Dissertation Proposals

Dr. Candace Hastings explains strategies for preparing a successful dissertation proposal.  *If you are requesting this workshop for your class, students are encouraged to watch this video before the interactive classroom workshop is given.



—how do you get them to say “Yes.” That’s kind of what we’re going to talk about today. And there’s no guarantee, you know– sometimes if you go back to the drawing board several times, that happens, that’s just kind of part of the process, being a grad student and what not. But there are ways that you can kind of anticipate what’s going to happen, and anticipate and prepare and plan so that hopefully your committee will say “Yes! I’m in love with your research topic.” Okay? So that’s kind of how we are going to start today.

There is a template for the thesis, and there’s a template for the dissertation. There is no template for the proposal. There isn’t one size fits all for your thesis or your dissertation proposal. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that is the case. If you can get your hands on proposals from other grad students in your program, just to see what they look like– what are the expectations of most of the people, most of the people in your department, your committee member, or your chair. The other thing is if you don’t have a model to follow– you guys all know the big journals in your field, so I would just go back and look at an article in your field because basically an article from your field is going to be the main skeleton you could work from, however those articles are constructed. So let’s take a social sciences or a hard sciences article. You may have an introduction that states the problem, a little background. If you’re in social sciences, maybe a longer background, a longer literature review, a methodology, and you won’t have the results or the discussion, right?  So what you could do in your proposal is you could have an introduction, a little background, lit review, and then what you are going to say though is instead of saying, “I did” or “this research did do this” everything is then flipped into the future tense. “I will.” “I propose.” “The problem I am going to look at is this—.” “This is why that problem is important—.” “I will, I will, I will, I will.” And you outline all that.

You can go to the library website and you can find theses and dissertations in your program, okay? Have y’all done that? That is so cool! Did you know you can find them by your advisor, as well?  If you go to the library website, you go to the database- library.tamu.edu- databases and put in “Proquest Dissertations and Theses Full Text.” Alright? You get this window, kay? Once you click on it you get this window. You put in a topic, put in an author, maybe what you would put in-maybe as what you would put in somebody you know who graduated before you if you wanted to look at their dissertation or thesis. You can put in your advisor! You put in Texas A&M, and it brings up all the dissertations or thesis that your advisor chaired. Kay? What if they don’t have any? They maybe a new professor or something like that- you can put in a committee member.  It’s nice just to get a ballpark figure of what the finished product will look like. They want something that looks like it is academic. It is a proposal that is not half baked. It’s realistic.

We work with a lot of students who have a great idea for topic, but it’s really important for your committee to know that you know the research that has been done before. There’s a physics professor that I work with quite a bit on campus. He said he had a grad student who kept coming to him and saying to him, “I have this great idea!” and the professor says, my friend that is a professor says, “Not really that was done in like 1986.” “But it hasn’t been done my way!” “Not really-that was done in ’98.” Right? So what kind of credibility does that student have with his advisor at that point? It- go back and figure out what’s been so that they know that you are going to contribute to that body of knowledge and not just rehash something somebody already did-right? So, it’s kind of like-they’re going to ask you, your advisors are going to ask you to go back and do your homework. If you come up with an idea and say, “Okay! I have a new way of doing something and I know it’s going to work.” They will probably say, “That’s great. That’s a great idea. Now go back and show me how that idea came about. Where did that idea come from?” That happens then in doing that literature review or that study. Literature reviews, I find, trip students up more than anything else. The methodology seems pretty easy. Even the results, if you’re doing a quantitative study. You know, you go, “Okay. I will survey this many students or I’m going to do this many experiments.  I am going to find out what this happens. I’m going to run this statistical test. I’m going to present these results.” Pretty straightforward, right? But that introduction background-“how much is enough?”-that usually trips students up a little bit. So figure that out. Look at sources that lead to other sources.

One of the things that I like to do is- when I am first exploring a topic-I don’t exactly know who the big scholars are in the field if it’s a new topic to me. Does that make sense? You just don’t know. So what I’ll do is I’ll look at a lot of literature, but you can’t put all of that literature into a literature review. That-oh my gosh! You have to pick and choose because there is so many articles out there. Have you been kind of overwhelmed when you even go to Google scholar or one of the TAMU databases and they say, you put in a topic and says-you know- “twelve million hits.” You go, “Ahh!” It’s overwhelming. One of the ways you can sift that down is saying, “Okay. Who are the big players? I’m really only going to refer to the big players in that field when I do that background. Kay? Who did this? Who did this? Who led to where I’m going to take off with my research and what I do as I go back to Google scholar and I’ll be reading sources resources like I don’t even know if I should include this. I kind of cross reference. I go on, put it into Google scholar, and it says “cited by” and there’s a number. That gives you a number of all the other journal articles that have reference that journal article. This article’s been cited by seven hundred other peer-reviewed articles. Dang! You better take a look at it. Now it may be cited because it’s that bad because scholars are just talking to each other, right? You know-this may be the worst article ever written by this theorist or whatever, and everybody’s bashing this poor person, but for good or for bad, you’re probably going to bring that up to your literature review. Okay?

When I work with grad students, a lot of the times their scope is– I would like to– I would like to have world peace, solve world hunger, find clean energy, and be better looking. That’s what they are going to do in their dissertation. Oh my gosh! What is attainable? You know? Sometimes what you wanted do is a life’s work and not a thesis or dissertation. So think about scope; is this something you can do? So one of the things you want to think about is can I get the data? So if you’re writing the proposal, think before your professor asks you, “what kind of access do I have on the data?” Now, y’all in the hard sciences, you probably work in a lab. You probably know what your topic is. In fact a lot of a lot of y’all even kind of write the proposal after you’ve done all the research. So the proposal process is not that big of a deal for y’all. I am going to say though I think it’s important to do the literature review up front, even if you don’t have to because you have a much better idea of how your research- your research-and your lab fits into the broader context- that’s just me, even if your professor doesn’t make you do it. I think it’s a good idea to do it. Can I get the data in the timeframe allotted for my dissertation, so maybe you will graduate? We all want to graduate. Would you like to graduate sooner or later? So think about that-can I get that data in the timeframe that I have for my research? Am I addressing one research problem or multiple? That’s that world hunger thing and clean energy. And can I articulate my research probably in a sentence or two? This is really important because in your head everything make senses. In my head, everything makes sense. It is only when I start talking about it that I realize that I have some problems with my logic or my thinking. Okay? Because everything makes perfect—boy! I tell you. I wake up in the morning and have an idea and I’m brilliant! You know? And then, “What’s your idea?” And I start talking about it but I start talking in circles and circles and circles and people start getting more and more confused. Okay? That’s something to think about. As a matter of fact, we’re going to do an activity. The person next to you riding up the elevator, friendly sort-usually we don’t talk on elevators, but it happens to be a friendly sort- turns to you and says, “Oh! Your graduate student? What’s your research topic? What are you working on? What’s your dissertation about?” and I want you to tell that person in no more than two-if you’re really struggling three sentences. Were you two talking to each other? Okay. I would like you to tell me what her research is about. So when you can say that in a couple of sentences, you go to your chair and you go, “Yep! I’m going to blah blah blah. And I am going to do it this way, blah blah balh.” And they say, “Okay. See ya later. Write it up. See ya later.” Part of the process is thinking that through just because you’re looking at minors on the ocean all of that and the tools and that kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean that it came easily to you just because you can say it now-I want to make this point for those of you who are still in your heads about everything-that’s a natural part of the process if it were easy, it wouldn’t be grad school. You have ideas that are new ideas that are forming and forming and forming. That’s part of the process. Keep digging. Keep reading. It will happen. You will get there. You will be able to explain your research very, very clearly, but make sure that you go through the whole process-don’t bypass.

Now let’s talk about methodology. Your committee is going to want to know why you chose to look at the problem in the way you chose to look at the problem. That’s important because there are lots of ways to look at a problem. There are lots of ways to look at a problem. There’s not one way to look at a problem. So is it important than for you to say when you’re reading these journal articles in your literature review, you are not just reading them for content- I mean, you are reading for content you’re looking at the results and so forth. You’re also looking at the methodology they use to get to that result because it will inform your decision making a lot in the process. Now a lot of you will only use quantitative methodologies; what information does method capture? What information presented this way is important to my study? Why is the information-? I use an article on hay bale feeders quite a bit when I work with animal science students. Very simple article in terms of like a study that they use they said, “ok forage loss. The problem stated is forage loss- it’s one of the most important losses a farmer can have in terms of the inputs, outputs economically. So how do they reduce the loss for cattle forage in hay bale feeders. And what I’m talking about is those round things you always see. They put the big round bales in that then the cows eat it and that way it doesn’t go to waste. So what they were looking at is “How much waste does the design of the feeder make a difference? Do aggressive cows get to it? If this is the design-allow for aggressive cows versus non-aggressive cows?” Right? And what they did is there were studies that were done before, but they would tweak the methodology. They said, “Well what this person did-what these guys did is great. They really looked forage loss and that was really good, but nobody’s looked at the design of the bale feeder in terms of the aggressive/non-aggressive cows getting enough forage.” So they also tested the cows to see how much forage they were getting in that. See what I’m saying? So they took a –kind of like- okay-lots of people have looked at forage loss, but tweaked it and made it like with a few different methods-changed it and made it new. Kay? So what you’re looking at your methodology is what has everybody else done to look at the problem and why isn’t the problem solved yet?

Qualitative methodologies basically is the discovery process. You are kind of going along discovering it. So you’re guided by research questions instead of hypotheses. How do people perceive their experiences in “X”? I know that sounds a little fuzzy to those of you in engineering. That’s okay. That’s what we do. How do people perceive? What’s the perception? And what kind of theory am I looking at through social capitalism? Or my social capital? Or am I looking at it through feminism? Or am I looking at it through critical race theory. There are all kinds of ways to overlay that. The thing is when you pick those you just need to know why you picked them because you’re committee is going to ask you that. Kay? So how do you organize all this information in a way that your committee will understand? I’m giving you a couple of different templates here that you can go by that kind of depends on what your research questions are and how you want to do this, but one way if you have no guidance from your advisor and you have no clue-this, is a shot. Give it a shot. One: do a little introduction and review of the literature. You don’t even need to necessarily go crazy. If you haven’t gotten a lot of advice from your advisor, I wouldn’t do a forty page literature review. Do enough to where you think you can talk about it. Give it to your advisor and let him or her kind of guide you-say, “You know what? I like the way started on this, but you need a whole lot more information on this.”  This is not your proposal defense; this is just the initial conversation, right? Okay?

“Statement of the problem/ purpose of the study:” what the heck are you doing this for? Cause they may ask you that too. “Why, why, why, why?” And you don’t want them to tell you, “Oh yea. That was done in 1986. That was done in 1998.” You want them to go, “Yea! I’d buy that. I would totally marry that proposal.” Okay?  What is the research question? What research questions do you have? What questions are you going to ask to get at that information? And how best- what methodology am I going to use to answer those questions. What will it mean? Now- you can’t do the significance yet because you don’t have the data yet- it’s your proposal. But in your head, in your head-what might this do? What could this do? Is it important? Alright. That’s a thought.

Here’s another template. Just do IMRAD. You scientist know this one. Lab reports, you know? IMRAD. Introduction: including a little background review of literature. Methods: you don’t have the results and you don’t have that discussion. Kay? But you maybe have the hypothesis or something like that. So you want to understand the problem, why that problem is important to solve, what’s been done before to try and solve the problem, why that problem hasn’t solved yet, and what you’re going to do to solve it.

So what are these scholars all about? You think about your committee and you think about how you’re going to talk to your committee on paper with your proposal. You want them to say, “Yes!” You want them to say “Yes! I love your proposal! I love your proposal! I will marry your proposal!” How do you get them to take you seriously? You have to show them that you can do that work in your proposal because that’s going to lead to that conversation where they call you that. Or if it’s your master’s degree-it’s a little tighter, a little smaller, but your masters may lead to your PhD. You know I’m saying? So what they want to see is that you have a solid knowledge of your topic, and when they send you out, you can talk to anybody about here about research you’ve done.

When you go to a party you maybe don’t know everybody there. You go into a party and you get there late. And there are people talking in the living room- you all remember what that was like, right? So people talking in the living room- I’m not talking about an undergrad party either. Talking in the living room. Talking in the kitchen. And there are little groups of people talking, right? So if you come in late and you approach a group of people, what do you do first- what’s the first thing you do? You introduce yourself, “Hi, hi, hi, hi.” But if there’s a conversation already going, what do you do?

Audience: Listen

Candace: Yea- you do. Listening is the literature review. You need to find out what the big dogs in your field are saying about that topic. So what if you just come in and you’re completely socially awkward. I’m not looking at anybody in particular here, but you come in and there’s a conversation going on and you just interrupt the conversation and say, “Well, my ideas are blah-blah-blah.” And you say something completely dumb and inappropriate. What happens? And they look at you like, “You are really awkward.” Okay-that’s what happens when you don’t do your literature review and you just decide that’s your idea and you just spout it out for your committee. Is that a good analogy? So what you do is you go hit the books and you read everything there is to read about that topic and  you figure out the different approaches people have taken to solve that problem. And then- once you’ve finished listening then you enter the conversation. That’s the time. So if your committee says, “But what about so-and-so?” “Yeahh! I thought about so-so when I read that, but the way that so-and-so approaches this problem doesn’t factor in this.”  Now you’re having a conversation with your chair, aren’t you? That’s the back and forth there, ok?

So when you write that background-which seems to trip people up in the proposal more than anything else- when you write it, you’re just listening to what happens. You’re listening to the events. You’re finding who the big players are because you know there’s somebody that you know they can say something crazy and everybody laughs-“haha! Oh! That’s great! That’s great!” You know that’s a big dog in the field. You know that’s a big dog-everybody’s listening. Whoever everybody is listening to, using that Google scholar as well, but then you find out what hasn’t been done in your field. A-ha! You will fill that gap and research. You know-everybody’s looked at this problem, yet they haven’t solved it because they haven’t looked at it this way. If you know that and can articulate that, that proposal almost writes itself. I’m kind of teasing. It doesn’t. But you know.

Everybody has an outside member on the committee, is that correct? Okay? I write-My audience is the outside member. My audience, in my head, when I’m writing- I’m not writing to my chair who is an expert in my particular topic. I write to the outside member because if the outside member on your committee can understand your proposal than everybody in your committee can understand the proposal and that means explaining a lot of things that you want it shortcut, “Everybody knows that!” Using these acronyms and these things and blah blah blah. Uh-no. If your outside committee member doesn’t understand it-explain it. So explain everything: theories, methodologies, key terms, your committee members-you’ll be surprised they may not be experts on the theory that you are using so explain it. Two things: one- it informs committee members who aren’t familiar with your research about what you’re doing, but there’s even something more subversive. It also tells your committee that you know what you’re talking about as well.

This- I’m going to get into the nuts and bolts- if you guys don’t mind- how to write it because a lot of people can talk in abstraction about how to do your proposal, but I want to talk about some of the things that trip people up and help you with that if I can. So really what you’re doing in that background is you are saying, “What do other people say? What do experts in the field say about ‘X’?” “Well a number of studies have suggested that?” “What are commonplace opinions on ‘X’?” It is accepted practice in- and that may be assumptive, but that “accepted practice too.” You have to be careful about that, but what does everybody buy? What does everybody believe? What is the standard practice? What are people imply or assume? What are both sides of the argument? And those are things to find in the literature and then you want to indicate back to your committee. Kay? But what are people talking about? What are people talking about?


Then you position yourself in that argument. “Well this is what so-and-so says, and I agree with that, but here-” Even in the life sciences and so forth, you’re going to put up the debate because you’re going to find that gap in the research. Well this study showed- this study demonstrated that laying hens at three days have X amount of salmonella, but what was done in that was taking the sample this way or whatever- see what I am saying? So the next thing to do after what other people say, is you put yourself or you place yourself in the context of all of the existing literature out there. Where do I fit in? Where does mine-what came before me? Where do I fit in? What’s lacking? What’s out there? How does my research fill the gap? And why is it important? Because you want to answer the big question: “So what!?” Your committee is going to be nicer than that and more polite. But what they want know- “So what? So what’s the big deal if you do this research or not? Who cares? So what?” You answer that question, that’s getting you closer.

How did they say it? You can do summary: this person said; this is person agreed with this person; this disagreed with this person; this study showed this; this study is similar in this way. Paraphrasing is really good when you are translating technical jargon into more of lay persons terms. It’s really good for that or defining things. Paraphrase is not a great writing strategy. It’s not. So you guys who love those PDF and you highlight them all the time and carry them around with you. And you start writing your paper from the PDFs? Usually that lends itself to kind of like chunky writing. Thuddy, you know like, “uh!” You know? It’s not in your voice, maybe changed a few words or whatever, but it’s paraphrase. Paraphrase is elegant when you’re actually just presenting a fact in science or translating it- not translating it- but making some kind of very complex idea, simple. Most people don’t use quotations unless you’re in the humanities, some social sciences do, and actually quotations in the humanities you using the quotes as evidentiary support. And maybe history, too?

Alright so this is for paraphrasing: you repeat something. You need new words. You don’t just right click and pick another word; it’s writing to the varied audience. Really useful when you present specific results and then tuck information. Direct quotation- it’s really used sparsely in most of your areas, except for English or history or some of this, but if you do use it, make sure that you introduce the quote, put the quote in, and then explain the quote. What I see a lot of times when people quote is they introduced the quote, put the quote, say, “but I’m really too lazy to explain this quote to you, so I’m going to move on to my next topic.” You’ve got to come back and explain that quote and move on- it’s your burden, your burden to explain the quote to the reader, not anybody else’s. Okay?

How you say something matters as much as what you say, right? If you want your advisor to say, “Yes!” to your proposal, how should you write? What do you think they’re looking for? Easily explained, clear, straightforward, don’t hide, don’t be subtle. One of the things I do? Go to my journal. How do journals-how do academicians write in my journal? Copy that style.  Do they use passive voice? Do they use active voice? Do they do this? Do they do that? Some of you guys will use active voice in the introduction and background and passive voice in the methods. Or vice a versa.  I can’t answer that for you. It’s not a one size fits all, at all.

Get organized. You’re about to amass a huge number of PDF files. Get organized. How many of you guys use Ref Works or End Note? If you don’t-get it. It’s great. If you don’t use one or the other, Ref Works tends to be a little easier to learn how to use. Go the library website. Library.tamu.edu. EndNote: a lot of people in the human sciences use EndNote. You can download that from the university as well. Either way. Okay? Whatever works for you is great. But organize yourself. I use Zotero sometimes when I’m searching, searching, searching and I find something. And I’ll download the citation in Zotero. It works in Firefox as a Firefox plugin. It’s not quite as hefty as Refworks, but it’s real quick and dirty.

So what you don’t want to do is waste time because if you – how many of you guys have had to go back- you read an article, and then you had to go back and find it again- and gosh! Where was that article? You guys don’t have time for that. Don’t you want to graduate? Get organized. Just put everything so in a location where you are going to find it, attach it. You can go ahead then and if you want to use one of these tools to write your paper and insert the citations as you go, you can do that. I just used it for my reference pages. I just kept it because I like to do the citations myself. I just kept it and I said “APA fifth edition-BOOP!” and it turned it into the APA! It’s magic! I don’t know how it works! It’s fantastic.

And just stay organized. Know what style your writing in and then remember Texas A&M University Writing Center, even Reveille comes to us for writing assistance. Even Reveille! So you should be able to also. Come see us. Come see us at the Writing Center anytime. Y’all have fun. Take care. Good luck. Thank you- thank you so much.