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Developing the Thesis or

Dissertation Proposal

Some Common Problems

The general purposes and broad format of the proposal document havenow been presented. There remain, however, a number of particular
points that cause a disproportionate amount of difficulty in preparing
proposals for student-conducted research. In some cases, the problems arise
because of real difficulty in the subtle and complex nature of the writing
task. In other cases, however, the problems are a consequence of confusion,
conflicting opinions, and ambiguous standards among research workers
themselves and, more particularly, among university research advisors.

As with many tasks involving an element of art, it is possible to establish
a few general rules to which most practitioners subscribe. Success in terms
of real mastery, however, lies not in knowing, or even following, the rules
but in what the student learns to do within the rules.

Each student will discover his or her own set of special problems. Some
will be solved only through practice and the accumulation of experience.
While wrestling with the frustrations of preparing a proposal, you should
try to remember that the real fascination of research lies in its problematic
nature, in the search for serviceable hypotheses, in selecting sensitive means
of analyzing data, and in the creative tasks of study design.

Some of the problems graduate students face cannot be solved simply by
reading about them. What follows, however, is an effort to alert you to the


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most common pitfalls, to provide some general suggestions for resolution of
the problems, and to sound one encouraging note: consultation with col-
leagues and advisors, patience with the often slow process of “figuring out,”
and scrupulous care in writing will overcome or circumvent most of the
problems encountered in preparing a research proposal. In the midst of dif-
ficulty, it is useful to remember that problems are better encountered when
developing the proposal than when facing a deadline for a final copy of the

The problems have been grouped into two broad sections: “Before
the Proposal: First Things First” and “The Sequence of Proposing: From
Selecting a Topic to Forming a Committee.” Each section contains a number
of specific issues that may confront the student researcher and provides some
rules of thumb for use in avoiding or resolving the attendant difficulties. You
should skim through the two sections selectively, because not all the discus-
sions will be relevant to your needs. Chapter 4 (“Content of the Proposal:
Important Considerations”), Chapter 6 (“Style and Form in Writing the
Proposal”), and Chapter 7 (“The Oral Presentation”) deal with specific tech-
nical problems and should be consulted after completing a review of what
follows here.

Before the Proposal: First Things First

Making Your Decision: Do You Really Want to Do It?

The following idealized sequence of events leads to a thesis or dissertation

1. In the process of completing undergraduate or master’s level preparation, the
student identifies an area of particular interest in which he or she proposes to
concentrate advanced study.

2. The student selects a graduate institution that has a strong reputation for
research and teaching in the area of interest.

3. The student identifies an advisor who has published extensively and regularly
chairs graduate student research in the area of interest.

4. Based on further study and interaction with the advisor, the student selects and
formulates a question or hypothesis as the basis for a thesis or dissertation.

Because we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, few students are
able to pursue the steps of this happy and logical sequence. For a variety of
reasons, most students have to take at least one of the steps in reverse. Some

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even find themselves at the end of several semesters of study just beginning to
identify a primary area of interest, in an institution that may be less than per-
fectly appropriate to their needs, and assigned to an advisor who has little or
no experience in that particular domain. For this unfortunate state of affairs,
we offer no easy solution. We do believe that one significant decision is, or
should be, available to the student—the decision to do, or not to do, a
research study. Faced with conditions such as those described above, if the
option is available, the more rational and educationally profitable course may
be to elect not to undertake a research study. You can determine whether this
option is available before the school is selected, or at least before the program
of study is selected.

There are sound reasons to believe that experience in the conduct of
research contributes to graduate education. There also are good and sub-
stantial reasons to believe that other kinds of experiences are immeasurably
more appropriate and profitable for some students. The question is, “Which
experience is right for you?”

If you are, or think you might be, headed for a career in scholarship and
higher education, then the decision is clear. The sooner you begin accumu-
lating experience in research activities, the better. If you are genuinely curi-
ous about the workings of the research process, interested in combining
inquiry with a career of professional service, or fascinated by the problems
associated with a particular application of knowledge to practice, again the
decision is clear. An experience in research presents at least a viable alterna-
tive in your educational plans.

Lacking one of these motives, the decision should swing the other
way, toward an option more suited to your needs. Inadequately motivated
research tends not to be completed or, worse, is finished in a pedestrian fash-
ion far below the student’s real capacity. Even a well-executed thesis or dis-
sertation may exert a powerful negative influence on the graduate experience
when it has not been accepted by the student as a reasonable and desirable

One problem touches everyone in graduate education, faculty and
students alike—the hard constraints of time. Students want to finish their
degree programs in a reasonable period of time. The disposition or circum-
stances of some, however, may define reasonable time as “the shortest pos-
sible time.” Others find the thought of any extension beyond the standard
number of semesters a serious threat to their sense of adequacy. For students
such as these, a thesis or dissertation is a risky venture.

Relatively few research studies finish on schedule, and time requirements
invariably are underestimated. Frequent setbacks are almost inevitable.
This is one aspect of the research process that is learned during the research

Developing the Thesis or Dissertation Proposal—43

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experience: Haste in research is lethal to both quality of the product and worth
of the experience. If you cannot spend the time, deciding to initiate a research
project endangers the area of inquiry, your advisor, your institution, your edu-
cation, your reputation, and any satisfaction you might take in completing the
task. In short, if you can’t afford the time, then don’t do it at all.

Choosing Your Turf: Advisors and Areas

Once a firm decision has been made to write a thesis or dissertation, the
choice of an advisor presents a less difficult problem. Here, area of interest
dictates selection because it is essential to have an advisor who is knowl-
edgeable. Further, it always is preferable to have one who is actively pub-
lishing in the domain of interest.

Competent advisement is so important that a degree of student flexibility
may be required. It is far better for students to adjust their long-range goals
than to attempt research on a topic with which their advisor is completely
unfamiliar. It may be necessary for the thesis or dissertation to be part of the
advisor’s own research program. As long as the topic remains within the
broad areas of student interest, however, it is possible to gain vital experi-
ence in formulating questions, designing studies, and applying the technol-
ogy and methods of inquiry that are generic to the domain.

It is desirable for student and advisor to interact throughout the develop-
ment of the proposal, beginning with the initial selection and formulation of
the question. On occasion, however, the student may bring an early stage
proposal to a prospective advisor as a test of his or her interest or to encour-
age acceptance of formal appointment as advisor. Experience suggests that
this strategy is most likely to produce immediate results if the proposal is in
the primary interest area of the advisor. If the proposal involves replication
of some aspect of the advisor’s previous research, the student may be amazed
at the intensity of attention this attracts.

Finding Your Question:
What Don’t We Know That Matters?

Before launching into the process of identifying a suitable topic for inquiry,
we suggest a short course of semantic and conceptual hygiene. The purpose
of this small therapy is to establish a simple and reliable set of terms for think-
ing through what can sometimes be a difficult and lengthy problem—what do
I study?

All research emerges from a perceived problem, some unsatisfactory situ-
ation in the world that we want to confront. Sometimes the difficulty rests

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simply in the fact that we don’t understand how things work and have the
human itch to know. At other times, we are confronted by decisions or the
need for action when the alternatives or consequences are unclear. Such per-
ceived problems are experienced as a disequilibrium, a dissonance in our cog-
nition. Notice, however, they do not exist out in the world, but in our minds.

That may sound at first like one of those “nice points” of which acade-
mics are sometimes fond, but for the purposes of a novice researcher, locat-
ing the problem in the right place and setting up your understanding of
exactly what is unsatisfactory may represent much more than an arbitrary
exercise. Thinking clearly about problems, questions, hypotheses, and
research purposes can prevent mental logjams that sometimes block or delay
clear identification of what is to be investigated.

The novice will encounter research reports, proposals, and even some well-
regarded textbooks that freely interchange the words “problem” and “ques-
tion” in ways that create all sorts of logical confusion (as in “The question in
this study is to investigate the problem of . . .” or “The problem in this study
is to investigate the question of . . .”). The problem is located alternately in
the world or in the study, the distinction between problems and questions is
unclear, and what is unsatisfactory in the situation is not set up as a clear tar-
get for inquiry.

We suggest that you be more careful as you think through the question of
what to study. Define your terms from the start and stick with them, at least
until they prove not to be helpful. The definitions we prefer are arbitrary, but
it has been our experience that making such distinctions is a useful habit of
mind. Accordingly, we suggest that you use the following lexicon as you think
and begin to write about your problem.

Problem—the experience we have when an unsatisfactory situation is encoun-
tered. Once carefully defined, it is that situation, with all the attendant questions
it may raise, that can become the target for a proposed study. Your proposal,
then, will not lay out a plan to study the problem but will address one or several
of the questions that explicate what you have found “problematic” about the sit-
uation. Note that in this context neither situation nor problem is limited to a
pragmatic definition. The observation that two theories contradict each other
can be experienced as a problem, and a research question may be posed to address
the conflict.

Question—a statement of what you wish to know about some unsatisfactory sit-
uation, as in the following: What is the relation between . . . ? Which is the
quickest way to . . . ? What would happen if . . . ? What is the location of . . . ?
“What is the perspective of . . . ? As explained below, when cast in a precise,
answerable form, one or several of these questions will become the mainspring
for your study—the formal research question.

Developing the Thesis or Dissertation Proposal—45

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Purpose—the explicit intention of the investigator to accumulate data in such a
way as to answer the research question posed as the focus for the study. The
word “objective” is a reasonable synonym here. Although only people can have
intentions, it is common to invest our research design with purpose (as in “The
purpose of this study is to determine the mechanism through which . . . ”).

Hypothesis—an affirmation about the nature of some situation in the world.
A tentative proposition set up as a convenient target for an investigation, a state-
ment to be confirmed or denied in terms of the evidence.

Given this lexicon, the search for a topic becomes the quest for a situation
that is sufficiently unsatisfactory to be experienced as a problem. The pro-
posal has as its purpose the setting up of a research question and the estab-
lishment of exactly how (and why) the investigator intends to find the
answer, thereby eliminating or reducing the experience of finding something
problematic about the world. Problems lead to questions, which in turn lead
to the purpose of the study and, in some instances, to hypotheses. Table 3.1
shows the question, purpose, and hypotheses for a study. Note that
the hypotheses meet the criteria established in Chapter 1 and are the most

The research process, and thus the proposal, begins with a question.
Committed to performing a study within a given area of inquiry and allied
with an appropriate advisor, students must identify a question that matches
their interests as well as the resources and constraints of their situation. Given
a theoretically infinite set of possible problems that might be researched, it is
no small wonder that many students at first are overwhelmed and frozen into
indecision. The “I can’t find a problem” syndrome is a common malady
among graduate students, but fortunately one that can be cured by time and

Research questions emerge from three broad sources: logic, practicality,
and accident. In some cases, the investigator’s curiosity is directed to a gap
in the logical structure of what already is known in the area. In other cases,
the investigator responds to the demand for information about the applica-
tion of knowledge to some practical service. In yet other cases, serendipity
operates and the investigator is stimulated by an unexpected observation,
often in the context of another study. It is common for several of these fac-
tors to operate simultaneously to direct attention to a particular question.
Personal circumstance and individual style also tend to dictate the most
common source of questions for each researcher. Finally, all the sources
depend on a more fundamental and prior factor—thorough knowledge of
the area.

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It is this latter factor that accounts for the “graduate student syndrome.”
Only as one grasps the general framework and the specific details of a
particular area can unknowns be revealed, fortuitous observations raise ques-
tions, and possible applications of knowledge become apparent. Traditional
library study is the first step toward the maturity that permits confident selec-
tion of a research question. Such study, however, is necessary but not suffi-
cient. In any active area of inquiry, the current knowledge base is not in the
library—it is in the invisible college of informal associations among research

The working knowledge base of an area takes the form of unpublished
papers, conference speeches, seminar transcripts, memoranda, dissertations
in progress, grant applications, personal correspondence, telephone calls,

Developing the Thesis or Dissertation Proposal—47

Problem—Extensive teacher planning of lessons requires large investments of time
and energy, and often must compete with other important responsibilities—both
professional and personal.

Question—Is the amount or kind of lesson planning done by teachers positively
related to student in-class learning behaviors such as time-on-task?

Purpose—The purpose of this study is to examine the relationships between several
categories (types) of teacher lesson planning and student time-on-task in a high
school automobile mechanics class.

Hypotheses (Note that directional hypotheses are used for Hypotheses 1-3 and that
even Hypothesis 4, stated in the null form, could be based on data from a pilot

1. The number of teacher lesson planning decisions that relate to design
and use of active learning strategies will be positively related to student
time-on-task when those lessons are implemented.

2. The number of class management planning decisions related to particular
lesson components will be positively related to student
time-on-task when those components are implemented.

3. Teacher lesson planning decisions that require students to wait for the
availability of tools or work sites will be negatively related to student
time-on-task when those lessons are implemented.

4. The total number of teacher planning decisions (irrespective of category)
will not be related to student time-on-task when those lessons are

Table 3.1 Problem, Question, Purpose, and Hypotheses

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and electronic mail communications, as well as conversations in the corri-
dors of conference centers, restaurants, hotel rooms, and bars. To obtain
access to this ephemeral resource, the student must be where the action is.

The best introduction to the current status of a research area is close asso-
ciation with advisors who know the territory and are busy formulating and
pursuing their own questions. Conversing with peers, listening to professor-
ial discussions, assisting in research projects, attending lectures and con-
ferences, exchanging papers, and corresponding with faculty or students at
other institutions are all ways of capturing the elusive state of the art. In
all of these, however, the benefits derived often depend on knowing enough
about the area to join the dialogue by asking questions, offering a tangible
point for discussion, or raising a point of criticism. In research, as elsewhere,
the more you know, the more you can learn.

Although establishing a network of exchange may seem impossible to
young students who view themselves as novices and outsiders, it is a happy
fact that new recruits generally find a warm welcome within any well-defined
area of intensive study. Everyone depends on informal relationships among
research colleagues, and this rapport is one source of sustaining excitement
and pleasure in the research enterprise. As soon as you can articulate well-
formulated ideas about possible problems, your colleagues will be eager to
provide comment, critical questions, suggestions, and encouragement.

In the final process of selecting the thesis or dissertation problem, there is
one exercise that can serve to clarify the relative significance of competing
questions. Most questions can be placed within a general model that displays
a sequence of related questions—often in an order determined by logic or
practical considerations. Smaller questions are seen to lead to larger and
more general questions, methodological questions are seen necessarily to
precede substantive questions, and theoretical questions may be found inter-
spersed among purely empirical questions. The following is a much simpli-
fied but entirely realistic example of such a sequential model. It begins with
an everyday observation and leads through a series of specific and interre-
lated problems to a high-order question of great significance.

OBSERVATION: Older adults generally take longer than young adults to com-
plete cognitive tasks, but those who are physically active seem to be quicker
mentally, especially in tasks that demand behavioral speed.

1. What types of cognitive function might be related to exercise?

2. How can these cognitive functions be measured?

3. What are the effects of habitual exercise on one of these types of cog-
nitive function—reaction time?

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4. Are active older adults faster on a simple reaction time task than seden-
tary older adults?

5. Are active older adults faster on a more complex reaction time task,
such as choice reaction time, than older sedentary adults?

QUESTION: What effect does habitual exercise have on choice reaction time
in older adults?

By making the twists and turns of speculation visible in the concrete
process of sequential listing, previously unnoticed possibilities may be
revealed or tentative impressions confirmed. In the simple example given
above, the reader may immediately see other questions that could have been
inserted or alternative chains of inquiry that branch off from the main track
of logic. Other diagrammatic lists of questions about exercise and cognitive
function might be constructed from different but related starting points.
One might begin, for example, with the well-established observation that
circulation is superior in older individuals who exercise regularly. This
might lead through a series of proximal experiments toward the ultimate
question, “What is the mechanism by which exercise maintains cognitive

Building such diagrams will be useful for the student in several other
ways. It is a way of controlling the instinct to grab the first researchable
question that becomes apparent in an area. Often such questions are inferior
to what might be selected after more careful contemplation of the alterna-
tives. A logical sequence can be followed for most questions, beginning with
“What has to be asked first?” Once these serial relationships become clear,
it is easier to assign priorities.

In addition to identifying the correct ordering and relative importance of
questions, such conceptual models also encourage students to think in terms
of a series of studies that build cumulatively toward more significant con-
clusions than can be achieved in a one-shot thesis or dissertation. The fac-
ulty member who has clear dedication to a personal research program can
be a key factor in attracting students into the long-term commitments that
give life to an area of inquiry.

Researchable questions occur daily to the active researcher. The problem
is not finding them but maintaining some sense of whether, and where, they
might fit into an overall plan. Although this condition may seem remote
to the novice struggling to define a first research topic, formulating even a
modest research agenda can be a helpful process. The guidance of a sequen-
tial display of questions can allow the student to settle confidently on the tar-
get for a proposal.

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