How to Write a Dissertation Proposal

It’s your third year in the doctoral program. You’ve taught like a god. You’ve written seminar papers that have made your teachers weep (in a good way). And you’ve logged more time on airplanes and in hotels than in seminar rooms. The world is starting to know you and your ideas.

You’ve passed comps or prelims.

What do you do now?

Pat yourself on the back. You’ve taken your warm up laps, and now it’s time to get ready for the marathon that’s ahead of you. It’s no secret. But nobody seems to know it. Unlike law school or med school, academic grad school is really two programs.

There’s the coursework, which you’ve aced.  Right? That’s all great stuff, but it’s over and you’re on your own now. You’re doing your own stuff. This is the FUN part of graduate school. You’re basically a baby professor at this point.

Now, what most of the dissertation editing books don’t tell you about this part of graduate school, the dissertation stage, is one little word:


What, you may ask, if you’re in the sciences or, god help you, the humanities, does dissertation writing and scholarship have to do with MBA stuff. That’s the stuff you didn’t want to do.

The short answer:  Everything. From here on out (and you’ve already been doing it in coursework, teaching, and conference presentations) everything is about pitching and selling ideas.


Does the thought of selling really make you queasy? Get over yourself! Ideas mean nothing if no one wants to read them.

The dissertation phase is about pitching your ideas to your advisor, your committee, and, if you get lucky, fellowship committees.

So, get ready to sell!

It’s time to write the dissertation proposal: the truly condensed version of your dissertation. It’s short and sweet. Usually, it’s about five to ten pages. So, how do you write the proposal?

First off, this is one of those chicken or egg kind of questions. You have to enough to write the proposal. But you won’t know enough to write the whole dissertation. Generally, what you want to do in the dissertation proposal is to  frame a question.

You need to be very bold here. Make arguments and assertions, the bolder the better. You also want to present a pretty clear outline of what you intend to do in the dissertation itself. Obviously, you’re in a weird situation here. You don’t know a lot. But you know some things. It’s best to err on the side of audacity. Make your arguments as bold as possible and as clear as possible.

You need to know the current state of your discipline quite well. That’s a given. And you have to announce to the world what you want to do. How are you going to be making a new intervention in the world of scholarship that you know well? That’s what people are going to want to know. What’s new and or exciting about what you want to write?

Start off with a one paragraph argument.

This first paragraph should state what your argument is and probably what you’re basing this argument on. Who are the major players in the field, and how is what you’re writing addressing gaps or problems in their work?

Then write your sub-arguments and conclusion.

Each paragraph that follows (and these can be huge, whopping big paragraphs) can list your sub-arguments. Then, after that, you have to propose a conclusion to what you’re writing.

The secret about a proposal

Would you like to know a little secret about the proposal?

It’s generally pure fiction.  What you really write about in your dissertation may or may not conform to what you’re writing about here. That’s just the way things are in this world. But you absolutely do have to write this proposal.

You’ll submit it to your advisor and your committee members and everyone will sign off on it. And then you can get started. Now, you may or may not get full buy in from your committee. Generally what I found is that most of your committee members really won’t care one way or another about what you write. They’re too busy writing their own stuff. So, you can generally sneak your own writing in under their radar.

Score a Fellowship

Do a very good job on the proposal because it can serve as the basis of fellowship proposals. And, baby, you want a fellowship.

Why?  Because if you get one of those puppies—anywhere between about twenty thousand dollars and fifty thousand dollars, you can have a very nice year. You can go wherever you want to write the dissertation. Imagine writing on a beach somewhere down in Mexico.

Fellowships are your friend. And they also mean that you don’t have to take time out to teach those pesky undergraduates unless you really want to.  They can also set you up for being published, and they make you look like a good candidate for a job. So, do everything that you can to win yourself a dissertation fellowship.

OK, let’s say you’ve written a killer proposal. Your committee says, “My god, this is the next big thing.”  And of course I knew you could do it.  You edit the proposal slightly and win yourself a fellowship. You’re in like Flynn.

What do you do next? It’s not a bad idea to find a good dissertation editing service to be sure your proposal is well-edited before submitting it.

Then, you have to write the dissertation, of course—which we’ll start tackling the next  installment.


One comment

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