How to Write a Research Proposal for Dissertation or Thesis (17 Steps to Follow)

Writing Proposal and Thesis Dissertation: A Brief Guide to Students


The goal of this section is to provide advice to students on some of the issues that they need to consider when they have to prepare a dissertation, thesis, or report based upon a relatively small-scale project.

Increasingly, students of business studies and social sciences are required to produce such a dissertation as partial requirements for their degrees.

Also, the advice is concerned with students conducting projects with a component of empirical research in which they collect new data or perhaps conduct a secondary analysis of existing data.

In addition to requiring help with the conduct of research, which it is hopped has been provided by the bulk of this text up to this point, more specific advice on topics in doing and writing up social/business research for a dissertation can be useful.

It is against this background that this section has been written. The section explores a wide variety of issues that include, among others:

Faculty members overseeing the project must be able to judge whether the students have understood the research problem both substantially and methodologically.

The length of most master’ s/doctoral theses is between 150 and 250 types or printed double-spaced pages.

Difference between a Thesis and a Dissertation

Before we proceed further on writing a thesis or dissertation, let us first try to bring out a distinction between a dissertation and a thesis. The major differences students are often confused with the differences between these two terminologies.

Some universities consider both thesis and dissertation as similar. Even the dictionaries would define them as somewhat similar; let us see how they define them.

The standard dictionary defines thesis and dissertation as follows -“A dissertation is a long formal piece of writing on a particular subject, especially for a university degree, while a thesis is a long piece of writing based on your ideas and research that you do as part of a university degree, especially a higher degree such as a Ph.D.”

A thesis involves conducting original research, while a dissertation is usually done with already existing research work, which may require you to add your thoughts to it.

A thesis is a much more an in-depth study, where you get into the core of your topic and are free to give your opinion (you cannot do so in a dissertation).

A thesis emphasizes research to a higher degree of academic achievement, whereas the dissertation denotes detailed references combined with observations made by the author, often at the graduation level.

Both are research-oriented activities, with a thesis leading to the attainment of a doctorate or Ph.D. degree while a dissertation culminates in a post-graduate degree like M.Sc or M. Phil.

The reverse could apply in American universities, thereby adding to the confusion, with a dissertation leading to a Ph.D. and a thesis produced while enrolled in a Master’s program.

A thesis has to be on an original subject, based on a hypothesis that is submitted as a ‘synopsis,’ allotted by a university and written under the overall supervision of a university-designated guide.

For a dissertation, one has to synthesize information collected, adding original thoughts to it.

A thesis is considered a brief document, whereas a dissertation has to belong in support of the knowledge one has acquired through research on any given subject.

Proposal Writing

A research proposal is a written document specifying the investigator proposes to study. A proposal may be written for various purposes. A student enrolled in a research class is often expected to submit a brief plan to his or her professor before data collection begins.

Most universities require a formal proposal and a proposal hearing for students about to engage in research for a thesis or dissertation. A student preparing a proposal for his or her thesis will almost always be given a set of instructions that indicate the format to be followed.

Although formats and the amount of detail required may vary widely, there is considerable similarity in the type of information that is expected in research proposals.

The major components normally included in the research proposal are as follows:

  1. Abstract
  2. Statement of the problem
  3. Significance of the problem
  4. Background of the problem
  5. Objectives
  6. Methods
  7. Work plan
  8. Personnel
  9. Facilities and
  10. Budget.

We have discussed these issues at length in an earlier section of the present chapter while discussing writing a report. Students are advised to pick up the required component to suit their needs.

Before we move on to the next issue, we feel it important to make a distinction between an executive summary and an abstract.

Difference between Abstract and Executive Summary

Abstract and executive summary are two terms that are to be understood with a difference.

The abstract is a term used in the writing of research papers. At the same time, the executive summary is intended to provide a neutral overview or orientation rather than being a condensed version of the full document.

An abstract is written with the sole purpose of letting the readers understand the gist of the research paper to be presented during a seminar or a conference.

It is a short form of the entire research paper.

In other words, it contains the subject matter of the research paper in a nutshell. An executive summary should be written in non-technical language, whereas an abstract can be written in technical language.

An executive summary should have a conclusion at the end.

On the other hand, an abstract has no conclusion at the end. An executive summary should attempt at making a recommendation at the end. On the other hand, an abstract makes no such recommendation towards the end.

Abstracts are extensively used in academic research, where the concept of the executive summary would be meaningless. “An abstract is a brief summarizing statement, read by parties who are trying to decide whether or not to read the main document.” In contrast, an executive summary, unlike an abstract, is a document in miniature that may be read in place of the longer document.

The importance of executive summaries as a communication tool is frequently stressed in guides and analyses aimed at both academics and business people.

For example, Texas A&M University states that “An executive summary is an initial interaction between the writers of the report and their target readers: decision-makers, potential customers, and/or peers.

A business leader’s decision to continue reading a certain report often depends on the impression the executive summary reflects.

Get to Know Your Institutional Requirements

Your Institution or department may have specific requirements that your dissertation should comprise and a range of other matters relating to it. These include, among others:

  • The form of bindings;
  • How it is to be presented (e.g., PowerPoint, verbal, etc., timing)
  • Whether an abstract is needed;
  • Page format;
  • Format for references;
  • Number of words;
  • Organizing the dissertation;
  • Contents of the inner such as the declaration, letter of transmittal, etc.
  • Acknowledgment, preface, foreword, etc.,
  • What We Expect You to Do

We are looking for a critical analysis in your work. We want you to answer a scientific question or hypothesis.

We would like you to gather evidence from various sources to allow you to make interpretations and judgments. Your approach/methods should be carefully designed to come to valid conclusions.

Your results should be interpreted and discussed in the context of your topic.

Relevant literature should be reviewed and cited. You should place your analysis in a broader context, and highlight the implications (regional, global, etc.) of your work.

We are looking for a well-reasoned line of argument. Your thesis should be written and in the format prescribed.

Plan Ahead for Your Thesis

There are ample chances that you will be asked to think about your topic of interest as early as possible.

It is worth giving yourself a good deal of time to think about whether any topics might interest you, and that might provide you with a researchable area.

You will be given a deadline by which you will be required to complete your thesis. The best strategy is to pick a project that you are interested in, but also that a faculty member or other professional is working on.

This person will become your supervisor, and this gives you someone to talk with and get background material from.

Identify the Research Questions

Identifying the research questions is of paramount importance in doing research. They provide you with a focus that will

  • Guide your literature search;
  • Guide you in searching needed data
  • Guide you in analyzing your data;
  • Guide you in writing your results;
  • Stop you from going off in unnecessary directions and tangents.

Make Best Use of Your Supervisor

Most institutions that require a dissertation or similar components allocate students to supervisors.

Institutions vary quite a lot in what can be expected of supervisors; in other words, they vary in terms of what kinds of and how much assistance supervisors will give to students allocated to the.

Equally, students vary a great deal in how frequently they see their supervisors and in their use of them.

We advise you to use your supervisor to the fullest extent that you are allowed and follow the advice he or she or wants you to follow.

Your supervisor will almost certainly be someone who is well versed in the subject you are researching. He will be able to provide you with help and feedback at all stages of your research.

If your supervisor is critical of your works, try to respond positively.

Follow the suggestions that he or she provides since the criticism will invariably be accompanied by reasons for the criticisms and suggestions for revisions. Do not make this a personal attack.

Remember that your supervisor is not supervising only you; he is responsible for your other friends. So his or her time is very valuable. You might have to wait for his or her time.

Time and Resources

All research is invariably constrained by time and resources.

These points are of crucial importance and should never be overlooked. The researchers are advised to take note of at least the following two points:

  • Work out a schedule: To do this, discuss with your supervisor in detailing the different stages of your research.
  • Find out what, if any, resources can be put at your disposal for carrying out your research. For example, will you receive any financial help from your Institution for such things as travel costs, photocopying, stationery and the like?

Literature Search: Reference or Bibliography

Usually, students know a few initial references when they begin on a project. In addition to the traditional sources of literature, nowadays, online bibliographical databases that are accessible on the Internet are an invaluable source of references. At this point, the students are advised to note down the difference between reference and bibliography.

Technically the difference between a reference list and a bibliography is that a reference list is a list of all the sources you have referred to or used in the body of your writing. In contrast, a bibliography might contain additional readings even if you have not referred to in your writing that you think might make for useful reading.

The bibliography is the overall list of where you got your knowledge from, whereas the reference list is what you have quoted or paraphrased.

However, the term reference list and bibliography are often used interchangeably and often with an intended meaning that is the same.

While references are cited directly in the text, the bibliography is not. References can be used to support your statement or argument, while a bibliography does not have such roles.

As such, references are used for establishing something more authoritative. Readers could refer to your references and evaluate the correctness of your statement.

Meanwhile, the bibliography does not support your argument, but you only refer them in a personal way.

A bibliography will contain all research materials, including books, magazines, periodicals, websites, and scientific papers, which you have referred to.

References contain source of material like quotes or texts, which has been used when writing an essay or book. Both bibliography and references appear at the end of a document.

But the bibliography comes after the reference list. A bibliography may contain all those that have appeared in the reference list, but it may also contain additional works.

A bibliography usually contains all the works cited in a paper. Still, it may also include other works that the author consulted, even if they are not mentioned in the text.

Some bibliographies contain only the sources that the author feels are most significant or useful to readers.

Both bibliography and references are arranged alphabetically. But a reference list can also be arranged in numeric style, which means arranging the references according to the numbers in the text.

Preparing for Your Research

Do not begin your data collection until you have identified your research questions, formulate your research objectives or hypotheses.

Develop your data collection instruments with these materials at the forefront of your thinking. If you do not do this, there is the risk that your results will not allow you to illuminate the research questions.

If at all possible, conduct a small pilot study to determine how well your research instruments work.

  • Preparing for Analyzing Data
  • Keep complete records of what you do
  • Make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with hardware and software you use
  • Do not wait until all your data have been collected to begin coding.
  • Soon after you have completed coding, start data entry.
  • Become familiar with any data analysis packages as soon as possible (such as SPSS, R)

Writing up Your Thesis/Dissertation

Once you have analyzed your data, you have no option but to write your results. But many people find it difficult to get started and employ procrastination strategies to put off the inevitable.

This tendency can result in the writing being left until the last minute and consequently rushed. Writing under this kind of pressure is not ideal. This is likely to detract you from what you intended to do.

How you represent your results, and finally, your conclusions and recommendations is a crucial point in the research process.

If you fail to provide a convincing account of your research, you will not do justice to it. Below we provide a few tips to the order of writing your thesis.

  1. Write up a preliminary version of the background section first. This will serve as the basis for the introduction in your final paper.
  2. As you collect data, write up the methods section. The term ‘methods’ is meant here as a kind of catch-all for several issues that need to be outlined: your research design, your sampling approach, how access was achieved if relevant, the procedure you used, method of interview, type of questionnaire you used, and the like.
  3. When you have some data, start making plots and tables of the data.
  4. Once you have a complete set of plots and statistical tables, arrange the plots and tables in a logical order. Write figure captions for the plots and tables.
  5. Once your plots and tables are complete, write the results section. If you are writing a thesis/dissertation, you will likely have more than one and possibly several chapters in which you present your results. It is recommended that you show at the beginning of each chapter the particular issues that are being examined in the chapter. In concluding the chapter, you should make clear what your results have shown
  6. Once you have written the results section, you can move on to the discussion section.
  7. In writing the discussion section, be sure to adequately discuss the work of other authors who collected data on the same or related scientific questions. Be sure to discuss how their work is relevant to your work. If there were flaws in their methodology, this is the place to discuss it. While discussing your results, you reflect on the implications of your findings for the research questions that have driven your research. In other words, how do your results illuminate your research questions and hypothesis? State if your hypothesis has been confirmed not.
  8. After you have discussed the data, you can write the conclusions section. Note that the conclusion should do more than merely summarize. You should make clear the implications of your findings for your research questions. You might also draw attention to any limitations of your research.
  9. The final section in the paper is a recommendation section. This is the end of the conclusion section in a scientific paper. Make recommendations for further research or policy actions in this section.
  10. After you have finished the recommendation section, look back at your original introduction. Your introduction should set the stage for the conclusions of the paper by laying out the ideas that you will test in the paper. Now that you know where the paper is leading, you will probably need to rewrite the introduction.
  11. Once you have completed your recommendation, you write your abstract.

Be Persuasive

Be persuasive in writing up your thesis. This means that you must convince your audience and readers of the credibility of your results.

You must persuade your target group that your research is worthy, and your findings and conclusions are significant and that they are plausible.

In doing so, be conscious that you do not lie with statistics. This is one of the most ethical issues in research.

Get Feedback

This is a crucial issue in all research. Try to get as much feedback on your writing as possible and respond positively to the points anyone makes about what they read.

In many instances, you will inadvertently skip some points while writing. If you share with others who are conversant with the type of work you do, this may be of great help to you.

Your supervisor is likely to be the main source of feedback, but institutions vary in what and to what extent the supervisors are allowed to be involved. Give your supervisor plenty of time to provide his or her feedback.

There will be others like you who will want your supervisor to comment on their works, and if he or she feels rushed, the comments may be less helpful.

In any event, you must keep in mind; your supervisor’s comments are the main ones that you should seek out.

Ethical Issue

Do not forget to fulfill any obligations you entered into, such as supplying a copy of your dissertation, if, for example, your access to an organization was predicated on providing one, and maintaining the confidentiality supplied and the anonymity of your informants and other research participants.

These points are of profound ethical concern for a researcher.

Structuring Your Thesis/Dissertation

Most universities have a preferred format for their dissertations, but the following format is fairly typical:

Preliminary pages:

  • Title page
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of contents
  • List of tables
  • List of figures
  • Abstract

Main body:

  • Chapter I: Introduction
  • Chapter II: Review of literature
  • Chapter III: Research methods
  • Chapter IV: Results
  • Chapter V: Discussion
  • Chapter VI: Conclusions and recommendations

Supplementary pages:

  • References/Bibliography
  • Appendices

The preliminary pages for a dissertation are much the same as those for a scholarly book.

The title page indicates the title of the study, the author’s name, the degree requirements being fulfilled, the name of the university awarding the degree, the date of submission of the report, and the signature of the dissertation committee members.

The acknowledgment page allows the writer to express to those who contributed to the completion of the work.

The table of contents outlines the major sections and subsections of the dissertation, indicating in which page the reader will find those sections of interest.

The list of tables and figures identify the number, title, and page of the tables and figures that appear in the text.

Copy Editing

  • Proofread your thesis a few times.
  • Check your spelling. Spell-checkers are useful for initial checking but don’t catch homonyms (e.g., hear, here), so you need to do the final check by eye.
  • Make sure that you use complete sentences.
  • Check your grammar: punctuation, sentence structure, subject-verb agreement (plural or singular), tense consistency, etc.
  • Give it to others to read and comment on.
  • Thesis Length

Some Suggestions on how to shorten your thesis:

  1. Use tables for repetitive information.
  2. Do not describe the contents of the figures and/or tables in the text item-by-item. Instead, use the text to point out the most significant patterns, items, or trends in the figures and tables.
  3. Delete “observations” or “results” that are mentioned in the text for which you have not shown data.
  4. Delete “conclusions” that are not directly supported by your observations or results.
  5. Delete “interpretation” or “discussion” sections that are inconclusive.
  6. Delete “interpretation” or “discussion” sections that are only peripherally related to your new results or observations.
  7. Scrutinize adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases.

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