Dissertation Project Proposals

The doctoral dissertation process has five parts: the dissertation project proposal (presented in the sixth semester), submission of the final proposal (reviewed and accepted in early Fall or seventh semester), the dissertation itself, the public presentation of the research project, and an oral defense of the dissertation.

The purpose of the dissertation project proposal is to ensure that the candidate’s project is feasible and represents an original and important contribution to knowledge. A well-developed proposal also helps the candidate to clarify the project in their own mind, as well as to create a common set of expectations among their supervisory committee members.

The process for the dissertation project proposal is as follows:

  • A preliminary dissertation project proposal is developed in conversation with the supervisor and supervisory committee members.
  • After completion of the field exam, the candidate gives an oral presentation of the proposal at an event organized by the Joint Committee (see below).
  • The candidate then submits a complete draft of the proposal, approved by their supervisory committee, to the program director for the Joint Committee’s approval.
  • The committee votes to approve the proposal or asks the candidate to revise and resubmit it.
  • Once the proposal has been approved, the candidate may then begin actively researching and writing the dissertation, while also working to meet other remaining program milestones.

Requirement checklist

  • Requirements for submission
    • The proposal cover sheets (see p. 32) must be signed and dated by the student as well as all members of the proposed supervisory committee.
    • It is the student’s responsibility to secure signatures and to submit the proposal to the director before the deadline set by the Joint Committee.
    • The suggested length for a proposal is 4,000-5,000 words, plus a bibliography.
    • The proposal must follow a proper academic style guide.
  • The proposal will include the following elements:
    • a title (this should invite engagement but also be clear about the nature of your project; often a subtitle will explain the project more precisely);
    • an abstract of about 150 words;
    • a brief, annotated Table of Contents that includes clear chapter titles and one or two sentences describing the chapter contents;
    • a brief timeline of how the student and committee envision the project developing;
    • an outline of language skills required for your project and your progress to date in developing those skills;
    • a bibliography for the project (about 30 sources).

Crafting the Proposal

There is no template for a dissertation project proposal, but you could look to the criteria provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for the criteria for a successful proposal. (SSHRC guidelines can be found here: https://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/fellowships/doctoral-doctorat-eng.aspx#5.)

Any proposal must answer four questions:

  1. What are you going to study? SSHRC criteria: “You should have a specific, focused, and feasible research question” (or questions), as well as objective(s)
  2. How are you going to do it? SSHRC criteria: “You should offer a clear description of the proposed methodology”
  3. What is the significance of your project? SSHRC criteria: “Explain the significance and expected contributions to research”
  4. How are you positioned to undertake this project? SSHRC criteria: “Describe you relevant training, such as academic training, lived experience or traditional teachings”

Examining these questions in some detail will help the Joint Committee make ecisions about the clarity, viability, and value of your project. 

1. What are you going to study?

The criteria for a successful dissertation is an original and important contribution to knowledge.

A guiding question. What is the question your thesis will answer? A dissertation must have one—and only one—topic that can be summed up in a guiding question. Developing a guiding question will allow you to define the scope of your project with sufficient precision to avoid being lost or overwhelmed. It allows you to decide what to study and, equally important, what to ignore.

Originality. Your dissertation must be original. That means it cannot simply summarize scholarship to date. There are a variety of ways one can be original:

  1. Find a new source of data.
  2. Develop or correct a theory (use new data to develop a new explanation or correct an old one).
  3. Apply a theory to a new or unexplored phenomenon.
  4. Apply a theory from a different discipline to a religious phenomenon (e.g., apply theories of how social movements grow from sociology to a new religious movement).

The point is that you must find something that has not been done before.

Importance. To be considered “important,” your project must first be substantial and rigorous, displaying a high level of research and writing. Your project must also be of scholarly interest. You might ask the question, important to whom? This is why a dissertation project begins with a literature review. You must discover who your audience might be, what the state of the question is among those scholars, and what has been done (and left undone) by researchers working in that area. One scholar suggests that the best ways to be original and important are to:

  1. Fill a hole (address a topic that other scholars have overlooked).
  2. Correct a mistake (find evidence that challenges a widely held belief or that challenges a theory).
  3. Break new ground (for example, by studying a group that has never been examined or by applying an innovative theoretical framework to a group).

You may find other ways as long as you explain the contribution your dissertation will make. This again highlights the necessity of a literature review in order to contextualize your thesis project in

on-going academic and public debates and to ensure that your contribution is original and important.

2. How are you going to study it?

At some point in the proposal, you need a detailed discussion of theory, method, and your “data set” or source of information, such as interviews of a specific population, primary source material, printed matter, web sites, or creative material (films, TV shows, art works).  

Theory. Theory provides explanation. Many scholarly works are criticized for being merely descriptive. Theory moves your project beyond description to analysis and critique. In fact, you may find that your topic is best understood using a variety of theories. In any case, you will need to outline a clear theoretical framework and to demonstrate the explanatory value of that framework. What will your theoretical approach explain that a) is valuable, and b) we cannot get in any other way?

Method. It is also important to describe your method–the steps you will take to answer your question–in clear and simple terms. How will you gather your data (interviews, archival research, surveys, online searches, viewing films, etc.)? What method will you use to analyze your data (statistical analysis, coding, discourse analysis, etc.)? Again, you may find yourself using a variety of methods (for instance, reading official texts describing religious norms and then interviewing people to see if they actually follow those norms). You should show that your method is appropriate both to your chosen theoretical framework and to the goals of the dissertation. Again, ask yourself what your methodological approach will give you that a) is valuable, and b) we cannot get in any other way.

Data set. Your proposal should include a detailed description of your data set (what exactly you will look at). If you are doing content analysis, for example, what books or journals will you read? If you are doing historical research, what archives will you visit? If you plan to interview people, how will you choose your participants? What kind of interviews or surveys will you use? How many participants will you interview? What kind of questions will you ask? How will you gain access to members of a religious community? Again, you should explain the benefits of using this particular data set over others.

Your supervisory committee, as well as the Joint Committee, will be asking whether your data set is appropriate. Will the data you seek to collect help you answer the core question of your dissertation project? Is it appropriate in size, i.e., sufficiently large to answer your thesis question but not so large as to be unfeasible? The committees may ask if you have access to the information you need. For example, some archives and religious sites are closed to outsiders. Do you foresee any opportunities or barriers to gaining access to your data? One of our students attempted to interview members of a religious institution, but its leaders told its members not to participate.

Connecting theory, method, and data set. In the theory and method sections, you will have to explain how the application of your theoretical framework and method to your data set serves the goals of your project. Each section will also need to address the most important and up-to-date scholarly works, including criticism of your selected theoretical framework and method so that you can discuss their limitations and shortcomings.

Ethics. You must also consider the ethical issues in conducting and disseminating your research. Is there potential for harm in your research project? How will you protect the agency and dignity of your participants? Does your research meet the criteria set out in the latest Tri-Council Policy Statement on research involving humans? What obstacles might you face in receiving ethics clearance from your institution? Who will benefit from your study and how?

3. Why is it significant? (So what?)

Many dissertations–along with other scholarly publications–languish unread because, while they may be excellent in all technical respects, they fail to address a question of real significance. Other projects fail to demonstrate how they contribute to the ongoing scholarly or public discourse on a topic. What is the significance of your project? Put differently, why should people care about the work into which you have put so much time and energy? This is a question that is best answered in clear and direct terms, rather than vague assertions of importance.

Audience. In order to explain the significance of your project, you must first imagine an audience for your scholarship. Who would benefit from reading your research: which scholars? Educators? Community members? Stakeholders? Policy makers? Individuals? Why would it matter to them? How might they use your insights? To whom is your work “important”? Which scholars will want to read your dissertation or the publications that derive from it? Part of the answer will come from your literature review. What does your research add to on-going debates among scholars? Will you fill a hole, correct a mistake, or break new ground? How will your project open new avenues of research? How will it contribute to other members of society, including the community that you are studying?

4. How are you positioned to answer this important question?

Scholarly experience and qualifications. Identify your particular skills, experiences, and resources that will help you to answer your dissertation’s question. You may want to highlight:

  • any academic training (specialized courses or specific professors) that will help you conduct this research;
  • any non-academic experience that qualifies you for the project;
    • E.g., you lived in or travelled to the region that you are proposing to study or you were employed by an NGO that worked closely with the community you wish to study.
  • language skills you possess appropriate to the proposed project;
  • special access to resources (for example, as an insider, you might have access to data that outsiders are not allowed to see);
  • any other skills, experience, or access to resources that would make you a “good fit” for this study.

Positionality. Finally, you should address the issue of “positionality” in your proposed project. What challenges and opportunities does your position in society present for your ability to conduct this research? In terms of the community you wish to study, are you an “insider” or “outsider”? What impact will that have on your project? Will issues such as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion affect how you will conduct this research? Are there unequal power dynamics that may challenge the ethical or scholarly integrity of your study?

Concluding remarks. While there is no template for a successful dissertation project proposal—or for a successful dissertation, for that matter–a solid proposal must inform the community of what question you will answer, how you will answer it, why the answer matters, and why you are the best person to answer that particular question.