A dissertation proposal is typically associated with earning a Ph.D., but the skills involved with successful proposals extend beyond the realm of higher academia. With your dissertation proposal, you are trying to sell the idea that your research is worth pursuing and also that you are capable of handling the project. In a sense, you are attempting to market your self, and the product is essentially an idea that needs to be explored.
Needless to say, the proposal is one of the most critical (and feared) aspects of the entire dissertation process, so it requires considerable time and effort. Usually, quite a bit of preliminary research and review go into a successful dissertation proposal, and it is often necessary to make multiple revisions and drafts. Think of it as the provisional work that goes into your eventual goal, and remember that it is not so much an individual project as it is a collaboration. It's also important to keep in mind that the proposal is not the dissertation in a miniature form. It is a map for the road ahead. You are essentially an explorer, detailing a vision of a new place you have not yet been.
What's Your Purpose?
What is your purpose, your argument, and how will you prove it? A proposal should hint at the ways you will go about proving your argument. It need not be overly detailed. The details you choose to include should work to demonstrate your point, not prove it.
While the format of a dissertation proposal is not the same as a book or even a long essay, it may be organized into chapters and begin with an introduction that includes the stated purpose of the dissertation, discusses some of the background behind why you believe this is an important topic, reviews some of the existing assumptions about it, and defines some of the related terms. You may also use the introduction to present some of the questions concerning your topic.
At some later point in the dissertation proposal you will most likely need to present an outline of the chapters. Early on, though, you should at least develop an overview of your purpose and its significance to the field.
Mapping out your methodology is a necessary chapter in your proposal, and it will help you to get a grasp on all the many pieces before you. Depending on your target audience and the nature of the questions you address, you should decide if your research will be qualitative or quantitative. (Qualitative research generally means that your results will be generated based upon interpretation, that your variables are not quantified; quantitative, on the other hand means that there are quantified variables and precise results.) Both types of research are valid, depending on the nature of your dissertation.
Qualitative research often incorporates a more social setting (such as a case study) and involves more observation and interaction. It's a more subjective approach, and the inferences and interpretations of the research will mean more variability in terms of the results.
Quantitative research is usually more calculated. Results are more readily measurable and also typically more specific. Common quantitative methodologies would include experiments and surveys.
Outlining your methodology means laying out how you will go about making your point and the types of tools you will use. It needs to fit the type of topic you've chosen. If you plan to conduct a survey, you need to discuss its design, the target population, and the scaling method. How will you collect your data? Will it be via an email-based survey? A telephone interview? Each has its advantages and limitations. Analyzing the data is also a critical aspect. Be prepared also to give a justification - your philosophy, essentially - for why it is appropriate.
Your Proposal's Place
Another part of "selling" your dissertation proposal is to tell its place in the scholarly world. Do not underestimate the importance of this part of your proposal.
Who is going to be talking about it, and what field will find it relevant? What data will you consult and revise and/or build upon? This part of the proposal is critical, yet easy to lose sight of. Your dissertation will not be the product of an individual; it is collaboration of the combined efforts of you, along with your peers and advisors.
You'll need to review the literature relevant to your particular topic as part of your proposal. Besides demonstrating that you're familiar with the field or inquiry, a literature review will help you become aware of the prevailing ideas about your topic, who some of the key writers are, some of the existing theories and questions, and other methodologies.
First, find out what's out there, and gather as many resources as are available. You'll have to find them, read them, and review them. Submitting a bibliography of the works you plan to consult is a good place to begin. But the review itself if not the same as an annotated bibliography; rather, it often takes on the look of an essay: an introduction that details the basis for your selection of literature, a body that discusses the historical and current research as well as the principal current questions and discoveries, and a conclusion that summarizes the general consensus of the current literature as well as your dissertation's place within it.
Be prepared to discuss, defend, and re-draft your dissertation proposal. The ideas you put forth in your dissertation proposal will not be etched into stone. Remember that the goal with your proposal is to detail one possible dissertation; however, that may differ substantially from the dissertation you later present - and that's okay!
Again, the ultimate goal of all of this is to make a convincing case that your dissertation is worthwhile. Give yourself plenty of time, and keep in contact with the dissertation committee. If you can present to your reader an idea that he or she initially knows little about (and possibly cares little about) and make him or her genuinely want for you to take on the project, your dissertation proposal has been a success.
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