Dissertation Proposal Writing Tips

What is a dissertation proposal?

A dissertation proposal is a statement of intent about your future research project. It is used by potential supervisors and university admissions teams to gauge the feasibility of your research, and test your overall readiness to begin postgraduate study. It might also be used by funding bodies if you apply for financial support.

In general, a good student proposal demonstrates sufficient knowledge of the field and an awareness of how your research might fit with existing studies. It also demonstrates your originality and intellectual abilities. The research proposal varies in length depending on the discipline and level of study, but in general it should be 2-5 pages plus bibliography. It’s always best to check with your university regarding their particular proposal requirements, as they vary slightly between institutions and disciplines. However, the points below are standard for almost all UK postgraduate proposals.

What should dissertation proposal contain?

Occasionally universities provide sample dissertation proposal forms to students as part of the application process. These forms will ask clear questions to ensure that you are thoroughly prepared for this level of study. However, if this is not the case the contents of the thesis proposal should include the following:

1) Abstract: This is only necessary for longer proposals that cover several pages. It is simply a paragraph that summarises the topic of research and the content of the proposal itself. For very long proposal you might also include a title page, but generally it is sufficient to include the title and your details in a header on page 1.

2) Introductory statement: This explains the topic of your research in 2-3 sentences and states why it is an important area of research. You should aim to make your proposed research interesting to readers, and if possible relate it to well-known real-world issues. The proposal introduction might also include some details of your own academic background and your suitability for the proposed dissertation.

3) Literature Review / Research Context: This section provides a basic summary of some of the most relevant theories or studies related to your topic. You are not expected to possess a thorough knowledge of the field at this stage, but you should demonstrate an awareness of the more important advances in recent years, and how they might relate to your own proposed research. This part of the proposal is usually organised thematically to summarise the theories relating to various aspects of your specific research question.

4) Proposed Agenda: This part of the research proposal discusses how you intend to investigate your topic. What sort of methods will be used? Will they be qualitative, like interviews, ethnography or hermeneutic approaches, or will they be qualitative like questionnaires and statistical data? Why do you think this approach is the best one?

5) Timeline / Outline of Chapters: This should offer a brief outline of your planned activities over the span of your degree programme. It might include brief chapter summaries and the order you expect to complete them in. Be sure to include key milestones that you will use to gauge your progress.

6) Required Resources: What materials and resources will you require for your proposed dissertation research? This section might include a full budget and your intentions for funding the project. You might also include other kinds of resources, such as research assistants or skills training.

7) Ethical Statement: Do you anticipate any ethical issues that might arise from your proposed thesis research? Will you be working with human subjects in any way, and if so how will you ensure their welfare? Much of this will need to be addressed in more detail once you begin your research at a specific university. In your proposal for a dissertation it is sufficient to demonstrate an awareness of any potential ethical issues that could occur.

8) Anticipated Results: What do you expect your research to uncover, and what are the potential gaps in knowledge that could result? Overall, how do you think this approach will add to existing knowledge of the topic?

9) Bibliography or Works Cited: This is simply a list of references that are relevant to your proposal for thesis research. It should be formatted according to the citation style appropriate to your discipline.

Tips for Writing a Successful Proposal

  • Be original. Remember that your research proposal will be one of hundreds read by admissions officers and funding agencies. Highlight the ways that you are innovative, creative and resourceful. 
  • Demonstrate relevance. Explain how your thesis research will have an impact on your field, and if possible, on the general public. 
  • Show off your knowledge. This isn’t the time to be humble about your academic achievements – instead be forthright about your experience in the field, and use the proposal to provide proof of that.
  • Be practical. One of the most common pitfalls of proposal writing is being over-ambitious. Be certain that you can complete your proposed research in the required time frame, and with the resources you have available. 
  • Market yourself. If you intend to apply for external research funding, be sure to adapt your proposal to fit with the key themes and funding priorities of each agency. Likewise, if you hope to work with a particular supervisor you can tailor your research proposal to their own interests and areas of expertise. 
  • Proofread! This last point should be obvious but is often overlooked by students. A polished and error-free presentation will demonstrate your academic abilities and create a great first impression.

If you follow these tips you will develop a dissertation proposal that increases your chances of success. More importantly, the proposal will be your ‘road map’ for the next year or two of research – if you write an exciting proposal, you will be sure to have a fun research journey!


Birmingham City University, 2011. How to Write a Research Proposal. Available: http://www.sml.hw.ac.uk/postgraduate/downloads/dissertations/dissertationguide.pdf. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.

Christopher Hart, 2005. Doing Your Masters Dissertation (SAGE Study Skills Series). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Kjell Erik Rudestam, 2007. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Making it clear why you are doing this research. Proving that you have a solid basis upon which to suggest further investigation of your topic, and highlighting what you hope to gain from carrying it out, means that you are justifying your work in this area and the contribution that you will make to your field.

Outlining your aims and objectives is a way to mitigate any claims that you are completing your research for some ‘self-serving’ purpose; integrity and value should be upheld throughout your proposal, planning, research, and writing phases.

Anyone involved at any stage of your research, whether directly included as a participant or not, should be well-informed about the reasons for your work, and the way that their ‘data’ will be incorporated and used in your eventual paper. Participants should be made aware of their participation and should be told exactly what to expect, what is expected from them and what the ‘risks’ of their involvement are. Planning to utilise a ‘consent form’ and providing participants with a ‘fact sheet’ reminding them of this information, would be a good way of making sure that you have covered all bases.

Confidentiality and anonymity are central to research participation, and it is your duty as a researcher to do everything in your power to ensure that your participants can not be identified within your work and that their information is protected and/or encrypted whilst in your possession. Using pseudonyms such as ‘Person A’ and ‘Person B’ can be helpful in writing up and labelling your transcripts.

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