Some Thoughts on
Dissertation Proposal Writing

Dr. Chris M. Golde
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Writing a dissertation proposal is, in my opinion, the hardest part of the dissertation process. In Education, where few students are working closely with an established research project led by a faculty member, the student is developing a project on their own. In creating a proposal you are crafting something out of nothing. Developing an understanding of an issue, identifying, reading and summarizing the relevant literature, and developing your own take on the problem are time consuming and often frustrating processes. In many ways the methodology is the easiest part to develop. Once you have a clear idea of the first pieces, the methods should follow easily.

Sometimes the more you know the less things hang together. This is normal. Writing a proposal is an iterative process. You cycle through the various pieces over and over. In the end, you are trying to create a linear argument which takes the reader from knowing little to a point where the reader wants you to do this project more than anything in the world. However, the construction of the proposal is not linear. It is common to work on a proposal for several months, and to write 15-20 drafts.

In general I think that proposals should be in the 20 page range. I think that a proposal should have the following parts:

  1. Introduction
    bulletSummary of the larger puzzles and issues
    bulletLocating your work in a larger issue
    bulletMain research question
  2. Problem Statement
    bulletWhat is the issue?
    bulletWhat are the specific questions?
    bulletWhat is the context and background?
    bulletWhy does this matter?
  3. Conceptual Framework
    bulletHow do you look at this puzzle?
    bulletWhat is the theoretical framework (what is this a case of?)?
    bulletWhat are the key constructs?
    bulletWhat are specific terms you are using and how do you define them?
    bulletModel of what you think is going on
  4. Methods
    bulletWhat do you plan to do and why
    bulletHow do these link to the questions and the CF?
  5. Bibliography
  6. Appendices
    bulletSurvey drafts
    bulletPilot data
In general I do not like a separate section labeled "Literature Review" although I know that people have different opinions about that. In addition, some projects may be more appropriately organized that way. Instead, I think that you should interweave the literature into the PS and the CF. This informs the reader of what we do know and what we need to know. This serves to bolster the argument which you are crafting. Rather than summarizing the various pieces of literature in detail (by reviewing the methods and the dependent variable and the findings) you should be explaining what matters about that study. This can be as brief as (these examples are from my own proposal):

The decisions of students are a complex interaction of internal, external and institutional factors (Cabrera, Castaneda, Nora, & Hengstler, 1992).
Or take a paragraph to summarize several studies:

While this macro-level description of women in doctoral education turns attention to systemic problems, problems are also located at the individual level. The sexist micro-inequities which many women endure have been dubbed the academic "chilly climate," which impacts female graduate students as well as undergraduates (Berg & Ferber, 1983; Female Graduate Students at MIT, 1983; Hall & Sandler, 1982; Sandler & Hall, 1986). For example, women may be rendered invisible, and rarely asked for their advice or expertise, or may be interrupted. Lott has analyzed the ways in which competent women are evaluated less favorably than comparable men (1985), a bind women are unable to escape. Women doctoral students may be the victims of sexual harassment, and may be particularly reluctant to speak out, given their reliance on faculty support for their chosen careers (Dziech & Weiner, 1984; Schneider, 1987). Women students may be less likely to find mentors, as faculty are more likely to mentor same-sex students (Berg & Ferber, 1983).
Only when there is direct bearing on the study you are doing, might you want to describe a study in depth. (I don't have a very good example of this, because I don't do this much.)

Bowen and Rudenstine (1992) computed doctoral student attrition rates for a 10 university sample, of which Stanford was one participant. They found a 52% attrition rate for the entering cohorts of 1972-76 (p. 108). They also computed rates for two groups of departments (English-History-Political Science and Math-Physics) in a sub-set of 4 universities (including Stanford), and found a 40% attrition rate for the EHP departments and a 24.7% rate for the MP group. Like many studies, these data are quite old. More recent data from the Stanford Provost's Committee on the Recruitment, Retention and Graduation of Minority Graduate Students (Stanford University, 1994) suggest an attrition rate near 20%.
Regardless of what organizational strategy you use to present the literature, keep in mind to do ANALYSIS of the literature. What are the conceptual and methodological strengths and weaknesses? What are the things we can say with confidence, and what is speculative and tentative? What is clearly established and what is missing? By identifying the gaps, you can locate your own work. In the CF you want to convince the reader of your way of looking at things. Here you take the literature and summarize and reorganize it in order to bolster the points you are trying to make. Rather than marching through a number of studies (A said this, B said that, C and D are contradictory) I used this strategy, as an example.

As described in detail in the section which follows, the research literature has identified four primary forces which shape the departmental context of the doctoral student experience. Figure 3 identifies these four forces, two of which are external influences from the larger communities in which the department is located, the campus community and the disciplinary area. The other two forces are internal, they categorize the way in which organizational members and organizational rules, policies and practices create the departmental organization.
I also believe strongly in drawing diagrams and models of what you think is going on and how you see the world. Others might disagree, but I think this can be done for exploratory and qualitative work. Even if you are not hypothesis testing, you have an idea of what components are salient. And if you revise your view in the light of the data, so much the better.

By the end of the CF you want the reader convinced both of the importance of this problem and of your way of looking at it. The Methods then flow from the questions and your way of looking at them. While you may be doing exploratory work, you still need to explain how the things you are looking at or asking about relate to the way you understand and conceptualize the problem. (Let me also say that I STRONGLY disagree with those who suggest for exploratory research you should read the literature after you collect the data. This is utter nonsense and could only lead to haphazard and ill-informed data collection. Exploratory, theory-building research must still proceed in light of previous knowledge. How else would you know that it was treading new ground?)

Your understanding and conceptualization may, of course, change as you collect the data. The proposal is not cast in cement. Instead, it is a blueprint. It is a map which guides you on your data collection and analysis journey. The more thoroughly you have thought about the issues in advance, the more likely you are to be on sure ground later.

Finally, I strongly believe in the importance of sharing your work with others. One key person is your dissertation chair. You want to make sure that you clear major changes in direction with her/him, so that you do not regard one another with horror further down the road. You may want to identify other committee members towards the beginning of the process and chat with them about suggestions and directions. Exactly what their role is, and whether they read drafts of the proposal, is a highly varying process and needs to be negotiated with each person and your chair.

I also believe (and virtually require for students whose dissertations I chair) that you should find a group of other students and form a writing group. (See Tips for Writing Groups). This is a place to share your writing as it evolves, and a group to provide feedback on the concept, the implementation and the larger process. If you find a group you trust and can work with, you will create much stronger work, and use your advisor's time more effectively. In addition, you will learn to write better, and learn how to ask for and give feedback.

version 1.2
August, 1997
Chris M. Golde

Thoughts on Advising | Thoughts on Directed Reading | Writing Groups
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