By Carrie Winstanley
Having to write a dissertation proposal depends upon the university or institution that you’re attending. Even if a dissertation proposal isn’t a requirement, however, it’s a very useful exercise (and is certainly going to impress your supervisor, especially if it’s not part of your assessment).
On some courses the research proposal is assessed and forms part of your final dissertation submission. If this is the case, it’s vital that you follow the correct format and submit your work on time. Mostly, a dissertation proposal has a 500 or 1,000 word limit, but you must check what your course specifically requires.
What is a dissertation proposal?
A dissertation proposal is basically a description of the following:
What your dissertation is about
Probable questions that you’re going to be examining
Some reference to the theoretical background
Research methods you’re going to be using (empirical or non-empirical)
Potential outcomes of the study
Time spent putting your dissertation proposal together is an investment. You reap rewards because the proposal stops you wasting time and also forms the basis of your dissertation outline.
Writing a dissertation proposal, even if it’s not a requirement, is still worth doing. You can submit the proposal to your supervisor (with her agreement) and get some valuable feedback.
Ask your supervisor for guidance about the tone and style of your research proposal. You need to be flexible and open-minded, showing a willingness to adapt your methods and ideas as your research dictates. Say in your proposal what you intend to do, confidently and adopting a balanced view, suggesting that you’ve carefully considered the best way of carrying out your study. Be firm but not arrogant; be flexible but not feeble!
Make sure that you follow the rules of grammar in your proposal. Be consistent about the tense of your proposal. Most proposals are written using the future tense: ‘I will be using questionnaires . . . and so on’. Check with your supervisor for confirmation.
What does a dissertation proposal include?
The essential parts of a research proposal are generally standard:
Dissertation title (so far): Aim at making the title short and to the point.
Overall objectives: If you have more than three objectives, your area of research is probably far too broad and needs to be narrowed. (Some university courses may ask you to include a rationale at this stage.)
Literature, context, background: You can use any of these words as the title of this section, just make sure that you mention key schools of thought or areas of study that are going to provide information about your dissertation. (Some proposals require you to list specific references at this point, others ask for the bibliography at the end.)
Details of the research: Here, you can expand the ideas spelt out in your research question. This section is about outlining clearly your area of research.
Methodologies: Your work may be empirical (with some sort of study and collection of data such as questionnaires) or non-empirical (no such data, all your research comes from already published writing and projects). If your study is non-empirical, this section is likely to be short; longer if you need to collect or look at the empirical data.
If you’re allowed to use bullet points in your research proposal, you need do no more than list your intended activities (for example, carrying out interviews, consulting archives or evaluating data).
Potential outcomes: Avoid second-guessing the result of your dissertation. If you knew the outcomes, it would be pretty pointless doing the dissertation! Here, you’re summarising the type of outcomes you hope to generate and suggesting a target audience.
Timeline: If you’re asked to outline how you plan to manage your research, think about including a Gantt chart or some kind of concept map. Whatever you do, make your timeline realistic.
Bibliography: Check if you’re required to provide a list of references, and if so, find out roughly how many references you’re expected to list.
MA Dissertation Proposal Form 2009 (EXAMPLE)
(This proposal form should total no more than 1000 words, not including bibliographical information included in suggested literature.)
Mr John Smith
MA International Relations
To investigate the motivations and objectives within the George W. Bush administration for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
To consider the range of motivating factors that came into the thinking of the administration. This will be done by looking at the relevant - published - primary sources and a selection of the secondary materials.
"What are motivations?" and "What are objectives?" How do we assess these? How much overlap is there? Where are the useful distinctions?
Make the point
- "Public justifications" vs "Private validation" - Assessing motivations of key protagonists is difficult given their capacity for secrecy and the absence of corroborating documents due to them not having been released. (Indeed quite a number may not be available for many years given that there is Presidential discretion in what is placed in Presidential Libraries).
- "unintended consequences" (value of six years of hindsight) - Iraq has proved to be a recruiting sergeant for insurgent Al'queda, took the eye off the ball in Afghanistan and has allowed Taliban to regroup.
Possible Chapters (second order analysis/questions (?))
What was the threat from Iraq?
- Saddam Hussein - "Rouge leader" snubbing (US led) world order - could not be tolerated by the administration and the legacy from 1991 for both Saddam and the US. For Saddam, he had shown that he had stood up to the US and survived, indeed prospered - as the Republican Guard was still at his disposal and he was able to exploit the "Oil for Food" programme to his personal benefit and the detriment of millions of Iraqis. For the US, according to the administration Saddam had failed to comply with the resolutions ending the 1991 conflict.
Link to International Terrorism - unproven and tenuous
WMD programme - He had used them previously on Al Habja and had had a dedicated Chemical Weapons programme. Plus previously he had been developing the nuclear programme up to 1982 and the Israeli attack on Osirak.
- Saddam's rhetoric was that he had them and he would use them. He had said he would make Kuwait a bloodbath in 1991.
- The UN inspection regime had been thwarted in their operation - despite not finding anything. Ref: Hans Blix
- The danger of believing opposition HUMINT.
Message to Rogue States (Axis of Evil)
Iran - made approach after 9/11 but since Axis of Evil speech have become increasing recalcitrant especially re. Israel and wiping it off the face of the map. Plus have been supporting or at least condoning the insurgency/division of Iraq between Suni and Shia.
Syria - seemed to work as they have been more conciliatory but have possibly been supporting challenges to Israel.
North Korea - as ever very difficult to ascertain but until recently had been working to South Korea's Sunshine policy. In hindsight may have heightened the development of their nuclear programme (and was a late addition to the "Axis" to prevent it appearing anti-nuclear.)
Libya - unnamed but Gadaffi had been long time critic and with help from British track-two diplomacy, Libya decommissioned its WMD programmes.
International dimension "Coalition of the Willing"
Relationship with UN - resolution 1441 a justification/John Bolton as US Ambassador to UN - a fundamental distrust of the UN born out of its difficulties in the 1990s (legacy of Somalia, failures in Bosnia and Rwanda and the "Oil for Food" corruption.)
Middle East Peace Process - the MEP was not prioritised in the administration and perception of being under the influence of the Israel lobby (often overstated amongst the multitude of lobbyists in a $4bn industry).
Democratising the Middle East - a new iteration of the "Domino effect"; was this a substantive agenda in western understandings of "Democracy" when the administration supported/was dependent on the Saudi and Pakistan regimes - both of which would struggle to be considered democracies in a number of respects.
"Coalition of the Willing"
- Blair bringing a key ally to the party in the shape of the UK capability (Special Forces and Intelligence), but also "legitimacy" despite his difficulties domestically.
- Old Europe and New Europe - the eagerness of New Europe to join in while the French/Germans were reluctant - countering the "We are all Americans now" Le Monde headline September 12th.
Why March 2003?
Post 9/11 context - The impact of the 9/11 attacks on the psychology and emotion of the United States ("Why do they hate our freedom?")
American Exceptionalism - tradition of Manifest Destiny.
George Bush - as a "War President" and the US was on a War footing - what about his "beliefs"?
The Players: Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and then Paul Wolfowitz and the "Neo Cons" / Vulcans.
The logistics were in place in the Middle East - the mission could be done operationally.
Post-Afghanistan hubris - had shown that the United States could do expeditionary warfare with a combination of Special Forces and overwhelming air power.
Fulfilment of "Bush Doctrine" - the concept of pre-emption and Rumsfeld's "Transformation" of the military at the Pentagon.
The "stars" were aligned - means and opportunity - The question became not "why", but "why not"?
- The Bush Administration was disposed to consider the threats - and the perception of threat - but not preordained to invade Iraq.
- 9/11 heightened senses: as it were to "look for monster" and in Saddam they found someone.
- The administration's internal dynamics narrowed rather than broadened choices
Concern not to be too narrative - this needs to retain critical analysis without just criticising.
Relevant Primary Sources
National Security Strategy 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2002/ and 2006 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2006/
State of the Union Speech Jan 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html and audio http://www.archive.org/details/SOTU_2002
West point address June 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html
9/11 Commission Report http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf
THE SECURITY COUNCIL, 27 JANUARY 2003 Report Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC, Dr. Hans Blix http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/Bx27.htm
Likely Secondary Sources
Ivo Dadler and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (2005)
G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism for the Twenty-first Century: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century (2008)
Bruce Jentleson, With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush and Saddam, 1982-90 (1995)
Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008)
James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004)
Alexander Moens, The Foreign Policy of George W. Bush: Values, Strategy and Loyalty (2004)
Illan Peleg, The Legacy of George W. Bush's Foreign Policy: Moving Beyond Neoconservatism: Moving Beyond Foreign Policy (2009)
Rob Singh and Tim Lynch, After Bush - The Case for Continuity (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Tony Smith, A Pact with the Devil Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (2006)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835/1840)
Bob Woodward, Bush at War (2002), State of War (2004), State of Denial (2006)