• How to Write a Great PhD Research Proposal | FindAPhD.com

How to Write a Great PhD Research Proposal

Written by Mark Bennett

You'll need to write a research proposal if you're submitting your own project plan as part of a PhD application. A good PhD proposal outlines the scope and significance of your topic and explains how you plan to research it.

It's helpful to think about the proposal like this: if the rest of your application explains your ability to do a PhD, the proposal demonstrates the actual PhD you plan to do. Of course, being able to effectively plan and explain a research project is one of the key qualifications for being able to complete one, which is why the proposal is such an important part of the PhD application process.

Thankfully, the secret to writing a good research proposal isn't complicated. It's simply a case of understanding what the proposal is for, what it needs to do and how it needs to be put together.

On this page

What is a phd research proposal.

First things first, do you need a research proposal for your PhD? It depends on the kind of project you want to do:

  • If your PhD is advertised by a university, you probably won't need to submit a research proposal for it. The broad aims and objectives for your PhD will already be defined: you just need to prove you're the right person to do it.
  • But, if you're proposing your own research topic to research within a university's PhD programme, you will need to write a proposal for it (the clue is in the word "proposing")

As a rule, advertised PhDs are very common in STEM subjects, whereas Arts, Humanities and Social Science students are more likely to propose their own PhDs.

Some PhD programmes actually wait and ask students to develop their research proposal during the degree (usually after they've completed some initial training). This is normal in the USA , but it's becoming more common for some UKRI-funded UK PhDs.

For the purposes of this guide we're going to assume that you do need to write a good research proposal for your PhD application. So let's explore what's involved in that.

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What should a research proposal for PhD admission include?

It's natural to be a little intimidated at the thought of structuring a PhD proposal, particularly if you've never written anything like this before.

But here's the thing: a research proposal isn't a fiendish test designed to catch you out and stop you ever doing a PhD. It's actually much more boring than that.

All a research proposal really is is a document that demonstrates three things:

  • Your PhD is worthwhile
  • Your PhD is feasible
  • You are capable of completing it at this university

Or to put it even more simply: the PhD is worth doing, it's doable and you can do it.

Demonstrate your PhD is worthwhile (the what and the why)

A successful PhD project has to make a significant original contribution to knowledge. If it doesn't, it won't meet the criteria for a doctoral degree and will probably fail the viva exam .

Your PhD proposal itself doesn't have to meet those criteria (or pass a viva!) but it does need to indicate that your PhD project eventually will.

It does that by first demonstrating that your research topic is original. That means nobody else has studied this same topic (or one very similar) before.

There are all sorts of ways a PhD can be original. You might examine new data or primary sources, to look at existing material from a fresh perspective, or deal with the impact of new events. It doesn't matter how your project is original, so long as your proposal is really specific about what makes it original.

You also need to explain why your proposed research will be academically significant. To do this properly, you'll need to acknowledge relevant existing scholarship and explain how your research will relate to it. You don't need to be exhaustive at this point, but you should be able to show how your PhD will contribute to its field and – ideally – indicate some of the gaps in knowledge it will aim to fill.

The final step in demonstrating your PhD is worthwhile is to suggest what will become possible as a result of your research. How could other researchers use or build upon your results? What might closing those gaps in academic knowledge mean for audiences outside the unviversity?

Demonstrate your PhD is feasible (the how)

It isn't enough just to show that your research is worth doing; it also needs to actually be doable.

The length of a full-time PhD is around three to four years in most countries (it's longer in for a PhD in the USA , but you don't spend all that time doing research).

Three years may seem like a long time, but researching a PhD is a lot of work and you'll probably spend at least some of your time on other activities like teaching, conference presentations or even publication.

So, one of the things your proposal needs to do is demonstrate that your project is feasible: that it fits within the scope of a PhD.

The most important criteria for this is to be clear about what you plan to do. It should be obvious from your proposal what the scope of your project is – what is and isn't included within it.

You also need to outline how you plan to go about your research. Where will you start and what order do you expect to proceed in? Is the logic for that obvious? If not, it's probably a good idea to explain it.

Finally, you need to explain the methodology you plan to use. This could include techniques for collecting data and sources, theoretical perspectives for analysing them – or both. You may also need to detail specific equipment you expect to use or fieldwork you'll need to undertake (including trips to archives or other external resources).

None of this needs to be exact or completely final. The key word here is 'plan' – but you do need to have one.

Demonstrate that you can complete it at this university (the who and the where)

So far we've thought about the project itself: what makes it worth doing and how it's going to get done. But your proposal also needs to address the who and the where: why are you the right person to carry out this research, and why do you want to do it at this particular university?

The first part of this is easier than it probably looks. Writing a good research proposal demonstrates enthusiasm for your project much more convincingly than simply saying you're very interested in it (a classic case of 'show, don't tell').

You also don't need to repeat your grades and academic achievements (other parts of your PhD application will cover those). Instead, try to underline experiences that relate to this project. Has a particular module or Masters dissertation topic prepared you with useful subject knowledge or methodological skills? If so, highlight it.

It's also fine, within reason, to be honest about the skills you don't have and to identify your training needs. This shows you're being practical about your project and thinking seriously about what it will require. Just make sure you can realistically acquire the skills and training you need within the time available (this goes back to the feasibility).

Showing your project is a good fit for the university is also relatively simple. There should already be some reasons why you've chosen this university for your PhD so make sure you explain what they are. Perhaps there's a particular supervisor you'd like to work with , or facilities and resources your research could use. The key is to emphasise the fit between the project and the university – so don't just say you want to research there because it's highly ranked .

PhD research proposal structure

Hopefully the above sections have given you a few ideas for the things your proposal needs to include. Let's be honest though, the scariest thing about a proposal isn't deciding what to include: it's actually writing it.

But, if we flip that on its head, we remember that all a research proposal really is is a piece of writing that follows a pretty standard format. And that's a lot less scary.

Research proposal structure

Because proposals for PhD all have to do the same things, they mostly follow a similar structure. Yours will probably go something like this:

  • Title – Keep it simple and descriptive: the clever alliteration and quotes can come later when you write up your thesis. For now, you just want the person reading this to know exactly what your research is about and, perhaps, which prospective supervisor to send it to.
  • Overview – Start by defining your research question (the what) and explaining how it contributes to current work in your field (the why). This is also a good place to reference one or two pieces of scholarship: the full literature review can wait until your PhD begins, but you should show that you have some understanding of relevant academic research.
  • Methodology – Make sure the reader understands the practical and / or theoretical approaches you'll take to your research. What data will you collect, how will you collect it and how will you analyse it? Ideally refer to relevant research methods and models. It's also a good idea to provide some sort of roadmap for how you'll go about things. Don't worry, you can change it later (and you will).
  • Outcomes and impact – What will exist as a result of your research (other than just another PhD on a library shelf) and what will it make possible? You don't need to identify every specific outcome from your project (blue sky research is fine) but you should think about what some potential outcomes might be.

You probably won't need to include a specific conclusion - it should be obvious, by now, what your project is doing, how you're going to do it and why that matters. A quick summary sentence is fine though, if you think it will help.

Writing tips

Being able to effectively communicate academic concepts, ideas and results is a key skill for PhD research in all subjects . Think of your proposal as a chance to demonstrate this.

The good news is that the key principles of good proposal writing aren't that different from other work you've probably done as a Bachelors or Masters student:

  • Be clear – The person reading your research proposal should know exactly what it is you're proposing to research, with no room for ambiguity and confusion. This is important on a practical level (they need to know where to send it) but it's also important to the success of your application: a confusing proposal suggests a confused project. Try having a friend read it and ask them "do you know what it is I'm proposing to do here?" (even if they don't understand the details).
  • Be concise – You will have more ideas than you can include in your proposal. That's fine. Choose the best ones and leave the others for your interview .
  • be coherent – Follow something like the structure above. Don't start with your methodology, then say what it is you want to research.

How long should a PhD research proposal be?

Honestly? As long as the university asks for it to be. Most will have guidelines and you should follow them closely if so.

If you honestly can't find a suggested word count for your proposal, then consider asking a prospective supervisor . If you still aren't sure, aim for somewhere between 1,000-2,000 words .

As a very general rule, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are a bit longer than STEM proposals (and a lot of STEM students don't have to write one anyway, as we've explained).

Research proposal for PhD admission - dos and don'ts

Research proposals are a popular topic over on the FindAPhD blog , where we've shared stories of how students wrote theirs , along with mistakes to avoid and a counter-intuitive look at the things a PhD proposal doesn't actually need to do .

Here are a few general tips and mistakes to avoid:

#1 Give yourself enough time to do a good job

Preparing to write a PhD proposal takes time and effort. None of this is wasted as the process of evaluating and framing your ideas for a proposal will improve your project plan immensely. So will the need to decide which ideas to include.

But you need time and space to do that, so make sure you get it. How long it will take to write your PhD proposal is heavily dependent on your personal working style, but you'll likely need to give yourself at least a few weeks to do a good job.

#2 Set out to impress

A good proposal isn't a begging letter. You're approaching the university with a great idea that's going to contribute to and enhance their research. Be honest, be realistic, but don't be unnecessarily humble. They should want you and your project.

#3 Demonstrate original thinking!

You may not need to present original research findings yet, but your proposal does need to present original ideas – and it should be clear why and how those ideas are original.

Make sure you indicate how your project is going to expand, enhance or even correct existing work in your field. Remember that making an "original contribution to knowledge" is a key part of what a PhD is .

#1 Send the same proposal to several universities

A good proposal needs to explain why you want to do your research at a particular university. That's a big part of the feasibility (the fit between project, person and place) and methodology (how are you going to use this university's equipment and archives; when and where will you need to travel).

It's OK to apply to more than one university in parallel, but, in that case, you're writing research proposals .

#2 Use online proposal templates (without evaluating them first!)

It can be tempting to search for PhD proposal samples on the internet, but make sure you evaluate what you find. Some websites may host old proposals from previous PhD students, but there's no way of knowing how relevant these are to your subject and university – or if they were even successful! More 'generic' research proposal examples can offer guidance, but they won't be tailored to your specific project.

The best place to look for a PhD proposal sample is your university. Consider asking your supervisor if they can share a good proposal from a previous student in your subject – or put you in touch with a current student you can ask.

#3 Confuse the proposal with the PhD

We've covered this on the blog , but it's simple enough to include here too.

You're setting out to do a PhD, but you (probably!) haven't done one yet. So you don't need to include research findings, in-depth analysis or a comprehesive literature review. You need to make a case for the research and analysis you want to do.

#4 Ignore your university's help and guidance

The advice on this page is necessarily quite general. We're considering adding guides to writing PhD proposals in specific subjects in future but, for now, the best place to get specific advice for your academic field is probably the university you're applying to.

See if you can get some subject-specific tips by contacting a supervisor , or just checking with the admissions team for your department.

And remember: if they give you a structure and a word count, stick to it.

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  • Knowledge Base
  • Starting the research process
  • How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates

How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates

Published on October 12, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on November 21, 2023.

Structure of a research proposal

A research proposal describes what you will investigate, why it’s important, and how you will conduct your research.

The format of a research proposal varies between fields, but most proposals will contain at least these elements:


Literature review.

  • Research design

Reference list

While the sections may vary, the overall objective is always the same. A research proposal serves as a blueprint and guide for your research plan, helping you get organized and feel confident in the path forward you choose to take.

Table of contents

Research proposal purpose, research proposal examples, research design and methods, contribution to knowledge, research schedule, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research proposals.

Academics often have to write research proposals to get funding for their projects. As a student, you might have to write a research proposal as part of a grad school application , or prior to starting your thesis or dissertation .

In addition to helping you figure out what your research can look like, a proposal can also serve to demonstrate why your project is worth pursuing to a funder, educational institution, or supervisor.

Research proposal aims
Show your reader why your project is interesting, original, and important.
Demonstrate your comfort and familiarity with your field.
Show that you understand the current state of research on your topic.
Make a case for your .
Demonstrate that you have carefully thought about the data, tools, and procedures necessary to conduct your research.
Confirm that your project is feasible within the timeline of your program or funding deadline.

Research proposal length

The length of a research proposal can vary quite a bit. A bachelor’s or master’s thesis proposal can be just a few pages, while proposals for PhD dissertations or research funding are usually much longer and more detailed. Your supervisor can help you determine the best length for your work.

One trick to get started is to think of your proposal’s structure as a shorter version of your thesis or dissertation , only without the results , conclusion and discussion sections.

Download our research proposal template

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See an example

outline of phd thesis proposal

Writing a research proposal can be quite challenging, but a good starting point could be to look at some examples. We’ve included a few for you below.

  • Example research proposal #1: “A Conceptual Framework for Scheduling Constraint Management”
  • Example research proposal #2: “Medical Students as Mediators of Change in Tobacco Use”

Like your dissertation or thesis, the proposal will usually have a title page that includes:

  • The proposed title of your project
  • Your supervisor’s name
  • Your institution and department

The first part of your proposal is the initial pitch for your project. Make sure it succinctly explains what you want to do and why.

Your introduction should:

  • Introduce your topic
  • Give necessary background and context
  • Outline your  problem statement  and research questions

To guide your introduction , include information about:

  • Who could have an interest in the topic (e.g., scientists, policymakers)
  • How much is already known about the topic
  • What is missing from this current knowledge
  • What new insights your research will contribute
  • Why you believe this research is worth doing

As you get started, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re familiar with the most important research on your topic. A strong literature review  shows your reader that your project has a solid foundation in existing knowledge or theory. It also shows that you’re not simply repeating what other people have already done or said, but rather using existing research as a jumping-off point for your own.

In this section, share exactly how your project will contribute to ongoing conversations in the field by:

  • Comparing and contrasting the main theories, methods, and debates
  • Examining the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches
  • Explaining how will you build on, challenge, or synthesize prior scholarship

Following the literature review, restate your main  objectives . This brings the focus back to your own project. Next, your research design or methodology section will describe your overall approach, and the practical steps you will take to answer your research questions.

Building a research proposal methodology
? or  ? , , or research design?
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, , , )?

To finish your proposal on a strong note, explore the potential implications of your research for your field. Emphasize again what you aim to contribute and why it matters.

For example, your results might have implications for:

  • Improving best practices
  • Informing policymaking decisions
  • Strengthening a theory or model
  • Challenging popular or scientific beliefs
  • Creating a basis for future research

Last but not least, your research proposal must include correct citations for every source you have used, compiled in a reference list . To create citations quickly and easily, you can use our free APA citation generator .

Some institutions or funders require a detailed timeline of the project, asking you to forecast what you will do at each stage and how long it may take. While not always required, be sure to check the requirements of your project.

Here’s an example schedule to help you get started. You can also download a template at the button below.

Download our research schedule template

Example research schedule
Research phase Objectives Deadline
1. Background research and literature review 20th January
2. Research design planning and data analysis methods 13th February
3. Data collection and preparation with selected participants and code interviews 24th March
4. Data analysis of interview transcripts 22nd April
5. Writing 17th June
6. Revision final work 28th July

If you are applying for research funding, chances are you will have to include a detailed budget. This shows your estimates of how much each part of your project will cost.

Make sure to check what type of costs the funding body will agree to cover. For each item, include:

  • Cost : exactly how much money do you need?
  • Justification : why is this cost necessary to complete the research?
  • Source : how did you calculate the amount?

To determine your budget, think about:

  • Travel costs : do you need to go somewhere to collect your data? How will you get there, and how much time will you need? What will you do there (e.g., interviews, archival research)?
  • Materials : do you need access to any tools or technologies?
  • Help : do you need to hire any research assistants for the project? What will they do, and how much will you pay them?

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.


  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

Once you’ve decided on your research objectives , you need to explain them in your paper, at the end of your problem statement .

Keep your research objectives clear and concise, and use appropriate verbs to accurately convey the work that you will carry out for each one.

I will compare …

A research aim is a broad statement indicating the general purpose of your research project. It should appear in your introduction at the end of your problem statement , before your research objectives.

Research objectives are more specific than your research aim. They indicate the specific ways you’ll address the overarching aim.

A PhD, which is short for philosophiae doctor (doctor of philosophy in Latin), is the highest university degree that can be obtained. In a PhD, students spend 3–5 years writing a dissertation , which aims to make a significant, original contribution to current knowledge.

A PhD is intended to prepare students for a career as a researcher, whether that be in academia, the public sector, or the private sector.

A master’s is a 1- or 2-year graduate degree that can prepare you for a variety of careers.

All master’s involve graduate-level coursework. Some are research-intensive and intend to prepare students for further study in a PhD; these usually require their students to write a master’s thesis . Others focus on professional training for a specific career.

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

The best way to remember the difference between a research plan and a research proposal is that they have fundamentally different audiences. A research plan helps you, the researcher, organize your thoughts. On the other hand, a dissertation proposal or research proposal aims to convince others (e.g., a supervisor, a funding body, or a dissertation committee) that your research topic is relevant and worthy of being conducted.

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McCombes, S. & George, T. (2023, November 21). How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-proposal/

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  • Knowledge Base
  • Dissertation

How to Write a Dissertation Proposal | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on 14 February 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on 11 November 2022.

A dissertation proposal describes the research you want to do: what it’s about, how you’ll conduct it, and why it’s worthwhile. You will probably have to write a proposal before starting your dissertation as an undergraduate or postgraduate student.

A dissertation proposal should generally include:

  • An introduction to your topic and aims
  • A literature review  of the current state of knowledge
  • An outline of your proposed methodology
  • A discussion of the possible implications of the research
  • A bibliography  of relevant sources

Dissertation proposals vary a lot in terms of length and structure, so make sure to follow any guidelines given to you by your institution, and check with your supervisor when you’re unsure.

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Table of contents

Step 1: coming up with an idea, step 2: presenting your idea in the introduction, step 3: exploring related research in the literature review, step 4: describing your methodology, step 5: outlining the potential implications of your research, step 6: creating a reference list or bibliography.

Before writing your proposal, it’s important to come up with a strong idea for your dissertation.

Find an area of your field that interests you and do some preliminary reading in that area. What are the key concerns of other researchers? What do they suggest as areas for further research, and what strikes you personally as an interesting gap in the field?

Once you have an idea, consider how to narrow it down and the best way to frame it. Don’t be too ambitious or too vague – a dissertation topic needs to be specific enough to be feasible. Move from a broad field of interest to a specific niche:

  • Russian literature 19th century Russian literature The novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
  • Social media Mental health effects of social media Influence of social media on young adults suffering from anxiety

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Like most academic texts, a dissertation proposal begins with an introduction . This is where you introduce the topic of your research, provide some background, and most importantly, present your aim , objectives and research question(s) .

Try to dive straight into your chosen topic: What’s at stake in your research? Why is it interesting? Don’t spend too long on generalisations or grand statements:

  • Social media is the most important technological trend of the 21st century. It has changed the world and influences our lives every day.
  • Psychologists generally agree that the ubiquity of social media in the lives of young adults today has a profound impact on their mental health. However, the exact nature of this impact needs further investigation.

Once your area of research is clear, you can present more background and context. What does the reader need to know to understand your proposed questions? What’s the current state of research on this topic, and what will your dissertation contribute to the field?

If you’re including a literature review, you don’t need to go into too much detail at this point, but give the reader a general sense of the debates that you’re intervening in.

This leads you into the most important part of the introduction: your aim, objectives and research question(s) . These should be clearly identifiable and stand out from the text – for example, you could present them using bullet points or bold font.

Make sure that your research questions are specific and workable – something you can reasonably answer within the scope of your dissertation. Avoid being too broad or having too many different questions. Remember that your goal in a dissertation proposal is to convince the reader that your research is valuable and feasible:

  • Does social media harm mental health?
  • What is the impact of daily social media use on 18– to 25–year–olds suffering from general anxiety disorder?

Now that your topic is clear, it’s time to explore existing research covering similar ideas. This is important because it shows you what is missing from other research in the field and ensures that you’re not asking a question someone else has already answered.

You’ve probably already done some preliminary reading, but now that your topic is more clearly defined, you need to thoroughly analyse and evaluate the most relevant sources in your literature review .

Here you should summarise the findings of other researchers and comment on gaps and problems in their studies. There may be a lot of research to cover, so make effective use of paraphrasing to write concisely:

  • Smith and Prakash state that ‘our results indicate a 25% decrease in the incidence of mechanical failure after the new formula was applied’.
  • Smith and Prakash’s formula reduced mechanical failures by 25%.

The point is to identify findings and theories that will influence your own research, but also to highlight gaps and limitations in previous research which your dissertation can address:

  • Subsequent research has failed to replicate this result, however, suggesting a flaw in Smith and Prakash’s methods. It is likely that the failure resulted from…

Next, you’ll describe your proposed methodology : the specific things you hope to do, the structure of your research and the methods that you will use to gather and analyse data.

You should get quite specific in this section – you need to convince your supervisor that you’ve thought through your approach to the research and can realistically carry it out. This section will look quite different, and vary in length, depending on your field of study.

You may be engaged in more empirical research, focusing on data collection and discovering new information, or more theoretical research, attempting to develop a new conceptual model or add nuance to an existing one.

Dissertation research often involves both, but the content of your methodology section will vary according to how important each approach is to your dissertation.

Empirical research

Empirical research involves collecting new data and analysing it in order to answer your research questions. It can be quantitative (focused on numbers), qualitative (focused on words and meanings), or a combination of both.

With empirical research, it’s important to describe in detail how you plan to collect your data:

  • Will you use surveys ? A lab experiment ? Interviews?
  • What variables will you measure?
  • How will you select a representative sample ?
  • If other people will participate in your research, what measures will you take to ensure they are treated ethically?
  • What tools (conceptual and physical) will you use, and why?

It’s appropriate to cite other research here. When you need to justify your choice of a particular research method or tool, for example, you can cite a text describing the advantages and appropriate usage of that method.

Don’t overdo this, though; you don’t need to reiterate the whole theoretical literature, just what’s relevant to the choices you have made.

Moreover, your research will necessarily involve analysing the data after you have collected it. Though you don’t know yet what the data will look like, it’s important to know what you’re looking for and indicate what methods (e.g. statistical tests , thematic analysis ) you will use.

Theoretical research

You can also do theoretical research that doesn’t involve original data collection. In this case, your methodology section will focus more on the theory you plan to work with in your dissertation: relevant conceptual models and the approach you intend to take.

For example, a literary analysis dissertation rarely involves collecting new data, but it’s still necessary to explain the theoretical approach that will be taken to the text(s) under discussion, as well as which parts of the text(s) you will focus on:

  • This dissertation will utilise Foucault’s theory of panopticism to explore the theme of surveillance in Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial…

Here, you may refer to the same theorists you have already discussed in the literature review. In this case, the emphasis is placed on how you plan to use their contributions in your own research.

You’ll usually conclude your dissertation proposal with a section discussing what you expect your research to achieve.

You obviously can’t be too sure: you don’t know yet what your results and conclusions will be. Instead, you should describe the projected implications and contribution to knowledge of your dissertation.

First, consider the potential implications of your research. Will you:

  • Develop or test a theory?
  • Provide new information to governments or businesses?
  • Challenge a commonly held belief?
  • Suggest an improvement to a specific process?

Describe the intended result of your research and the theoretical or practical impact it will have:

Finally, it’s sensible to conclude by briefly restating the contribution to knowledge you hope to make: the specific question(s) you hope to answer and the gap the answer(s) will fill in existing knowledge:

Like any academic text, it’s important that your dissertation proposal effectively references all the sources you have used. You need to include a properly formatted reference list or bibliography at the end of your proposal.

Different institutions recommend different styles of referencing – commonly used styles include Harvard , Vancouver , APA , or MHRA . If your department does not have specific requirements, choose a style and apply it consistently.

A reference list includes only the sources that you cited in your proposal. A bibliography is slightly different: it can include every source you consulted in preparing the proposal, even if you didn’t mention it in the text. In the case of a dissertation proposal, a bibliography may also list relevant sources that you haven’t yet read, but that you intend to use during the research itself.

Check with your supervisor what type of bibliography or reference list you should include.

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Learn how to write a PhD proposal that will stand out from the rest

Feb 27, 2019

phd proposal

Here, we show you how to write a PhD proposal that will stand out from the hundreds of others that are submitted each day.

Before we do though,  know one thing :

The research you describe when you write your PhD proposal won’t look anything like the research you finally write up in your PhD thesis.

Wait,  what ?

That’s not a typo.  Everyone’s research changes over time.  If you knew everything when you were writing up your proposal there wouldn’t be any point doing the PhD at all.

So,  what’s the point of the proposal?

Your proposal is  a guide, not a contract . It is a plan for your research that is necessarily flexible. That’s why it changes over time.

This means that the proposal is less about the robustness of your proposed research design and more about showing that you have

1. Critical thinking skills

2. An adequate grasp of the existing literature and know how your research will contribute to it

3. Clear direction and objectives. You get this by formulating clear research questions

4. Appropriate methods. This shows that you can link your understanding of the literature, research design and theory

5. An understanding of what’s required in a PhD

6. Designed a project that is feasible

outline of phd thesis proposal

Your PhD thesis. All on one page. 

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

What is a PhD proposal? 

Your PhD proposal is submitted as part of your application to a PhD program. It is a standard means of assessing your potential as a doctoral researcher.

When stripped down to its basic components, it does two things:

Explains the ‘what’-  t hese are the questions you will address and the outcomes you expect

Explains the ‘why’-  t his is the case for your research, with a focus on why the research is significant and what the contributions will be. 

It is used by potential supervisors and department admission tutors to assess the quality and originality of your research ideas, how good you are at critical thinking and how feasible your proposed study is.

This means that it needs to showcase your expertise and your knowledge of the existing field and how your research contributes to it. You use it to   make a persuasive case   that your research is interesting and significant enough to warrant the university’s investment.

Above all though, it is about   showcasing your passion for your discipline . A PhD is a hard, long journey. The admissions tutor want to know that you have both the skills and the resilience required.

What needs to be included in a PhD proposal?

Exactly what needs to be included when you write your PhD proposal will vary from university to university. How long your proposal needs to be may also be specified by your university, but if it isn’t, aim for three thousand words.

Check the requirements for each university you are applying for carefully.

Having said that, almost all proposals will need to have four distinct sections.

1. Introduction

2. the research context.

3. The approach you take

4. Conclusion

In the first few paragraphs of your proposal, you need to   clearly and concisely state your research questions, the gap in the literature your study will address, the significance of your research and the contribution   that the study makes.

Be as clear and concise as you can be.   Make the reader’s job as easy as possible   by clearly stating what the proposed research will investigate, what the contribution is and why the study is worthwhile.

This isn’t the place for lots of explanatory detail. You don’t need to justify particular design decisions in the introduction, just state what they are. The justification comes later.

In this section, you   discuss the existing literature and the gaps that exist within it.

The goal here is to show that you understand the existing literature in your field, what the gaps are and how your proposed study will address them. We’ve written a guide that will help you to   conduct and write a literature review .

Chances are, you won’t have conducted a complete literature review, so the emphasis here should be on the more important and well-known research in your field. Don’t worry that you haven’t read everything. Your admissions officer won’t have expected you to.  Instead, they want to see that you know the following:

1. What are the most important authors, findings, concepts, schools, debates and hypotheses?

2. What gaps exist in the literature?

3. How does your thesis fill these gaps?

Once you have laid out the context, you will be in a position to  make  your thesis statement . A thesis statement is a sentence that summarises your argument to the reader. It is the ‘point’ you will want to make with your proposed research.

Remember, the emphasis in the PhD proposal is on   what you   intend   to do,   not on results. You won’t have results until you finish your study. That means that your thesis statement will be speculative, rather than a statement of fact.

For more on how to construct thesis statements, read this  excellent guide  from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who, incidentally, run a great academic writing blog you should definitely visit.

3. The approach you will take

This is the section in which you discuss the overall research design and is the most important component of the proposal. The emphasis here is on five things.

1. The overall approach taken (is it purely theoretical, or does it involve primary or empirical research? Maybe it’s both theoretical and empirical?)

2. The theoretical perspective you will use when you design and conduct your research

3. Why you have chosen this approach over others and what implications this choice has for your methods and the robustness of the study

4. Your specific aims and objectives

5. Your research methodology

In the previous section you outlined the context. In this section you explain   the specific detail   of what your research will look like.

You take the brief research design statements you made in the introduction and go into much more detail. You need to be relating your design decisions back to the literature and context discussion in the previous section.

The emphasis here is on   showing that there is a logical flow.   There’s no point highlighting a gap in the literature and then designing a study that doesn’t fill it.

Some of the detail here will only become clear once you have started the actual research. That’s fine. The emphasis in your proposal should be on showing that you understand what goes into a PhD.

So,   keep it general.

For example, when talking about your methodology, keep things deliberately broad and focus on the overarching strategy. For example, if you are using interviews, you don’t need to list every single proposed interview question. Instead, you can talk about the rough themes you will discuss (which will relate to your literature review and thesis/project statement). Similarly, unless your research is specifically focusing on particular individuals, you don’t need to list exactly who you will interview. Instead, just state the types of people you will interview (for example: local politicians, or athletes, or academics in the UK, and so on).

4. Concluding paragraphs

There are a number of key elements to a proposal that you will need to put in the final paragraphs.

These include:

1. A discussion on the limitations of the study

2. A reiteration of your contribution

3. A proposed chapter structure (this can be an appendix)

4. Proposed month-by-month timetable (this can also be an appendix). The purpose of this timetable is to show that you understand every stage required and how long each stage takes relative to others.

Tips to turn an average proposal into one that will be accepted

1. be critical.

When you are making your design decisions in section three, you need to do so critically.   Critical thinking   is a key requirement of entry onto a PhD programme. In brief, it means not taking things at face value and questioning what you read or do. You can   read our guide to being critical   for help (it focuses on the literature review, but the take home points are the same). 

2. Don’t go into too much detail too soon in your proposal

This is something that many people get wrong. You need to   ease the reader in   gradually .   Present a brief, clear statement in the introduction and then gradually introduce more information as the pages roll on.

You will see that the outline we have suggested above follows an inverted pyramid shape.

1. In section one, you present the headlines in the introductory paragraphs. These are the research questions, aims, objectives, contribution and problem statement. State these without context or explanation.

2. When discussing the research context in section two, you provide a little more background. The goal here is to introduce the reader to the literature and highlight the gaps.

3. When describing the approach you will take, you present more detailed information. The goal here is to talk in very precise terms about how your research will address these gaps, the implications of these choices and your expected findings.

3. Be realistic

Don’t pretend you know more than you do and   don’t try to reinvent your discipline .

A good proposal is one that is very focused and that describes research that is very feasible. If you try to design a study to revolutionise your field, you will not be accepted because doing so shows that you don’t understand what is feasible in the context of a PhD and you haven’t understood the literature.

4. Use clear, concise sentences

Describe your research as clearly as possible   in the opening couple of paragraphs. Then write in short, clear sentences. Avoid using complex sentences where possible. If you need to introduce technical terminology, clearly define things. 

In other words,   make the reader’s job as easy as possible.

5. Get it proofread by someone else

We’ve written a post on  why you need a proofreader .

Simple: you are the worst person to proofread your own work.

6. Work with your proposed supervisor, if you’re allowed

A lot of students fail to do this. Your supervisor isn’t your enemy. You can work with them to refine your proposal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for comments and suggestions. Be careful though. Don’t expect them to come up with topics or questions for you. Their input should be focused on refining your ideas, not helping you come up with them. 

7. Tailor your proposal to each department and institution you are applying to

Admissions tutors can spot when you have submitted a one-size-fits-all proposal. Try and tailor it to the individual department. You can do this by talking about how you will contribute to the department and why you have chosen to apply there. 

Follow this guide and you’ll be on a PhD programme in no time at all. 

If you’re struggling for inspiration on topics or research design, try writing a rough draft of your proposal. Often the act of writing is enough for us to brainstorm new ideas and relate existing ideas to one another. 

If you’re still struggling, send your idea to us in an   email   to us and we’ll give you our feedback. 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

Share this:



A wonderful guide. I must say not only well written but very well thought out and very efficient.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Great. I’m glad you think so.


Thanks for sharing. Makes navigating through the proposal lot easier

Great. Glad you think so!

S. U. Tanko

An excellent guide, I learned a lot thank you

Simeon Sebastian Kormon

Great job and guide for a PhD proposal. Thank you!

You’re welcome!

Lameck Bonaventure Luwanda

I am going to start writing my Ph.D. proposal. This has been so helpful in instructing me on what to do. Thanks

Thanks! Glad you thought so.

Fiona Lynne GALLIANO

A very reassuring guide to the process. Thank you, Max


I appreciate the practical advice and actionable steps you provide in your posts.

Glad to hear it. Many thanks.

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outline of phd thesis proposal

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How to write a research proposal

What is a research proposal.

A research proposal should present your idea or question and expected outcomes with clarity and definition – the what.

It should also make a case for why your question is significant and what value it will bring to your discipline – the why. 

What it shouldn't do is answer the question – that's what your research will do.

Why is it important?

Research proposals are significant because Another reason why it formally outlines your intended research. Which means you need to provide details on how you will go about your research, including:

  • your approach and methodology
  • timeline and feasibility
  • all other considerations needed to progress your research, such as resources.

Think of it as a tool that will help you clarify your idea and make conducting your research easier.

How long should it be?

Usually no more than 2000 words, but check the requirements of your degree, and your supervisor or research coordinator.

Presenting your idea clearly and concisely demonstrates that you can write this way – an attribute of a potential research candidate that is valued by assessors.

What should it include?

Project title.

Your title should clearly indicate what your proposed research is about.

Research supervisor

State the name, department and faculty or school of the academic who has agreed to supervise you. Rest assured, your research supervisor will work with you to refine your research proposal ahead of submission to ensure it meets the needs of your discipline.

Proposed mode of research

Describe your proposed mode of research. Which may be closely linked to your discipline, and is where you will describe the style or format of your research, e.g. data, field research, composition, written work, social performance and mixed media etc. 

This is not required for research in the sciences, but your research supervisor will be able to guide you on discipline-specific requirements.

Aims and objectives

What are you trying to achieve with your research? What is the purpose? This section should reference why you're applying for a research degree. Are you addressing a gap in the current research? Do you want to look at a theory more closely and test it out? Is there something you're trying to prove or disprove? To help you clarify this, think about the potential outcome of your research if you were successful – that is your aim. Make sure that this is a focused statement.

Your objectives will be your aim broken down – the steps to achieving the intended outcome. They are the smaller proof points that will underpin your research's purpose. Be logical in the order of how you present these so that each succeeds the previous, i.e. if you need to achieve 'a' before 'b' before 'c', then make sure you order your objectives a, b, c.

A concise summary of what your research is about. It outlines the key aspects of what you will investigate as well as the expected outcomes. It briefly covers the what, why and how of your research. 

A good way to evaluate if you have written a strong synopsis, is to get somebody to read it without reading the rest of your research proposal. Would they know what your research is about?

Now that you have your question clarified, it is time to explain the why. Here, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the current research climate in your area of interest.

Providing context around your research topic through a literature review will show the assessor that you understand current dialogue around your research, and what is published.

Demonstrate you have a strong understanding of the key topics, significant studies and notable researchers in your area of research and how these have contributed to the current landscape.

Expected research contribution

In this section, you should consider the following:

  • Why is your research question or hypothesis worth asking?
  • How is the current research lacking or falling short?
  • What impact will your research have on the discipline?
  • Will you be extending an area of knowledge, applying it to new contexts, solving a problem, testing a theory, or challenging an existing one?
  • Establish why your research is important by convincing your audience there is a gap.
  • What will be the outcome of your research contribution?
  • Demonstrate both your current level of knowledge and how the pursuit of your question or hypothesis will create a new understanding and generate new information.
  • Show how your research is innovative and original.

Draw links between your research and the faculty or school you are applying at, and explain why you have chosen your supervisor, and what research have they or their school done to reinforce and support your own work. Cite these reasons to demonstrate how your research will benefit and contribute to the current body of knowledge.

Proposed methodology

Provide an overview of the methodology and techniques you will use to conduct your research. Cover what materials and equipment you will use, what theoretical frameworks will you draw on, and how will you collect data.

Highlight why you have chosen this particular methodology, but also why others may not have been as suitable. You need to demonstrate that you have put thought into your approach and why it's the most appropriate way to carry out your research. 

It should also highlight potential limitations you anticipate, feasibility within time and other constraints, ethical considerations and how you will address these, as well as general resources.

A work plan is a critical component of your research proposal because it indicates the feasibility of completion within the timeframe and supports you in achieving your objectives throughout your degree.

Consider the milestones you aim to achieve at each stage of your research. A PhD or master's degree by research can take two to four years of full-time study to complete. It might be helpful to offer year one in detail and the following years in broader terms. Ultimately you have to show that your research is likely to be both original and finished – and that you understand the time involved.

Provide details of the resources you will need to carry out your research project. Consider equipment, fieldwork expenses, travel and a proposed budget, to indicate how realistic your research proposal is in terms of financial requirements and whether any adjustments are needed.


Provide a list of references that you've made throughout your research proposal. 

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outline of phd thesis proposal

Doctoral handbook

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  • Dissertation Proposal

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Proposal Overview and Format

Proposal committee, proposal hearing or meeting.

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Students are urged to begin thinking about a dissertation topic early in their degree program. Concentrated work on a dissertation proposal normally begins after successful completion of the Second-Year Review, which often includes a “mini” proposal, an extended literature review, or a theoretical essay, plus advancement to doctoral candidacy. In defining a dissertation topic, the student collaborates with their faculty advisor or dissertation advisor (if one is selected) in the choice of a topic for the dissertation.

The dissertation proposal is a comprehensive statement on the extent and nature of the student’s dissertation research interests. Students submit a draft of the proposal to their dissertation advisor between the end of the seventh and middle of the ninth quarters. The student must provide a written copy of the proposal to the faculty committee no later than two weeks prior to the date of the proposal hearing. Committee members could require an earlier deadline (e.g., four weeks before the hearing).

The major components of the proposal are as follows, with some variations across Areas and disciplines:

  • A detailed statement of the problem that is to be studied and the context within which it is to be seen. This should include a justification of the importance of the problem on both theoretical and educational grounds.
  • A thorough review of the literature pertinent to the research problem. This review should provide proof that the relevant literature in the field has been thoroughly researched. Good research is cumulative; it builds on the thoughts, findings, and mistakes of others.
  • its general explanatory interest
  • the overall theoretical framework within which this interest is to be pursued
  • the model or hypotheses to be tested or the research questions to be answered
  • a discussion of the conceptual and operational properties of the variables
  • an overview of strategies for collecting appropriate evidence (sampling, instrumentation, data collection, data reduction, data analysis)
  • a discussion of how the evidence is to be interpreted (This aspect of the proposal will be somewhat different in fields such as history and philosophy of education.)
  • If applicable, students should complete a request for approval of research with human subjects, using the Human Subjects Review Form ( http://humansubjects.stanford.edu/ ). Except for pilot work, the University requires the approval of the Administrative Panel on Human Subjects in Behavioral Science Research before any data can be collected from human subjects.

Registration (i.e., enrollment) is required for any quarter during which a degree requirement is completed, including the dissertation proposal. Refer to the Registration or Enrollment for Milestone Completion section for more details.

As students progress through the program, their interests may change. There is no commitment on the part of the student’s advisor to automatically serve as the dissertation chair. Based on the student’s interests and the dissertation topic, many students approach other GSE professors to serve as the dissertation advisor, if appropriate.

A dissertation proposal committee is comprised of three academic council faculty members, one of whom will serve as the major dissertation advisor. Whether or not the student’s general program advisor serves on the dissertation proposal committee and later the reading committee will depend on the relevance of that faculty member’s expertise to the topic of the dissertation, and their availability. There is no requirement that a program advisor serve, although very often they do. Members of the dissertation proposal committee may be drawn from other area committees within the GSE, from other departments in the University, or from emeriti faculty. At least one person serving on the proposal committee must be from the student’s area committee (CTE, DAPS, SHIPS). All three members must be on the Academic Council; if the student desires the expertise of a non-Academic Council member, it may be possible to petition. After the hearing, a memorandum listing the changes to be made will be written and submitted with the signed proposal cover sheet and a copy of the proposal itself to the Doctoral Programs Officer.

Review and approval of the dissertation proposal occurs normally during the third year. The proposal hearing seeks to review the quality and feasibility of the proposal. The Second-Year Review and the Proposal Hearing are separate milestones and may not occur as part of the same hearing or meeting.

The student and the dissertation advisor are responsible for scheduling a formal meeting or hearing to review the proposal; the student and proposal committee convene for this evaluative period. Normally, all must be present at the meeting either in person or via conference phone call.

At the end of this meeting, the dissertation proposal committee members should sign the Cover Sheet for Dissertation Proposal and indicate their approval or rejection of the proposal. This signed form should be submitted to the Doctoral Programs Officer. If the student is required to make revisions, an addendum is required with the written approval of each member of the committee stating that the proposal has been revised to their satisfaction.

After submitting the Proposal Hearing material to the Doctoral Programs Officer, the student should make arrangements with three faculty members to serve on their Dissertation Reading Committee. The Doctoral Dissertation Reading Committee form should be completed and given to the Doctoral Programs Officer to enter in the University student records system. Note: The proposal hearing committee and the reading committee do not have to be the same three faculty members. Normally, the proposal hearing precedes the designation of a Dissertation Reading Committee, and faculty on either committee may differ (except for the primary dissertation advisor). However, some students may advance to Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status before completing their dissertation proposal hearing if they have established a dissertation reading committee. In these cases, it is acceptable for the student to form a reading committee prior to the dissertation proposal hearing. The reading committee then serves as the proposal committee.

The proposal and reading committee forms and related instructions are on the GSE website, under current students>forms.

Printing Credit for Use in GSE Labs

Upon completion of their doctoral dissertation proposal, GSE students are eligible for a $300 printing credit redeemable in any of the GSE computer labs where students are normally charged for print jobs. Only one $300 credit per student will be issued, but it is usable throughout the remainder of her or his doctoral program until the balance is exhausted. The print credit can be used only at the printers in Cubberley basement and CERAS, and cannot be used toward copying.

After submitting the signed dissertation proposal cover sheet to the Doctoral Programs Officer indicating approval (see above), students can submit a HELP SU ticket online at helpsu.stanford.edu to request the credit. When submitting the help ticket, the following should be selected from the drop-down menus for HELP SU:

Request Category :  Computer, Handhelds (PDAs), Printers, Servers Request Type :  Printer Operating System : (whatever system is used by the student, e.g., Windows XP.)

The help ticket will be routed to the GSE's IT Group for processing; they will in turn notify the student via email when the credit is available.

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outline of phd thesis proposal

How to Write a Successful PhD Research Proposal

What is a research proposal.

A research proposal is a document of around 3,000-4,000 words outlining the research you are going to undertake. The majority of universities require PhD applicants to submit a research proposal when applying for a PhD position.

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Why a research proposal?

Apart from being an essential requirement for PhD entry, a research proposal helps your future supervisors to better understand your line of thinking, experience in doing research and how you are planning to go about writing your thesis. In addition to this, a research proposal is a great tool that can help you to structure your thinking and outline the path you would like to follow during your PhD studies.

What should I include in a research proposal?

Before you start writing a research proposal, carefully check the website of the university you are applying for. Many universities provide guidelines on writing research proposals that will help you both to structure your thinking and meet the requirements of a specific university.

Regardless of university specific requirements, most of the research proposals usually include:

  • Title and abstract: In case of predefined PhD projects, a title is usually provided by the university. In other cases, an applicant is expected to provide a preliminary title which will be further elaborated in the process of thesis writing. An abstract should usually be no longer than a page, and provide a brief summary of what you are going to cover in your research proposal.
  • Literature review: The literature review demonstrates the applicant’s knowledge of the main research achievements in the area of study. You should pay attention to providing some of the key references in your area of research which requires doing extensive research on your part.
  • Research problem, aim and objectives: As a result of your literature review, you should identify the main gap in your research area on which you are going to focus in your PhD project. Once the research problem is identified, you will be able to pose the main aim and objectives of your project.
  • You should dedicate some space to Research methodology , or, in other words, explaining how you are going to go about doing your research. This section also demonstrates your knowledge of the existing research methodologies in your area of study.
  • Ethical considerations: You should check some literature on ethics of conducting research in your area and outline some key ethical aspects related to the proposed project.
  • Increasingly applicants are asked to outline the impact of their research studies . This can include both the impact on your research area and society in general. It is important to dedicate some time to this section since it will add more value to your proposal.
  • References: Do not forget to specify all the references at the end of the proposal.

An obvious but very important point is the format of your research proposal. Make sure that the formatting of the document is consistent throughout and that the structure is clear. If possible, it can be a good idea to give the document to your academic tutor or colleague for revision.

It is important to remember that a research proposal is a provisional rather than a definitive document. It will most likely change extensively during the first several months of your PhD programme. Nevertheless, at the stage of application it is an essential document that helps evaluators make their decision in relation to your application. Therefore, it is worth investing time and effort in it! Good luck!

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How to write a successful research proposal

As the competition for PhD places is incredibly fierce, your research proposal can have a strong bearing on the success of your application - so discover how to make the best impression

What is a research proposal?

Research proposals are used to persuade potential supervisors and funders that your work is worthy of their support. These documents set out your proposed research that will result in a Doctoral thesis. They are typically between 1,500 and 3,000 words.

Your PhD research proposal must passionately articulate what you want to research and why, convey your understanding of existing literature, and clearly define at least one research question that could lead to new or original knowledge and how you propose to answer it.

Professor Leigh Wilson, head of the graduate school at the University of Westminster , explains that while the research proposal is about work that hasn't been done yet, what prospective supervisors and funders are focusing on just as strongly is evidence of what you've done.

This includes how well you know existing literature in the area, including very recent publications and debates, and how clearly you've seen what's missing from this and so what your research can do that's new. Giving a strong sense of this background or frame for the proposed work is crucial.

'Although it's tempting to make large claims and propose research that sweeps across time and space, narrower, more focused research is much more convincing,' she adds. 'To be thorough and rigorous in the way that academic work needs to be, even something as long as a PhD thesis can only cover a fairly narrow topic. Depth not breadth is called for.'

The structure of your research proposal is therefore important to achieving this goal, yet it should still retain sufficient flexibility to comfortably accommodate any changes you need to make as your PhD progresses.

Layout and formats vary, so it's advisable to consult your potential PhD supervisor before you begin. Here's what to bear in mind when writing a research proposal.

Your provisional title should be around ten words in length, and clearly and accurately indicate your area of study and/or proposed approach. It should be catchy, informative and interesting.

The title page should also include personal information, such as:

  • academic title
  • date of birth
  • nationality
  • contact details.

Aims and objectives

This is a summary of your project. Your aims should be two or three broad statements that emphasise what you want to achieve, complemented by several focused, feasible and measurable objectives - the steps that you'll take to answer each of your research questions.

You'll need to clearly and briefly outline:

  • how your research addresses a gap in, or builds upon, existing knowledge
  • how your research links to the department that you're applying to
  • the academic, cultural, political and/or social significance of your research questions.

Literature review

This section of your PhD proposal discusses the most important theories, models and texts that surround and influence your research questions, conveying your understanding and awareness of the key issues and debates.

It should focus on the theoretical and practical knowledge gaps that your work aims to address, as this ultimately justifies and provides the motivation for your project.


Here, you're expected to outline how you'll answer each of your research questions. A strong, well-written methodology is crucial, but especially so if your project involves extensive collection and significant analysis of primary data.

In disciplines such as humanities, the research proposal methodology identifies the data collection and analytical techniques available to you, before justifying the ones you'll use in greater detail. You'll also define the population that you're intending to examine.

You should also show that you're aware of the limitations of your research, qualifying the parameters you plan to introduce. Remember, it's more impressive to do a fantastic job of exploring a narrower topic than a decent job of exploring a wider one.

Concluding or following on from your methodology, your timetable should identify how long you'll need to complete each step - perhaps using bi-weekly or monthly timeslots. This helps the reader to evaluate the feasibility of your project and shows that you've considered how you'll go about putting the PhD proposal into practice.


Finally, you'll provide a list of the most significant texts, plus any attachments such as your academic CV .

Demonstrate your skills in critical reflection by selecting only those resources that are most appropriate.

Final checks

Before submitting this document along with your PhD application, you'll need to ensure that you've adhered to the research proposal format. This means that:

  • every page is numbered
  • it's professional, interesting and informative
  • the research proposal has been proofread by both an experienced academic (to confirm that it conforms to academic standards) and a layperson (to correct any grammatical or spelling errors)
  • it has a contents page
  • you've used a clear and easy-to-read structure, with appropriate headings.

Research proposal examples

To get a better idea of how your PhD proposal may look, some universities have provided examples of research proposals for specific subjects, including:

  • The Open University - Social Policy and Criminology
  • Queen's University Belfast - Nursing and Midwifery
  • University of Sheffield - Sociological Studies
  • University of Sussex
  • University of York - Politics
  • York St John University

Find out more

  • Explore PhD studentships .
  • For tips on writing a thesis, see 7 steps to writing a dissertation .
  • Consider your PhD, what next?

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PhD Dissertation Outline: Creating a Roadmap to Success

PhD dissertation outline: Dissertation structure and format

A good PhD dissertation outline is as important to your dissertation as a map is to get you to your destination. Imagine for instance you’re trying to drive to a specific place to attend a party you’ve been looking forward to. You know the address, but you don’t have a map or a driving app. You get there eventually, but it takes a lot longer that it should have and stresses you so much that you’re in a bad mood when you get there. The party ends up being a bust. 

This is similar to trying to write an academic paper, especially a PhD dissertation, without using an outline. 

Why you need a PhD dissertation outline

When you do your PhD, outlines become the driving app for your academic paper, giving you direction so you know what’s in front of you. This is especially important for a PhD dissertation because of its physical length and the amount of time you will need to live with it. Successful PhD dissertation writing requires a laser focus, and an outline makes a great navigator. 

There are many advantages of creating a PhD dissertation outline 1,2 : 

  • Organize your project – Using an PhD dissertation outline will help you organize your thoughts and your work. If you have an idea or find a bit of information to include in a different section, simply write a note in the appropriate place to remind yourself. 
  • Stay on task – Like the driving app, a PhD dissertation structure keeps you on the proper road and minimizes distractions. When writing without keeping in mind your PhD dissertation structure, it’s easy to find yourself in the weeds. 
  • Increase productivity – A PhD dissertation outline keeps you aware of what you have to do, allows you to set goals, and be more productive. 
  • Save time – This is a major advantage in PhD dissertation writing. The faster you can successfully complete your dissertation process, the more money you’ll save, and the sooner you can get on with the rest of your life. 
  • Reduce anxiety – The effective use of a good PhD dissertation outline will give you control over this massive project. You’ll be more confident that you can successfully complete your PhD dissertation. 

How to write a PhD dissertation outline

So, now that you’re convinced that you need a PhD dissertation outline, where do you start? A few general steps will get you on the right road 3 : 

  • Select an appropriate topic: This one might seem obvious, but it is often a very difficult decision to make. The topic will guide the approach and research methodology. Although the research question will probably be tweaked along the way, not choosing a relevant topic at the start will result in chaos later on. 
  • Review other dissertations on your topic: This will give you an idea about what your PhD dissertation structure will look like. 
  • Draft a research problem: The research problem is the core of your dissertation and will guide your methodology and thus strongly influence your PhD dissertation structure. 
  • Get input from your advisor/supervisor: Seek advice from your supervisor on some PhD thesis outline examples and take advantage of any assistance they provide to help you choose wisely. This will help keep you on the right road

PhD dissertation structure

Doctoral dissertations typically have five standard chapters, although your university might have a specific required structure. Here is a brief description of the typical five-chapter PhD dissertation format 3 . 

Chapter 1: Introduction – This section provides an overview of the dissertation including its topic, purpose, and relevance. Typically, the general subject area is discussed and narrowed down to the research topic. Then, the research questions are posed, and the methodology is presented.  Chapter 2: Literature Review – A comprehensive survey and synthesis of existing studies on the research topic, the literature review demonstrates the research gap and sets the context for the research question. Depending on the topic, theory may also be explored. Existing methodologies used to address this topic are also discussed.  Chapter 3: Methodology – In this section, the methodology and materials used to collect and analyze the research data are presented in enough detail to demonstrate the validity of the method and allow the research to be duplicated by others.  Chapter 4: Results – The research findings are reported in this section and presented in relation to the research question. Relevant visuals such as tables and figures are typically included here to communicate the findings effectively.  C hapter 5: Discussion – In a five-chapter format, this is the final chapter in a PhD dissertation format. In this chapter, the findings are discussed and interpreted in light of the research question. Bits from all the chapters are synthesized to completely address the research question. 

An additional chapter is sometimes added that includes conclusions, recommendations, and suggestions for future research. 

Tips for creating your PhD dissertation outline 3,4

Finally, here are some quick and useful tips for your PhD thesis outline journey. 

  • Use the structure to complete the outline – Carefully think about each chapter and write down questions and information you will need. 
  • Create your outline early – Keep it up to date through your early research and advisor meetings. 
  • Be flexible – Changes will need to be made to your outline as you progress. 
  • Be detailed – You never know when a small piece of information you jotted down in your outline will save you time and anxiety. 
  • Keep in close contact with your PhD dissertation advisor/supervisor – Make sure to share your outline. You may just save yourself a lot of time and misery if major changes need to be made. 
  • Stay calm – Changes will come from different committee members. Remember, they are just trying to strengthen your work. 
  • Statistics Solutions. The benefit of outlining. https://www.statisticssolutions.com/the-benefits-of-outlining/ [Accessed 14 July 2022].
  • PapersOwl. How To Create An Outline For A Dissertation? https://papersowl.com/blog/outline-for-dissertation [Accessed 14 July 2022].
  • Research.com. What Is A University Dissertation: Structure, Challenges & Writing Tips. https://research.com/research/what-is-a-university-dissertation [Accessed 14 July 2022].
  • Docformats.com. Dissertation Outline Templates. https://www.docformats.com/dissertation-outline-templates/ [Accessed 14 July 2022].

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  • How to Choose and Use Keywords in Research Papers
  • Supplementary Materials in Research: 5 Tips for Authors

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Writing a Dissertation Proposal: Outline and Example


Table of contents

  • 1 What is a Dissertation Proposal?
  • 2.1.1 Rationale:
  • 2.1.2 Purpose:
  • 2.1.3 Research Question:
  • 2.1.4 Hypothesis:
  • 2.1.5 Aims and Objectives:
  • 2.2 Define Your Methodology
  • 2.3 Literature Review
  • 2.4 Anticipate Challenges and Limitations
  • 2.5 Consider Ethical Considerations
  • 2.6 Present Research Timeline
  • 2.7 Outline of Future Work
  • 2.8 Conclusion
  • 3 Advice for Writing a Dissertation Proposal
  • 4 Dissertation Proposal Example
  • 5 Mastering the Art of Thesis and Dissertation Proposals

Are you gearing up to embark on the exciting journey of crafting a research proposal for your upcoming dissertation or thesis? If so, you’re in the right place! Creating a research proposal is like taking the very first step in building the foundation of your entire academic project. It is your opportunity to pitch your research idea, outline your plan, and convince your academic committee that your dissertation or thesis is worth pursuing.

However, to many students, writing a Ph.D. proposal seems daunting. Do you fall into a similar category? Worry no more. We are here to guide you through how to write a proposal for a dissertation or thesis, making it as clear and straightforward as possible.

In this article, we will break down the essential steps to help you create a compelling research proposal that stands out. Whether you’re a graduate student embarking on your first thesis or a doctoral candidate looking to refine your research pitch, we’ve got you covered.

Here is a glimpse of what we will explore in this article:

  • After reading this article, you will understand how to write methodology in a research proposal.
  • You will gain a clear understanding of what a research proposal is all about.
  • The article provides an in-depth discussion of the key components of the dissertation proposal structure.
  • Allocating time, staying organized, setting a realistic scope, and citing sources accurately are crucial for creating a compelling dissertation or thesis proposal.
  • The article provides insights into an example of a dissertation proposal.

What is a Dissertation Proposal?

Think of a research proposal for a dissertation as a roadmap for your academic adventure. It is the plan that points you in the right direction for your dissertation or thesis. To write a stellar Master’s research proposal finding the right topic to compose the dissertation proposal outline is crucial. Without the right thesis or dissertation topic, your paper will lack the depth, enthusiasm, and quality needed for success.

When you write your dissertation or thesis proposal, it has certain parts like an introduction, goals, a review of what has already been written, how you will do your research, what it all means, any limits, and a list of your sources. However, it is worth remembering that none of it is set in stone and can change depending on your study, school, or degree.

Strong research proposals demonstrate good research abilities and require the instructor’s feedback. Students who put in the effort and time to make their proposals clear and to the point are on the right track to academic success.

The research proposals should be complete, persuasive, and properly structured. While the research proposal serves as a valuable guide, it is still advisable to seek any further guidance required from your instructor or others in your department. Doing so will ensure that your projects adhere to all the academic rules.

A research proposal is a big deal when aiming for a higher degree. Writing a proposal for a dissertation that is simple but thorough can be challenging. Still, when you stick to the plan and get valuable advice from experts, you can build a strong foundation for your research project. Therefore, your success is assured.

How to Write a Proposal for Dissertation or Thesis?

When it comes to crafting proposals, the way you structure them up is super important. You are not alone if you are curious about writing a dissertation proposal and what it involves. But here is the deal: no universal format fits everyone.

Picking the very first dissertation proposal writing template and structure you come across might not be the best idea. Instead, you should choose a format that fits your paper like a glove. You must ensure you cover all the necessary parts, like your report’s main points, goals, and how you plan to do your research. Also, before you write a dissertation research proposal, get all the details about its structure.

Here are the key components of a thesis or dissertation proposal:


Introducing a dissertation or thesis proposal is critical in setting the stage for your research journey. Think of it as the opening act of a play; it needs to grab your audience’s attention and give them a clear sense of what to expect. This article will shed light on the vital components of a compelling introduction.

Explaining why your proposed research is necessary is crucial to kicking things off. What gap in existing research knowledge does your study aim to fill? You must highlight the significance of the research problem you are addressing to show that your work is not just an academic exercise but contributes to the broader field.

Next, the introduction of your thesis or dissertation proposal must include a clear purpose for your research. It should clearly answer the question, “What are you trying to achieve?” Clearly state the main objective of your research paper, which gives context to your study.

Research Question:

The heart of your introduction is the research question. It is the central query that your dissertation or thesis seeks to answer. Make it concise, specific, and engaging, as it will guide your entire research.


If applicable, introduce your hypothesis. It is an educated guess about the expected outcome of your research based on existing knowledge. It helps set clear expectations for your study.

Aims and Objectives:

Conclude the introduction by outlining the aims and objectives of your research. Aims are broad, overarching goals, while objectives are specific, measurable steps that help you achieve those aims. Outlining the aims and objectives provides a roadmap for your research.

By addressing these elements in your introduction, you will give your readers a clear understanding of your research paper and demonstrate that you have thought critically about the importance and direction of your dissertation or thesis and the background of your research . It is like saying, “Welcome to my research journey; here’s why it matters, what I am trying to achieve, and how I plan to get there.” It will lay a solid foundation for the rest of your proposal.

Define Your Methodology

The research methodology section in your PhD dissertation proposal is a critical part. It is where you lay out how to gather and analyze your data. This part explains your approach, like the research methods and theories you will use, whether you are into numbers (quantitative), words (qualitative), or a mix of both. Also, it is about how you will get the data, what you will do with it, and the tools you will use.

No matter how clearly we describe them, this might confuse many students. It is where PapersOwl steps in to save the day. If you find defining your methodology in your thesis or dissertation proposal tricky, just say, “ Do my Dissertation ,”  and the professional writers will jump right in to help.

Moreover, it is crucial to give valid reasons for your methodology selections. It will ensure the validity and reliability of the study’s findings.

Literature Review

In your doctoral dissertation proposal, the literature review section should showcase the books and materials you have used for your research. Think of it as giving credit to the sources that helped you understand your topic better or served as references for previous academic studies.

If tackling a literature review for your thesis or dissertation feels overwhelming, there is an alternative: consider taking help from a dissertation writing service . The literature review is your chance to demonstrate how your work fits into the bigger picture. It is about listing your sources and showing why they matter. Here are some pointers to keep in mind while doing a literature review for your thesis or dissertation:

  • Do not shy away from discussing the stuff you disagree with. Everyone has got their take on things, and that’s what makes it interesting.
  • Make sure to use proper citations to back up your ideas. It will make your proposal look more credible and worth reading.
  • Compare and contrast different theories, arguments, and debates, and then throw in your two cents on how to find common ground.
  • Connect your research to the existing literature and explain how it will progress the subject area.

Anticipate Challenges and Limitations

When crafting a proposal for your dissertation, you must not forget to talk about the research limitations – it is a big deal. You must understand that many research topics can be pretty complicated, and by pointing out these limits, you’re saying, “Hey, I know the ins and outs of what I am dealing with.”

Give some real-life examples of these limitations that might come into play, like time constraints, tricky data collection, needing a bigger group to study, or people dropping out of your study. It is like telling your readers, “Here is the road I’m walking, and here are some potholes I might stumble upon.” By doing so, you are being upfront about the challenges you could face on your research journey.

Consider Ethical Considerations

When it comes to research proposals, ethics are a big deal. As a researcher, you must ensure your study is above board and follows ethical considerations. It means considering how you collect data, keeping your participants’ info private, and getting their consent to be part of your study. It is like doing your research the right way.

By addressing these considerations, you show your commitment and willingness to conduct ethical research. Staying honest and responsible throughout the process is a sure way to steer yourself toward creating an outstanding thesis or dissertation.

Present Research Timeline

In the prospectus, it is standard and smart to give your supervisor an idea of when you will hand in your work. You can break it down into steps, like when you finish each chapter. But here is the key – be realistic. Make sure you have enough time for research before diving into writing. This way, you will have a strong base of knowledge, and you will not need to speed through the writing the dissertation proposal part.

Outline of Future Work

When it comes to outlining your future work in your thesis or dissertation proposal, it is all about showing your dedication and commitment to the topic. It is where you paint a picture of what you plan to dive into after completing your thesis or dissertation. It is like saying, “I am not done yet, and here is what’s next.”

By outlining your future work, you demonstrate that you are in it for the long haul and are not just stopping at your current study. You show that you are passionate about your field and eager to contribute. It means saying, “It is just the beginning, and I have big plans.”

While a conclusion is not mandatory, it is kind of like the cherry on top. It is a great way to wrap things up by reviewing your main points and revisiting why you picked this topic, how you researched it, and what you expect to find.

When you offer your readers a quick recap, it’s like saying, “Hey, remember what this was all about?” It’s a neat way to connect the dots and ensure your research sticks in their minds. A solid conclusion is like leaving a strong impression, much like the final bow in a great performance.

Advice for Writing a Dissertation Proposal

If you are one of those students wondering how to write a dissertation proposal, do not worry; we have some handy advice to make the process smoother. Following this advice is super important for a bunch of reasons. And remember, there is always the option to check out the best essay writing service if you need some extra help.

When you have a well-written proposal, it is like having a golden ticket. It can help you get the green light from your advisor and committee. Plus, it helps you get your research goals, methods, and what you hope to find all sorted out. It not only saves you time but also makes your work top-notch.

By following this advice, you are showing you know your stuff and proving you are a pro-researcher. That can really open doors for you in your academic and career journey. So, let’s dive into these practical tips to make the whole process a bit quicker and smoother:

  • First things first, give yourself enough time for research. Rushing things can lead to all sorts of problems, especially time crunches.
  • Remember that the folks reviewing your proposal have stacks to go through. So, make sure your work is organized and crystal clear. It will help you get to the writing part faster.
  • A dissertation or thesis proposal is a work in progress, not a final product. Changes are expected, so don’t stress about it.
  • Be clear about your research questions and ideas, and make sure they are doable. Your proposals are judged on whether you can pull them off and how ambitious they are. Your ideas should also fit right into your field.
  • Show your passion for your research topic. Let your excitement shine through by sharing a personal story or explaining why this topic is important for your future studies and academic goals.
  • When it comes to your sources, give credit where it is due. Use your own words or quotes properly to avoid plagiarism. Remember to make a list of all the sources you used. Keep your writing clear, to the point, and well-organized.
  • Before you hit that submit button, give your work an excellent read to catch any errors.

Dissertation Proposal Example

Having access to great examples is a big help when working on a dissertation. You will come across many dissertation proposal samples, but not all examples are equal. That’s where the best dissertation proposal help comes in, offering high-quality examples that fit the bill and meet your needs.

Imagine you are working on a prospectus for something as fancy as the computational model of acquiring intellectual expertise. Sounds complicated, right? Here’s the scoop: keep your paper’s title straightforward so people know what it’s all about. And do not forget to mention your university to give it that official touch.

Now, the abstract might be short, but it is a big deal. It is like the sneak peek that helps readers understand what your project is all about. Once your abstract is good to go, it is time to organize your info into different sections. You will usually have an introduction, methodology, conclusion, and more. Give each part some attention to make sure your writing flows smoothly and makes sense.

Here’s a quick example of what the structure of a dissertation proposal might look like:

dissertation proposal outline

Remember that this example works well for cognitive science studies, but things might be a bit different for other subjects.

Mastering the Art of Thesis and Dissertation Proposals

Embarking on crafting a proposal for your thesis or dissertation can feel daunting. However, remembering that it is a path well-trodden by countless scholars before you is worth remembering. In this guide, we will take you by the hand and walk you through the essential steps.

From understanding what a research proposal is to nailing down the key components and the pitfalls to avoid. By the end of this journey, you will be armed with the knowledge and confidence to tackle your proposal with finesse. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into the thesis and dissertation proposals world. It’s a journey worth taking, and the destination? Your academic success.

How to choose dissertation proposal topics?

Choosing a topic can be daunting, but there are some helpful tips to consider. Look for a topic that aligns with your research interests and career goals, is feasible and manageable, has existing literature to build upon, and contributes to the field. Consult with your advisor for guidance and feedback.

How long should proposals be?

The length of proposals can vary depending on the guidelines provided by your study field or academic institution. Typically, proposals are between 15-25 pages long, but it’s important to check with your advisor or program requirements to ensure that you meet the necessary criteria.

What is the difference between proposals and prospectus?

Both of these are documents used in the process of planning and writing a great dissertation . However, proposals are shorter documents that show the basic research idea and approach. Prospectus is a more detail-oriented and extensive document that features literature reviews, methodology, and preliminary results.

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outline of phd thesis proposal

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What’s Included: Research Proposal Template

Our free dissertation/thesis proposal template covers the core essential ingredients for a strong research proposal. It includes clear explanations of what you need to address in each section, as well as straightforward examples and links to further resources.

The research proposal template covers the following core elements:

  • Introduction & background (including the research problem)
  • Literature review
  • Research design / methodology
  • Project plan , resource requirements and risk management

The cleanly-formatted Google Doc can be downloaded as a fully editable MS Word Document (DOCX format), so you can use it as-is or convert it to LaTeX.

PS – if you’d like a high-level template for the entire thesis, you can we’ve got that too .

Research Proposal Template FAQS

What types of research proposals can this template be used for.

The proposal template follows the standard format for academic research projects, which means it will be suitable for the vast majority of dissertations and theses (especially those within the sciences), whether they are qualitative or quantitative in terms of design.

Keep in mind that the exact requirements for the introduction chapter/section will vary between universities and degree programs. These are typically minor, but it’s always a good idea to double-check your university’s requirements before you finalise your structure.

Is this template for an undergrad, Master or PhD-level proposal?

This template can be used for a research project at any level of study. Doctoral-level projects typically require the research proposal to be more extensive/comprehensive, but the structure will typically remain the same.

How long should my research proposal be?

The length of a research proposal varies by institution and subject, but as a ballpark, it’s usually between 1,500 and 3,000 words.

To be safe, it’s best to check with your university if they have any preferences or requirements in terms of minimum and maximum word count for the research propsal.

How detailed should the methodology of the proposal be?

You don’t need to go into the fine details of your methodology, but this section should be detailed enough to demonstrate that your research approach is feasible and will address your research questions effectively. Be sure to include your intended methods for data collection and analysis.

Can I include preliminary data or pilot study results in my proposal?

Generally, yes. This can strengthen your proposal by demonstrating the feasibility of your research. However, make sure that your pilot study is approved by your university before collecting any data.

Can I share this template with my friends/colleagues?

Yes, you’re welcome to share this template in its original format (no editing allowed). If you want to post about it on your blog or social media, we kindly request that you reference this page as your source.

What format is the template (DOC, PDF, PPT, etc.)?

The research proposal template is provided as a Google Doc. You can download it in MS Word format or make a copy to your Google Drive. You’re also welcome to convert it to whatever format works best for you, such as LaTeX or PDF.

Do you have templates for the other chapters?

Yes, we do. We are constantly developing our collection of free resources to help students complete their dissertations and theses. You can view all of our template resources here .

Can Grad Coach help me with my dissertation/thesis?

Yes, you’re welcome to get in touch with us to discuss our private coaching services .

Further Resources: Proposal Writing

The template provides step-by-step guidance for each section of your research proposal, but if you’d like to learn more about how to write up a high-quality research proposal, check out the rest of our free proposal-related resources:

  • Research Proposal 101
  • Examples of research proposals
  • How To Find A Research Topic
  • How To Find A Research Gap
  • Developing Your Golden Thread
  • How To Write A Research Proposal
  • 8 Common Proposal Writing Mistakes

You can also visit the Grad Coach blog for more proposal-related resources.

Free Webinar: How To Write A Research Proposal

If you’d prefer 1-on-1 support with your research proposal, have a look at our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the research process, step by step.


How To Write Chapter 1 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Practical Guide)

How to write chapter 1 of PhD thesis proposal

After submitting a concept paper and your supervisor gives you the go-ahead, then it is time to start writing the proposal for your PhD thesis or dissertation.

The format of a thesis proposal varies from one institution to another but generally has three main chapters: chapter 1 (introduction), chapter 2 (literature review), and chapter 3 (research methodology).

Related post: How To Choose a Research Topic For Your PhD Thesis (7 Key Factors to Consider)

While in some institutions PhD students may be required to write more chapters, these three chapters are the meat of any thesis proposal. This article focuses on how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal.

Chapter 1 of a thesis proposal has about 10 sections discussed below:

Introduction to the chapter

Background to the study, statement of the problem, justification of the study, significance of the study, objectives of the study and/or research questions, scope of the study, limitations and delimitations of the study, definition of terms, chapter summary, final thoughts on how to write chapter 1 of a phd thesis proposal, related posts.

This is the first section of chapter 1 of a thesis proposal. It is normally short about a paragraph in length. Its purpose is to inform the readers what the chapter is all about.

This section is the longest in chapter 1 of a thesis proposal.

It provides the context within which the study will be undertaken.

It gives a historical explanation of the issue under investigation.

It is important to use existing data and statistics to show the magnitude of the issue. Grey literature (for instance, reports from the government, non-governmental organisations, local institutions and international organisations among others) play an important role when providing the background to the study.

The background is often given starting from a general perspective and narrows down to a specific perspective.

For example, if the proposal is on maternal health in South Africa, then the background of the study will discuss maternal health from the global perspective, then maternal health in Africa, and then it will narrow down to maternal health in South Africa. It will provide data and statistics provided by reports from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and demographic and health surveys (DHS) of various countries and specifically South Africa, among other reports. Such information paints a clear picture of the problem under investigation and sets the stage for the discussion of the problem statement.

The background to the study should be clear and comprehensive enough such that your readers will be on the same page after reading the section, irrespective of their prior knowledge in your research topic.

While reviewing literature for this section, a good practice is to build mind maps that highlight the important concepts for the study topic and how those concepts relate to each other.

It is also referred to as problem statement or issue under investigation.

The statement of the problem is the elephant in the “chapter 1” room. It is what most students struggle with and the area that can make or break a proposal defense.

It is very common to hear supervisors or defense panelists make comments such as:

“I don’t see any problem here.”

“This problem is not a problem.”

“This problem does not warrant a PhD-level study.”

When writing the statement of the problem, start the section with the problem, as in… The problem (or issue) under investigation is ….

After stating the problem then follow it up with an explanation of why it is a problem.

For PhD students, the problem under investigation should be complex enough to warrant a doctoral-level study and at the same time it should add to the body of knowledge in your chosen field of study. The latter – addition to knowledge – is what distinguishes a PhD-level thesis from a Masters-level thesis.

While crafting the problem statement it is also important to remember that the problem will influence the research objectives and the research methodology as well. The student should therefore think through these aspects carefully.

The justification is used to address the need for conducting the study and addressing the problem. It therefore follows the problem statement.

It is also referred to as the rationale for the study and addresses the “why” of the study: Why does this problem warrant an investigation? What is the purpose for carrying out the study?

In the example of maternal health in South Africa, the rationale or justification for the study would be the high maternal mortality ratios in South Africa and their undesirable effects on children and family. Therefore the study would help bring to light the major causes of maternal mortality in the country and how they can best be mitigated.

Whereas the justification of the study addresses the need for the study, the significance of the study highlights the benefits that would accrue after the study is completed.

The significance can be looked at from two perspectives:

  • Academic perspective
  • Practical perspective

For the academic perspective , the significance entails how the study would contribute to the existing body of knowledge in the chosen topic. Will it add to the methodology? Theory? New data? Will it study a population or phenomenon that has been neglected?

For PhD students, the addition to the body of knowledge is key, and should always be at the back of the student’s mind.

For the practical perspective , the significance of the study would be the impact and benefits that different stakeholders would derive from the findings of the study.

Depending on the study, the stakeholders may include: the Government, policymakers, different ministries and their agencies, different institutions, individuals, a community etc. This will vary from one study to another.

The significance of the study is best presented from a general to specific manner, like an inverted pyramid.

How to present significance of study

Each beneficiary is discussed separately.

Research questions are the question form of the research objectives. Depending on your institution and/or department where you are doing your PhD you may have both objectives and research questions or either.

There are two types of objectives: the general objective and the specific objectives. The general objective is a reflection of the study topic while the specific objectives are a breakdown of the general objective.

Coming up with good research objectives is an important step of any PhD thesis proposal. This is because the research objectives will determine whether the research problem will be adequately addressed and at the same time it will influence the research methodology that the study will adopt.

Research objectives should therefore emanate from the research problem.

While crafting the objectives, think about all those things that you would like to accomplish for your study and if by doing them they will address the research problem in totality.

Once you’ve noted all those activities that you would like to undertake, group the like ones together so as to narrow them down to 4 or 5 strong objectives.

The number of research objectives that PhD students should come up with will be determined by the requirements of their institution. However, the objectives should be adequate enough such that a single paper can be produced from each objective. This is important in ensuring that the PhD student publishes as many papers as is required by their institution.

Objectives are usually stated using action verbs. For instance: to examine, to analyse, to understand, to review, to investigate… etc.

It is important to understand the meaning of the action verbs used in the research objectives because different action verbs imply different methodology approaches. For instance: to analyse implies a quantitative approach, whereas to explore implies a qualitative approach.

Therefore, if a study will use purely quantitative research methodology, then the action verbs for the research objectives should strictly reflect that. Same case applies to qualitative studies. Studies that use a mixed-methods approach can have a mix of the action verbs.

Have a variety of the action verbs in your research objectives. Don’t just use the same action verb throughout.

Useful tip: To have a good idea of the action verbs that scholars use, create an Excel file with three columns: 1) action verb, 2) example of research objective, and 3) research methodology used. Then every time you read a journal paper, note down the objectives stated in that paper and fill in the three columns respectively. Besides journal papers, past PhD theses and dissertations are a good source of how research objectives are stated.

Another important point to remember is that the research objectives will form the basis of the discussion chapter. Each research objective will be discussed separately and will form its own sub-chapter under the discussion chapter. This is why the complexity of the research objectives is important especially for PhD students.

The scope of the study simply means the boundaries or the space within which the study will be undertaken.

Most studies have the potential of covering a wider scope than stated but because of time and budget constraints the scope gets narrowed down.

When defining the scope for a PhD study, it should not be too narrow or too wide but rather it should be adequate enough to meet the requirements of the program.

The scope chosen by the student should always be justified.

Limitations refer to factors that may affect a study which are not under the control of the student.

Delimitations on the other hand are factors that may affect the study for which the student has control.

Limitations are therefore caused by circumstances while delimitations are a matter of choice of the student.

It is therefore important for the student to justify their delimitations and mitigate their study’s limitations.

Examples of study limitations:

– political unrest in a region of interest: this can be mitigated by choosing another region for the study.

– covid-19 restrictions may limit physical collection of data: this can be mitigated by collecting data via telephone interviews or emailing questionnaires to the respondents.

Examples of study delimitations:

– choice of a particular community as the unit of the study: in this case the student should justify why that particular community was chosen over others.

– use of quantitative research methodology only: in this case the student should justify why they chose the research methodology over mixed-methods research.

The definition of key terms used in the study is important because it helps the readers understand the main concepts of the study. Not all readers have the background information or knowledge about the focus of the study.

However, the definitions used should be the denotative definitions, rather than the connotative (dictionary) definitions. Therefore the context within which the terms have been used should be provided.

This is the last section of the introduction chapter and it basically informs the reader what the chapter covered.

Like the introduction to the chapter, the chapter summary should be short: about one paragraph in length.

Chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal is an important chapter because it lays the foundation for the rest of the proposal and the thesis itself. Its role is to inspire and motivate the readers to read on. The most challenging task with chapter 1 is learning how to state the problem in a manner that is clear and to the point. For PhD students, the research problem should be complex enough to warrant a doctoral-level study.

Whereas the format of the chapter may vary from one institution to another, the sections presented in this article provide a guide to most of what is required for the chapter to be complete. Learning how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal requires constant writing practice as well as reading of many past PhD theses and dissertations.

How To Write Chapter 2 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Beginner’s Guide)

How To Write Chapter 3 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Detailed Guide)

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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Smith College

Course Catalog 2024-2025

106 dissertation, 106.1 – overview.

( updated 2010 )

An independent research or scholarly project relevant to clinical social work is required of all Ph.D. students. Through completion of this project, students demonstrate their capacity to contribute to the development and dissemination of knowledge for the profession. Completion of the dissertation is the academic project that marks the transition from student to scholar.

106.2 – Standards for the Dissertation Project

The dissertation project is expected to be a defensible, original inquiry into an issue of potential professional relevance. It is not essential that a project succeed in clarifying an issue, only that it constitutes a well-grounded attempt to illuminate a matter of relevance. (Quality standards for evaluating the dissertation may be found on Moodle "Dissertation Planning Guide.") 

  • Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of relevant prior work that has bearing on the substantive issue, an informed selection of relevant study methodology and a strategy for inquiry, the effective conduct of the study as outlined in the proposal, and a grasp of the results of this inquiry and their connection to prior knowledge. Normally, experience in the conduct of research clarifies the aptness of certain choices and the pitfalls of other choices. It is expected that students develop a balanced perspective on their project and succeed in making the results of it clearly and conveniently available to an interested audience.
  • Responsibility for the initiation, design, conduct, and defense of the dissertation project rests with students. The School undertakes to assist students in meeting these responsibilities through provisions intended to enhance the productive use of students' time and to support their learning and achievement. In addition to maintaining continuity in advising, we attempt to provide students with ready access to advisory and committee assistance and with expeditious review of written material. Through these and other means, the Program attempts to assist students in timely completion of dissertation work. While students are expected to take advantage of opportunities available in the Program for pursuit of their dissertations, the success of the enterprise is viewed in terms of active, ongoing learning achievements and the ultimate completion of a defensible inquiry, rather than in terms of a time interval.
  • The time limit on dissertation work is five years from completion of Session V. This limit is meant to aid the timely completion of the project, not to undermine the educational function of the dissertation project or compromise the project's integrity. Specific information about time limits may be found in the section (following) on Extensions for Dissertation Work.

106.3 – Guidelines for Authorship, Ownership, & Acknowledgment

The School offers guidelines for collaborative student/faculty undertakings. (see Appendix D )

106.4 – Supports for the Dissertation Project

The Ph.D. Program supports students' development and completion of the dissertation project in several ways. 

  • The first is through the series of required research courses that provide the foundation of knowledge needed both to assess the prior work of others and to develop work of one's own. In particular, a dissertation design seminar is offered in the third summer. (In those instances where a student is well along in the preparation of a proposal by the second summer, the dissertation design seminar may be taken then, with permission from the director.)
  • Secondly, a Research Supervisor (RS) is assigned to each student.
  • The Research Supervisor (RS) The role of the RS is covered more fully in this Handbook in the section on the Comprehensive Exam. Briefly, one role of the RS is to assist the student in identifying and refining a preliminary area of study and preliminary plan for the dissertation.  
  • Post-Residency Dissertation Advisement Post-residency students are encouraged to keep in touch with the RS through phone calls, written communications, and in-person visits so as to advance toward completing their dissertation. The School cannot support travel by RS to visit with students. However, contact is encouraged, as needed, between students and faculty members who are visiting in the student's geographic area.  
  • The dissertation committee consists of a minimum of three people: a chair and at least two members. It is required that each person on the committee bring expertise in some significant aspect of the proposed work. At least one member of the committee must have methodological expertise in either qualitative or quantitative research.
  • The dissertation chair must have an earned Ph.D., and it is preferable, though not necessary, that committee members have earned Ph.D. degrees and hold at least the rank of an Associate Professor with tenure. While the chair is often a member of the School's resident faculty, with approval of the School, appropriately qualified members of the adjunct faculty (i.e., Adjunct Instructors, Practicum Faculty Advisers, or Research Supervisors), or persons who are recruited specifically for a role on the committee, may serve.
  • One member of the committee may be a person not otherwise serving in a faculty role at Smith. If the chair is not a member of the School's resident faculty, then both committee members must be. Occasional exceptions to this policy can be made by petition to the director. Dissertation chairs not on the School's resident faculty are paid a small honorarium by the School. The School also pays a nominal honorarium to outside committee members when they have read the dissertation proposal and the dissertation report.
  • Students are responsible for identifying and recruiting the chair and the members of their dissertation committee. Because the chair usually functions as the principal adviser for the work, it is generally prudent to recruit the chair first, and then to consult with her/him about possible committee members. The student's RS may or may not be the logical person to work as dissertation chair, depending on the goodness of fit between the dissertation content area and the RS's areas of interest and expertise. The RS and the program director are both available to consult with students about the composition of their dissertation committees.
  • Request for approval of the dissertation committee must be made by the student in writing. This request must be sent to the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program  prior to finalization and defense of the dissertation proposal. Outside committee chairs or committee members are asked to furnish a curriculum vita prior to appointment. As a matter of policy, the program's director serves as ex-officio member of the dissertation committee. Only after approval of the comprehensive examination may students make their request for approval of the dissertation committee. Typically, the research internship is completed before the start of dissertation work.
  • The chair of the dissertation committee oversees the dissertation proposal and dissertation process. Students should consult with the chair about all aspects of the dissertation process, beginning with the formulation of a researchable question, the development of a research methodology, data collection, data analysis, and writing the dissertation. Typically, the chair coordinates and discusses with other committee members (during, and in some cases, prior to the scheduled defense) the student's completed work.
  • A cover sheet recording the composition and approval of the dissertation chair and all committee members, including the program director, must be attached to, and submitted to the School with each completed dissertation proposal and dissertation report. A model for the cover sheet may be found on the Moodle Post-Residency and Dissertation Resources page or requested from the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program  .
  • How frequently there should be contact between the chair and the student;
  • Whether the chair prefers to review whole drafts of chapters, relatively polished drafts, or smaller chunks of less well-formed writing;
  • What might be a reasonable time frame within which the student could expect to receive comments from the chair;
  • What kind of feedback the student would find most helpful at different stages of the writing process;
  • How the chair would prefer to work with committee members Keep your chair informed about your progress. Chairs can be most helpful if they know what you are working on, what problems you are experiencing, and the progress you have made. Some students see their dissertation committees for the proposal hearing and then never see them again until the final dissertation defense. Other students prefer more frequent contact. It may be appropriate to request a consultation with the full dissertation committee when the student is floundering. Committee members might offer very helpful suggestions for overcoming some of the obstacles in completing a dissertation.

106.5 – Proposal Hearing & Dissertation Defense

( updated 2018, 2021 )

The School uses Zoom, in-person, or a hybrid of both methods for dissertation proposal hearings and dissertation defenses . The purpose of the proposal hearing is to permit direct interaction between students and committee members as they discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the work. The dissertation defense also centers on critical appraisal of the work, as well as offering an opportunity for students to describe and explain their work to an audience of interested and knowledgeable professionals.

As no funding is available from the School to cover travel expenses associated with in-person dissertation proposal hearings or dissertation defenses the use of technologies such as Zoom are allowed to contain costs. 

Dissertation proposal hearings and Dissertation defenses are scheduled to meet the availability of the committee and the student. They are not open events. Family and friends are not permitted to attend. 

  • Scheduling the Proposal Hearing or Dissertation Defense The student, with consultation and assistance from the dissertation chair, has the responsibility for scheduling the proposal hearing or dissertation defense with the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program . These take about 2 hours. Once the student has determined a date and time convenient to all committee members, the student must contact the PhD program's administrative and systems manager who will arrange the Zoom meeting and send all pertinent information to the committee and student. Meetings may be scheduled any date or time with the exception of School holidays and Winter break, when the College is closed. Prior to the scheduled proposal hearing or dissertation defense , the student has the responsibility of providing copies of the work, with the unsigned cover sheet, to all members of the committee, including the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program .
  • Procedure of the Proposal Hearing or Dissertation Defense Both meetings begin with the student waiting outside the room while the committee chair and members consult with each other about the issues they will wish to have discussed and the questions they will wish to ask. If this is a Zoom meeting, the dissertation Chair is responsible for creating a breakout room for this private discussion. The student is then invited into the room and begins by offering an overview of the work. Committee members then ask their questions of the student. Overall, the presentation and discussion takes about an hour. At its conclusion, the student is asked to leave the room while committee members again consult with each other. Again, if this is a Zoom meeting the dissertation Chair is responsible for creating a breakout room for the committee members to have their discussion. Finally, the student is invited back into the room to hear the committee's comments and its decision as to whether or not the work is to be accepted as written.
  • Signing Off on the Proposal or the Dissertation The committee's decision is recorded by the chair on the cover sheet of the dissertation proposal or dissertation by checking the appropriate box and entering the date of the meeting. If the meeting is in-person, this part of the process is completed with committee members signing their names on the cover sheet above their typed-in names. For in-person meetings it is the student's responsibility to see that all signatures have been obtained on the cover sheet, and that the signed cover sheet is returned to the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program . If the meeting is a Zoom meeting, the program manager will email the cover sheet to each committee member for their signature and once complete, will email the signed cover sheet to the student. The student should retain a copy of the signed cover sheet for his/her own records. Model cover sheets for the dissertation proposal and the dissertation may be found on the Moodle Post-Residency and Dissertation Resources page.
  • Follow-up to the Dissertation Defense or the Proposal Hearing The decision of the committee may be to accept the work as is, accept the work pending minor or more extensive revisions, or reject the work. Should the committee require any revisions of the work, the Committee Chair should send a letter/email to the student outlining the required revisions. A copy of this letter/email may also be emailed to the Program’s Administrative and Systems Manager. These revisions should be accomplished by the student, in consultation with the chair, in the manner and within the time frame set by the committee. Once the required revisions have been completed, the dissertation chair is responsible for notifying the program administrative and systems manager and providing the date revisions are complete. A finalized copy of the revised dissertation or dissertation proposal should be emailed by the student to the Administrative and Systems Manager, PhD Program    If the committee accepts the document with extensive revisions requiring another full committee review and rejects the work for a second time, the student will be automatically dismissed from the Program.

106.6 – Developing the Dissertation Proposal

The development of a dissertation proposal or prospectus offers Ph.D. students an opportunity to pursue a special professional interest in depth and to acquire the skills necessary for undertaking independent scholarship or research. Research and scholarly activities that contribute to an evolving body of verified, synthesized, and communicable knowledge vary greatly in method. The School's general objective for the proposal allows wide scope for both area and style of study. Choice of method will depend, in part, on the state of knowledge in the subject area selected. Topic is limited only to those with demonstrable relevance to clinical social work. Method and its suitability to the topic is determined by the dissertation committee. 

  • Clinical and Theoretical Literature. Reports of practice or theoretical papers in which some attempt is made to abstract concepts about practice problems may be useful.
  • Research Studies. It is difficult to find a subject in relation to which some prior study has not been attempted. The most closely related studies should be used.
  • Clinical Experience. It is possible to collect the experience of skilled practitioners who are in a position to have thoughts about a study area. Do not exclude your own experience as a resource in the process of isolating significant focal points within an area.
  • Refining the Study Issue The kinds of questions to bear in mind include the following. About what points is there general agreement and where do differences lie in the literature and/or experience? What aspects of a problem are not adequately explained by the literature or experience-based observations? Are there any clues about possible explanation of processes that lie in the fringe areas of knowledge? After locating a productive and specific professional issue or question, plan to re-examine sources of insight into this topic. That is, plan to review the clinical and research literature as well as clinical experience from the standpoint of the tentative explanations that are suggested from this material. It would be usual to complete more focused reading and review of experience after a highly specific issue is located than would be possible prior to that time. During this review, attention should be given to the evidence consistent or inconsistent with specific explanations or hypotheses. You may be able to assemble and weigh the evidence in relation to a single hypothesis, or you may instead identify the tenability of a series of alternate explanations for a clinical event, question, or issue. Once having formulated the specific study issue you intend to address, you will want to consider the most feasible method for carrying out the proposed study - the design strategy. Thus, you will have to consider the type of research that you propose for the study and the procedures you propose to use in sample selection, data collection, the measurement of the major variables, and the data analysis.
  • the issue, problem or concern the study addresses,
  • why it is important,
  • how the study will answer some part of the problem, issue, or concern, and
  • briefly describes the evidence from the literature of practical experience that justifies the study issue. State the central focus of the study in as few words as possible (in 250 words or less). It is best to capture the study issue in a single sentence. Then clarify and elaborate so that a reader can grasp the subject of the proposed inquiry.
  • Rationale. The rationale is an articulation of the reasons why the proposed study should be conducted. It places your research in a context that clarifies why it should be done (e.g., its importance or urgency). Provide some information about the current conditions or positive consequences of the proposed research by explaining the contribution this research will make to general knowledge or the need for your research data to further work in this area, etc.
  • Specific Aims. In one to two pages, state one or two clearly focused aims. The aims should be specific, measurable and time-phased objectives. Indicate how these aims relate to the research plan (e.g., the aim of the study is to describe; to compare; to explore; to predict, to develop or to conceptualize theory, etc.).
  • Prior Relevant Work. All good research and scholarship start with a thorough examination of the literature. Attention should be directed to both theoretical material related to the topic and to prior investigations bearing on it. Rather than simply cataloging the work of others, present your analysis of it. Make clear its scope and limitations for illuminating the issue of concern.
  • Method. This section should include a description of the general plan and design of the study, and the basis for its choice. Projects with substantial empirical emphasis should identify the data source, sampling techniques, and size of the sample envisioned, the method and procedures by which the student expects to secure the data, and the procedures to be followed in analyzing the data. Ethical issues and the measures employed to address them must be addressed. For projects not emphasizing the collection of original data, an outline of the proposed course of work should be offered. Be as clear and as explicit as possible in describing the methods to be used.
  • Feasibility. It is important to determine whether the resources needed for the pursuit of a project exist and are accessible. An efficient way to investigate the feasibility of the plan is to try it out. Experience in attempting to implement a plan often serves quickly to identify the unanticipated problems; part of design work is charting a course around such obstacles.
  • It may not be possible at this stage to clarify every part of the plan in full. However, it is useful to attempt to specify as far as possible the plan in its entirety so as to identify the aspects that need further work. For the aspects of the plan that cannot be specified, the statement of design should indicate the procedure by which clarity about these matters can be achieved.
  • Preparing the Proposal Document Students are expected to follow the instructions available on Moodle, describing "Preparing the Dissertation Manuscript." to have proper scholarly citations for their dissertation proposal literature review in accordance with the instructions contained in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th edition., 2019). Refer also to the dissertation proposal samples on Moodle.

106.7 – Human Subjects Review

All dissertation projects must be reviewed for conformance with current ethical standards in the conduct of research. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) process generally takes place after the dissertation proposal has been approved but must occur before any sample members are contacted or any data are collected. If the sample is to be independently recruited, the student must secure review and approval of the research proposal through Smith College’s federally constituted Institutional Review Board (IRB). If the study sample is to be drawn from an agency or other institution, the student has the responsibility of securing review and approval first from the study site and then from the College’s IRB. Please contact Sherry Wingfield, Program Coordinator of the Smith College IRB at (413) 585-3562 or [email protected] to indicate your plans to prepare an IRB application and receive updated information on the application process.

The purpose of the institutional review (Human Subjects Review) is to weigh potential risks to participants in relation to potential benefits that may be gained from the research. Data collection procedures should be designed to reduce risks to participants, and consent issues should be handled so as to ensure that participants are free from coercion and informed when they are first approached about the nature of their participation and about the risks and benefits of participation. Confidentiality is usually a major issue to be addressed in reducing risks. The Dissertation Committee Chair can assist in the IRB process and may be required to document his or her supervision of the project in some settings.

The procedures described in the IRB application, once approved, cannot be altered significantly without re-review. Once a project is approved, you, as the researcher, have entered into a contract with the reviewing institution to conduct the research in the manner described, and all terms of the contract, including details of the storage of data and feedback to participants, must be fully honored. Requirements and procedures for obtaining approval on research using human subjects may be found on the Smith College Institutional Review Board website .

This information is also available on the on the Moodle Post-Residency and Dissertation Resources page.

106.8 – The Dissertation Manuscript

( updated 2009, 2010, 2013 )

Normally dissertation manuscripts consist of five basic chapters that include an introductory, literature review, methods, findings, and discussion chapter. Complete guidelines for the dissertation manuscript are found online on Moodle. In general, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th Edition., 2019) is the reference to be used on matters of form and style for the dissertation proposal and dissertation manuscript. As the APA Manual indicates, however, certain adaptations to its standards are desirable when preparing a dissertation manuscript. This is because the dissertation is a final copy. Unlike a manuscript that is being prepared for publication in a journal or book, the dissertation manuscript will be published as is. The guidelines provided on Moodle give the standards for preparing Ph.D. dissertations at Smith, identifying how they are consistent with, and differ from, APA article format.

If the committee accepts the dissertation with extensive revisions requiring another full committee review, and rejects the work for a second time, the student will be automatically dismissed from the Program.

106.9 – Dissertation Deadlines

( updated 2020 )

The School has established a time limit on dissertation work of 5 years following completion of the final academic session (Session V). To be eligible for award of the Ph.D. degree at the School's August commencement, students must successfully defend their dissertations no later than May 31 . Approved final manuscripts must be submitted no later than June 30 . If the committee requires revisions to the dissertation, these must be completed in time for the manuscript to be sent to the School by the June 30 deadline. Students unable to meet these deadlines may elect to receive their degree in the mid-year graduation. To be eligible, students must defend their dissertations no later than November 1 , with approved final manuscripts sent to the School no later than December 5 .  

  • Extensions for Dissertation Work (updated 2009, 2010, 2020) Ph.D. candidates in good standing with the School who have not completed their dissertation within 5 years following completion of Session V may petition the School for an extension. A written request for extension is to be addressed to the program director. The request should detail any extenuating circumstances and, most importantly, should outline the progress that has been achieved toward completion of the dissertation. Normally, it is evidence of progress in the work that is deemed most important in determining whether or not an extension should be granted. Extensions are granted for only one year at a time, and must be received at the School by April 29 . Students who have not submitted their extension request by that date will be withdrawn from the Program. A total of no more than 3 extensions may be granted. If the dissertation has not been completed by that time, action will be taken to withdraw the student from the Program.
  • Fees & Expenses (600.3)
  • Post-Residency Enrollment Fees (600.4)
  • Waiver of Post-Residency Enrollment Fees during Leave of Absence (600.5)

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    University of Southern California
  Jun 24, 2024  
USC Catalogue 2024-2025    
USC Catalogue 2024-2025

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy with an emphasis in Critical Studies is administered through the Graduate School. The PhD program is tailored to the individual student’s particular needs and interests. The overall course of study will be designed by the student, the student’s designated adviser and, following the screening procedure, the student’s qualifying exam committee chair (see Screening Procedure under Graduate Preparation Production Courses).

A bachelor’s or master’s degree in cinematic arts, or a closely related field, is required for admission to the PhD program. Applicants with only a bachelor’s degree must successfully fulfill all of the USC Critical Studies MA degree requirements as part of the degree program (see Screening Procedure).

Course Requirements

Each PhD candidate must complete 68 units beyond the bachelor’s degree, 43 of which must be at the 500 level or higher. (Up to 30 units may be transferred from graduate work completed at other institutions.) Dissertation units are not counted toward the 68-unit total. The required units will include seven to 12 courses in cinematic arts and 8 to 16 units in the minor area. The minor will be chosen by the student in close consultation with the adviser and will be in an academic field which supports the student’s dissertation topic. Each student must complete the following course work toward the 68 unit total:

  • CTCS 500   , CTCS 506   , CTCS 510   , CTCS 587   , CTPR 507   . These courses should be taken before the screening procedure.
  • Two of the following: CTCS 673   , CTCS 677   , CTCS 678   , CTCS 679   , CTCS 688   . These courses should be taken before the qualifying examination.

Graduate Preparation Production Course

Each candidate for the PhD must complete CTPR 507 Production I 4    with a grade of C or better. If the student enters the program with a master’s degree in cinematic arts and possesses production experience, the student may request a waiver of this requirement. The waiver requires passing a written examination and submission of films/videos to the production faculty for review.

CTPR 507 Production I 4     is designed to introduce the fundamental principles of motion picture production. The course also introduces students to visual and auditory communication and individual filmmaking. Each student makes several non-dialogue personal projects, serving as writer, producer, director, cinematographer, sound designer and editor and takes a crew role on a collaborative project. Projects are shot on digital cameras and edited on non-linear systems. Approximately $1,200 should be budgeted for miscellaneous expenses, lab and insurance fees. This course should be taken before the beginning of the screening procedure.

Screening Procedure

The Graduate School requires that programs administer an examination or other procedure at a predetermined point in the student’s studies as a prerequisite to continuation in the doctoral program. This procedure is designed to review the student’s suitability for continuing in the chosen PhD program. The School of Cinematic Arts has determined that this procedure will occur no later than the end of the student’s third semester of graduate course work at USC beyond the master’s degree. The screening procedure process will include the following steps:

  • If the faculty has determined during the admissions process that a comprehensive examination will be required as part of the screening procedure, an examination will be administered as appropriate. If the examination is passed to the faculty’s satisfaction, the student may proceed to the next step in the screening procedure process. If the student fails to pass the examination, the faculty will determine if the student will be allowed to retake the examination the following semester before proceeding to the next step in the screening procedure process.
  • The student will be interviewed and his or her progress in the program will be reviewed by the faculty to determine if the student will be approved for additional course work. If approved to continue, a qualifying exam committee chair will be selected by the student, with the approval of the faculty, who will serve as the student’s adviser. It is strongly recommended that full-time study be pursued following the successful completion of the screening procedure.

Qualifying Exam Committee

Following a successful screening procedure, the student, in consultation with the qualifying exam committee chair and the Critical Studies faculty, will formally establish a five-member qualifying exam committee. The composition of the qualifying exam committee will be as specified by the Graduate School. For the PhD in Cinematic Arts (Critical Studies), the committee is ordinarily composed of four Critical Studies faculty members and an outside member from the candidate’s minor area.

Foreign Language Requirement

The Critical Studies faculty will advise each student as to whether or not a foreign language is required. This requirement is determined by the student’s dissertation topic. The requirement must be met at least 60 days before the qualifying examination.

Dissertation Proposal Presentation

Working closely with the qualifying exam committee chair, the student will prepare to present his or her dissertation proposal to the full faculty. This will be a formal written proposal which will include a statement of the proposed topic, four fields for examination derived from the general dissertation topic area (including a field from the minor area), a detailed bibliography, and an appropriate and comprehensive screening list of film/television titles. Formal presentation of the dissertation proposal will occur no later than the end of the semester prior to taking the qualifying examinations. The qualifying exam committee must approve the dissertation topic. Once the dissertation topic has been approved, the student will complete the Request to Take the PhD Qualifying Examination form available from the program coordinator.

Qualifying Examinations

Written and oral examinations for the PhD are given twice a year, in November and April. Questions for the written portion of the examination will be drafted by members of the qualifying exam committee who will also grade the examination. The qualifying examination comprises four examinations administered one each day for four days during a five-day period.

The oral examination will be scheduled within 30 days after the written examination. All qualifying exam committee members must be present for the oral portion of the qualifying examination.

Admission to Candidacy

A student is eligible for admission to candidacy for the PhD degree after: (1) passing the screening procedure; (2) presenting the dissertation proposal and having it approved; (3) satisfying the language requirement, if applicable; (4) completing at least 24 units in residence; and (5) passing the written and oral portions of the qualifying examination. Admission to candidacy is by action of the Graduate School.

Dissertation Committee

The dissertation committee is composed as specified by regulations of the Graduate School. A dissertation based on original investigation and showing technical mastery of a special field, capacity for research and scholarly ability must be submitted.

Registration for dissertation units, CTCS 794a    and CTCS 794b    , in the two semesters following admission to candidacy is the minimum requirement. These units cannot be applied toward the required 68 unit total. The student must register for CTCS 794a   , CTCS 794b   , CTCS 794c   , CTCS 794d   , CTCS 794z    each semester after admission to candidacy until the degree requirements are completed. No more than 8 units of credit can be earned in CTCS 794a   , CTCS 794b   , CTCS 794c   , CTCS 794d   , CTCS 794z   .

Defense of Dissertation

An oral defense of the dissertation is required of each PhD candidate. The dissertation committee will decide whether the examination is to take place after completion of the preliminary draft or the final draft of the dissertation. The oral defense must be passed at least one week before graduation.

The following policies apply to each student admitted to the PhD program.

Residency Requirements

At least one year of full-time graduate study (24 units excluding registration for CTCS 794a   , CTCS 794b   , CTCS 794c   , CTCS 794d   , CTCS 794z   ) must be completed in residence on the main USC campus. The residency requirement may not be interrupted by study elsewhere. Residency must be completed prior to the qualifying examination.

Grade Point Average

An overall GPA of 3.0 is required for all graduate work. Courses in which a grade of C- (1.7) or lower is earned will not apply toward a graduate degree.

Leaves of Absence

A leave of absence may be granted under exceptional circumstances by petitioning the semester before the leave is to be taken. Refer to “Leave of Absence” in the Graduate and Professional Education section.

Changes of Committee

Changes in either the qualifying exam or dissertation committee must be requested on a form available from the Graduate School Website.

Completion of All Requirements

Everything involved in approving the dissertation must be completed at least one week before graduation. Approval by the dissertation committee, the Office of Academic Records and Registrar, and the thesis editor must be reported and submitted to the Graduate School by the date of graduation.

Time Limits

The maximum time limit for completing all requirements for the PhD degree is eight years from the first course at USC applied toward the degree. Students who have completed an applicable master’s degree at USC or elsewhere within five years from the proposed enrollment in a PhD program must complete the PhD in six years. Extension of these time limits will be made only for compelling reasons upon petition by the student. When petitions are granted, students will be required to make additional CTCS 794a   , CTCS 794b   , CTCS 794c   , CTCS 794d   , CTCS 794z    registrations. Course work more than 10 years old is automatically invalidated and cannot be applied toward the degree.

Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering

College of engineering, ph.d. proposal: haotian sun.

Ph.D. Thesis Proposal

Haotian Sun

"Data-Enabled Analysis of Linear Combustion Instability in a Distributed System"

Wednesday, June 19th 2:30 P.M. Montgomery Knight 317

Abstract :  This thesis proposal addresses an integrated theoretical and numerical study of combustion instability, which impacts the performance and reliability of various chemical conversion systems across diverse applications. The proposal begins by introducing the motivation for studying combustion instability, emphasizing its significance for advancing combustion technology and the broader field of dynamical systems. The research work starts with the development of a single-point combustion response model, and then expands into a distributed domain using machine learning techniques with a complete workflow established.

A comprehensive theoretical framework is first established by deriving a generalized wave equation from the conservation equations of mass, momentum, and energy in three dimensions. The acoustic pressure is used as the primary variable. An approximation method based on the Galerkin method is implemented to reduce the governing partial differential equations to a system of ordinary differential equations, facilitating stability analysis. The discussion includes Rayleigh's criterion, a fundamental concept in combustion dynamics research, helping to predict and analyze the stability of combustion systems. Additionally, the limitations of traditional models, such as the time-lag  model, are identified, underscoring the need for improved models to enhance the accuracy of combustion instability predictions. A baseline study demonstrates the foundational approach planned to be used to develop the novel methods proposed in this research.

The proposal then delves into the specific research objectives and methodologies. The first objective focuses on developing a single-point combustion response model, including impulse response analysis, application of the Lasso method for model development, and the creation of a transfer function. The second objective expands this model into a domain-distributed focus, addressing challenges such as selecting influential points in the domain, reducing the entire domain using emulation, and balancing time and resource costs. The third objective establishes a workflow using existing software, discussing the challenges of achieving a unified framework and balancing time and resource costs. The development from theoretical analysis to practical application outlines the methodologies to be employed in achieving the research objectives.

Overall, this thesis proposal aims to bridge the gap between theoretical models and practical applications in the study of combustion instability. By addressing the identified gaps and improving upon existing models, the proposed research seeks to contribute valuable insights into the field of combustion stability and the broader study of dynamical systems.

Committee : 

  • Dr. Vigor Yang (AE)
  • Dr. Yingjie Liu (Math)
  • Dr. Joseph OefeLein (AE)


  1. 15+ Thesis Outline Templates

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  4. Phd Thesis Outline Example

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  5. Printable Pdf Writing A Good Phd Research Proposal Phd Research

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  6. Thesis Proposal : EECS Communication Lab

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  1. Thesis Writing (Thesis Proposal) Presentation

  2. Why Your Thesis Is Important

  3. Introduction to Thesis Proposal Seminar Presentation

  4. Writing The Thesis Proposal

  5. How to write a successful PhD proposal

  6. PhD Thesis Roadmap


  1. PDF A Guide to Writing your PhD Proposal

    Therefore, in a good research proposal you will need to demonstrate two main things: . 1. that you are capable of independent critical thinking and analysis . 2. that you are capable of communicating your ideas clearly . Applying for a PhD is like applying for a job, you are not applying for a taught programme.

  2. Dissertation & Thesis Outline

    Dissertation & Thesis Outline | Example & Free Templates. Published on June 7, 2022 by Tegan George.Revised on November 21, 2023. A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical early steps in your writing process.It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding the specifics of your dissertation topic and showcasing its relevance to ...

  3. How to Write a Great PhD Research Proposal

    Written by Mark Bennett. You'll need to write a research proposal if you're submitting your own project plan as part of a PhD application. A good PhD proposal outlines the scope and significance of your topic and explains how you plan to research it. It's helpful to think about the proposal like this: if the rest of your application explains ...

  4. How to nail your PhD proposal and get accepted

    How to write a thesis proposal in 5 simple steps Benefits of a strong PhD application. While the ... The first pages of your PhD proposal should outline the basic information about the project. That will include each of the following: Project title. Typically placed on the first page, your title should be engaging enough to attract attention ...

  5. How To Write A Research Proposal (With Examples)

    Make sure you can ask the critical what, who, and how questions of your research before you put pen to paper. Your research proposal should include (at least) 5 essential components : Title - provides the first taste of your research, in broad terms. Introduction - explains what you'll be researching in more detail.

  6. Research Proposal Example (PDF + Template)

    Research proposal example/sample - PhD-level (PDF/Word) Proposal template (Fully editable) If you're working on a research proposal for a dissertation or thesis, you may also find the following useful: Research Proposal Bootcamp: Learn how to write a research proposal as efficiently and effectively as possible; 1:1 Proposal Coaching: Get ...

  7. How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal

    Writing a proposal or prospectus can be a challenge, but we've compiled some examples for you to get your started. Example #1: "Geographic Representations of the Planet Mars, 1867-1907" by Maria Lane. Example #2: "Individuals and the State in Late Bronze Age Greece: Messenian Perspectives on Mycenaean Society" by Dimitri Nakassis.

  8. PDF How To Write a Good PhD Research Proposal

    Proposal. PhD proposal is an outline of your proposed project. It needs to: Define a clear question and approach to answering it. Highlight its originality and/or significance. Explain how it adds to, develops (or challenges) existing literature in the field. Persuade potential supervisors of the importance of the work, and why you are the ...

  9. How to Write a Research Proposal

    Example research proposal #1: "A Conceptual Framework for Scheduling Constraint Management" Example research proposal #2: "Medical Students as Mediators of Change in Tobacco Use" Title page. Like your dissertation or thesis, the proposal will usually have a title page that includes: The proposed title of your project; Your name

  10. How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

    Table of contents. Step 1: Coming up with an idea. Step 2: Presenting your idea in the introduction. Step 3: Exploring related research in the literature review. Step 4: Describing your methodology. Step 5: Outlining the potential implications of your research. Step 6: Creating a reference list or bibliography.

  11. What Is A Research Proposal? Examples + Template

    A good dissertation or thesis proposal needs to cover the ... while a PhD-level proposal can be far more detailed, ranging from 5000-8000 words. In some cases, a rough outline of the topic is all that's needed, while in other cases, universities expect a very detailed proposal that essentially forms the first three chapters of the ...

  12. How to write a PhD proposal that succeeds

    This means that the proposal is less about the robustness of your proposed research design and more about showing that you have. 1. Critical thinking skills. 2. An adequate grasp of the existing literature and know how your research will contribute to it. 3. Clear direction and objectives.


    Dissertation proposals should include the elements normally found in Chapters 1, 2, 3, and the References of a dissertation. Both your proposal and dissertation are major written documents that must convey complex ideas. It is your responsibility to present those ideas clearly and concisely. Both documents are also to comply

  14. PDF Guidelines for Preparing Your Doctoral Thesis Proposal

    Guidelines for Preparing Your Doctoral Thesis Proposal. Department of Materials Science and Engineering September 6, 2017. One of the requirements for the PhD in Materials Science and Engineering is the preparation and defense of a thesis proposal. Your thesis proposal outlines a research problem and general approach which, if carried through ...

  15. How to write a research proposal for a strong PhD application

    A research proposal should present your idea or question and expected outcomes with clarity and definition - the what. It should also make a case for why your question is significant and what value it will bring to your discipline - the why. What it shouldn't do is answer the question - that's what your research will do.

  16. Dissertation Proposal

    The dissertation proposal is a comprehensive statement on the extent and nature of the student's dissertation research interests. Students submit a draft of the proposal to their dissertation advisor between the end of the seventh and middle of the ninth quarters. The student must provide a written copy of the proposal to the faculty ...

  17. How to Write a Successful PhD Research Proposal

    References: Do not forget to specify all the references at the end of the proposal. An obvious but very important point is the format of your research proposal. Make sure that the formatting of the document is consistent throughout and that the structure is clear. If possible, it can be a good idea to give the document to your academic tutor or ...

  18. How to write a successful research proposal

    Research proposals are used to persuade potential supervisors and funders that your work is worthy of their support. These documents set out your proposed research that will result in a Doctoral thesis. They are typically between 1,500 and 3,000 words. Your PhD research proposal must passionately articulate what you want to research and why ...

  19. PhD Dissertation Outline: Structure and Format

    Chapter 4: Results - The research findings are reported in this section and presented in relation to the research question. Relevant visuals such as tables and figures are typically included here to communicate the findings effectively. Chapter 5: Discussion - In a five-chapter format, this is the final chapter in a PhD dissertation format.

  20. (PDF) How to Write a PhD Proposal

    How to Write a PhD Proposal. 1. Introduction. A PhD proposal is a focused document that int roduces your PhD study idea and seeks to. convince the reader that your idea is interesting, original ...

  21. How to Write Research Proposal for Dissertation and Thesis

    Here you can find all the information about the research proposal for the thesis, PhD: definition, outline, examples, and answers to questions related to dissertation writing. Services. Essay Writing; ... To write a stellar Master's research proposal finding the right topic to compose the dissertation proposal outline is crucial. Without the ...

  22. Free Download: Research Proposal Template (Word Doc

    Our free dissertation/thesis proposal template covers the core essential ingredients for a strong research proposal. It includes clear explanations of what you need to address in each section, as well as straightforward examples and links to further resources.. The research proposal template covers the following core elements:. Introduction & background (including the research problem)

  23. How To Write Chapter 1 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Practical Guide)

    Chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal is an important chapter because it lays the foundation for the rest of the proposal and the thesis itself. Its role is to inspire and motivate the readers to read on. The most challenging task with chapter 1 is learning how to state the problem in a manner that is clear and to the point.

  24. 106 Dissertation

    106.6 - Developing the Dissertation Proposal. The development of a dissertation proposal or prospectus offers Ph.D. students an opportunity to pursue a special professional interest in depth and to acquire the skills necessary for undertaking independent scholarship or research.

  25. Program: Cinematic Arts (Critical Studies) (PhD)

    Dissertation Proposal Presentation. Working closely with the qualifying exam committee chair, the student will prepare to present his or her dissertation proposal to the full faculty. This will be a formal written proposal which will include a statement of the proposed topic, four fields for examination derived from the general dissertation ...

  26. Ph.D. Proposal: Haotian Sun

    This thesis proposal addresses an integrated theoretical and numerical study of combustion instability, which impacts the performance and reliability of various chemical conversion systems across diverse applications. The proposal begins by introducing the motivation for studying combustion instability, emphasizing its significance for ...