Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Format

Doctoral Dissertation Proposals

Proposals constitute a specific genre of academic writing. A proposal presents a brief but explicit argument or claim that a particular subject of inquiry has merit. It also implicitly argues that the author of the proposal has enough command of the subject to pursue it successfully. Scholars in the arts and humanities typically write short proposals to join conference panels and to place essays in journals and collections. In addition to the dissertation proposal, scholars write longer proposals to obtain grants and to persuade publishers to take an interest in a book-length project.

Proposals assume an audience of educated readers who are not necessarily specialists in the proposal's specific subject of inquiry. The author's aim is to persuade this audience that the project will make an original and valuable contribution to some already on-going discussion or problem in one or more fields, or that it will break entirely new ground and even revise the existing structure of disciplinary fields.

The dissertation proposal is thus a persuasive rhetorical form, one that seeks to gain readers' assent to the proposition that the proposed study is well-founded and will advance inquiry or discussion in some important way.

Proposals can take many forms but strong proposals share certain characteristics:

  • A strong proposal makes a central claim and exhibits a clear focus.
  • A strong proposal makes clear the scope of the project. Many, though by no means all, strong proposals do so early in the text.
  • A strong proposal demonstrates both that the project grows out of rich scholarly, theoretical, and/or aesthetic grounds and that it develops these grounds in a new way or towards a new fruition.
These two elements together constitute what the guidelines refer to as a "literature review." That is, the purpose of mentioning the scholarly, theoretical, and aesthetic traditions within which the project is situated is not merely to show that the author of the proposal has undertaken a search of the relevant work in the proposed field(s). Rather it is to show how the current project fits within or contests an already on-going discourse and how it will contribute to, amend, or displace that discourse.

Thus the "review of the literature" and the "contribution to the field" are both parts of a single effort: to make and support the claim that the proposed project is worthwhile because it grows out of and then extends or revises work currently under way in the arts and humanities and related disciplines. A dissertation supports its claim to originality by positioning its argument both within and against prior scholarship and practices.
  • A strong proposal integrates the discussion of its methods into its claims to be presenting a new or distinct approach to some material or issue. Keep in mind that a method is not a technique: a strong proposal suggests the intellectual or creative perspectives it will employ (for example, close readings of original texts, "thick description" of social phenomena, or elaboration of a genre of writing) not the procedures the author will need to use (for example, collection of data or the searching of bibliographic databases).

Sample Doctoral Dissertation Proposals

The following dissertation proposals have been selected and annotated by members of the Graduate Studies Committee to suggest the various ways in which a successful proposal can be formulated.

These sample proposals should be considered as resources or models rather than as templates. Note that the samples may not conform to the current 2500-word limit.

Additional proposals will be added periodically.

Aesthetic Studies

The Simpsons and American Culture

History of Ideas

Public Voices, Public Selves: Self-Fashioning and Gender in the Eighteenth Century

Studies in Literature

The Quest for a Home: Acculturation, Social Formations, and Agency in British Fiction, 1816-1911

Are you a PhD candidate? Great – but trust us, we know how much pressure that can entail. One of the most aggravating parts of the doctoral deal can be the PhD proposal. It is understandable to fear that the final dissertation could go wrong and negate your years of hard work and study – all over one research project.

You don’t want that to happen to you – quite understandably. You’ve worked hard to get where you are in your academic pursuits. The thing that stands between you and your ultimate career goals is that pesky dissertation, and the first step in completing it is the PhD proposal. Fortunately, that is something that falls within our area of expertise.

To help you nail down a PhD proposal with awesome results, we have put together this how-to.

In this tutorial, we will help you conquer the following points:

  • Understanding the purpose of a PhD proposal

  • Developing a working title

  • Adding to the discussion

  • Following the right format

  • Planning to write your PhD proposal

  • Writing your PhD proposal

  • Proofreading for awesome results

Let’s get started…

How to write a PhD proposal tip #1: Understanding the purpose of a PhD proposal

The purpose of a PhD proposal is to help you research, complete, and deliver your PhD dissertation with greater ease.

Moreover, the PhD proposal helps you sell your primary instructor on your chosen research topic. Nevertheless, your PhD proposal is as much for you as it is your instructor. Done correctly, your proposal will act as a permanent roadmap as you complete your research and write your dissertation.

The basic objectives in creating a PhD proposal are as follows:

  • Create an outline

  • Engage your instructor and gather feedback

  • Layout a testable, adaptable model for your dissertation

  • Develop the ideas that will make it into the final product

Understanding such purposes as these will influence the rest of the PhD proposal writing process.

How to write a PhD proposal tip #2: Developing a working title

It might sound a bit obvious, but the working title of your PhD proposal has a subtle effect on its success. What you call your project will reflect its PhD statement.

Often your can glean a working title for your PhD proposal from an established thesis statement.

Questions to ask to help you achieve this:

  • What problem does my dissertation seek to solve?

  • What might the research prove?

  • To whom is this information most relevant?

Ideally, every aspect of your PhD proposal will speak directly – and with authority – to your peers working inside your respective field. Choose a title that will grab their attention and shape your research to fit – and to hold your peers’ interest!

How to write a PhD proposal #3: Adding to the discussion

A PhD proposal should prove to your primary instructor that you are immersed in and fully understand a niche topic in your field of study.

The point is to make a contribution to your field – and that’s one of the main concerns your supervising professor will be looking to see in your PhD proposal.

To achieve this goal, try to remember these objectives of a PhD proposal:

  • Carefully evaluating existing research

  • Enriching the broader understandings and implications of your research

  • Proving the practicality of research outcomes

For specific advice relevant to your chosen doctoral degree program, as always, consult with your instructor.

How to write a PhD proposal tip #2: Following the right format

The typical sections of a PhD proposal are:

  • Abstract

  • Introduction

  • Existing literature/significant prior research

  • Thesis or project statement

  • Approach

  • Potential outcomes

  • Limitations

  • Contributions to knowledge

  • Proposed dissertation chapters

To learn more about the specific sections of a PhD proposal (as well as to grab some helpful Panda Tips), take a look at our free PhD proposal template.

How to write a PhD proposal tip #: Planning to write your PhD proposal

Consider the organization of your PhD proposal writing process before you actually start writing.

Don’t let that happen to you. Plan the flow of your writing – and stick to the plan!

The plan to write a PhD proposal is as follows:

  • Roadmap

  • Work out any visual you would like to include

  • Explain your methodology

  • Describe the data to be used

  • Postulate possible outcomes of reviewing the data

  • Introduction

  • Abstract

  • Bibliography

How to write a PhD proposal tip #4: Writing the PhD proposal

After creating a PhD proposal plan, the next step is to start the actual writing process.

Consult with your instructor to make sure you use the right tone and writing conventions, but remember, for the most part, PhD proposals adopt a more formal style than other types of writings – even other academic papers you might have written. Make sure you clear this up, before you start writing.

How to write a PhD proposal tip #5: Proofreading for awesome results

A PhD proposal calls for grammatical correctness throughout.

The best practices for proofreading a PhD proposal are as follows:

  • Read the proposal over and over to yourself to identify unnatural wording

  • Proof, proof, and proof again – taking a break in between writing and proofing sessions to allow your brain to rest

  • Ask a few friends to read your PhD proposal – the more the merrier!

Accuracy is never more important than in a PhD proposal. Make sure extensive proofing is a part of your plan.

Are you ready to write a PhD proposal?

We don’t have to tell you just how important a PhD proposal really is – that much, you already know. We hope our tips and free template serve you well as your take the difficult steps to earn your meritorious doctoral degree!

Needless to say, a PhD proposal is one of the most important documents you will ever have to submit. Do you have any extra tips? Please share them with us, in the comment space below!

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