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What A Great Dissertation Proposal Looks Like, and Five Common Mistakes that Lead to Dissertation Proposal Revisions

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The vast majority of coaching students who come to me for help do so because they have just received their dissertation proposal feedback and are overwhelmed by the scope of revisions needed.

While it’s practically impossible to avoid revisions altogether, there are some common problems you can look out for while writing to help you avoid a proposal covered in red ink (or comment boxes).

This post will outline five of the research proposal mistakes I see most often and how you can avoid them while drafting.

Problem 1: Confusing the Context with the Problem Statement

Many students struggle to understand the difference between the context of the study and the problem statement. The result is a poorly organized introduction that is difficult for a reader to follow.

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The context provides the background information your reader needs in order to understand the problem. Let’s imagine your study is on the efficacy of lowering the legal drinking age. Before your reader can understand your study, they need some basic information, such as the current drinking age, the legislative history of underaged drinking, and the effects of alcohol on young people’s health. This information sets the stage for your study.

The problem statement outlines the specific problem you hope to solve with your study. For example, in our hypothetical drinking age study, we might be trying to solve the problem of underaged college binge drinking at parties. To establish that this really is a problem, we need present readers with information like the number of hospitalizations, arrests, expulsions, and so on, of drunk underaged college students. As you can see, this information is much more specific to the problem than the information about the general context.

How can you get this right when writing? The key is to outline. Brainstorm the problem and create outline sections based on the elements of the problem you identify. Then, zoom out—what do you need to know to understand those elements? Brainstorm again—these ideas become the sections of your context outline.

Problem 2: Your Literature Review is Incomplete

A surprising number of students get to the dissertation-writing stage without having ever been taught how to conduct secondary research. Your literature review requires this, so take some time to brush up on these skills before you start. First, when you research, make sure you:

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  1. Use the best possible sources—peer-reviewed, credible, recent research studies wherever possible.

  2. Look at all the sources—don’t stop when you find one source that supports your thinking—read everything you can on the topic.

You also want to make sure you are using keywords relevant to your research questions. Identify keywords, then spend some time brainstorming their possible variations. For example, as well as “drinking,” you might want to search “drink,” “alcohol,” “alcoholism,” “binge drinking,” and so on.

Problem 3: Lack of Alignment

Another common issue is that the problem statement, the research questions, and the literature review fail to match up properly. This makes it hard for a reader to follow the line of logic you are establishing.

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To achieve this, you need everything you present to line up clearly with your research questions. The context should be the context of those questions, the problem statement should show why they are relevant questions, the literature review should establish they have not been adequately answered already, and so on.

The solution when you are drafting is to use a chart. Put your research questions in the first column, your objectives (if applicable) in the next column, different aspects of the problem in the next column, key lit review sources and gaps you have identified in the next, and so on. Then check—does each row make sense and line up properly?

Problem 4: The Proposed Study Design Does Not Relate to the Research Questions

You may also find that your advisor or chair recommends you change your study design. This usually happens when it becomes clear that your proposed design will not yield the data needed to answer your questions adequately.

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Research study design is complex—there are many, MANY possible variations within the four main design types (qualitative, quantitative, mixed-methods, and textual analysis). Many students find they “click” with one particular design style—usually the one they encounter most often, and thus understand best. Unfortunately, that style may not be appropriate to what your study is trying to achieve.

I recommend that students think about two key things when choosing a design style:

  1. What sort of data do you need in order to answer your questions?

  2. What can you realistically accomplish?

It is no good deciding to conduct interviews (qualitative study) if what you need is hard data for statistical analysis. Likewise, it is not a good idea to plan a study involving complex controlled-environment experiments if you have no access to a lab. Thus, you need to make sure your study design takes account of both your questions and your capabilities.

What if it doesn’t? Might be time to rethink your questions. (This is much less stressful to do BEFORE you submit your proposal.)

Problem 5: The Research Gap Has Not Been Established

Finally, students are often baffled by feedback that suggests their literature review—despite being PAGES long—does not actually establish a research gap. This happens when students get too focused on presenting a summary of the existing topic knowledge, without focusing enough on the problem.

Remember your goal: you are attempting to demonstrate that your research will fit into a genuine research gap: that no one else has adequately answered the questions or solved the problems you are trying to solve. Show the work that has gone before, the work that remains to be done, and where you fit in terms of that final category.

Try structing each section of the literature review with those three questions in mind. For each RQ, begin by showing the work that has already been done. Then explain what those existing studies fail to do. Finally, end with a note reminding the reader that your study will try to fill that gap. Then, move on to the next RQ.

A Great Proposal Looks Like This

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Achieve those three things, and you may find yourself in the happy position of being asked only to complete stylistic revisions!

Need help getting your dissertation proposal back on track? Find out how dissertation coaching can help.