After submitting a concept paper and your supervisor gives you the go-ahead, then it is time to start writing the proposal for your PhD thesis or dissertation.
The format of a thesis proposal varies from one institution to another but generally has three main chapters: chapter 1 (introduction), chapter 2 (literature review), and chapter 3 (research methodology).
While in some institutions PhD students may be required to write more chapters, these three chapters are the meat of any thesis proposal. This article focuses on how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal.
Chapter 1 of a thesis proposal has about 10 sections discussed below:
- 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
- Final thoughts on how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal
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 given starting from a general perspective and narrows down to a specific perspective.
For example, if the proposal is on maternal health in South Africa, then the background of the study will discuss maternal health from the global perspective, then maternal health in Africa, and then it will narrow down to maternal health in South Africa. It will provide data and statistics provided by reports from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and demographic and health surveys (DHS) of various countries and specifically South Africa, among other reports. Such information paints a clear picture of the problem under investigation and sets the stage for the discussion of the problem statement.
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.
It is very common to hear supervisors or defense panelists make comments such as:
“I don’t see any problem here.”
“This problem is not a problem.”
“This problem does not warrant a PhD-level study.”
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?
In the example of maternal health in South Africa, the rationale or justification for the study would be the high maternal mortality ratios in South Africa and their undesirable effects on children and family. Therefore the study would help bring to light the major causes of maternal mortality in the country and how they can best be mitigated.
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.
The significance of the study is best presented from a general to specific manner, like an inverted pyramid.
Each beneficiary is discussed separately.
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 imply that. Same case applies to qualitative studies. Studies that use a mixed-methods approach can have a mix of the action verbs.
Have a variety of the action verbs in your research objectives. Don’t just use the same action verb throughout.
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.
Final thoughts on how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal
Chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal is an important chapter because it lays the foundation for the rest of the proposal and the thesis itself. Its role is to inspire and motivate the readers to read on. The most challenging task with chapter 1 is learning how to state the problem in a manner that is clear and to the point. For PhD students, the research problem should be complex enough to warrant a doctoral-level study.
Whereas the format of the chapter may vary from one institution to another, the sections presented in this article provide a guide to most of what is required for the chapter to be complete. Learning how to write chapter 1 of a PhD thesis proposal requires constant writing practice as well as reading of many past PhD theses and dissertations.