Dissertation Proposal Writing Tip #1: Keep It in Perspective
When you first stare at the blank page that will eventually become your dissertation, you will likely feel overwhelmed by the process. After all, this is your plan for the longest and probably most important intellectual challenge of your academic career. But, ultimately, the dissertation proposal is merely an academic exercise. No one—neither your advisor nor your future committee—is going to hold you to everything you write in the proposal. They know that your questions and eventual conclusions will shift, sometimes dramatically, during the course of your research. The main goal of the proposal is to show your committee that you can create a coherent plan and that you have engaged adequately with prior research in the field.
In the humanities, many times it is acceptable just to pose numerous questions that you will seek to answer. However, for those students working in the sciences, especially in a laboratory setting, the prospectus demands actual project results. What is important to keep in mind in the sciences, however, is that your results can deviate or even contradict your original hypothesis—and that’s okay!
In short, don’t think of your proposal as a binding contract but rather a very rough draft of expectations and initial—albeit, hopefully informed—assumptions. Focus most of your time reviewing literature and coming up with some important questions that you may want to research further and, hopefully, answer.
Dissertation Proposal Writing Tip #2: Do Your Homework!
When researching and writing your dissertation proposal, it is important not to skimp on the quality or quantity of the works you cite. If you don’t reference the prevailing scholars, scientists, or researchers in your field, the committee will certainly notice and may make unfavorable inferences about the quality of your proposal.
By its very nature, academic discourse is intended to be a conversation with the rest of your field. If you are not having a thorough dialogue with other sources, it is unlikely that the end result will be compelling or worthy of a PhD. For this reason, be generous or even go overboard with the number of references you include in your proposal, and be sure to cite and integrate the ideas and conclusions of others throughout your proposal.
Dissertation Proposal Writing Tip #3: Brevity Is a Virtue
A common pitfall of writing a dissertation proposal—which is a process that can take several months or even years—is that it can become long and cumbersome. You need to be ruthless about keeping it short and to the point—as much as possible. Even with your literatre review, be careful not to deviate from the primary focus—be concise. Your committee doesn’t want to wade through forty pages or more just to understand your plan.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation”? If you haven’t yet, you will at some point in your graduate career. Think of your proposal in the same way. The best proposal is the one that is accepted by your committee. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; it just needs to be good enough to enable you to progress to the real task at hand, namely writing that dissertation.
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