Tips and Strategies for Writing a Dissertation Proposal

By: Victoria Kim, University of California, Los Angeles

Writing a dissertation proposal is a process. It requires various steps. I recently attended a 6-week workshop on writing a dissertation proposal that thoroughly reviewed this arduous but rewarding process. I hope these tips and strategies can help all of us who are in this long race of writing a dissertation proposal.

1) Research Question
Think of a broad, overarching research question. This will then guide you to generate specific research questions.

2) Methods
There are three ways of choosing a method or methods that best fit your study: quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods. One may prefer one method over the other. However, it is best to choose a method based on the topic and the research question(s) of your study. The research topic and questions should inform the method(s) you choose.

3) Literature
A good way to think about the literature review is to think in three big areas (or more areas if needed). Try to narrow down your topic into three big areas. For example, if you are interested in studying identity of Asian American students in high schools, there can be three big areas of study: 1) identity 2) Asian American students 3) high school. Drawing out a Venn diagram can be helpful. The literature on identity may discuss Asian Americans, but there also may be literature on identity that talks about the identity of students from other minority and ethnic groups. It is your job to find connections among these three areas of literature to thoroughly provide background information on your research topic. Also, the area where all three literature overlaps is where one will find the most relevant literature for the study. One or a few of these studies that are found in this overlap area can become a part of your theoretical framework or a study that guides your proposal.Venn diagram

4) Theoretical or Conceptual Framework
A theoretical or conceptual framework not only informs the whole study but also guides how the study is discussed in the discussion and implications sections. It is ideal to search for a study that is closest to your research topic and/or your study design. For example, a study on Asian American student demographics in higher education can provide the framework(s) to guide my study on the identity of Asian American students in high schools. Note that there are overlaps in topics of interests between the guiding study (theoretical framework) and my own, although the focus of each study is slightly different.

5) PowerPoint slides
As much as our writing is important, what we present on the day of our proposal defense is also very important. Our committee members have already read our proposal and have a good understanding of our study. Thus, on the day of our proposal defense, we should effectively utilize the PowerPoint slides to provide an overview of our study as well as visuals that may assist in engaging in deeper conversations about the proposed study.

Visuals matter. Therefore, font matters. It is recommended that we use san serif fonts (i.e., Arial) when typing in information on the presentation slides. However, the most important thing to remember is to have consistency in the font style one uses. Also, insert charts and graphs as needed. Pictures can help too. Each slide should also have a title to let your committee members know which section you are presenting on. Also, remember you are the expert on your research topic. Be confident and don’t be shy in presenting your study proposal to your committee members.

6) Recommended Readings
Lastly, out of many great books that provide wealth of knowledge in writing a dissertation proposal, I recommend the following two books: “The dissertation journey” (2010) by Carol M. Roberts and “Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis” (1998) by Joan Bolker.


Victoria Kim is a doctoral student in Social Sciences and Comparative Education and a research associate for the Institute of Immigration, Globalization, and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include examining educational practices and programs from early childhood to postsecondary education that support bilingual, immigrant, minority, and English language learning students with a focus on Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

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