Writing the Proposal

All departments seem to have their own expectations for dissertation proposals. Some expect you to submit a first chapter and a literature review. Others expect three pages outlining the questions you hope to answer. Therefore, the rule of thumb is to find out what your department expects. And then proceed by looking at as many successful examples of ABD’s and PhD’s from your department that you can. 

It is imperative that you ask your department for model dissertation proposals when you are preparing your own. Each department differs.

In general, the proposal serves as a recipe or a “map” for the thesis or dissertation. Therefore, you should be as detailed and specific as possible while still keeping your mind open to potential findings and shifts in your original hypothesis.

Qualities of Successful Proposals


Most successful proposals do the following things:

1. Clearly describe the issue of the dissertation in the first paragraph. Establish your intent.

2. State your working thesis clearly. 

3. Outline the questions you plan to address in the dissertation or thesis.

4. Locate your topic and its focus in your field. This will often consist of a literature review in which you identify issues that need more attention or approaches that have not been exhausted. In addition, describe the angle of your approach within the context of existing literature.

5. Establish a strong research design, theoretical framework, or methodology for your study. Will your project be qualitative or quantitative? What scholars and theorists frame your approach? Include a discussion of sources; tell where they can be found and how they will be used.

6. Describe the topics you plan to cover in each chapter of the thesis or dissertation. It is beneficial if you can organize your proposal to reflect the structure of your dissertation and many grant applications will ask that you present the outline of your dissertation in chapter form. Check with your advisor to see if he or she wants a specific chapter outline or a more general sense of the topics you will cover.

7. Speculate upon potential results of your study.

8. Discuss the importance of your study to the field. Explore the relevance of your work to the “big picture.”

9. Keep a substantial running bibliography organized by useful categories.

10. Write your proposal to the experts in your field, not just to your advisor, for a proposal that can be more readily turned into a grant or fellowship proposal.

Additional Resources


Dissertations in IST (Instructional Learning Technology) - The Indiana University School of Education offers sample dissertation proposals. Most of these proposals include literature reviews as well as an overview of the author’s project.

Proposal Tips - From S. Joseph Levine’s page on Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation.

Writing Center • 141 East Twelfth Street, Claremont, CA 91711 • 909-607-0012

2017 Claremont Graduate University 150 E. 10th St., Claremont, CA 91711 (909) 621-8000 Campus Safety Emergency Info Campus Map/Driving Directions