We’ve provided a rough guideline to what your proposal should contain below. This is not an exhaustive list, and your department may have specific requirements. There are many ways to structure your proposal – so don’t feel that you need to stick with the order we’ve used (your university may also provide you with a premade template!).
This should include a working title (although this is not set in stone!) and a brief description of your research topic, objectives and the questions you intend to answer. You should also establish the scope of your research (a Masters student in History might specify a particular time period to be focused on, for example).
At the end of your introduction, you may want to include an overview of how the rest of your proposal will be structured.
Preliminary literature review
Your literature review should list the key texts that you will consult in your research and summarise the contributions they have made to the field. Make sure you explain why you have chosen these works as your key sources, and exactly how you intend to use them.
This is also an opportunity to demonstrate an understanding of the academic context in which your research will take place. What other research has already been conducted in this area, and how will your work expand, enrich, or complicate our understanding of it?
You might also want to mention any previous work you have done in this area – a module you have studied in the past, for example – and how you will fill existing gaps in your knowledge.
This is where you’ll get into the nitty gritty of exactly how you’ll achieve your research objectives. You’ll have specified your key sources in your literature review – but now you’ll need to break down precisely what qualitative or quantitative data you will extract from them, as well as how you’ll collect any primary data.
Beyond laying out your research game-plan, it’s important to justify your decisions. What makes your chosen methodologies particularly appropriate to your research? Can you foresee any biases or constraints that they might present, and how will you overcome them?
Be as precise as you can about the research tools you’ll employ – these could include lab-based experiments, surveys, interviews or participant observation to name just a few.
Of course, not every project will involve direct experimentation or the collection of your own empirical data – but this does not mean you should be any less exact in detailing your research approach. You might be planning to examine a source through a particular theoretical framework, for example.
Here you’ll outline exactly what you hope to achieve by the end of your project. You may also wish to predict what the outcome of your research is will be (though this is likely to change once you get stuck in to writing the dissertation itself!).
Make sure you are realistic about what your research can achieve. The scope of your project needs to be narrow enough that you can thoroughly address it within the dissertation word count. The purpose of a dissertation proposal, beyond explaining what your aims are, is demonstrating that they are feasible! Which brings us onto our next section…
Constraints and limitations
Sadly, there is a limit to what can be accomplished in 15,000-20,000 words! It’s important to include not only what your research will address but also what it will not. This is also a useful way of situating your work within a larger body of knowledge – by specifying the limits of your research, you’re acknowledging that your work is a small (but important!) piece of a wider academic puzzle.
If you’re planning on conducting any experiments with human participants, it’s important to make sure you address any ethical concerns. This might include specifying how you will obtain informed consent and maintain confidentiality. Your university should have its own policy on research ethics, as well as guidance on how you can carry out you work in accordance with it.
Your bibliography should consist of properly formatted references of all the sources mentioned in your proposal, as well as any others that you plan to use in the dissertation itself. Don't leave this part to the last minute! Remember to keep track of any sources you are consulting as you go, to save yourself the headache of tracking them all down later.