A dissertation, or thesis, proposal is a graduate student's statement of intention. It is a 20- to 40-page outline of a proposed research project that is presented to a dissertation committee for approval. The committee will determine if the project is worthy of the student's, and the committee's, time and effort. Once approved, the proposal serves as a contract between the student and the committee. Dissertation proposals are not only the beginning of the work a graduate student will do on her dissertation; the proposal also encompasses a large portion of the actual work to be done. A good proposal may take months to write, and will include several key elements.

Introduction or Abstract

The introduction of a dissertation proposal will begin with a summary of the "larger issues" surrounding the proposed topic, along with the associated issues. It will then relate those issues to the specific research the student would like to conduct, and will pose the main research question of the dissertation. Like the remainder of the proposal, the introduction is structured from general to specific. It will be clearly written and simply stated.


The problem statement is a short section that succinctly identifies the issue to be explored and tells the committee exactly why this issue is important. It is usually only about 200 words long. Taking time to develop a concise abstract statement is a very important part of developing a dissertation proposal.


The concept is similar to the hypothesis in scientific method. In this section, the student should identify all of the elements and factors he believes will affect the outcome. It defines the terms and measures the student will be using, and offers a theory of what the student believes the outcome will be.


The methodology element gives the committee an opportunity to find out exactly what the student will be doing to research his topic. It explains what the student will be doing, and why he will be doing it. It also explains the correlation between the concept and the research. The methodology element answers the question, "What will the student do to prove or disprove the theory he has developed?"


The bibliography references all of the research papers, books and other resources that will be used to complete the dissertation research. It is one of the most important elements of the proposal because it shows the committee how much research the student has completed on her dissertation topic. A good bibliography generally means that the student has a good command of the subject matter.


The appendices include any materials a student plans to utilize to conduct his research. This can include time lines, questionnaires, graphs and other things that will be needed to complete the project.

General Tips

Dissertation proposal formats vary by institution. Students should be aware of the required format prior to writing their proposal. Structure of the proposal elements should be in inverted pyramid form, with the most important information first. A committee member should be able to read the first sentence of each section and have a good picture of the overall proposal. Sentence structure of the proposal should vary. All too frequently, students begin each sentence with the words "I" or "The." By varying the structure of sentences, the proposal will be more readable, and the student will appear more capable of producing a compelling thesis. At the same time, sentence structure should be simple, and complex wording should be avoided. Students should not use 20 words to say what could be said in five.