This article provides comprehensive guidelines for writing a PhD thesis proposal for PhD students but it can also benefit masters students as well. It is a collation of previous articles written on how to write the different chapters of a proposal and how to format a PhD thesis proposal.
A PhD thesis proposal has three distinct sections, each of which is discussed below. The three sections include: the front matter, the main text and the back matter.
- Front Matter of a PhD Thesis Proposal
- Title page
- Declaration by the candidate and approval of thesis
- Table of contents
- List of figures
- List of tables
- List of abbreviations
- Main Text of the Proposal
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Introduction to the chapter
- Background to the study
- Statement of the problem
- Justification of the study
- Significance of the study
- Objectives of the study and/or research questions
- Scope of the study
- Limitations and delimitations of the study
- Definition of terms
- Chapter summary
- Chapter 2: Literature review
- Introduction to the chapter
- Theoretical review
- Empirical review
- Conceptual framework
- Research gaps
- Chapter 3: Research methodology
- Research design
- Population and sampling
- Data collection methods and tools
- Ethical considerations
- Data analysis
- Limitations of the study
- Back Matter of the Proposal
- Checklist for Writing a PhD Thesis Proposal
- Related Articles
Front Matter of a PhD Thesis Proposal
The front matter has a number of pages, the requirements of which may vary from one academic institution to another. It is therefore important for PhD students to refer to their proposal manual when writing their thesis proposals. The front matter pages include:
The title page is the first page of the thesis. It includes: the title of the PhD thesis, the name of the PhD student, the school or department and university in which the study took place, the city and country in which the university is located, and lastly the month and year in which the degree was conferred.
Declaration by the candidate and approval of thesis
Originality is very crucial for PhD-level theses and dissertations. In this section, the PhD candidate declares that his work has not been published elsewhere to the best of his knowledge. The declaration is followed by approval of thesis and includes the names of all those people who reviewed and approved the thesis. These could be the supervisors, the Head of Department/School and/or the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. The wordings on this page may vary from one institution to another, it is therefore important for the candidates to refer to their handbooks.
The abstract is a short summary of the thesis, normally a paragraph in length. Abstracts can be structured or unstructured. A structured abstract is one that has headings and text below each heading, while an unstructured abstract does not have headings, it is written in paragraph form.
Table of contents
The table of contents provides the outline of the thesis and shows all the headings and sub-headings of the thesis and their page numbers.
List of figures
The list of figures shows the titles of all the figures in the thesis and their page numbers.
List of tables
Like the list of figures, the list of tables shows the titles of all the tables in the thesis and their page numbers.
List of abbreviations
All acronyms and their abbreviations used throughout the thesis should be highlighted in their own separate page titled list of abbreviations.
In a PhD thesis, it is mandatory to acknowledge all those who helped you in your PhD journey. These include: your supervisors, other faculty who either reviewed your work or gave advice, people who proofread your work, institutions that helped you gain access to your data, your research respondents, fellow colleagues etc.
Some PhD candidates dedicate their thesis to people who are dear to them, for instance, parents, siblings, spouse/partner, children etc. This section is however not mandatory.
Main Text of the Proposal
The main text of thesis is the meat of the thesis and in most cases includes chapter one (introduction), chapter two (literature review) and chapter three (research methodology). This may also vary from one institution to another.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 1 of a thesis proposal has about 10 sections discussed below:
Introduction to the chapter
This is the first section of chapter 1 of a thesis proposal. It is normally short about a paragraph in length. Its purpose is to inform the readers what the chapter is all about.
Background to the study
This section is the longest in chapter 1 of a thesis proposal.
It provides the context within which the study will be undertaken.
It gives a historical explanation of the issue under investigation.
It is important to use existing data and statistics to show the magnitude of the issue. Grey literature (for instance, reports from the government, non-governmental organisations, local institutions and international organisations among others) play an important role when providing the background to the study.
The background is often written starting from a general perspective and narrows down to a specific perspective.
The background to the study should be clear and comprehensive enough such that your readers will be on the same page after reading the section, irrespective of their prior knowledge in your research topic.
While reviewing literature for this section, a good practice is to build mind maps that highlight the important concepts for the study topic and how those concepts relate to each other.
Statement of the problem
It is also referred to as problem statement or issue under investigation.
The statement of the problem is the elephant in the “chapter 1” room. It is what most students struggle with and the area that can make or break a proposal defense.
When writing the statement of the problem, start the section with the problem, as in: The problem (or issue) under investigation is ….
After stating the problem then follow it up with an explanation of why it is a problem.
For PhD students, the problem under investigation should be complex enough to warrant a doctoral-level study and at the same time it should add to the body of knowledge in your chosen field of study. The latter – addition to knowledge – is what distinguishes a PhD-level thesis from a Masters-level thesis.
While crafting the problem statement it is also important to remember that the problem will influence the research objectives and the research methodology as well. The student should therefore think through these aspects carefully.
Justification of the study
The justification is used to address the need for conducting the study and addressing the problem. It therefore follows the problem statement.
It is also referred to as the rationale for the study and addresses the “why” of the study: Why does this problem warrant an investigation? What is the purpose for carrying out the study?
Significance of the study
Whereas the justification of the study addresses the need for the study, the significance of the study highlights the benefits that would accrue after the study is completed.
The significance can be looked at from two perspectives:
- Academic perspective
- Practical perspective
For the academic perspective, the significance entails how the study would contribute to the existing body of knowledge in the chosen topic. Will it add to the methodology? Theory? New data? Will it study a population or phenomenon that has been neglected?
For PhD students, the addition to the body of knowledge is key, and should always be at the back of the student’s mind.
For the practical perspective, the significance of the study would be the impact and benefits that different stakeholders would derive from the findings of the study.
Depending on the study, the stakeholders may include: the Government, policymakers, different ministries and their agencies, different institutions, individuals, a community etc. This will vary from one study to another.
Objectives of the study and/or research questions
Research questions are the question form of the research objectives. Depending on your institution and/or department where you are doing your PhD you may have both objectives and research questions or either.
There are two types of objectives: the general objective and the specific objectives. The general objective is a reflection of the study topic while the specific objectives are a breakdown of the general objective.
Coming up with good research objectives is an important step of any PhD thesis proposal. This is because the research objectives will determine whether the research problem will be adequately addressed and at the same time it will influence the research methodology that the study will adopt.
Research objectives should therefore emanate from the research problem.
While crafting the objectives, think about all those things that you would like to accomplish for your study and if by doing them they will address the research problem in totality.
Once you’ve noted all those activities that you would like to undertake, group the like ones together so as to narrow them down to 4 or 5 strong objectives.
The number of research objectives that PhD students should come up with will be determined by the requirements of their institution. However, the objectives should be adequate enough such that a single paper can be produced from each objective. This is important in ensuring that the PhD student publishes as many papers as is required by their institution.
Objectives are usually stated using action verbs. For instance: to examine, to analyse, to understand, to review, to investigate… etc.
It is important to understand the meaning of the action verbs used in the research objectives because different action verbs imply different methodology approaches. For instance: to analyse implies a quantitative approach, whereas to explore implies a qualitative approach.
Therefore, if a study will use purely quantitative research methodology, then the action verbs for the research objectives should strictly reflect that. Same case applies to qualitative studies. Studies that use a mixed-methods approach can have a mix of the action verbs.
Useful tip: To have a good idea of the action verbs that scholars use, create an Excel file with three columns: 1) action verb, 2) example of research objective, and 3) research methodology used. Then every time you read a journal paper, note down the objectives stated in that paper and fill in the three columns respectively. Besides journal papers, past PhD theses and dissertations are a good source of how research objectives are stated.
Another important point to remember is that the research objectives will form the basis of the discussion chapter. Each research objective will be discussed separately and will form its own sub-chapter under the discussion chapter. This is why the complexity of the research objectives is important especially for PhD students.
Scope of the study
The scope of the study simply means the boundaries or the space within which the study will be undertaken.
Most studies have the potential of covering a wider scope than stated but because of time and budget constraints the scope gets narrowed down.
When defining the scope for a PhD study, it should not be too narrow or too wide but rather it should be adequate enough to meet the requirements of the program.
The scope chosen by the student should always be justified.
Limitations and delimitations of the study
Limitations refer to factors that may affect a study which are not under the control of the student.
Delimitations on the other hand are factors that may affect the study for which the student has control.
Limitations are therefore caused by circumstances while delimitations are a matter of choice of the student.
It is therefore important for the student to justify their delimitations and mitigate their study’s limitations.
Examples of study limitations:
- Political unrest in a region of interest: this can be mitigated by choosing another region for the study.
- Covid-19 restrictions may limit physical collection of data: this can be mitigated by collecting data via telephone interviews or emailing questionnaires to the respondents.
Examples of study delimitations:
- Choice of a particular community as the unit of the study: in this case the student should justify why that particular community was chosen over others.
- Use of quantitative research methodology only: in this case the student should justify why they chose the research methodology over mixed-methods research.
Definition of terms
The definition of key terms used in the study is important because it helps the readers understand the main concepts of the study. Not all readers have the background information or knowledge about the focus of the study.
However, the definitions used should be the denotative definitions, rather than the connotative (dictionary) definitions. Therefore the context within which the terms have been used should be provided.
This is the last section of the introduction chapter and it basically informs the reader what the chapter covered.
Like the introduction to the chapter, the chapter summary should be short: about one paragraph in length.
Chapter 2: Literature review
Introduction to the chapter
This section is about a paragraph-long and informs the readers on what the chapter will cover.
In this section, the student is expected to review the theories behind his/her topic under investigation. One should discuss who came up with the theory, the main arguments of the theory, and how the theory has been applied to study the problem under investigation.
A given topic may have several theories explaining it. The student should review all those theories but at the end mention the main theory that informs his study while giving justification for the selection of that theory.
Because of the existence of many theories and models developed by other researchers, the student is expected to do some comparative analysis of the theories and models that are applicable to his study.
After discussing the theories and models that inform your study, the student is expected to review empirical studies related to his problem under investigation. Empirical literature refers to original studies that have been done by other studies through data collection and analysis. The conclusions drawn from such studies are based on data rather than theories.
This section requires critical thinking and analysis rather than just stating what the authors did and what they found. The student is expected to critique the studies he is reviewing, while making reference to other similar studies and their findings.
For instance, if two studies on the same topic arrive at contrary conclusions, the student should be able to analyse why the conclusions are different: e.g. the population of study could be different, the methodology used could be different etc.
There are two ways of organising empirical literature: chronological and thematic:
Chronological organisation of empirical literature review
In this method, the empirical literature review is organised by date of publication, starting with the older literature to the most recent literature.
The advantage of using this method is that it shows how the state of knowledge of the problem under investigation has changed over time.
The disadvantage of chronological empirical review is that the flow of discussion is not smooth, because similar studies are discussed separately depending on when they were published.
Thematic organisation of empirical literature review
In this method, like studies are discussed together.
The studies are organised based on the variables of the study. Each variable has its own section for discussion. All studies that examined a variable are discussed together, highlighting the consensus amongst the studies, as well as the points of disagreement.
The advantage of this method is that it creates a smooth flow of discussion of the literature. It also makes it easier to identify the research gaps in each variable under investigation.
While the choice between chronological and thematic empirical review varies from one institution to another, the thematic synthesis is most preferred especially for PhD-level programs.
After the theoretical and empirical review, the student is expected to develop his own conceptual framework. A conceptual framework is a diagrammatic presentation of the variables of a study and the relationship between those variables.
The conceptual framework is informed by the literature review. Developing a conceptual framework involves three main steps:
- Identify all the variables that will be analysed in your study.
- Specify the relationship between the variables, as informed by the literature review.
- Draw a diagram with the variables and the relationship between them.
The main purpose of conducting literature review is to document what is known and what is not known.
Research gaps are what is not yet known about the topic under investigation.
Your contribution to knowledge will come from addressing what is not yet known.
It is therefore important for PhD students to first review existing literature for their area of study before settling on the final topic.
Additionally, when reviewing literature, the student should review all of the most recent studies to avoid duplicating efforts. Originality is important especially for PhD studies.
There are different types of research gaps:
- Gaps in concepts or variables studied
- Gaps in research methodology
- Gaps in scope of study. These can be: Geographical scope e.g rural vs. urban; Time e.g. past vs. recent; and Demographics e.g. males vs. females, educated vs. uneducated etc
Chapter 3: Research methodology
The first section is a brief introduction to the chapter, which highlights what the chapter is about.
This section discusses the research design that the study will use. The research design should be guided by the research questions the student wants to answer. The research design can be: quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-methods design.
In quantitative research, the study will collect, analyse and present numerical data in the form of statistics. The statistics can be descriptive, inferential, or a mix of both.
In qualitative research, the study collects, analyses and presents data that is in the form of words, opinions, or thoughts of the respondents. Its focus is on the lived-in experiences of the respondents with regard to the problem under investigation.
In mixed-methods research, the study uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods. So some of the research questions render themselves to quantitative research, while others to qualitative research.
Each of these research designs has its pros and cons.
Population and sampling
Population of study refers to the entire list of your subjects of interest. If the population is so small, the student can opt to include all the subjects in the study. However, if the population is large, it becomes difficult – both time-wise and resource-wise – to include all the subjects in the study.
A sample is a sub-set of the population of study from which data will be collected to enable the student understand the population.
Sampling is the process by which a sample is drawn from a population. There are two categories of sampling techniques, namely: random and non-random sampling. The use of either depends on your research design.
Data collection methods and tools
In this section, the student is expected to discuss in detail the type of data he will collect, that is, whether primary or secondary data (or both) and how he will go about collecting the data from the sample. The methods and tools used also depend on the research design. They include: questionnaires, interviews, focus group discussions, observation, and document review among others.
This section highlights the ethical considerations that would be followed during the data collection process. The ethical considerations vary from study to study and include:
Consent: the researcher should seek informed consent from the respondent before the data collection begins. For instance, when administering the questionnaire or conducting interviews, the researcher should start by informing the respondent what the study is about, how the respondent was selected, and the benefits of the study and then seek permission to continue with the study. The consent can be in written or oral form.
Compensation for participation: while participating in the study should be voluntary, some research have allowance for monetary compensation. The respondents should be informed of any plans to compensate them but after they have participated in the study, not before.
Confidentiality: the researcher should assure the respondents that their responses will be kept confidential.
Dissemination of the study findings with the respondents: there should be a plan for the student to disseminate the results of the study with the participants, for instance, through validation workshops or written publications.
Additionally, most academic institutions require their students to obtain ethical clearance for their research from the relevant authorities. Students should check if this requirement applies to them and follow the necessary procedure.
In this section, the student should discuss how the data collected will be analysed. Data analysis methods and techniques vary depending on whether the data is quantitative or qualitative.
For quantitative research, the interest of data analysis is the numbers which can be obtained through descriptive statistics and inferential statistics.
Descriptive statistics is usually the first step in analysing quantitative data. There are three categories of descriptive statistics: measures of frequency, measures of central tendency, and measures of variability.
Inferential analysis goes a step further and looks at whether the results from the sample can be generalised to the wider population. For studies that involve interventions, inferential analysis is used to check if the intervention has any impact on the population in which it was implemented.
The choice of data analysis technique will depend on the type of data the student has. For instance, a dependent variable that is continuous will use a different analysis technique from a dependent variable that is categorical in nature. Additionally, the choice of the data analysis technique should be guided by the research questions. The results from the analysis should be able to provide answers to the research questions posed.
For qualitative research, data analysis involves analysing the content of the interviews and focus group discussions. The content can be in different forms such as interview recordings and hand-written notes.
The recordings should be transcribed first and the notes should be organised well before analysis can take place.
The analysis of qualitative data involves coding the data, indexing the data and framing the data to identify the themes that emerge from the data.
Besides discussing the data analysis techniques, the student should mention the softwares that will be used for analysis. There are many softwares in the market that are used for quantitative data analysis (such as SPSS and STATA) and for qualitative data analysis (such as NVivo).
Limitations of the study
The last section in the research methodology chapter discusses the potential limitations of the study and how the limitations will be mitigated. An example of study limitation is low response rate of questionnaires, which can be mitigated through triangulation.
The limitations of the study will vary from one study to another and depend on the context within which the study is conducted.
Back Matter of the Proposal
The back matter has two main content: the references and the appendices.
The references should be done in accordance with the referencing style recommended by the institution, for instance APA, MLA, Harvard, Chicago etc.
Students can use the existing reference management tools such as Zotero, Mendeley, Citavi, RefWorks etc, which makes the whole exercise of inserting citations and compiling the reference list much easier than the manual method.
The appendices section lists all other materials pertaining to the study that were not included in the front matter. Depending on the study, these may include: the research protocol, a letter of introduction for the research, the questionnaire used for the study, the list of respondents etc.
Checklist for Writing a PhD Thesis Proposal
I have prepared a free downloadable checklist for PhD students that they can use when writing their PhD thesis proposal.