By Carrie Winstanley
Having to write a dissertation proposal depends upon the university or institution that you’re attending. Even if a dissertation proposal isn’t a requirement, however, it’s a very useful exercise (and is certainly going to impress your supervisor, especially if it’s not part of your assessment).
On some courses the research proposal is assessed and forms part of your final dissertation submission. If this is the case, it’s vital that you follow the correct format and submit your work on time. Mostly, a dissertation proposal has a 500 or 1,000 word limit, but you must check what your course specifically requires.
What is a dissertation proposal?
A dissertation proposal is basically a description of the following:
What your dissertation is about
Probable questions that you’re going to be examining
Some reference to the theoretical background
Research methods you’re going to be using (empirical or non-empirical)
Potential outcomes of the study
Time spent putting your dissertation proposal together is an investment. You reap rewards because the proposal stops you wasting time and also forms the basis of your dissertation outline.
Writing a dissertation proposal, even if it’s not a requirement, is still worth doing. You can submit the proposal to your supervisor (with her agreement) and get some valuable feedback.
Ask your supervisor for guidance about the tone and style of your research proposal. You need to be flexible and open-minded, showing a willingness to adapt your methods and ideas as your research dictates. Say in your proposal what you intend to do, confidently and adopting a balanced view, suggesting that you’ve carefully considered the best way of carrying out your study. Be firm but not arrogant; be flexible but not feeble!
Make sure that you follow the rules of grammar in your proposal. Be consistent about the tense of your proposal. Most proposals are written using the future tense: ‘I will be using questionnaires . . . and so on’. Check with your supervisor for confirmation.
What does a dissertation proposal include?
The essential parts of a research proposal are generally standard:
Dissertation title (so far): Aim at making the title short and to the point.
Overall objectives: If you have more than three objectives, your area of research is probably far too broad and needs to be narrowed. (Some university courses may ask you to include a rationale at this stage.)
Literature, context, background: You can use any of these words as the title of this section, just make sure that you mention key schools of thought or areas of study that are going to provide information about your dissertation. (Some proposals require you to list specific references at this point, others ask for the bibliography at the end.)
Details of the research: Here, you can expand the ideas spelt out in your research question. This section is about outlining clearly your area of research.
Methodologies: Your work may be empirical (with some sort of study and collection of data such as questionnaires) or non-empirical (no such data, all your research comes from already published writing and projects). If your study is non-empirical, this section is likely to be short; longer if you need to collect or look at the empirical data.
If you’re allowed to use bullet points in your research proposal, you need do no more than list your intended activities (for example, carrying out interviews, consulting archives or evaluating data).
Potential outcomes: Avoid second-guessing the result of your dissertation. If you knew the outcomes, it would be pretty pointless doing the dissertation! Here, you’re summarising the type of outcomes you hope to generate and suggesting a target audience.
Timeline: If you’re asked to outline how you plan to manage your research, think about including a Gantt chart or some kind of concept map. Whatever you do, make your timeline realistic.
Bibliography: Check if you’re required to provide a list of references, and if so, find out roughly how many references you’re expected to list.
How to make a simple Gantt chart
13 September 2011by Jonathan O'Donnell
In every grant application, I want to see a simple visual guide (a Gantt chart) that shows what you are planning to do. It is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. It shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.
Clearly, these charts are hard to do. If they were easy, more people would do them, right?
Here are five steps to create a simple guide to your research project.
1. List your activities
Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project. Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list. Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample? Write it down.
List of tasks for “Simple Privacy”, a one year project
Check it against your budget. Everything listed in the budget should also be listed on your uber-list? Have you asked for a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, commission it… What about travel? Write down each trip separately.
2. Estimate the time required
For each item on your list, estimate how long it will take you to do that thing. How long are you going to be in the field? How long will it take to employ a research assistant? Realistically, how many interviews can you do in a day? When will people be available?
- Initial meeting: about 3 weeks to find a time.
- Desk audit: 4 months.
- Draft key elements: about 1 week each.
- Testing: about 1 week each, but can start organising as soon as first element is drafted.
- Write up: 2 months.
- Final report: no time, really – just need to find a time to meet.
Generally, I use weeks to estimate time. Anything that takes less than a week I round off to a week. Small tasks like that will generally disappear from the list when we consolidate (see Step 4). Then I group things together into months for the actual plan.
3. Put activities in order
What is the first thing that you are going to do? What will you do next? What will you do after that?
In the comments, Adrian Masters provided some great questions to help with this stage:
- What do I need to do by when?
- What do I need from others & when?
- How do I check that I am still on track?
One by one, put everything in order. Make a note of any dependencies; that is, situations where you can’t do one thing until another is started or finished. If the research assistant is going to do all the interviews, then the interviews can’t start until the research assistant is hired.
Where possible, you should eliminate as many as possible dependencies. For example, if you can’t find a decent research assistant, you will do the fieldwork yourself (but that might mean that work will be delayed until you finish teaching). It isn’t a necessary step to getting your time-line in order, but it is good project management practice.
In the comments, Amy Lamborg pointed out that you might want to work backwards. If you have a fixed end date, you might want to “…build back towards the project start date, then jiggle everything until it fits!” If you want an example of this, have a look at the post “Work backwards“. It is about writing an application, but the principle of starting with the fixed end date and working backwards still applies.
4. Chunk it up
Now that you have an ordered list, and you know how long everything will take, you need to reduce the list without losing any specificity. At the same time, if you are combining tasks, you might want to add a bit of time as a contingency measure.
- Meet with partners: 3 weeks.
- Review data protection regimes: 4 months.
- Draft three key elements: 3 months.
- Test three key elements: 3 months, with some overlap.
- Analyse test results and report: 3 months.
How you divide up your time depends on your project. If it is only one year long, you might list items by month. If your project is three years long, then you might list items by quarter. If you are planning over five years, you might break it down to six-month periods.
5. Draw me a picture
If you use project management software to manage your project, and you are comfortable with it, then use it to produce a summary of your project, too.
Most project management software (e.g. like Microsoft Project) will allow you to group activities into summary items. Chunk your tasks into major headings, then change the time interval to your months, quarters, half-years, or whatever you have chosen to use.
Or you can just draw it up with word-processing software (which is what I always do), spreadsheet software, or even hand-draw it.
Example of a Gantt chart
Frankly, I don’t care – as long as it ends up in your application!
Also in the ‘simple grant’ series: