Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal should be formulated as soon as possible following the completion of the qualifying examination and presented to the student’s advisory committee. The dissertation proposal must be formally approved by the advisory committee before the dissertation research can begin, normally by the end of the fifth semester and not later than the end of the sixth semester in the program. A copy of the approved proposal together with a completed Dissertation Proposal Approval form must be submitted to the Graduate Program Assistant.

Writing a proposal is an important and valuable step to researching and writing the dissertation. It will therefore likely require several weeks and many drafts before it is approved by the advisory committee. During this time, the student should consult regularly with the advisor and other committee members.

The dissertation proposal should not exceed 5,000 words (about 20 double-spaced pages of text), excluding the bibliography and appendices.

Purpose and Components of the Proposal

The dissertation proposal is a roadmap for the research project, and therefore should clearly outline the steps that will be taken to complete the project. The proposal helps students clarify their thoughts, arguments, and approach to a topic. It also serves to persuade the advisory committee that the dissertation will pursue an interesting and worthwhile question, that the study is unique and feasible, and that the student is capable of moving forward with the project.

A good proposal will demonstrate:

  • The ability to clearly articulate a research program, including a theoretical orientation, research questions, and an appropriate methodological plan;
  • Knowledge of the relevant scholarly literature;
  • An awareness of the scope and limitations of the project, both conceptually and methodologically;
  • A plan for moving from the proposal stage to final submission of the dissertation.

A well-written and well-structured proposal links all sections and provides a complete story of the dissertation project. The proposal should include the following components, though the order in which they are presented may vary, both within and between the sections described below.

Introducing the Study

Early in the proposal, the student should provide the background to and context of the study, state the problem to be addressed, and outline the purpose/objective/aim/rationale. In addition, the research questions should be clearly articulated. These elements are critical to providing the advisory committee with a sense of the overall focus, scope and direction of the study.

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

The proposal must include a review of the literature as well as the theoretical framework that will inform the research and data analysis.

An extensive literature review is not required for the proposal, but the review should aim to demonstrate that the student has a good grasp of the relevant literature. The student should not merely summarize the literature as the goal is to demonstrate an ability to thematically organize and critically assess extant literature. The literature review should situate the student’s study within the wider conversation in their field of specialization and identify gaps in the literature

It is important to discuss the theoretical framework that will guide the overall project, inform the methodology and analysis, and help answer the research questions. Theory is critical to a PhD dissertation and students need to demonstrate their ability to understand theory and integrate theoretical considerations in their proposal.


The methodology section should clearly demonstrate how the project will be carried out to ensure that it is feasible. This section should:

  • Discuss the key methodological approach and considerations;
  • Describe and justify the data collection method(s);
  • Discuss the data sources and data access;
  • Provide the context for the research sites and periodization, where applicable;
  • Discuss the type of analysis that will be used to interpret the data;
  • Address potential limitations of the methodology;
  • Reflect on the key ethical issues.

Significance, Contributions and Limitations of the Study

The concluding section should include a discussion of the significance and anticipated contributions of the study in terms of the substantive literature, theory, policy and methodology. It should make note of the limitations.

Timeline / Plan of Work

The proposal should include a schedule with anticipated completion dates for specific parts of the dissertation. This timeline helps the advisory committee determine if the project is realistic. Establishing a schedule can also help students manage their time more effectively by setting specific goals.


A bibliography of the sources used in the proposal must be included. The student may also include additional sources that are relevant to the project.

Research Involving Human Participants

Research involving human participants must be approved by the University of Guelph Research Ethics Board before the research work commences. The Research Ethics Board administers the Tri-Council Policy Statement.