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Invitation to Research – The Dissertation Proposal

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 24 November 2002

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2002

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A formal Dissertation Proposal is required at an early stage in a candidate's enrolment. Approval of the Proposal may be a formal requirement, for example to enter a second semester, or to continue in the program, or even to be accepted into the graduate program in the first place.

Structure and Content

Some variability in approach and content may be appropriate depending on the discipline, the domain, the research tradition, or the research method. However, the following is suggested as a guide to structure and content.

The Title-Page

The Dissertation needs a succinct Title, that captures the essence of the topic. It might comprise two parts that declare the general, followed by the particular, as in 'The Dissertation Proposal: Guidance for New Research Degree Candidates'. Alternatively it might be feasible to declare the domain and method in a few words, such as 'A Field Study of the Effect of Drought on the Pyrennean Marigold', or 'A Critical Theory Perspective on the 2002 Round of Wage Negotiations in the Liechtenstein Leather Goods Industry'.

The title page also needs to provide the candidate's name, enrolment number, and academic affiliation (College, School, Department, etc.).


This needs to define relevant aspects of the context of the proposed thesis. It is probably appropriate to declare here both the discipline and the research tradition within which it is to be undertaken.

This section's purpose is not to summarise the whole Proposal, but to ensure that the reader is prepared for what follows. (If you feel that the document would benefit from a one-page précis, then write one in the form of an Abstract or Executive Summary, and place it between the Title Page and the Introduction).

The Introduction should be a short section (perhaps 1 page / 450 words).

Literature Research

It is vital that a command of the relevant literature is demonstrated. The first challenge is to find the relevant books and articles, and write short abstracts about each of them. Such a list, usually organised in alphabetical order by first-name author, but alternatively by date of publication, is referred to as an Annotated Bibliography.

During the course of the project, the literature must be digested and understood, critically examined, and re-presented in a structured form that enables the existing body of theory to be clearly understood. The information content of the accumulation of publications can then be extracted, and organised into a coherent flow. That in turn lays the foundation for some questions that are interesting, and whose answers would be of value. Such a critical analysis of relevant works is referred to as a Literature Review.

A Dissertation Proposal may perhaps provide only an Annotated Bibliography, but it is preferable that this be only a step along the way, and that the Proposal contain a draft Literature Review. (It need not be highly refined, because that will take time, and is an important part of the thesis work). This might take 5-20 pages.

This chapter needs to contain citations to works that are listed in the Reference List. It is likely that there will be many works that have been considered, but which are not actually cited. If they remain relevant, they should not be discarded, but rather listed in a Bibliography.

The Research Question(s)

The Literature Research has provided an explanation of existing theory. This section needs to declare what the interesting question(s) is/are that you propose to research. The questions need to arise out of the theory, and show some kind of linkage to the work that has been done by previous researchers in the area.

This might involve some further explanation, or an exposition of one or two key articles which your dissertation intends to use as a jumping-off point. The Research Question(s) should be reasonably broad, enabling refinement later in the project. However, if quantitative methods are being applied, this section might culminate in some fairly specific statements, in the form of hypotheses. This is likely to require 1-3 pages of text.

The Research Method

This section needs to outline the techniques that you have considered, and identify those that you intend applying. It might be fairly specific, especially in the case of quantitative methods; or it may leave some options open, with the detailed design of the research method proposed as part of the dissertation work. This might be as much as 5-10 pages, including diagrams, or as little as 1-2 pages of text.

Anticipated Outcomes and Their Significance

It is not a requirement that the results be known. (Indeed, if the outcomes are apparent already, it is unlikely to be a sufficiently challenging undertaking). However you need to provide the reader with some idea of what results might be expected from the work, what contribution they could make to theory and/or practice, and why anyone should care. This might need 1 page of text.

Project Plan

This section needs to demonstrate that you have thought through the practicalities of the project, including a breakdown into tasks, an indication of key dependencies among those tasks, and a rough timeline that suggests that the project can be completed within the available timeframe. If resources are required, such as materials, software, computational resources or travel funds, an estimate is essential, together with an indication as to how those resources are to be acquired.

Reference List

This lists the works that were cited in the Proposal. It needs to apply appropriate rules for the identification of works. The reason for this is that both examiners and future researchers need to be able to locate and access the works that were used in the preparation of the Proposal.


This generally lists additional works that were not cited in the Proposal, but that are or at least may be relevant, and that have been assessed, located or at least identified. Alternatively, it is quite tenable for it to be comprehensive, and to contain all relevant works identified to date, including those in the Reference List. (This could be useful, for example, where the candidate is one of several working within a coordinated programme of linked projects).

If annotations have been prepared for the more important works, these can be included in this section, and the title can be changed to 'Annotated Bibliography'.


Thesis Handbook, Master of Science in Telecommunications, SUNY Institute of Technology, at

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