Getting your Dissertation Proposal Approved

Last Updated on November 20, 2020 by Ayla Myrick

Ideally, your dissertation proposal is a contract between you and your dissertation committee.  Some universities even make the contractual nature of the proposal explicit: If you do what you and the committee agreed on in the proposal, and competently write up the results and conclusions, your dissertation will be approved.  For most universities, this is an implicit contract and often not honored in practice. Both the proposal and the final dissertation will likely go through extensive and multiple revisions before the dissertation is approved. The final product may not look much like the document that you envisioned when you wrote the proposal.  Your goal should be to write the proposal so that, even if there are major changes as the project progresses, you can still use 90% of what you wrote for your proposal as the first three chapters of the final dissertation.  A typical proposal will include an introductory chapter, a literature review chapter, and a methodology chapter. (There may be a separate chapter describing the planned data analysis, but this is usually part of the methodology chapter.) These will generally be expanded to form the first three chapters of the final dissertation.

The Nature of Dissertation Committees

The first thing to remember about a dissertation committee is that it is likely not perfect.  One or more of the members may not be experts in your specific topic.   Presumably, the chair of your committee will be an expert in the topic being addressed by your dissertation.  They will likely have published extensively in your field.  What they are looking for is a modest extension of the existing knowledge in the specific topic of your dissertation.  You, on the other hand, want to make a major contribution and revolutionize the field in your first publication.  Unless you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s probably not going to happen.  Particularly in the social sciences, new theories are built on years of incremental advances through empirical studies.  So, the first step it to pick a topic that is small enough to complete in the time you have allocated for your doctoral studies and large enough that you care enough to spend huge amounts of your time on it.  Almost as important is picking a topic that your committee chair cares about.  The chair is going to spend a lot of time reading multiple drafts of your proposal and you want them to give the proposal the time and attention that it requires in order to lead to a dissertation that they care about and that, ideally, makes an incremental contribution to their own line of research and publication. 

Another member of the committee will likely have been selected because of their methodological expertise.  This member will probably either be a statistician (for quantitative dissertations) or a content analysis expert (for qualitative dissertations).  In any event, this member is going to focus on the methodology rather than the substance of your research and so you need to be extremely clear in the methodology section and demonstrate that you are competent to conduct the research. Particularly if you are proposing a quantitative dissertation, unless you have a strong background in statistics, you may want to hire a consultant to work with you on designing the analysis. And, if you do have a statistician as a member of your committee, be glad that you have their expertise checking your proposed research design.  I have seen dissertations rejected because the initial design was fatally flawed and no one on the committee caught the problem before the data collection and analysis was complete.

This second member will also look very closely at the research questions and hypotheses and assess the fit between the questions and the data that you are proposing to collect to answer them.   As with the issue discussed above, I have seen dissertations rejected because the data that were collected could not definitively answer the research question.  Having someone verify that you will be collecting the right data to answer the question is extremely valuable.

A third committee member may focus only on the formal requirements in terms of formatting and consistency.  This member may not actually know much about either the substance of the topic or the methodology that you are employing, but they will be expert in APA compliance and compliance with any additional requirements imposed by your university or department.  If your university provides a template for the proposal and the dissertation make sure that you use it. 

This member will also likely be extremely diligent about making sure that there is a perfect match between your in-text citations and your reference list.  I urge everyone to begin using citation management software when they’re writing the proposal, if they haven’t already started using it for their previous projects.  These software tools allow you to create a separate comprehensive file of references.  Any time you read anything that is in any way relevant to your topic of interest, the references should be entered into the master file.  Once the master file is linked to the proposal file, anything you cite in the text of your proposal will be added to the reference list at the end of your proposal.  And if you cite something that is not in the reference list, the software will prompt you to add it. The three most commonly used citation management tools are Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote.  By using this software, you avoid having that third member find a missing in-text citation or a missing item in the reference list and telling you that you need to review the entire document for such omissions.   This is going to become even more crucial when you write the actual dissertation.  And once you have the master file, you can add to it and continue to use after you complete your doctorate and prepare manuscripts for publication.

Managing your Dissertation Committee

Now that you’ve started thinking about the probable interests and demands of the individual members, it is important to also remember that the dissertation committee is a small group with all the dynamics and tensions that any group faces.  Henry Kissinger once said that, “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  While some have argued that the best way to get through a dissertation defense is to get the members arguing among themselves, I have always thought that a risky strategy.  Take a close look at how the committee members have worked together in the past, particularly if they have served on a dissertation committee of a candidate that you know, who has come before you.  My dissertation adviser at Harvard had a long-standing feud with another faculty member who was originally assigned to my committee as the methodologist.  One of the candidates, who was four years ahead of me, was still trying to get her dissertation approved by a committee that included both my adviser and this second member.  I talked to the methodologist and he agreed to step aside in favor of a statistician who I had been working with on the design of specialized statistics for my dissertation.  If you see a serious potential for conflict within your committee it is worth trying to come up with a way of diplomatically approaching a committee member about substituting someone else who is more likely to cooperate with your chair.  Most of us are conflict averse and will take the out if it is offered.

It has also been said that committees, in general, spend more time debating the trivial issues than the important ones.  In one famous example, a political committee spent 15 minutes selecting the site for a nuclear power plant and an hour deciding on which coffee maker to buy for their conference room.  This is partly because everyone has knowledge of, and opinions regarding, the simple decisions and fewer have the necessary knowledge to debate the complex ones. Dissertation committees are no different.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time addressing minor concerns of the committee members without ever being engaged on the big picture issues of your topic.

Your Goals versus your Committee’s Goals

Ultimately, you need to satisfy your dissertation committee and, in particular, your chair.  At the same time, you have goals of your own that need to be met.  These two sets of goals may not be incompatible, but you need to be aware of the differences if you are going to satisfy both yourself and your committee.  First and foremost, you have the goals of getting the dissertation completed and approved as soon as possible and getting a job or promotion when it’s done.  You also probably want to spend your time on a topic that interests you, get something published (preferably before you graduate), and produce an initial result that will lend itself to developing a future research agenda.  

Your dissertation committee, first and foremost, wants to avoid the embarrassment of signing off on a weak or fatally flawed dissertation proposal.   Remember that, in granting your doctorate, they are certifying that you are competent to teach future doctoral students. If taken seriously, this is a daunting criterion for a committee to certify, and for you to meet.  They also want to further their own research agendas, so it is helpful if you can design your research in a way that incrementally advances knowledge in their specific filed of interest. And, just as an aside, everyone wants to see their research cited.  If you can do it without making it look gratuitous, it’s worth citing the work of your committee members, and specifically of your chair. So as not to end on a cynical note, the best committee members also have the goal of preparing candidates who will surpass them in their careers.

So, your responsibility in presenting your dissertation proposal is to simultaneously satisfy the, sometimes, incompatible goals of yourself and three or more faculty members.  This is a balancing act that requires an awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, the abilities, limitations, and biases of the individual committee members, and the potential dynamics of the committee as a small group.

Richard Pollard