Dissertation Proposal & Dissertation

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Each student is required to submit a dissertation, written by the student, on the research carried out by the student on a topic approved by the advisory committee. The dissertation is expected to be a significant contribution to knowledge in its field and the student must indicate in what ways it is a contribution.

The dissertation must demonstrate mature scholarship and critical judgment on the part of the student, and it must indicate an ability to express oneself in a satisfactory literary style. Approval of the dissertation is taken to imply that it is judged to be sufficiently meritorious to warrant publication in reputable scholarly media.

As noted by the Office of Graduate Studies, publication or acceptance for publication of research results before presentation of the dissertation in no way supersedes the University’s evaluation and judgement of the work during the dissertation examination process.

Once the research is completed, the student will provide the advisor with drafts of the dissertation for feedback. Once the advisor is satisfied that the dissertation is well developed and well written, the student will submit this draft to the advisory committee.

Each member of the advisory committee will provide written comments on the different sections of the dissertation. The student will make changes to the dissertation in response to feedback from members of the advisory committee.

Dissertation Format Process (i.e., Monograph versus Manuscript):

The Faculty of Graduate Studies accepts theses either in monograph or manuscript format.

  • Advisory and Advisory Committee must approve the proposed format and any format changes [departmental requirement].
  • Candidates may propose either format at the proposal stage, but candidate is not bound to the format, if they find their research data is best represented by the format they did not initially propose (Note, no new proposal is required to make this switch, but the advisor/advisory committee must agree to the switch) [departmental requirement].

As noted by the Office of Graduate Studies: A dissertation written in monograph format organizes chapters around a central problem, for instance, with an Introduction, a Literature Review, and chapters on Methodology, Results/Findings, and Conclusions.

In the manuscript format, the chapters treat separate elements of the research program, typically incorporating several discrete articles suitable for journal publication. These written in manuscript format may include the following: Published articles; Submitted articles; Unpublished work in publication format.

  • As specified by Graduate Studies, the dissertation must include connecting materials that integrate across the different chapters/articles, including at minimum an overarching introduction and a concluding discussion chapter.
  • Minimum of 3 publishable manuscripts; with final # approved by advisory committee (departmental requirement).
  • Publishable quality as deemed by committee; candidates should include note within dissertation indicating target journals (departmental requirement).
  • If published (though not required) must be in peer-reviewed (non-predatory journals); Advisory Committee Members will be responsible for ensuring this [departmental requirement],
  • As noted by Graduate Studies, the student must be the principal or sole author of any included manuscripts and must have had a major or sole role in the design of the research, and the preparation and writing of the manuscripts. For each manuscript for which the student is not sole author, a preface statement will be included denoting the role of each co-author (departmental requirement).

Dissertation Oral Examination

PhD students are required to present their dissertation and address questions at an oral examination. The student and advisory committee should begin preparing for the defense at least eight weeks prior to the anticipated date of the defense.

When the PhD student’s advisory committee indicates that the dissertation is ready for examination, members of the committee complete the Examination Request Form, which must be submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies.

The advisory committee and the student identify examination committee members according to the Graduate Calendar regulations. Membership of the examination committee is listed below.

At least four weeks prior to the anticipated date of the final examination, the department must complete and submit the Doctoral Final Examination Arrangements Form to the Office of Graduate Studies.

Copies of the dissertation are to be sent to the examination committee a minimum of four weeks prior to the defense date.

Examination Committee

The examination is conducted by a committee consisting of five members:

  • The chair of the examination committee (a member of the regular graduate faculty who is not a member of the advisory committee);
  • The external examiner (more details provided below);
  • A member of the regular graduate faculty who is not a member of the advisory committee;
  • Two members of the student’s advisory committee (typically, one of these individuals is the advisor).

For each doctoral dissertation, an external examiner from outside the university is appointed on behalf of the Assistant Vice-President (Graduate Studies) by the Department Chair, in consultation with the advisor.

The external examiner must be a recognized expert in the area of the PhD dissertation research. The external examiner must not have a direct connection with the department. The external examiner must have had no direct connection with the student or the student's research project.

The external examiner must not have served as advisor to the student’s advisor or have been a trainee of the advisor in the last six years, must not have directly collaborated in joint projects or co-authored publications with the advisor or the student in the last six years, and must not have an existing plan to collaborate with the advisor or the student.

In addition, the external examiner must not have been a student or member of the graduate faculty at the University in the last five years. Any individual who serves as an external examiner may not serve again until a period of three years has passed.

The nomination will be made when the candidate's advisor declares that the dissertation is about to be prepared, normally no later than the beginning of the student's last semester.

The external examiner is to receive a copy of the dissertation and External Examiners Report Form along with a covering letter. from the Department Chair, at least four weeks before the examination date.

The external examiner will submit a written appraisal of the dissertation (at least seven days prior to the examination) to the Department Chair who will then provide these comments to the candidate and the Advisory Committee.

The external examiner is expected to participate in the final oral examination and to assist in evaluating all aspects of the candidate's performance.

Oral Defense

The candidate will make a presentation on the dissertation, which should be approximately 20 to 30 minutes long. The oral examination will be open to the public; members of the audience may question the candidate only upon invitation of the chair of the examination committee after the presentation.

The oral examination is typically 2 to 2.5 hours in duration, the maximum duration is 3.5 hours (See Box 2 for suggested timing). The oral examination consists of two rounds of questions about the dissertation itself as well as more general issues related to the field of study.

During deliberations, the members of the examination committee, including the external examiner, will report individually on the final oral examination and the written dissertation. The candidate will be deemed to have passed if no more than one of the five examiners votes negatively.

An abstention will be regarded as a negative vote. The Report of PhD Examination Committee will record the decision as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. If unsatisfactory, the candidate may be given a second attempt. A second unsatisfactory result will constitute a recommendation to the Board of Graduate Studies that the student be required to withdraw.

It is understood that final oral examination revisions arising from the external examiner’s report and from feedback from the examination committee may be necessary to produce an acceptable revised final version of the dissertation.

The Final Examination Chair (may reassign this task to the Advisor) should ensure recommendations for revision of the thesis are completed, and should withhold their endorsement of the examination (through signing the Recommendation Form) until such time.

Box 2: Suggested Ph.D. Oral Examination Timing

  • Introduction by Chair- 5 minutes
  • Presentation of research findings/scholarly work by candidate – 20-30 minutes
  • Public Question Period -10 minutes (max)
  • Break - 5 minutes (max, public are free to leave)
  • Examination Period - 2 hours and 40 minutes (questions only from examiners)

Order of Two Rounds of Questions by Examination Committee:

  1. External Examiner
  2. Member of the Graduate Faculty (not on the Advisory Committee)
  3. Member of the Advisory Committee
  4. Advisor or second member of the Advisory Committee

Suggested time allotted to examination committee members:

Examiner: Round One (minutes) Round Two (minutes)
External 20-25 10
Graduate Faculty 20 10
Advisory Committee 15-20 5-10
Advisor/Advisory 15-20 5-10
Committee Member    

Dissertation Submission

After the candidate has successfully defended the dissertation at the final oral examination, has made any required revisions, and received final approval from the examination committee, the dissertation must be submitted electronically to the Atrium.

Also included in the electronic submission must be a copy of an abstract consisting of no more than 350 words. The Certificate of Approval signed by the external examiner and the members of the examination committee, a copy of the circulation waiver and the copying license must also be submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies.