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.

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Networking in Grad School

Networking in Grad School

I’ve mentioned it plenty of times in previous blog posts, but I thought it was time to write a full post specifically about networking. Some students love it, some students hate it, but all students need it. Plenty of benefits come when people network, including contacts with professional people in your area and potentially around the country (depending on where your contacts move), support during grad school and beyond, links to potential employers, and head starts on job hunting at career fairs.

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You can network with your professors, too! They are great professional contacts to keep in touch with after you have completed you... Read More
Thursday, 10 April 2014 15:27
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Burnout – Part Two

Burnout – Part Two

So last week I talked a lot about what graduate school burnout is, and some warning signs that you might be experiencing burnout. This week I will be talking about what to do if you are experiencing some of the signs of burnout. Below are some helpful ways to help battle burnout and help you regain your passion for your field, knowledge, and your future career trajectory.

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Burnout – Part One

Burnout – Part One

With these next few posts, I would like to put some of the more glamorous aspects of grad school on hold – yes, there are many glamorous aspects of grad school – and talk about a very serious issue that impacts many graduate students: burnout. In part one of this two-part series, I will be talking about what burnout is, and some of the warning signs that you might be experiencing burnout. In part two, I will be discussing ways prevent and treat burnout.

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