How To Write A Dissertation Proposal: A Comprehensive Guide

how to write a dissertation proposal

Before you can write a dissertation, be it for a graduate or PhD level, it has to be preceded by a proposal. The proposal helps to set the stage for writing the thesis, the most comprehensive paper prepared towards the end of a degree course. For many students, even those with a pretty good grasp of their subjects, how to write a dissertation proposal can feel overwhelming. Questions such as “What is a proposal?” and “What should be included/ left out?” keep running through the mind.

To help you get answers to all these questions and a lot more, this post is a comprehensive guide explaining what a dissertation proposal is and the steps to follow to write it. We will also provide a sample dissertation proposal structure and expert tips to make the paper stand out.

What Is A Dissertation Proposal?

A dissertation proposal is simply what the name suggests: a written paper that clearly communicates what you are proposing to research. It is like any other paper you have done in college or university, but lengthier and also requires high specificity. Again, you are responsible for deciding the topic of the proposal and dissertation.

The graduate or doctoral dissertation proposal should demonstrate how you will collect data, analyse it and make presentations. Although some aspects of the topic might change along the way as you unearth more details about it, the proposal should lay bare the clear direction of the dissertation.

Although different universities and departments might have varying requirements for their proposals, most of them require the following:

  • Introduction of the study topic.
  • Clear objectives.
  • A review of current literature.
  • The study method to be employed.
  • Implications of the study.
  • Limitations of the dissertation.

Why Is A Dissertation Proposal So Important?

A dissertation proposal is crucial because it defines/ shapes the actual dissertation. With the dissertation being the last major paper before you are allowed to graduate, you have to get the preceding right. Therefore, you should ensure that every part is done professionally.

The dissertation proposal is designed to persuade the dissertation committee, your supervisor, and the school that the project is worthy of undertaking. Once you are through with the proposal, it should:

  • Demonstrate the masters or doctoral dissertation is relevant.
  • Show that you are familiar with your topic and field of study.
  • Confirm that you have clearly thought about the tools, procedures, and data that will be used during the study.
  • Affirm that the study can be completed within the constraints along the way.

How Long Should A Dissertation Proposal Be?

The length of a dissertation varies so much depending on the level of study and institution. PhD dissertations are the longest, about 15-20 pages. In the case of masters and undergraduate dissertation proposals, the length is about 10-15 and 4-10 pages, respectively.

Most departments usually specify the number of words or pages that students should have in their proposals. Therefore, stick to the recommendations by your school or department.

Sample Dissertation Proposal Outline

Like other types of academic papers which have clear outlines, you also need to understand the right dissertation proposal structure.  Here is a breakdown of a dissertation proposal template that you should follow:

  • The research proposal title/ topic.
  • Introduction: here, you should have:
    1. A perfectly selected hook statement.
    2. Background of the study:
    3. Thesis statement.
    4. Research problem.
    5. Research objectives.
  • Literature review.
  • The research methodology to be employed in the dissertation.
  • A reference list of all the resources that were used to prepare the proposal.

How To Write Dissertation Proposal: Six Main Steps

The best way to write a great thesis or PhD dissertation proposal is to ensure you have a clear topic idea, research it well, and stick to a well-defined outline. It will be an excellent idea to read through several PhD dissertation proposals. Here is a breakdown of the main steps that you should follow from the beginning to the end.

  • Step One: Start by Coming up with the Preferred Idea

    Even before you can start working on your proposal, ensure to answer one question, “what is the big idea for research?” Here, you should look for a topic that is interesting and do some research to determine if it is okay. Here are some suggestions:

    • Follow your coursework to note areas that warrant further studies.
    • Check on the latest trends in your topic and identify an area of relevance.
    • Follow the latest scholarly publications to note the areas that researchers said have gaps and warrant further studies.

    Remember that you need to think ahead by trying to explore the availability of resources and obstacles on the way. If the obstacles in the way of studying a specific topic are likely to have a significant impact on the outcome, it might be a good idea to avoid it and look for a different one.

  • Step Two: Write the Introduction

    The introduction, which should be Chapter One of your undergraduate, masters or doctoral proposal, is very important because it is the first part the reader bumps into. Therefore, it must be concise and arouse interest. You should target to make the reader want to continue to the very end. Here are the main components to include in a dissertation introduction:

    • Hook: The introduction should open with a “bang,” a catch presentation that will grab the attention of the reader. Insightful statistics and facts about the topic of study can be an excellent way of getting the ball rolling. Depending on the subject, you might also want to start with a rhetoric question, famous saying, or quote.
    • Provide the context and background of the study: After grabbing the reader’s attention, you should go deeper and make the research clear by capturing some background. This means revealing the current state of the topic. Consider including some literature, but only briefly, because more details will be captured in Chapter Two: Literature Review.
    • Outline the study objectives: This part is very important because it defines what you want to achieve with the dissertation. The objective should stem from the background and the problem statement.
  • Step Three: Review the Literature

    Your masters or PhD dissertation proposal, the third step is reviewing literature related to your topic. The goal is to demonstrate that you are conversant with other studies that have already been done on the topic. Let the reader appreciate that you understand the existing theories, and the proposed dissertation will be a rich addition to the area of study. So, be critical, compare, and contrast the debates, methods, and theories presented in the available literature.

  • Step Four:  Research methodology

    Once you have explained how your study will fit into the body of knowledge about the area of study, it is time to move to the next step and demonstrate the methodology that will be employed. Start this chapter by restating the main objectives or study questions and then highlighting the methods that will be used to provide answers.

    Remember that you should not simply state the study method. Rather, you have to be as specific as possible to be able to convince the school or university department that it is an excellent model. Depending on the nature of study and the data to be used, the length of this part can vary from one proposal to another.

    The methodology can be empirical, theoretical or a combination of the two. In empirical studies, you gather, analyze and use new data. Empirical studies are either qualitative or quantitative, but they can also be combined.

    If you prefer a theoretical study, there will be no original data collection. Rather, you will focus on what has been done by other researchers. In such a study, the main focus is how you target to employ the contributions from other authors.

  • Step Five: Outline the Implications of Your Study

    The last part of your dissertation proposal brings out the implications of the study. Here, you might be wondering, “how will this be presented yet I have not yet done the study?” This is true, but you should focus on your projected impacts. So, what contribution will the study have on the area of study?

    You might want to test an existing theory, develop a new one, or challenge a common belief. Another awesome implication is suggesting improvement in the process used in a specific field.

  • Step Six: Prepare a Bibliography

    Like other academic papers, you need to prepare a list of all the used resources. Remember to ensure that they are presented in line with the recommended formatting guide, such as Harvard, MLA, APA or Vancouver.

Now that we have outlined the main steps that you should follow, there is one more thing: “how long does it take to write a dissertation proposal?” This depends on how good you are with the topic, your school or university, the availability of resources, and time. However, most education institutions give about three months.

Expert Tips When Writing A Dissertation Proposal

Here’s some great tips to writing a high quality dissertation proposal:

  • Go for a topic that you are interested in. It also needs to be relevant in your field of study.
  • Stick to the guideline provided by your department.
  • Sharpen your research, analysis and writing skills.
  • Read through other dissertation proposals to see how experts did similar papers.
  • Read your area of study widely.
  • Start writing your dissertation proposal early.
  • Proofread and edit your proposal to ensure it is free from errors.

Dissertation Proposal Example

You might be ready and thinking “I can do my dissertation now,” but you should checkout an example to be sure. To see the application of the concepts we have highlighted in this post, check out the example below:

This research proposal outlines the protocol for a research study investigating the association between violence, discrimination, childhood maltreatment, and cardiovascular risk factors (body mass index and blood pressure) in a group of low-income African American women aged between 18 and 44. It is hoped that the study will provide information about how experiencing one of these adverse events affects the development of high BMI and blood pressure issues in African American women. The study is significant as it fits into a wider section of research on these environmental factors in African American women, but provides specific information about how it affects them physically. It is already known that BMI and blood pressure are increased in women that have experienced these environmental stressors, but there has been no study on African American women specifically. As such, this study fills a gap in the existing literature and will hopefully provide a basis for future research in other specific demographics.

Specific Aims

The specific aim of the proposed research study is to assess the relationship between the variables of childhood maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and racial/ethnic discrimination in a population of low income African American woman aged 18-44 and their risks for cardiovascular disease. The focus will be on the specific risks of blood pressure and body mass index (BMI). The aim here is to understand how environmental factors and patient history affect the risk for cardiovascular disease, the working definition of which will focus on the two variables noted above. It corresponds to the goals of the NIH as it is related to an existing study on these variables and their effects on low income African American women. A broader aim that fits in with the scope of the NIH is to improve health for populations that are often underrepresented in medical and nursing research.

The research is vital in understanding why the risk of cardiovascular disease in African American women is higher than in other racial groups (Go et al., 2013). The choice of blood pressure as a risk factor is integral, as the prevalence of high blood pressure in African Americans is the highest in the world (Go et al., 2013). BMI is also a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and again tends to be higher in African American women than I other ethnic groups (Flegal et al., 2012). Although research has been conducted into the physiological variables that are associated with this increased risk, there is less research available on the sociological and environmental factors that have an impact. This study will add to the growing body of research on cardiovascular risk in African American women and can hopefully contribute to a better understanding of how this increased risk can be reduced. It is my aim that the study will contribute towards better programs aimed at reducing the rate of cardiovascular disease in African American women, something which is lacking in terms of community approaches (Flegal et al., 2012).

The specific objectives of this research are to collect data about the prevalence of the environmental and social factors outlined above. This will be done in conjunction with the existing study. The second specific objective is to collect data about BMI and blood pressure from the same group of participants, and use correlational data analysis techniques to assess for any statistically significant correlations (Berry et al., 2012). Correlation is a useful approach for understanding how the prevalence of two or more variables in a population are related and thus can be used here. Another specific objective is to assess how the independent variables affect the dependent variables as a whole – that is, to measure total cardiovascular risk through BMI and blood pressure data collection.

The hypothesis for this research is that certain factors will have a positive correlation with risk factors for cardiovascular disease. There is evidence that childhood maltreatment is correlation with high BMI in the American population as a whole (Dillon et al., 2013), and thus it is likely that this correlation will be found in this population. Intimate partner violence is also associated with high blood pressure in American women (Stene et al., 2013). Another hypothesis, based on this existing research, is that African American women will also have a statistically significant positive correlation between high blood pressure and intimate partner violence. Although existing studies have focused on women as a group, the use of African American women as a target population is useful for elucidating the specific risk factors that affect this group. It is hoped that the research can be compared to the existing data for American women generally to find differences between African Americans and other racial and ethnic groups to design interventions that are specifically targeted at the risk factors that affect them most.
Research Strategy


The purpose of this research is to examine the links between violence and discrimination in African American women and their risk of cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that the risks of cardiovascular disease are higher in African American women than white women (Go et al., 2013). There is also evidence that the risks of discrimination and intimate partner violence are higher for African American women (Stockman et al., 2014). In American women as a population, there has also been research indicating an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in women who experience this type of violence (Stene et al., 2013). Despite this, there is no current study focusing on the potential increased risk in African American women as a whole, which is why this study is significant.

Many of the studies that currently exist on this topic focus on the incidence of cardiovascular disease in African American women or in women that experience intimate partner violence and childhood mistreatment. This will be the first study known to the author that combines these two factors with a focus on risk factors, rather than the incidence of the disease itself. This is important in two ways. The first is that it gives an idea about the prospective rates of heart disease in this demographic due to the recognized link between cardiovascular disease and the two variables used as risk factors – blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) (Friedemann et al., 2012). This is important as the cohort is women between the ages of 18 and 44, who are typically less likely to experience cardiovascular disease (Friedemann et al., 2012) and are thus unlikely to develop complications during the period of this investigation. The second is that, by focusing on risk factors, an understanding of the process of cardiovascular disease in these women can be understood to a greater extent.

Blood pressure is of particular interest here for several reasons. The main reason this has been chosen as a variable is that high blood pressure is a strong indicator for the development of cardiovascular disease later in life (Yaffe et al., 2014). The second is that blood pressure is easy to measure and is non-invasive, meaning that data can be collected easily and quickly from the sample (Yaffe et al., 2014). The final reason is perhaps most important. Evidence suggests that blood pressure rises in response to stressful situations (Grossbard et al., 2013). The independent variables in this study are all stressors of some form – intimate partner violence, for example, is a stressful situation that is associated with an increase in blood pressure (Dillon et al., 2013). As such, it is expected that women who have experienced this stressor will have higher blood pressure, but no study is currently available to highlight how important this is in the context of cardiovascular risk in African American women.

Increased BMI has long been considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (Ahmadi et al., 2015). BMI increases the chances of arteriosclerosis, which in turn increases risk of adverse cardiovascular events such as cardiac infarction, pulmonary embolism, or stroke (Lloyd-Jones et al., 2014). Being of a higher BMI is also associated with reduced activity levels, which also increases risk of cardiovascular disease (Lloyd-Jones et al., 2014). BMI is also of interest as it has been shown to be higher on average in women that have experienced intimate partner violence and childhood malnutrition (Ziaei, Naved & Ekstrom, 2014). BMI is also a risk factor for type 2 dabetes (Mason et al., 2013), which is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (Zinman et al., 2015). Intimate partner violence in late adolescence and young adulthood has also been shown to increase BMI as a cardiovascular risk (Clark et al., 2016). As such, BMI is a variable of interest in the current study.

This study is also significant because of the potential health benefits that it can bring to the American population. Understanding which social factors play a role in the development of risk factors for cardiovascular disease is vital in ensuring that treatment and preventative advice are dispensed to the most at-risk populations (McTigue et al., 2014). This is not only economically important, as targeted information is cheaper than using public health announcements that reach the population as a whole (Perez et al., 2013), but ethically important. Understanding human differences and risk is central to the nursing profession and this information can be used to identify which women are at the most risk of developing cardiovascular risk factors before it is too late (Perez et al., 2013). For example, women who have experienced intimate partner violence should seek psychological treatment to deal with this issue before it has an adverse effect on their BMI and blood pressure. This in turn is likely to reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

As African Americans are generally at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it is also hoped that this study can elucidate some of the environmental reasons for this disparity. Socioeconomic and health barriers are associated with the increased cardiovascular risk, and BMI and blood pressure measurements are generally higher in this group (Allison et al., 2014). Despite this, there is less research into whether the cardiovascular risk factors are a direct result of the socioeconomic factors, and which specific factors are most important in understanding future risk of cardiovascular disease. It could be that the development of cardiovascular disease is a three-stage process – environmental and social factors lead to physiological risk factors, which then leads to the development of cardiovascular disease. If this is the case, then understanding which stage comes first has tremendous potential for understanding how we identify and treat cardiovascular disease, particularly in its early stages. The fact that this study focuses on younger women means that the participants themselves may also benefit from this research and could gain a greater understanding of how intimate partner violence, childhood maltreatment, and racial/ethnic discrimination affects their health.

It is also useful to understand how these environmental issues affect women. Women are more likely than men to experience intimate partner violence and childhood abuse (Barreira et al., 2012). Despite the fact that men are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, women are still at risk, particularly African-American women (Carliner et al., 2014). Understanding the reasons for the disparity between men and women in terms of the independent and dependent variables used as part of this study could have a major impact in our understanding of cardiovascular disease, risk factors, and the environment. This study can be used as a basis for further study, which could include comparisons between African-American men and African-American women, to understand the impact of cardiovascular risk factors on the development of cardiovascular disease and the potential causative factors for these risk factors. As such, it is expected that this study will add to the existing literature on this topic and can guide nursing research into related areas.


This study is innovative in a number of ways. Firstly, it aims to be the first large-scale study that focuses explicitly on the links between childhood maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and racial/ethnic discrimination in low-income African American women and the incidence of cardiovascular disease risks in this population. The focus will be on blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), which are two well-known risk factors for cardiovascular events and poor cardiovascular health (Chomistek et al., 2015). Secondly, this research is part of an existing, ongoing study into the incidence of these variables in low-income African American women, which suggests that it will act as an addendum for understanding health risks in this population. It is hoped that this study will help to clarify some of the reasons why African American women, particularly those in low socioeconomic groups, are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

This study is also innovative in that it will be the first to focus on a sub-group of women in terms of their risk from the identified independent variables. Other studies have shown that women as a whole have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, or cardiovascular risk factors, but there are no studies that show how this risk is related to race. It is hoped that the proposed study can set a precedent for future studies that aim to understand social and health risks in certain populations. As it is known that certain social factors affect different groups in different proportions (Mozaffarian et al., 2015), and different health risks are more common in some demogrpahics than others (Swift et al., 2013), this study will be a vital part of understanding the different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and age-based links between adverse life events and health issues. These factors may also be linked to other health issues, such as the development of cancer or diabetes, due to the fact that these illnesses are also more common in those with increased BMI and blood pressure measurements. This study has the potential to increase knowledge about a variety of different health problems.


This study is a quantitative cross-sectional study that is designed to be an addendum to currently ongoing research in the field. The sample size is based on the existing sample of low income, African American women aged between 18 and 44. The data on the independent variables has already been collected – incidence of childhood maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and racial/ethnic discrimination. The inclusion criteria are the same as the existing research, whilst the exclusion criteria are women (and men) who fall outside of this socioeconomic, racial, and age groups (Polit & Beck, 2004). The data on BMI and blood pressure will be collected from each of the women during this study and analyzed to indicate the relationship between these variables.

The data will be gathered from the existing research, and the irrelevant data will be excluded. Only the variables of interest will be identified, and the rest of the information can be set aside for use in future studies. This will lead to a streamlined and targeted study that answers the specific research questions and aims that have been identified above (Polit & Beck, 2004). BMI and blood pressure measurements will also be gathered for this study, and the data will be statistically analyzed as outlined below. The information can then be compared with the existing knowledge on cardiovascular risk factors, intimate partner violence, childhood maltreatment, and ethnic/racial discrimination. Putting the data in context will allow for an increased understanding of how low-income African American women compare to women as a whole and African Americans as a whole to deduce whether they are more or less susceptible to the effects of these external stressors.

A set of one-way analysis of variance (one-way ANOVA) will be used to statistically analyze this data. A one-way ANOVA is useful as it can be used to compare the means of two groups (Polit & Beck, 2004). In this case, one group will be the low-income African American women between the ages of 18 and 44 who have not experienced racial/ethnic discrimination, intimate partner violence, or childhood maltreatment, whilst the experimental group is those that have. These means can be compared in terms of the BMI and blood pressure scores, which will be averaged and allow for statistical significance to be analyzed (Grove, Gray & Burns, 2014). Each of the independent variables will be analyzed separately and compared with BMI and blood pressure separately. The independent variables will also be statistically assessed as a group (any experience present or not present) in terms of both BMI and blood pressure. This will give an indication of whether BMI and blood pressure is higher in women that have experienced each, any, or all of these issues (Grove, Gray & Burns, 2014).

As this study is part of ongoing research, it as a strong foundation that allows the researcher to explore the specific variables identified. The independent variables are intimate partner violence, ethnic/racial discrimination, and childhood maltreatment, whilst the dependent variables are BMI and blood pressure. It intends to build on other studies about the cardiovascular risk of African American women which have been identified above. Additionally, some studies have shown a link between these independent and dependent variables in women but there is no focus on African American women. The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to be more specific about the population of interest and add to the existing data on cardiovascular risk and various lifetime stressors. There is also little research on the topic of cardiovascular risk in low-income women as a group, or in women of the 18 to 44 age group included in this study.

This study is intended to provide a basis for further research into specific health and social factors that affect different women disproportionately. Although research has shown that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence (Grove, Gray & Burns, 2014), and African American women at even more risk (Moule & Goodman, 2009), there is less information available about how this affects their health. It is hoped that this study can be used as a basis for research into cancer or diabetes risk following the same protocol and population. It can also be used as a base study for assessing whether there are differences between groups of women – low income Caucasian women, for example, or Asian-American women. This study and its methods can be replicated to involve any set of demographics and any health issue and view this issue in terms of the social and psychological stressors that affect this group. It will be interesting to see if African American women are more or less resilient in terms of these stressors and cardiovascular risk (Moule & Goodman, 2009).

Research Training Plan

As a nurse, continuing education is important. In the case of this research, additional education and research is needed to ensure that the information collected is relevant, well-researched, and has high levels of validity and reliability (Moule & Goodman, 2009). As such, I will be engaging in several different activities to ensure that my research meets these criteria. I will be taking a quantitative research course which focuses on statistics and the use of SPSS to ensure that the one-way ANOVA suggested within this research proposal is accurate and represents the data well. I will also be talking to nurses and nurse educators about how best to go about conducting this research. As this study is part of an existing piece of research, I will also be coordinating with the original study creators to ensure that my research fits in well with their aims and that I understand the data that they have collected as part of the original research. I also have access to a large library and several books on nursing research that I can use to ensure that the data has been collected in the most appropriate manner and that the research meets NIH standards. It is hoped that this will be a learning experience for me and a foundation for evidence-based practice in the future.


The timeline for this study is somewhat restricted by the data collection efforts of the central study. It is expected that the full data collection process could take up to a year, including streamlining the data and gathering additional information on BMI and blood pressure for the proposed study. A full literature review will also be conducted as part of this study, and is expected to take around six weeks. The data analysis will also take a considerable amount of time, between six and eight weeks. Collating and putting together the final report, making amendments and edits is expected to take up to three months. The timeline for this study is lengthy due to the amount of data being collected, but it is unlikely to deviate from this timeline. Potential complications such as getting informed consent may have an impact on this timeline.
As with any study, this proposed dissertation has several limitations. The first is that the data is not being collected by the researcher, which means it is hard to assess how some of it has been gathered and to ensure that it has been collected in a way deemed suitable by the researcher (Moule & Goodman, 2009). One way of ensuring that this problem is minimized is to carefully consider the data collection methods outlined by the original data collectors and to ensure that it is fit for use in this study (Tappen, 2010). The second limitation is that African American women are extremely likely to have suffered from one or more of the independent variable situations, higher than any other American group (Tappen, 2010). As such, it may be difficult to find sufficient controls to use in the one-way ANOVA.

Another issue that may present itself in the study is the inability to gather the BMI and blood pressure data from the women in the study. Although the women are already enrolled, there is no impetus for them to supply this additional data. This means that the sample size may not be large enough to draw inferences from (Tappen, 2010). This issue can be circumvented by ensuring that enough data is collected and the enrolled women are assured that their data will be kept confidential (Tappen, 2010). As with any study, confidentiality and related issues and concerns on the part of the participants are also one of the major limitations (Tappen, 2010). Getting informed consent and ensuring that all data is protected during and after the study is one way of ensuring that this does not adversely affect the study results and reduce the reliability and validity of this study.

Seek Dissertation Proposal Help From Experts

After going through the six steps above, are you ready to get down and prepare a high quality dissertation proposal? If you are not, do not give up. Instead of getting stressed because you are short of time or skills to prepare this type of paper, consider seeking our ENL writers’ help online.

Our best dissertation help is offered by experts who are educated in the best schools. They are knowledgeable English native speakers who stop at nothing to ensure your paper is the best. No matter the topic, class, or subject of study, know that we have the best custom writers to handle the proposal. Our custom services are also affordable and confidential.

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