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Writing a Dissertation Proposal

Dissertation ProposalThe dissertation proposal is an important first step towards writing your final dissertation on a taught or research masters course, or a PhD level course. Your proposal needs to be unique and it sets the stage for your research and should help you make a clear plan for your final project.  Read more about planning your dissertation here.

What is a dissertation proposal?

Dissertation proposals are like the table of contents for your research project, and will help you explain what it is you intend to examine, and roughly, how you intend to go about collecting and analysing your data. You won’t be required to have everything planned out exactly, as your topic may change slightly in the course of your research, but for the most part, writing your proposal should help you better identify the direction for your dissertation.

When you’ve chosen a topic for your dissertation, you’ll need to make sure that it is both appropriate to your field of study and narrow enough to be completed by the end of your course. Your dissertation proposal will help you define and determine both of these things and will also allow your department and instructors to make sure that you are being advised by the best person to help you complete your research.

A dissertation proposal should include:

  • An introduction to your dissertation topic
  • Aims and objectives of your dissertation
  • A literature review of the current research undertaken in your field
  • Proposed methodology to be used
  • Implications of your research
  • Limitations of your research
  • Bibliography 


Although this content all needs to be included in your dissertation proposal, it isn’t set in stone so it can be changed later if necessary, depending on your topic of study, university or degree. Think of your dissertation proposal as more of a guide to writing your dissertation rather than something to be strictly adhered to – this will be discussed later. 

Why is a dissertation proposal important?

A dissertation proposal is very important because it helps shape the actual dissertation, which is arguably the most important piece of writing a postgraduate student will undertake. By having a well-structured dissertation proposal, you will have a strong foundation for your dissertation and a good template to follow. The dissertation itself is key to postgraduate success as it will contribute to your overall grade. Writing your dissertation will also help you to develop research and communication skills, which could become invaluable in your employment success and future career. By making sure you’re fully briefed on the current research available in your chosen dissertation topic, as well as keeping details of your bibliography up to date, you will be in a great position to write an excellent dissertation.

Next, we’ll be outlining things you can do to help you produce the best postgraduate dissertation proposal possible.

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How to begin your dissertation proposal

Writing a dissertation proposalStarting your dissertation proposal can be quite daunting – however by breaking it down into simple components this task should become much more manageable.

1. Narrow the topic down 

It’s important that when you sit down to draft your proposal, you’ve carefully thought out your topic and are able to narrow it down enough to present a clear and succinct understanding of what you aim to do and hope to accomplish in your dissertation.

How do I decide on a dissertation topic?

A simple way to begin choosing a topic for your dissertation is to go back through your assignments and lectures. Was there a topic that stood out to you? Was there an idea that wasn’t fully explored? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then you have a great starting point! If not, then consider one of your more personal interests. Use Google Scholar to explore studies and journals on your topic to find any areas that could go into more detail or explore a more niche topic within your personal interest. 

Keep track of all publications

It’s important to keep track of all the publications that you use while you research. You can use this in your literature review.

You need to keep track of:

  • The title of the study/research paper/book/journal
  • Who wrote/took part in the study/research paper
  • Chapter title
  • Page number(s)
  • URL
  • Publisher


The more research you do, the more you should be able to narrow down your topic and find an interesting area to focus on. You’ll also be able to write about everything you find in your literature review which will make your proposal stronger.

While doing your research, consider the following:

  • When was your source published? Is the information outdated? Has new information come to light since?
  • Can you determine if any of the methodologies could have been carried out more efficiently? Are there any errors or gaps?
  • Are there any ethical concerns that should be considered in future studies on the same topic?
  • Could anything external (for example new events happening) have influenced the research?


Read more about picking a topic for your dissertation

How long should the dissertation proposal be?

Aiming for 1,000 words or more, your dissertation proposal will give an outline of the topic of your dissertation, some of the questions you hope to answer with your research, what sort of studies and type of data you aim to employ in your research, and the sort of analysis you will carry out.

Different courses may have different requirements for things like length and the specific information to include, as well as what structure is preferred, so be sure to check what special requirements your course has.  

2. What should I include in a dissertation proposal?

Writing a dissertation proposalYour dissertation proposal should have several key aspects regardless of the structure. The introduction, the methodology, aims and objectives, the literature review, and the constraints of your research all need to be included to ensure that you provide your supervisor with a comprehensive proposal. But what are they? Here's a checklist to get you started.

Introduction

The introduction will state your central research question and give background on the subject, as well as relating it contextually to any broader issues surrounding it. Read more about picking a topic for your dissertation.

The dissertation proposal introduction should outline exactly what you intend to investigate in your final research project.

Make sure you outline the structure of the dissertation proposal in your introduction, i.e. part one covers methodology, part two covers a literature review, part three covers research limitations, and so forth.

Dissertation methodology

The dissertation methodology will break down what sources you aim to use for your research and what sort of data you will collect from it, either quantitative or qualitative. You may also want to include how you will analyse the data you gather and what, if any, bias there may be in your chosen methods.

Depending on the level of detail that your specific course requires, you may also want to explain why your chosen approaches to gathering data are more appropriate to your research than others.

Consider and explain how you will conduct empirical research. For example, will you use interviews? Surveys? Observation? Lab experiments?

In your dissertation methodology, outline the variables that you will measure in your research and how you will select your data or participant sample to ensure valid results.

Finally, are there any specific tools that you will use for your methodology? If so, make sure you provide this information in the methodology section of your dissertation proposal.

Aims and objectives

Your dissertation proposal should also include the aims and objectives of your research. Be sure to state what your research hopes to achieve, as well as what outcomes you predict. You may also need to clearly state what your main research objectives are, in other words, how you plan to obtain those achievements and outcomes.

Your aim should not be too broad but should equally not be too specific.

An example of a dissertation aim could be: ‘To examine the key content features and social contexts that construct successful viral marketing content distribution on Twitter’.

In comparison, an example of a dissertation aim that is perhaps too broad would be: ‘‘To investigate how things go viral on Twitter’.

The aim of your dissertation proposal should relate directly to your research question.

Literature review

The literature review will list the books and materials that you used to do your research. This is where you can list materials that gave you more background on your topic, or contain research carried out previously that you referred to in your own studies. 

The literature review is also a good place to demonstrate how your research connects to previous academic studies and how your methods may differ from or build upon those used by other researchers. While it’s important to give enough information about the materials to show that you have read and understood them, don’t forget to include your analysis of their value to your work.

Where there are shortfalls in other pieces of academic work, identify these and address how you will overcome these shortcomings in your own research.

Constraints and limitations of your research

Lastly, you will also need to include the constraints of your research. Many topics will have broad links to numerous larger and more complex issues, so by clearly stating the constraints of your research, you are displaying your understanding and acknowledgment of these larger issues, and the role they play by focusing your research on just one section or part of the subject.

In this section it is important to Include examples of possible limitations, for example, issues with sample size, participant drop out, lack of existing research on the topic, time constraints, and other factors that may affect your study.

Ethical considerations

Confidentiality and ethical concerns are an important part of any research.

Ethics are key, as your dissertation will need to undergo ethical approval if you are working with participants. This means that it’s important to allow for and explain ethical considerations in your dissertation proposal.

Keep confidentiality in mind and keep your participants informed, so they are aware of how the data provided is being used and are assured that all personal information is being kept confidential.

Consider how involved your patients will be with your research, this will help you think about what ethical considerations to take and discuss them fully in your dissertation proposal. For example, face-to-face participant interview methods could require more ethical measures and confidentiality considerations than methods that do not require participants, such as corpus data (a collection of existing written texts) analysis. 

3. Dissertation proposal example

Writing a dissertation proposalThe structure of your dissertation proposal will depend on your specific course requirements. Some courses may specify that the aims and objectives of your research be a separate section in your proposal, or that you do not actually need to include a methodology or literature review section.

Once you know what sections you need or do not need to include, it may help focus your writing to break the proposal up into separate headings, and tackle each piece individually. You may also want to consider including a title. Writing a title for your proposal will help you make sure that your topic is narrow enough, as well as help keep your writing focused and on topic.

One example of a dissertation proposal structure is using the following headings, either broken up into sections or chapters depending on the required word count:

  • Introduction
  • Aims and objectives
  • Methodology
  • Literature review
  • Research constraints
  • Ethical considerations


In any dissertation proposal example, you’ll want to make it clear why you’re doing the research and what positives could come from your contribution. 

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