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Developing the Right Proposal for a Doctoral Dissertation

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 9/7/2010

Getting the right PhD proposal for your dissertation can mean the difference between graduating and failing to finish your doctoral degree. Learn about getting the right proposal so your dissertation chair and committee will approve it.

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    The PhD dissertation proposal is more than just one more milestone to conquer on your way to earning your doctoral degree. It is a vehicle with which you prove to your dissertation chair and committee that you are an independent researcher capable of carrying out research without the watchful eye of a professor or principal investigator.

    Getting the right PhD proposal also means more than just satisfying your own needs to produce research. Along the way through the dissertation, you are likely to be challenged more than you ever were before. This is the part of the doctoral process that truly transforms students into independent researchers.

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    What is the Right Proposal?

    Getting the Right Dissertation Proposal Put simply, the right proposal is the one your chair and committee will approve to raise you to the level of doctoral candidate. Finding a match, however, between what you feel you can accomplish and what your committee wants you to accomplish is the trick.

    Many students about to enter candidacy do not feel adequately prepared to conduct research on their own. Supposedly, the program prepares the student for this stage but suddenly the student feels lost when the structure initiated in earlier doctoral work is no longer there. The proposal is your first attempt at proving to your committee that you don’t need that structure.

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    Look to the Publications of Your Professors

    If you want to get the right dissertation proposal, look to the publications of your chair and committee members. Often, committee members believe that they are only doing their jobs if they constantly find fault with the doctoral candidate’s work. By selecting a proposal topic that is similar to the work published by your committee members, you are assured that they will be capable of judging the merit of your proposal and reduce committee criticism brought on by ignorance of the topic.

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    Look to Recent Proposals of Former Students

    Near past performance is always a good indicator of near future performance. To get the right dissertation proposal, look at the proposals, both failed and accepted, of the students who came before you. See if you can find a common element of why the failed proposals failed and the accepted proposals were accepted.

    Although keeping it simple is a good way to conduct research, making your proposal too simple is one of the most common reasons why dissertation committees reject a proposal. Make sure your proposal significantly pushes the relevant literature forward but doesn’t propose any new or radical paradigm shifts in how the current literature should be viewed.

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    Be Prepared for Contingency

    One of the most time consuming parts of the dissertation is data collection. Data are difficult to collect when the process to acquire the data is cumbersome, time sensitive, or complicated. Make sure your proposal includes a contingency plan for if or when your data do not support your hypotheses or research questions.

    It is no secret that insignificant findings are not publishable and neither are they accepted in a dissertation. Ask yourself, “what would I do if the data I collect don’t support my assertions?” “Could I realistically recollect the data or would I have to go back to the drawing board?” Having a clear contingency plan for things that can go wrong in the dissertation is an excellent way to ensure you get the right proposal.