Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal will be your first major undertaking throughout your dissertation journey. The dissertation proposal is the first three chapters of the dissertation written in future tense. It should be a document stating your intentions and your justifications for your study. It will also serve as the cornerstone for your dissertation upon approval from your committee.

The proposal shows your committee that you have clearly researched your topic area and identified any potential gaps in the literature along with any pitfalls that you may face along the way. It will also allow you to plan how you will collect and analyze the data for your study. The proposal process gives your committee the opportunity to offer advice and improvements to your study. The dissertation proposal should be viewed as an integral part of the dissertation journey that will prepare you for the road to come.

Please consult dissertation writing sources at the bottom of this guide for additional resources.

Internal Review Board (IRB)

Prior to conducting your study, you must apply for IRB approval through the MSU Internal Review Board. IRB approval is required for all research conducted by MSU students and faculty alike that involves human or animal subjects. The application is completely digital and can be completed by navigating to the Office of Research Compliance website (link below) and clicking myProtocol at the bottom of the page.



Dissertation Topic

Selecting a dissertation topic is a daunting task but it is not an impossible task. You must focus on what you are most interested in and use that to guide your path to finding your topic. It may be beneficial to select at least three possible avenues for your research, three areas in which you are most interested. Once you've identified these areas of interest you should seek out literature on those topics. Read as much as you can on your three potential topics or until you have reached saturation (the literature begins to repeat itself). At this point you should have narrowed your focus down to the topic that you find the most interesting and can begin working from there with the guidance of your dissertation director.

See below for more advice on selecting an appropriate dissertation topic.

Please consult dissertation writing sources at the bottom of this guide for additional resources.

Chapters 1 - 3

Chapter 1 - Introduction

The introduction is the first chapter of the dissertation proposal. It is in this chapter that you will make a case for your study while also introducing the topic or problem that is being addressed by the study. The writer should strive to provide a historical background of the topic, including any relevant trends over time as well as the theoretical background of the topic. You may choose to discuss the education theory underpinnings of your topic such as how the topic is related to education theory. Another important subject that should be discussed during the introduction is the importance of the study and what it could offer to the field. Finally, the writer must include the research questions or hypothesis that are being addressed by the study.

Generally, the introduction is broken down into three overarching sections: (a) Introduction (b) Statement of Problem, (c) Purpose of the Study, (d) Hypothesis or Research Questions, (e) Limitations/Delimitations, and (f) Definitions.

Chapter 2 - Literature Review

The review of literature typically begins with a general, theoretical overview of the topic(s) followed by brief summaries of the articles or studies related to the topic(s). The literature review should be organized by subject areas related to the general topic. If several topics are to be reviewed, divide the review according to these topics. If a pilot study was conducted, it should be described either in the review of the literature or in the procedures section of Chapter III. Typically, the review of literature will cover the essential variables or concepts presented in each hypothesis or question.

The following contain recommendations related to the review of literature:

  • Describe existing studies relative to the study; when and where latest research studies were completed; and brief details related to design and results.
  • Include various theoretical positions relevant to bases for the hypotheses or research questions.
  • Establish a rationale or need for the study.
  • Paraphrase most of the literature review and quote sparingly.
  • In general, the literature review provides the depth of knowledge needed to fully understand the problem developed in Chapter I.
  • Finally, the literature review sets the stage for the introduction of the methodology in Chapter III. The design and methodology of the study is to flow logically from other studies in the literature. All items to be included in a survey or questionnaire must first be developed through existing literature.

Please consult dissertation writing sources at the bottom of this guide for additional resources.

Chapter 3 - Methodology

Chapter III should begin with an introduction which describes the content and organization of the chapter. This chapter is critical to future replication and should be the most thorough and precise of the dissertation. It is also important to mention that this chapter should be written in future tense, as you will be discussing what you intend to do for your study. You will change this chapter to past tense after the proposal.

(a) Research Design. First the research methodology or approach (e.g., experimental, quasi-experimental, correlational, casual-comparative, or survey) is described. The experimental or quasi-experimental design should be specified. The advantages and limitations of this design should be noted. A diagram of the design is very useful. The independent and dependent variables must be clearly described. Attention should be given to how all extraneous variables are to be controlled. Note that the research design and statistical design are not identical. This section should be limited to the research design. Threats to internal and external validity should be discussed.

(b) Participants. This section should include a demographic description of the participants used, including the number of subjects. The description of the subjects should include information on the sample and the population. Methods used to select subjects and solicit participation should be described. If parental consent is required, how it will be obtained should be explained. The type of institution with which the subjects are associated (if applicable) should be described.

(c) Instrumentation. This section includes a description of all instrumentation or tasks for which quantitative or qualitative data are obtained (e.g., tests, measures, observations, scales, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, etc.) These instruments may be used as measures for the independent, dependent, or organismic variable(s).

The description of each instrument must include the following: a discussion of what the instrument is designed to measure, a description of the scales or subtests on the instrument, a discussion of how the items were derived, how the instrument is scored, the norms (if any) for the instrument, and the reliability and validity data concerning the instrument.

Depending upon the type of study, why this instrument was selected may need to be explained. If a pilot study was done to establish either or both the validity and reliability of the instrument, it should be described and the results given.

Any survey or questionnaire developed for specific use in the research must be justified. For example, categories or items included on a questionnaire should be based on the review of literature.

(d) Materials. This section includes a description of any materials used during the study, such as laboratory apparatus, tape recordings, and drawings. Usually these are materials used as part of the experimental treatment.

(e) Procedures. This section includes a detailed account of what was done with (or to) the participants, where it was done, the order in which it was done, and any other relevant information. Procedures used to control for extraneous variables should be discussed. This section is essentially a description of data collection methods and procedures. If assistants were used, these should be discussed as well as substantiation of their ability to carry out the appropriate procedures. Post-experimental explanations or debriefing sessions should be explained in this section.

(f) Data Analysis. All data processing and analyses should be discussed in this section. The appropriateness of statistical analyses should be covered. Any post hoc comparisons should be described. The level of significance should be given in this section. If packaged computer programs are utilized, describe and reference these. If analytic procedures other than statistical analyses are used, they should be described and justified. All analytic procedures must be appropriate for the hypotheses or questions under investigation.


Throughout the course of your research, you will collect much data. Keeping your data organized will be one of the keys to success during your dissertation journey. As a result, it is advised to use a matrix, which will let you group your study into sections based on the individual research questions. Every matrix will be different for every study. Please review the examples below.

APA Citations


Proofreading Guides with Common Errors

Much of your time and effort will be focused on the content of your dissertation proposal. However, it is wise to also examine the formatting of your document. One of the final steps of the dissertation is submitting the finalized document to the library for review. This is a long process that begins with your dissertation director, dissertation committee, graduate coordinator, College of Education, and the MSU Library. Ensuring that your dissertation document follows the appropriate formatting guidelines as specified by the APA Publication Manual, College of Education, and the MSU Library will save you much time. Below you will find a list of common dissertation errors shared by the College of Education.

Submission to Dissertation Director and Graduate Committee

Upon completing the dissertation and checking for errors, the student should send a copy of the dissertation to all graduate committee members along with the dissertation director. Please give ten days after submitting the dissertation proposal before requesting a date and time for the oral proposal defense.

Oral Proposal Defense

Once the student has finished the dissertation proposal and submitted it to the graduate committee and dissertation director, they should contact the major professor with a completed Announcement of Proposal Dissertation Defense Form (see below). Students should include multiple possible dates for the defense. It is also important to keep in mind that the dates listed must be a minimum of fifteen working days from the date the form is signed. The student is also required to submit both a hard copy and an e-copy of the dissertation proposal to his/her committee members.

Dissertations will be evaluated as follows: (a) accepted proposal as presented, (b) accepted the proposal with minor changes, (c) accepted the dissertation topic as a legitimate area for study; but proposal needs major revision, or (d) rejected the proposal as unacceptable as an ready of study for the dissertation. Below you may also find the dissertation proposal and oral presentation rubric.

Announcement of Proposal Dissertation Defense Form