagues to form a writing group that you can use to exchange ideas, drafts, and experiences. As lonely as it may seem sometimes, writing is a social activity.

Because proposal requirements vary broadly by department, program, and advisor, generalizing them is difficult. The best advice is the simplest: consult with your advisor, ask to see past successful proposals, and talk to your colleagues. Using other proposals to help you generate ideas in not plagiarizing!

The following table provides an overview of the entire dissertation proposal and dissertation process that you can check off as you complete each stage or step:


Main task to be completed by end of this week:

Find time this week also to explore:

Possible interim deadlines
1 Background reading Follow interesting ‘trails’, until one leads to a provisional question or ‘thesis’  
2 Finalise thesis and title More background and focused reading on your chosen aspect of the thesis Agreement of title
3 Literature search – what has already been written about your thesis? Seek out up-to-date resources, asking for help from library staff Investigate methodological issues, implications of particular methods and ethical issues.  See theDeveloping an Appropriate strategy Guide  and Using Endnote Bibliographic Software Guide  for help with constructing and maintaining a bibliography Brief annotated bibliography
4 Dissertation plan, informed by your literature search Reflect on methodological issues in writing and revising your dissertation plan Overview of design of dissertation plan
5 Develop dissertation plan Begin to conduct your research and gather evidence or data  
6 Gathering evidence or data    
7 Gathering evidence or data Begin to analyse evidence or data  
8 Gathering evidence or data Begin to analyse evidence or data  
9 Use initial findings to begin to draft the dissertation Continue to analyse and evaluate evidence or data Interim report to supervisor
10 Refine assignment plan and develop draft, referring to self-evaluation checklist in Stage 4 Focus on adopting an appropriate academic tone and style, together with accurate, reader-friendly presentation of evidence  
11 Continue drafting and refining    
12 Complete draft Refine style Completed draft
13 Apply self-evaluation checklist again Last refinements of written style and presentation; final check of data and its presentation  
14 Produce final assignment   Submit dissertation


Despite their wide differences, proposals across programs generally include at least some form of the following stages (though you will want to check with your academic advisor about the specific stages s/he requires): Title, Abstract, Introduction/Background, Problem Statement, Purpose/Aims/Rationale, Review of Literature, Methodology, Significance/Implications, Overview of Chapters, Plan of Work, Bibliography.

Sometimes these stages may be combined—in some fields, the problem statement, aims, and review of literature are all part of the introduction. The most common elements are the introduction/problem statement, review of literature, and methodology (which in some fields roughly correspond to the first three chapters of the dissertation).


At this early stage, you need only provide a working title. You can decide on the exact wording for your title when you are nearer to completing your dissertation. Nevertheless, even at the start, aim to create a title that conveys the idea of your investigation. Normally, a title beginning “A study in . . .” is too vague; decide whether you want to compare, collate, assess, etc.  Also, don’t worry if you compose a long title. You are preparing to write an academic document, not to devise a snappy headline for a tabloid newspaper.

A good title should:

* Orient your readers to the thesis you will research.

* Indicate the type of study you will conduct.


Not all fields require abstracts, so check with your advisor to see if you are required to include one. The abstract should:

* Provide a brief (100-350 word) overview of the proposal that gives a reader a basic understanding of your proposal and encourages her or him to read more.

* Summarize Introduction, Statement of the Problem, Background of the Study, Research Questions or Hypotheses, and Methods and Procedures.

* (In some cases, the abstract may need to be very brief—no more than 50 words—in which case, it will be more descriptive than complete.)


The introduction helps put your project in conversation with other projects on similar thesis. Generally, the introduction provides necessary background information to your study and provides readers with some sense of your overall research interest. A good introduction should:

* Establish the general territory (real world or research) in which the research is placed.

* Describe the broad foundations of your study, including some references to existing literature and/or empirically observable situations. In other words, the introduction needs to provide sufficient background for readers to understand where your study is coming from.

* Indicate the general scope of your project, but do not go into so much detail that later stages (purpose/literature review) become irrelevant.

* Provide an overview of the stages that will appear in your proposal (optional).

* Engage the readers.

Statement of the Problem

This stage may be incorporated in your introduction or your purpose stage, or it may stand independently (it depends on the field). Some proposals start with the statement of the problem, rather than a more general introduction. Regardless of placement, at some point you need to clearly identify the problem or knowledge gap that your project is responding to. This stage should:

* Answer the question: “What is the gap that needs to be filled?” and/or “What is the problem that needs to be solved?”

* State the problem clearly early in a paragraph.

* Limit the variables you address in stating your problem or question.

You may want to consider framing your problem “statement” as a question, since you are really seeking to answer a question (or a set of questions) in your study.

Purpose/Aims/Rationale/Research Questions

Most proposals include a clear statement of the research objectives, including a description of the questions the research seeks to answer or the hypotheses the research advances. This may be included as part of the introduction, or it may be a separate stage. Spend significant time brainstorming before and while you draft this stage. Once you begin your dissertation research, you may find that your aims change in emphasis or in number. What is essential for you at this point, though, is to specify for your readers—and for yourself—the precise focus of your research and to identify key concepts you will be studying.

A clear statement of purpose will:

* Explain the goals and research objectives of the study (what do you hope to find?).

* Show the original contributions of your study by explaining how your research questions or approach are different from previous research (what will you add to the field of knowledge?).

* Provide a more detailed account of the points summarized in the introduction.

* Include a rationale for the study (why should we study this?).

* Be clear about what your study will not address (this is especially important if you are applying for competitive funding; narrowly focused studies are more likely to win funding).

In addition, this stage may:

* Describe the research questions and/or hypotheses of the study.

* Include a substage defining important terms, especially if they will be new to some readers or if you will use them in an unfamiliar way.

* State limitations of the research.

* Provide a rationale for the particular subjects of the study.

 Review of the Literature

The literature review is a critical look at the existing research that is significant to the work that you are carrying out. Obviously, at this point you are not likely to have read everything related to your research questions, but you should still be able to identify the key texts with which you will be in conversation as you write your dissertation. Literature reviews often include both the theoretical approaches to your thesis and research (empirical or analytical) on your thesis.

Writing the literature review allows you to understand:

How other scholars have written about your thesis (in addition to what they have written).

* The range of theories scholars use to analyze their primary materials or data

* How other scholars connect their specific research thesiss to larger issues, questions, or practices within the field.

* The best methodologies and research techniques for your particular thesis.

The literature review has four major functions or rhetorical goals that you should keep in mind as you write:

* It situates the current study within a wider disciplinary conversation.

* It illustrates the uniqueness, importance of and need for your particular project by explaining how your research questions and approach are different from those of other scholars.

* It justifies methodological choices.

* It demonstrates your familiarity with the thesis and appropriate approaches to studying it.

Appropriate literature reviews should:

* Flesh out the Introduction’s brief description of the background of your study.

* Critically assess important research trends or areas of interest relevant to your study.

* Identify potential gaps in knowledge.

* Establish a need for current and/or future research projects.

Advice on drafting your Literature Review:

* Categorize the literature into recognizable thesis clusters and begin each with a sub-heading. Look for trends and themes and then synthesize related information. You want to

1)      stake out the various positions that are relevant to your project,

2)      build on conclusions that lead to your project, or

3)      demonstrate the places where the literature is lacking, whether due to a methodology you think is incomplete or to assumptions you think are flawed.

* Avoid “Smith says X, Jones says Y” literature reviews. You should be tying the literature you review to specific facets of your problem, not to review for the sake of reviewing.

* Avoid including all the studies on the subject or the vast array of scholarship that brought you to the subject. As tempting as it might be to throw in everything you know, the literature review is not the place for such demonstration. Stick to those pieces of the literature directly relevant to your narrowed subject (question or statement of a problem).

* Avoid polemics, praise, and blame. You should fight the temptation to strongly express your opinions about about the previous literature. Your task is to justify your project given the known scholarship, so polemics, praise, and blame are unnecessary and possibly distracting.

 Point to Remember: You are entering a scholarly conversation already in progress. The literature review shows that you’ve been listening in and that you have something valuable to say.  After assessing the literature in your field, you should be able to answer the following questions:

* Why should we study (further) this research thesis/problem?

* What contributions will my study make to the existing literature?


This stage is essential to most good research proposals. How you study a problem is often as important as the results you collect.  This stage includes a description of the general means through which the goals of the study will be achieved: methods, materials, procedures, tasks, etc.

An appropriate methodology stage should:

* Introduce the overall methodological approach for each problem or question. Is your study qualitative or quantitative? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or use case studies?

* Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods should have a clear connection with your research questions and/or hypotheses. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually answer your questions—Don Thackrey notes that the most common reason for the rejection of professional proposals is that “the proposed tests, or methods, or scientific procedures are unsuited to the stated objective.”

* Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use—e.g. surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival or traditional library research.

* Explain how you intend to analyze and interpret your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors?

* If necessary, provide background and rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. (Typically, the social sciences and humanities require more explanation/rationale of methods than the hard sciences).

* If applicable, you may also need to provide a rationale for subject selection (particularly if you have not already provided one). For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews and use questionnaires, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing literary texts, which texts have you chosen, and why?

* Address potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors?

Advice on drafting your methodology stage:

* Break down your methodology into easily digestible substages.

* In the physical sciences, these stages may include subjects, design, apparatus, instrumentation, process, analysis, etc.

* In the social sciences, these stages may include selection of participants, interview process, profiles, interpretive and analytic framework, methods of qualitative analysis, etc.

* In the humanities, these stages may include scholarly research, archival research, theoretical orientation, etc.

* Remember that your methods stage may also require supporting literature.

* Anticipate and pre-empt the audience’s methodological concerns.

* If the audience might have a problem with a facet of the methodology, admit this difficulty and justify your approach.

* If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate (including timeframe problems), state this openly and show why pursuing the methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.

Point to Remember: If you have demonstrated that you have considered even the downside of your methods, their advantages will seem more carefully developed.

Significance/ Implications

Some proposals require a separate stage stating the significance of the study. A clear statement of significance may:

* Discuss the methodological, substantive, and/or theoretical contribution you anticipate making to existing knowledge in your (sub)field.

* Plainly state the practical and/or theoretical importance of the problem and/or objectives of your study, given current knowledge and practices.

* Explain the usefulness or benefits of the study, if possible (and especially for funding agencies), to both the outside world and the research community.

Overview of Chapters

Some proposals also include a brief description of relevant chapters. Check with your advisor to see if this is required for your proposal. Finally, I have included the following table that allows you to synthesize the proposal into the final project and to complete the overall dissertation. Remember, the more detail and effort you put into your proposal then the less work and effort you will have to put into the final dissertation:




Not sure

1    Dissertation thesis

Is the thesis clear and well defined?  Does it involve a problem, question, or hypothesis that sets the agenda and points precisely to what needs to be explored or discovered?


Is the thesis of genuine relevance or interest within your subject discipline? Does it pick up on important or interesting themes or subjects arising from your studies?


2    Literature review

Have you accessed the most recent literature of relevance to your thesis, as well as seminal sources from the past?


Do you refer to major books, articles, artefacts?  Since quality is more important than quantity – how well have you selected your material?


Does the literature review hang together, to show how the ideas and findings have developed, or is it merely a shopping list of books and articles?


Is the review critical?  Does it briefly evaluate, showing how your dissertation fits into what is mistaken or lacking in other studies?  The literature review should provide a critically appraised context for your studies.


3   Theoretical underpinnings

Does theory permeate the structure from beginning to end, from statement of problem to conclusion? Are you asking yourself a key question, presenting a thesis, or defending a statement?  Be clear about your approach.


Theory is the framework of your study – not a luxury. Your dissertation will be judged, in part, by how well you express and critically understand the theory you are using, and how clearly and consistently it is connected with the focus and methodology of your dissertation.


4    Methodology

Two primary criteria:

Is your choice of methods and research techniques well suited to the kind of problem you are studying?   Methods work if they provide a persuasive response to your question, positive or negative.


Is your description of the methods you have adopted clear enough to take a blueprint and replicate?


5     Results

Are your findings faithful to what you actually found – do you claim more than you should? Don’t ‘massage’ your evidence or findings…


Have you provided enough evidence to make a convincing case?

Have you presented everything directly relevant to the question in such a way that the reader doesn’t have to flip back and forth to make her or his own connections?


Are results or findings clearly and accurately written, easy to read, grasp and understand?


6    Conclusions

Have you answered the question ‘So what?’. What should we do with your findings and conclusions?  What do they imply?


Findings don’t speak for themselves – they need to be analysed. Have you explained what your findings mean and their importance, in relation to theory and practice?


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