Dissertation Proposal Writing Guide

Author: , Modified: 16 August 2023


Before you write your dissertation, you will be expected to write a dissertation proposal. We have already given some guidance on choosing a topic for your dissertation. The purpose of your proposal is to explain that topic, justify your reasons for choosing it, and lay out how you are going to research it.

There are a number of reasons for the submission of dissertation proposals:

  1. Your department and/or tutor have to be convinced that the subject upon which you wish to write is feasible. In other words, they need to know that the breadth of the subject you propose is not too small (to ensure that there is enough to talk about) or too wide (which would mean that you wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice). The department is not doing this to be awkward. It wants you to do well and the proposal is a way of trying to help you go in the right direction before you start to write your dissertation.
  2. Your dissertation needs an expert to mark it. The proposal offers the department a ‘snapshot’ of your proposed topic and allows the department to assign a suitable tutor to you who has the knowledge to help and advise you, as well as the expertise to mark the finished piece of work.

Illustration of dissertation proposal

How Do I Write a Proposal?

Depending on the type of dissertation you will go on to complete, there might be a few structural differences (which we will cover a little later on). However, every proposal must contain a few essential things:

  • An outline of the topic you are researching
  • An explanation of how you are going to find the information you need
  • A hypothesis or question which will be explored and answered in the dissertation
  • A reference list or bibliography which pinpoints a handful of sources likely to be useful for your research

The word count will vary depending on your subject, course, and individual university, but proposals are typically between 1,000 and 3,000 words long.

The idea of a dissertation is to find a gap in the existing research and conduct your own research to address this. Gaps in research could include things like:

  • Date of studies (for example, much of the literature on a particular field could be 5-10 years old so an update may be due)
  • Subject of studies (for example, there is not as much academic research on the novels of Anne Bronte as there is about her more famous sisters, Charlotte and Emily, so there is a ‘gap’ here)
  • Particular theories and frameworks (for instance, there may be lots of studies on the issue of anxiety disorder, but not very many which address it from a psycho-analytic perspective)

The idea is to provide a snapshot of what your dissertation is going to do. This way, your tutor can give you feedback: they might suggest that a different focus or a different research method would be better for your dissertation, for example. The thing to remember is that your dissertation will almost certainly end up being different in some way from your proposal, and that’s okay!

You will need to be able to describe and evaluate what your research is for and how it will achieve its goals. You will need to demonstrate that your approach is methodologically sound, ethical, feasible and relevant.

How Do I Structure My Dissertation Proposal?

This will depend on whether you are undertaking an Empirical (or Primary research) dissertation, a Literature-based (or secondary research) dissertation, a Systematic Literature Review, or a Law dissertation.

Please click on the type which matches your dissertation most closely for guidance on how to structure your proposal!

*Please note that this is general guidance. You should always follow specific structural guidance provided by your university first and foremost.


The structure of an empirical dissertation proposal typically looks like this:

  1. Introduction/Background: A short overview of the topic you have chosen (probably no more than 3 or 4 sentences)!
  2. Literature Review: A mini review of the most relevant literature you have found which inspired you to choose this topic.
  3. Methodology: A short explanation of how you intend to collect your data. In an empirical dissertation, you are highly likely to be undertaking your own research; this will almost always need to contain some discussion of Research Ethics.
  4. Conclusion/Research Question(s): This is where you will sum up why this research is worthwhile and spell out the specific question or questions which your research aims to answer.
Example Literature Reviews


A proposal for a literature-based dissertation will not be too rigidly structured. It is likely to follow something like this:

  1. Introduction/Background: This should be a short overview of the topic you have chosen and why it is relevant.
  2. Main Body: This should ideally be broken up into sections based on your proposed chapter titles. Each section should explain what will be addressed in that chapter and should build up different parts of the bigger picture the dissertation is trying to address.
  3. Conclusion: This will be a short summary of what your dissertation will cover and what you hope to achieve by exploring the topic in depth.

Systematic Literature Review

The structure for a systematic literature review’s proposal can vary wildly, depending on the context of the research. However, broadly speaking, all proposals for dissertations of this nature will cover the following:

  1. Introduction/Background: A very short introduction to your idea and explanation of the context surrounding it. You will outline the objectives and/or aims of the research here.
  2. Literature Review: This will be short: the idea is to give an overview of the topic at hand here, but your main dissertation will involve a very thorough literature search to help you identify the most appropriate articles to review. Identifying key themes throughout the literature is important, as this will be what informs your own research.
  3. Methodology: This will make up the bulk of your proposal. Here, you will outline your systematic review approach; things you will be likely to discuss here include: search strategy, study selection criteria (inclusion/exclusion), study quality assessment, data extraction/synthesis and a dissemination strategy.
  4. Conclusion: A very brief summary of the value of your research and how the findings will be expected to contribute to the field should round off your proposal.

Dissertation Methodology Examples

A Note on Ethics

It is really important to make sure that as soon as you have developed an idea for your research, you have also considered how to make that research ethical. Research which lacks ethical consideration will almost certainly lead to a fail grade!

Ethics involve making sure the participants in your research are safe, protected from harm, understand their rights, and know they can withdraw at any time, among other things. The British Educational Research Authority (BERA) offer excellent guidance to follow to make sure your research ticks all the necessary ethical boxes!

Draft Timetable of Research

Assuming you have between ten and twelve months to write a dissertation it is normal to include a proposal as to how you will spend your time.

Again, it is not essential that you follow it slavishly – you may find that some items take less time and others take longer.

However, the draft timetable not only enables your lecturer to offer comments and guidance as to whether your suggestions are realistic but may also help to crystallise in your own mind how much time you will need to spend researching and writing the dissertation.

A word of advice: do the bulk of the work of the dissertation early and do not leave everything to the last minute.

Initial/Proposed Bibliography

Do remember that the initial bibliography – like any other bibliography – is not part of the word count. Try to include at least twenty journal articles and books in the draft bibliography. Do not include more than three or four websites.

The proposed bibliography should give an indication of the key texts that you will use and should also include those texts you have cited directly within the proposal itself.

What Do I Do After My Proposal Is Complete?

Once your proposal has been submitted to and marked by your tutor, you will be able to make a start on writing your dissertation itself.

One of the most important things to do before you start is to make sure you understand the feedback your tutor has given and to have a good idea of what you need to change in order to implement it.

We can help

If you require assistance to write the proposal section of your dissertation, you may want to consider our helpful service which is a great way to get a head start on your work.

Dissertation Proposal Service Dissertation Proposal Example

Checklist: Writing a Dissertation Proposal


Well done on completing this checklist! You're doing great.

Dissertation Proposal FAQ's

Question: What are the common pitfalls students encounter when writing a dissertation proposal?
Common dissertation proposal pitfalls include:
  1. Lack of justification and context to the reserach question/topic.
  2. Topic is too broad or narrow.
  3. Aim, objective and questions don't align.
  4. Not following your university's specific criteria.
  5. Lack of proofreading.
  6. Research design is not clearly articulated.
  7. Failure to cite the key theories/literature on the subject you're studying.
Question: What's the typical length of a dissertation proposal?
Typically, the length of a proposal is between 500 and 1500 words at Undergraduate level and can go up to 2500-3000 words at the Postgraduate level. This will be specified by the university. For larger projects such as PhD dissertations, the length of the proposal will be longer.
Question: Should my proposal include potential limitations or challenges in my research?
Yes. Including potential limitations and challenges in your proposal helps to showcase your understanding and recognition of issues that will constrain your work, and the role they play by aiming your research on just one section or part of the subject.

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