How to Write a Proposal: For a Master’s Thesis or Dissertation

How to Write a Proposal: For a Master’s Thesis or Dissertation

Note: Many thanks to fellow PhDStudent blogger Ryan Krone for his contributions and insight to this post.

Your thesis/dissertation proposal provides an overview to your committee of your plan of research; including the general scope of your project, research questions, methodology, and significance of your study. Most universities offer guidelines for their dissertation and theses requirements with information about how to set up and organize the document. Most dissertations are organized into four or five chapters. The proposal generally consists of the first three chapters because it is designed to justify and plan the project as well as explain how it contributes to existing research.

Understand and accept that the proposal will be a scrutinized document that will most likely be redrafted and resubmitted before approval. Think of the proposal as an introduction to your thesis, bridging the gap between existing work and your research. Remember that the proposal is not binding or meant to limit your ideas- you will likely modify and refine your scope, argument, and methods throughout the submission process.

Parts of a Proposal

Theses and dissertation proposals across different programs generally include some form of these sections:


At this stage in your proposal, you need only provide a working title. Don’t worry if you compose a lengthy title, the aim of a title is to convey the idea of your investigation. A good title should:

·         Familiarize the audience to the topic.

·         Indicate the type of study to be conducted.


If required (since some fields and universities do not require abstracts), the abstract should provide a brief (350 words for Dissertation, 200 words for Thesis) overview of the proposal that gives the reader a basic understanding of your proposal. The abstract should summarize your introduction, statement of the problem, background of the study, research questions or hypotheses, as well as methods and procedures.


Your introduction should put your project in conversation with other similar projects and provide necessary background information that establishes the purpose of your study. A good introduction establishes the general territory in which the research is placed and includes some references to existing literature (which will then be looked at in a later section called the Literature Review).

Statement of the Problem

This section may be incorporated into your introduction or stand independently (ask your advisor for the most appropriate format). Regardless of placement, you need to clearly identify the problem or knowledge gap that your project is responding to. To do so, be sure to limit the variables you address while stating the problem.

Purpose/Research Questions

Like the “Statement of the Problem,” this section can be included as part of the introduction or it can be separate. The statement of purpose/research objectives involves a description of the question(s) the research seeks to answer or the hypotheses the research seeks to advance. Once you begin your research, you may find that your questions or hypotheses may change- so don’t stress. What is important for you at this point is to specify your study’s focus and concisely explain the goals and research objectives. When doing this, however, remember to show how your approach will be different from the previous research and add to the field of knowledge.

Review of Literature

The literature review is a critical look at the existing research that identifies potential gaps in knowledge and is significant to the research you are proposing to carry out. Here, you need to be able to identify the key texts which contribute to your thesis or dissertation. Literature reviews often include both the theoretical and empirical approaches in order to effectively demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and the appropriate approaches to studying it.

Tips on drafting your Literature Review:

·         Categorize the literature into trends/themes and begin each with an appropriate subheading, then synthesize related information. Remember to:

o   stake out the various positions that are relevant to your project

o   build on conclusions

o   point out the places where the literature is lacking or flawed

·         Avoid defenses, praise, and blame. Your task is to justify your project given the existing knowledge.




How you study a problem is often as important as the results you collect. The methodology section includes a description of the general means through which the goals of the study will be achieved: methods, materials, procedures, tasks, et cetera. Such methods of data collection often described in these sections are surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, and archival or traditional library research. After means of collection are discussed, be sure to explain how you intend to analyze and interpret your results as well as address potential limitations to your study.

Tips on drafting your methodology section:

·         Remember that your methods section may also require supporting literature cited from the literature review.

·         Anticipate the audience’s methodological concerns about the study and its limitations such as a problem with a facet of the methodology, admit this difficulty and justify your approach.


Some proposals require a section stating the significance of the study that is separate from the introduction or statement of problem sections (be sure to check with your advisor about the requirements for this as well). A clear statement of significance discusses the methodological, substantive, and/or theoretical contribution and benefits you anticipate making to existing knowledge.

Timeline/Plan of Work

Many students also consult their advisors about creating and including in proposals a schedule of anticipated completion dates for parts of their thesis or dissertation. This timeline helps you and your committee determine if your project is realistic given available methods and institutional requirements (such as deadlines for submission) and demonstrates your awareness of the various elements of the study.

Bibliographic References and Appendices

Your proposal should include a working bibliography of sources you used for your study and methodology. You will want to include all sources cited in your proposal and references that will be cited in the dissertation itself. Some great online resources to consider to help you organize your references section are RefWorks, BibTex, and EndNote.

Your appendices include any other document pertinent to your study; for example, survey questions, IRB approval forms, or experimental diagrams. Keep in mind that bibliographies and appendices tend to be discipline specific, so make sure to consult your advisor on what the requirements are for end matter in your field of study.*

****it is important to remember here to check with your institution on the style requirements for citing sources (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.).****

More Proposal “Nuts and Bolts”


Theses and dissertation proposal lengths vary considerably depending on school and program expectations, however most are between 30 – 75 pages; and in some fields the proposal is usually the first three chapters of a dissertation (introduction, methodology, review of literature).

Style Considerations:

Tense refers to the form of a verb to show the time of an action. There are three main tenses:

·         Present tense: used for actions in a time which is happening now. This form is not commonly used when writing a thesis or dissertation.

·         Past tense: used for actions in a time which has already happened. This form is commonly used when writing a thesis or dissertation. After the proposal is accepted and you have collected data or conducted analysis to write chapter 4 (results) and chapter 5 (conclusion).  You will have to go back to chapters 1-3 and change the tense to past tense as well.

·         Future tense: used for actions in a time which has not yet happened. This form is commonly used when writing thesis and dissertation proposals. The proposal or thesis will typically be written in the future tense when writing chapters 1–3 because much of the study’s objectives haven’t been implemented yet, but will be implemented once the proposal is accepted by your committee.

Tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward his or her writing, usually expressed most clearly in vocabulary while trying to strike a consistently confident tone, while avoiding being apologetic or arrogant.

Coherence reflects the extent to which sentences and paragraphs flow together, allowing readers to follow your writing. Writers best achieve coherence by:

·         moving from “old” information to “new”

·         putting the most important information at the end of the sentence

·         keeping the subject and verb together

·         using transitional phrases (“however” or “therefore”) when shifting topics

·         using pronouns to refer back to previously introduced information or the repetition of key words or phrases

Voice refers to your own presence as a grammatical subject in your sentences. Be mindful of the difference between active and passive voice- and remember that a common practice in dissertations and theses is to use active voice, so remove passive voice wherever possible.

Active: I will look at all WVS surveys conducted between the years of 1990 and 2015.

Passive: The WVS surveys conducted between the years of 1990 and 2015 will be looked at.

Incorporate visual aids such as charts, graphs, diagrams, or illustrations wherever possible or practical.


For more tips on how to write a successful dissertation or thesis proposal for your graduate program visit the Dissertation & Thesis Survival section of the PhDStudent website or this handy Penn State PDF. You can also download our PhDStudent-How-to-Write-a-Proposal-Outline-Downloadable here.

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