8: Dissertation Proposal Tips

Where to look for topic ideas

  • Look at other dissertation in your field in order to get an idea of the overall scope and style. (The MSU Library is a good place to find dissertations from your own department.)
  • Identify your areas of interest. What are you passionate about? Write about topics and look at your own academic career to see what you have done.
  • Identify how you think and research—do you look at one topic in depth or several ideas you can explore in a comparative manner?
  • Look at job openings to see what is “hot” in your field and what potential future employers are looking for.
  • Strive for a balance between passion and practicality.
  • Talk to your advisor and professors to learn what they are working on. In the sciences, you may have the opportunity to work with them on their research.
  • Contact experts and professionals in the field to see what they’re doing and what’s new.
  • Generate titles as soon as possible. They will contain words that will frame your work.

Once you have a general idea of your topic

  • Remember that an idea or topic that is general and undefined is fine to start. Broad is all right because it is a research topic not research questions.
  • Reading, read, read. Do extensive reading and research on your topic to narrow it down and get specific.
  • Generate a list of possible titles. This helps identify key words and concepts.
  • Choose the best possibilities, analyze them briefly, and present them to your
    committee to get their feedback and develop them further.
  • Try using cognitive/mind/concept maps to organize your ideas.

What is the proposal?

  • A template for the larger project of the dissertation;
  • An evaluation;
  • A research plan;
  • A trial run or head start;
    A sales pitch;
  • A contract with your committee saying what you will do and what requirements
    occur before you get your degree;
  • A document that demonstrates you can conceive of a dissertation;
  • A document that identifies the ideas you want to call your own;
  • A tentative blueprint that is always subject to change as you go.

Before and after the proposal

  • Pre-proposal outline (consider letting your advisor look at this early);
  • The proposal defense (expect open-ended and specific questions—consider asking
    other students to do a trial run with you. Think of your committee as colleagues
    trying to help you refine your ideas);
  • Ultimately, your proposal won’t answer every question. In final form, it becomes
    whatever your committee agrees it should be and guides you into your dissertation.

Two Possible Ways of Structuring the Proposal
Please note that these are just examples. Your program may have specific guidelines. Please speak with your advisor to find out about structures that are appropriate for your project.

Two Possible Ways of Structuring the Proposal