Masters Dissertation Proposal Structure

Proposals can be put together in many ways, but they generally contain several set components. Always ask your supervisor about precise requirements, such as how long the proposal should be and which elements are mandatory.

Title page

This should be similar to the title page that you will eventually prepare for your dissertation. Include the following items:

  • The document’s title (and subtitle, if relevant);
  • The name of your school;
  • Contact information for your academic supervisor(s);
  • Date and place;
  • Your name (and the name of any co-authors, if relevant).

Table of contents

Use Microsoft Word’s table of content tools to generate this list so that it will be automatically updated whenever you amend your document.


After reading this introduction to your topic, people should understand why you will undertake your research and want to learn more. If the proposal itself is long, you can also use this section to briefly outline how the rest of the proposal is structured.

Chapter 1 Background and context

This chapter should more thoroughly explain the problem or question you will look at. It’s particularly important to demonstrate why your research is relevant, which you can do by outlining the context of your project. Briefly explain the history, describe the current situation and highlight important recent developments. You should also introduce the organization you are looking at, if relevant.

Chapter 2 Problem statement and analysis

Use this chapter to present a clear outline of the problem or issue that you will address, including:

  • Who has responsibility for the problem?
  • What has already been done to try to solve it?
  • What will happen if the problem is not solved?

Research design

In this chapter it’s also important to clearly state what is and is not part of your research design, as being explicit will help to avoid later conflict. Be sure to identify which part of an organization will be involved in the research, if appropriate.

Chapter 3 Objective and final outcomes

This chapter should clearly identify what will come out of your research, which ensures that you and everyone involved in your thesis have the same expectations. It will also help to clarify what you are working towards. Include the following components:

  • Objective: Note any targets you aim to achieve through your research.
  • Final outcomes Describe any specific end products that you will create on the basis of your findings (e.g., for the organization you are studying). Examples include a website, model or strategy.

Chapter 4 Conditions and risk analysis

Use this chapter to discuss any constraints that may be associated with your project.


Describe what you will need in order to undertake the project. For instance:

  • Money: How much money do you need to conduct the research?
  • Location: Are there any requirements related to where you will conduct your research (for example, a workstation)?
  • Materials: What materials do you need for the research?
  • Expertise: What experts do you need access to?
  • Time: How much time do you need for your research?
  • Expert and participant availability: Will individuals be accessible and free when you need them (e.g., to be interviewed or complete a survey)?

Risk analysis

Identify any possible risks that may be associated with the project and the measures you will take to avoid them.

Chapter 5 Approach

This chapter should outline the steps you will take to achieve your desired objectives and outcomes. You should also include your general planning calendar, to clarify what you will do when.

Step/PhaseResultsDeadlineNumber of hours
1OrientationStructure action plan
2Research design, Research conceptMethods, tools, techniques

Sources/reference list

Be sure to identify the sources of any information you use in your plan. Most colleges require students to follow the APA style for this. Taking advantage of the free Scribbr APA Generator will ensure that your citations and reference list are formatted correctly.


A research proposal generally doesn’t have too many appendices, but you can use them if you have important items that are too long to include in the document’s main body. Examples include a market share table that helps to justify the study’s relevance and a more detailed planning calendar.

The proposal for a thesis or dissertation is essentially an outline of the research - kind of like an architectural blueprint for building a house. The clearer the plan, the more timely and successful the completion of the house. And the clearer the plan, the more likely it is that it will be approved by your advisor or dissertation committee, with a high probability that the final paper will also be accepted. A well - done, acceptable proposal, therefore, is a kind of personal contract between you the candidate, and your committee.

The challenge lies - as usual - in deciding exactly what topic you want to propose! It is true that some fortunate students may be offered a specific topic or problem to pursue by a mentor whose preferences agree with the student's own. But more often, your job is to come up with a specific topic or research question that shows promise for extended study. Do not worry if a topic does not suggest itself to you immediately. Be ready and willing to try out a number of possibilities to see how they develop. How do you "try out" a topic? - by doing a topic analysis.

This is really a simplified proposal form that includes the following parts:

  1. Problem, hypothesis, or question
  2. Importance of research
  3. Significant prior research
  4. Possible research approach or methodology
  5. Potential outcomes of research and importance of each

(thanks to Davis & Parker)

Analyzing a potentially useful topic in this step?by?step way forces you to look at it objectively and precisely within two to four pages. Here are some points to watch for:

  1. If you are unable to write your topic in either the form of a hypothesis or a clear statement, you need to refine and clarify the topic. It must be statedspecifically, not in vague, imprecise terms.
  2. You'll need to be able to justify what you're doing and prove that it's worthy of your time and energy. It's always handy if you can quote a major authority who is stating a need for the research. But if you don't have an authority on hand, try to demonstrate that your research is in some way significant to a major activity.
  3. Be sure you have a reasonable (if not exhaustive) grasp of what's been done before. This will help support #2.
  4. Extremely important part! Exactly how do you plan to approach the research? Try to explain as precisely as possible, and include an alternative methodology. This part may still be in rough form, but it should indicate the likely nature of your approach.
  5. This will be important in assessing the worth of your topic. For example, let's say you might propose the use of a questionnaire to collect evidence. You would then need to analyze the results of the questionnaire. Your potential outcomes (speaking generally) might be a positive correlation between two factors, a negative one, none at all, or unsatisfactory responses. Perhaps only one of these outcomes could lead to a dissertation. That result could suggest the need for a different approach to the issue, which in turn could lead you down a more productive path.

Let's say that's what has happened, and you're now in the happy position of writing the first draft of your formal proposal. This is an expansion of the topic analysis and will be your final work plan, so it will probably end up being anywhere from ten to forty pages. Again, here's a generally accepted proposal with an idea of expected page length:

Section of Proposal

Page Length

1. Summary1-2
2. Hypothesis, problem or question1-3
3. Importance of topic1-2
4. Prior research on topic1-7
5. Research approach or methodology2-8
6. Limitations and key assumptions1-2
7. Contributions to knowledge 
(for each potential outcome,if there are more than one)
8. Descriptions of proposed chapters in dissertation2-3

(again, thanks to Davis & Parker)

Note: A master's thesis can often be less detailed and elaborate than the above plan. Also, individual departments usually have their own unique preferences. The above plan is meant only as a general guide. Always check with your own department for specific Guidelines

(1-4) the first four sections are about the same as those in your topic analysis, only amplified and refined. The prior research section in particular must be more comprehensive, although you may certainly summarize your report of prior research if there is a great deal of it. Your actual dissertation will be the obvious place to go into more detail.

The research approach or methodology section (5) should be explained explicitly. For example, what questions will you include on your questionnaire? If your work includes an experiment, what apparatus will you use, what procedures will you follow, what data do you intend to collect, and what instruments will you use in data collection? List any major questions yet to be decided.

In the limitations section (6) make clear what your study will not attempt to do.

The contributions section (7) will simply be more detailed than in your topic analysis, and your chapter descriptions (8) should be as specific as possible. Just remember this is a proposal, so keep descriptions brief, and try to highlight the structure of each chapter. Most dissertations follow a standard chapter format:

  1. Introduction (general problem area, specific problem, importance of topic, research approach, limitations, key assumptions, and contribution to research)
  2. Description of what has been done in the past. (a.k.a. literature review; this documents that your own research has not already been covered.)
  3. Description of the research methodology. (how your research was conducted).
  4. Research results. (What you found out).
  5. Analysis of the results (explains the conclusions that can be drawn from data, and implications of a theory).
  6. Summary and conclusions (emphasize the results obtained and contribution made. Outline suggestions for further research.)

With this general framework in mind, along with the specific characteristics of your own dissertation, you can define your chapters clearly for your formal proposal.

Remember that it's often necessary to refine the first proposal, most likely by narrowing the scope of your study. But this is all part of the essential process of formulating a working plan for a dissertation that will yield a successful result. If you think of your proposal in this light, you're more apt to remain patient as you, work your way to the final draft.

A checklist for self-appraisal, from Davis & Parker:

  1. Does the proposal have imagination?
  2. Is the problem stated clearly?
    • (a) hypothesis clear? testable?
    • (b) if no hypothesis, are objectives clearly stated? Can they be accomplished?
    • (c) problem perhaps too large?
  3. Is the methodology feasible?
    • (a) can data be collected?
    • (b) how will data be analyzed?
    • (c) will the analysis allow the acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis?
    • (d) is the sample population overused?
  4. What might the results of the analysis look like? (tables, graphs, etc.)
  5. What are the consequences if
    • (a) the experiment fails;
    • (b) data cannot be obtained;
    • (c) analysis is inconclusive;
    • (d) hypothesis is rejected or accepted?
  6. Can major research activities be listed?
  7. Can a time estimate be made for each activity?
  8. Again, are the dimensions of the project manageable?

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