Guide to the Dissertation Proposal

So, you’re finished with coursework, you’ve done your qualifying exams, and now you have to submit a dissertation proposal. You know what you want to work on, sort of, but you don’t know what a dissertation proposal is, or how to get yours passed.

I’ve been giving students feedback and suggestions on dissertation proposals for years, and there are some common misconceptions as well as repeated themes that I want to take the time to distill. Following this guide will help improve your chances of getting your proposal approved, and will give you a better launching point for your dissertation work itself.

What is a dissertation proposal? Why is it important?

The dissertation proposal is NOT just a formality or one more hoop to jump through. It may well be the trickiest and most important milestone in your PhD process. The purpose of the proposal is twofold: first, to convince your committee (and anyone else who has to pass on the proposal, such as a Graduate Studies Committee) that you are prepared to start writing a dissertation, and to form something of an agreement (some say a contract) between you and your committee about what that dissertation will look like and what kind of work you’ll have to do to complete it in a satisfactory fashion.

The dissertation proposal’s main goal is thus to make an argument that you should be allowed to write a dissertation under the parameters described in the proposal. If your committee accepts it, then they are endorsing the plan for your dissertation.

There’s a further reason that dissertation proposals are good for, especially in the humanities: dissertation research grants. A good research proposal is the first draft for a research grant proposal. If you need funding to do your research (e.g., to travel to historical archives), if your program does not include full funding, or if the level of funding in your program is inadequate, a dissertation grant is very helpful. A winning dissertation grant proposal will have all of the components listed below, and be legible to any scholar in the humanities, not just in your discipline or field.

Components of a Good Proposal

A good proposal has to do all of these things, and do them well. These need not necessarily be organized into separate sections, and it may make sense to organize them in different ways depending on your project, as long as the organization is clear (see below).

1. Thesis statement

Your proposal should have a thesis statement. A thesis statement should be one clear, declarative, relatively simple sentence. It should be a complete sentence. It should be “on the marquee,” so to speak: easy to spot at a quick skim. A thesis statement should be easy to understand by most readers in your field. Make it shorter and simpler than you are inclined to make it. You can take time to unpack the terms and ideas in the thesis before or after your state it, but keep the statement itself simple and easy to find.

The thesis statement must state a thesis, i.e., it must assert a claim that can be argued by the dissertation. Your thesis statement needs to be able to fill in the blank on sentences like the following:

  • “I will argue that _________.”
  • “In this dissertation, I show that _______.”
  • “While others hold that X & Y, I claim that _______.”

Many students will want to substitute a “statement of intent” for their thesis statement, i.e., they state their intentions to “explore” a concept, idea, or topic. These are by no means the same thing. A thesis statement cannot begin “I will explore…” Substituting such a statement for a thesis statement is a sign that you are not prepared to make an original contribution to your field.1

2. Literature review

A review of the body of literature that your research will be a contribution to. A good literature review establishes that you are contributing to an actual, existing intellectual enterprise, and you know the basic contours of this enterprise. A successful dissertation is a small advancement of some field of knowledge, or, a small contribution to the ongoing conversation that defines some area of the humanities. However you think of it, the first step is to zoom in on what area of knowledge or part of the conversation you are contributing to. If you cannot identify the field you are contributing to, it raises serious concern about your ability to make a significant contribution.

Again, it is not just a formality, not just there to show how much you know. A good literature review has a purpose, triangulating the field you are going to contribute to, and so the the review includes all and only what it needs to serve that purpose.

3. Explain the significance of your project

This is closely tied to the literature review. How will you add to that field that you’ve described? How will your dissertation make an interesting and worthwhile impact? Does it fill a gap? Correct a mistake? Extend an established idea into a new domain?

(2) and (3) imply a somewhat conservative approach. Your dissertation should not try to overthrow the entire conceptual scheme of your field. It should not try to show that everyone who has ever worked in the field is wrong. It should not try to invent a field from scratch. Or, if you are really able to pull any of those things off, you’re the sort of rare bird who doesn’t need any of this advice. For what its worth, I haven’t yet met the Ph.D. student who could pull any of those things off.

4. Plan

You need to describe a credible plan for your research, that makes it plausible that you can succeed. You should describe your methodology or theoretical approach. You should provide a chapter-by-chapter summary, or a more general description of the structure of your argument.

Your plan is, of course, tentative, though there is no need to dwell on that in the proposal itself. As the saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Research is a difficult, fraught endeavor, and there is always a chance that your plan will fail. (If it couldn’t possibly fail, would it be worth doing in the first place?) But if you take care in preparing your plan, and you get feedback from the 3+ smart, experienced scholars who serve on your committee, you’ll be at a big advantage over those who don’t have a good plan, in terms of timely and successful completion of your dissertation.

A few further thoughts

Be Organized

Make it clear to your reader what is going on in each part of your dissertation proposal. Use section headings and transition sentences. The four components listed above need not necessarily be in that order, or organized into separate sections, but however you organize it, it should be clear and easy to follow.

E.g., you may want to foreground the chapter-by-chapter plan for your dissertation in your proposal. In that case, it may make sense to split your literature review up among the chapters.

Human Subjects Research

Human subjects research requires approval by the Institutional Review Board — even in the humanities! If you are considering doing work that involves ethnography, interviews, oral histories, surveys, or the like, familiarize yourself with your institution’s human subjects research policies and procedures. Personally, I expect initial approval from the IRB before passing the proposal.

Arguments require evidence

Remember that you are making an argument in the dissertation proposal. You’re trying to convince the reader that you are ready and that you have a good plan. Arguments require some sort of evidence or grounds. In the humanities, evidence is often textual — citations to the literature, quotations from literary or philosophical texts, transcriptions from archival resources, etc.

Don’t fill it up with quotations

On the other hand, use quotations sparingly. Most dissertation proposals are relatively brief (UT Dallas A&H has a 2500 word limit). Most of the text needs to be your ideas, argument, analysis, synthesis, reflection.

I didn’t do all of this right myself

My own dissertation proposal was not a model in this regard, and the dissertation it helped me produce is not going to win any awards. My dissertation radically changed structure at least twice in the course of writing it, slowing me down, and it did not turn out to provide a great resource for publishing articles or a book manuscript after I finished. A good dissertation will help push you towards tenure, if you end up in an academic job. Hopefully you can benefit from my mistakes.

Your institution may have additional requirements

Everything so far is meant to be rather generic. But there may be specific requirements that you have to meet at your institution that aren’t covered here. For instance, when I was a Ph.D. student in the Philosophy Department at UC San Diego, we had to have roughly everything I have described here, plus a sample chapter of the dissertation.

Further Useful Links


Thanks to Sean Sutherlin for unintentionally spurring me to finish this post. Thanks to Roberta Millstein and Margaret Gaida for useful feedback that led to revisions.

  1. There are different views here: Some advisors will accept a statement of intent in lieu of a thesis statement at the proposal stage. Some will approve dissertations whose chapters are thematically linked, or responsive to different aspects of the same problem, but which don’t make a tightly linked argument with an overall thesis statement. In some fields, it is acceptable to do a dissertation that is essentially just a collection of separate articles in the same specialty. My experience, as a student and as an advisor, is that you have a much better chance of success with a clear thesis guiding the dissertation as a whole. I will (almost) always insist on it. 

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