How to Choose the Right Proposal for a PhD Dissertation

Think about your proposal as your first mark on your field.
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When it's time to consider researching and writing your dissertation proposal, you'll want to make sure you find an original topic or an angle that will be acceptable to your dissertation director and committee. In fields such as literature, this means finding an author or literary theme that has gone untouched, and in the sciences, it could mean either original experimentation or development of an instrument. You should also ascertain a proper fit between the proposal and your research and writing skills.

1 Be Specific

Proposals can range from 2,000 words to almost 100 pages, if a sample chapter and bibliography are required, so you'll want to get it right quickly. A good proposal will be sufficiently specific. In literature, for example, you cannot simply write that you plan to discuss Chuck Palahniuk's novels; you need an angle, such as biographical details in his fiction or his nihilism. In the sciences, a proposal to study the seafood industry is much weaker than one to study the effects of certain pollutants on the oyster industry, or better yet, one that concentrates on a geographical area.

2 Interest and Objectivity

Your proposal should be on a topic that fascinates you.
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The website Dissertation Tips suggests you should choose a topic that can sustain your interest for a long time but with which you can remain objective. To examine the sociological or psychological implications of racism in the poetry of Amiri Baraka, make sure that you are interested in the effects of discrimination on culture. To examine the oil industry's use of deep-water wells, make sure you have no conflict of interest. Don't attempt this type of proposal if you have a personal or financial investment, as academics will perceive you as less objective.

3 Feasibility

When you develop a list of research questions, you should stop and think about the feasibility of your proposal. Identifying the person who was Beethoven's immortal beloved is impossible, as all theories are based on conjecture. Science experiments that are not provable may waste years of your time. Topics lacking sufficient research will not allow you to put together an acceptable Review of Literature to demonstrate that you know the published work of other scholars. This might have you working on a proposal that your dissertation committee will not accept.

4 Final Considerations

Ultimately, your proposal will lead to your dissertation, which is your first major contribution to the scholarship in your discipline, so you need to make sure that you are proud of the final document. In addition, many first books and articles come directly from a dissertation, so think of the proposal in terms of whether you would like your first book or article to be on this topic. It also doesn't hurt to choose a topic that may springboard other publications in the future, as your success with tenure and promotion will be dependent on these.

Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.