How to write dissertation proposal

Dissertation proposal is the first step of the formal dissertation process. Starting well is a good indicator of success not just in finishing an academic document but more importantly in later career developments. This article gives simple suggestions and general directions of preparing and starting this writing process. Much of these suggestions are based on the author’s personal experience as an advisor of graduate studies and from sitting on dissertation committees in different roles.

In general, four steps: planning, research, writing and defense.

I. Planning

  1. Most Important: Invite your chair
    1. Build a trust-based relationship with your professors
    2. Start talking about research with as many professors as possible
    3. LISTEN for “data collection”
    4. Write formal invitation
  2. Who is your chair?
    1. Professor and instructor
    2. Mentor
    3. Advisor
    4. (Coauthor)
    5. Professional vs. Personal
  3. Schedule regular meetings with chair
    1. Observe professional etiquette
      1. Email correspondence
        1. Appropriate
        2. Timely
        3. Regular
      2. Build professionalism (start thinking of whom you will become, “already but not yet”)
    2. Produce content weekly
    3. Make in-person meeting

II. Research

  1. Find a topic
    1. Start from something small and unnoticed
    2. Read
    3. Investigate
  2. Literature
    1. Database approach vs. memory approach
    2. Cite, cite smart and cite well
    3. Take notes, annotation
  3. Scaling
    1. “Prototype”
    2. Focus
    3. Originality

III. Writing

    • Use all tools and techniques
    • Read multiple times:
      • Style manual (e.g. how to cite, how to build reference list, how to use numbers, sentences)
      • Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (also available here)
      • Do everything you can, e.g. attend workshop, start a project to build writing skills
      • Personal suggestions (particularly for international students):
        • Avoid long sentences (KISS)
        • Avoid personal
          • e.g. use this study instead of “I”
        • Use active voice
        • Pay attention to numbers use nine instead of 9.
        • Aesthetics: simple, clean, consistent
  • Unforgivable mistakes
    • Spelling
    • Grammar
    • Missing page numbers
    • Formatting
    • In a nutshell, do your own review and revise multiple timesĀ 
      • Don’t let your chair frown on your work

IV. Defense

  1. Do your own paperworks
    • It is your responsibility, not your chair’s
    • Know the rules (OGE, EPPS Dean’s office)
  2. Leave ample room to committee members to read and advise
    • Schedule defense only when your proposal is ready or only need minor revisions
    • Send to committee at least two weeks in advance
    • Schedule individual meetings with members at least one week in advance to the defense

V. Moving forward

  • Meet with chair regularly
  • Produce content weekly
  • Observe OGE deadlines and plan for final oral defense

VI. Tools

Sample Structure I (full, multi-chapter, adapted from UCLA):

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Motivation/Statement of the Problem
  5. Hypotheses
  6. Review of Literature
  7. (Theoretical/Conceptual Framework)
  8. Data
  9. Methods
  10. (Preliminary Results)
  11. (Significance/Implications)
  12. Timeline
  13. References

Sample Structure II (UTD Three paper format)

  • Each paper:
    1. Title
    2. Abstract
    3. Introduction
    4. Hypotheses
    5. Review of Literature
    6. (Theoretical/Conceptual Framework)
    7. Data
    8. Methods
    9. (Preliminary Results)
    10. (Significance/Implications)
    11. Timeline
    12. References

[The three papers need be coherent while each be independent.]{.underline}


Preparation of Dissertation and Thesis UTD Office of Graduate Education

Terrell, Steven R. Writing a proposal for your dissertation: Guidelines and examples. Guilford Publications, 2022.

Writing the Social Sciences Dissertation Proposal, UCLA Graduate Writing Center

Karl Ho
Political Scientist/Data Scientist

My research interests include survey research, data methods, data visualization, Taiwan elections, politics and policy in China and East Asia.