Planning your Dissertation Part 3: 'The Research Proposal' by Roy Horn

The research proposal is the key 'gateway' document to your dissertation. It sets out the main details of how your research will be conducted. In many universities, the dissertation cannot be progressed until a supervisor has been allocated and the research proposal agreed upon between student and supervisor. It is also a key document in formulating and crystallizing your topic ideas into a 'doable' disc.


The research proposal is a critical part of producing a successful dissertation. It can often seem in producing them that they are rather slow to develop and wasteful of time. If you were going to set out on a long journey, you would most likely carry out extensive planning for the trip. You should think of the research proposal as the important planning for a long journey. Unplanned journeys are really exciting but can land up anywhere and often end in chaos and failure - these are not the outcomes you want for your dissertation!

Research proposals can take many forms and can look very different, but a good starting point is to follow the main outline headings given below:
  1. Title
  2. Background to the research
  3. The research problem
  4. The objectives of the research
  5. Literature
  6. Methodology
  7. Ethical issues
  8. Access issues
  9. Time-scale
  10. Bibliography

Important Points

State the research problem clearly and precisely using research questions or hypotheses - this may take a few goes but it is the difference between failure and successful completion.

The research must be embedded in a critical review of the literature relating to the subject area. This is easy at the proposal stage and most good supervisors will not let the proposal go until it is clear, precise and embedded in the literature. It is a nightmare if you have to build the literature around the dissertation at a later stage!

All proposals must consider, reflect and act on ethical issues and access issues. The proposal is the place to start that critical reflection! More and more your research will need approval from an ethics committee. So you may need a separate document setting out the ethical issues and the impact the research may have on participants.

Be organized and systematic about building a bibliography from the very start! You don't want the last job you have to do, under time pressure, to be tracking down references you could have recorded at the time you read the stuff! Nowadays most students do this in Word 2007 the same software you will be using to write the dissertation.

For more detail on the research proposal and bibliography check out my book Researching and Writing Dissertations (2009), Roy Horn, CIPD: London, pages 50:64.

Finally, use Tom's Planner to develop the timescale of the dissertation. Tom's planner is quick and easy to learn and use and will be crucial to the success of your dissertation. As I said in blog 2 you can easily use it to update your tutor on your progress. See the link for an example of Tom's Planner set up with the early stages of a typical dissertation:



In the next blog, I will look at the crucial task of 'tackling the literature' and being critical.

Get a head start on your dissertation by using this template and start planning now! This schedule will save you lots of time and energy.


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Roy Horn is an academic at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK and tutors dissertation students. He has written two books one on dissertations and one on skills.

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