The Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

Information for Doctoral Candidates

Ph.D. dissertations can be anywhere from 150-400 pages long, but the average length is 250-350 pages. A dissertation of more than 400 pages suggests an overly ambitious research project or a repetitive argument; a dissertation of anything less than 150 pages suggests too narrow a topic, insufficiently diverse evidence in support of the dissertation, and or insufficiently contextualized argument or material, and/or insufficiently vigorous conclusion reached in the research process. Students should consult the most up-to-date version of the MLA Handbook or The Chicago Manual of Style and consistently follow its directives.

Technical requirements for the dissertation specific to this university are outlined in the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies instructions for Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Students are encouraged to submit their proposals in the spring term of the first year in the program, but proposals are due in October of the second year.

Writing the Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal

Complete the Dissertation Proposal Form in consultation with your supervisor.

In the description of your research project you must provide:

  1. Working title
    This should be as specific as possible about the topic and its elements: text(s), author(s), time-period, genre, place, theory.

  2. Concise statement of objectives
    No dissertation writer writer knows in advance exactly what will be found out through the process of thinking about, researching towards, and writing the dissertation. The statement of objectives on the dissertation proposal should, however, indicate a hypothesis, and what the dissertation writer wants to find out. This statement should include a clear, brief description of the topic area, with emphasis on the particular research questions to be investigated in this area.

  3. Description of the project
    In this section of the proposal, the writer is expected to answer four questions: "Why are you choosing to study these texts?" "What features of these texts will you investigate?" "What approach are you taking in this investigation?" and "Why have you chosen this approach?" As well, this section of the proposal should include a plan for the structure of the dissertation. A brief outline of chapters is helpful here, both for planning by the student, and assessment by the committee. This plan should answer questions about presentation and organization, such as "What will the introduction cover?" or "How will the chapters divide up the material?"

  4. Working bibliography of primary and secondary sources
    The bibliography should draw attention to those sources that are deemed essential to the project. That is, it should be selective, and not exhaustive. While the writer should have read far enough into the key texts to be able to make an informed plan, the bibliography of a dissertation proposal is not a checklist of everything read so far about the topic. The bibliography demonstrates the student's capacity to research the topic and familiarity with current publications on the research question.

Please note that while the bibliography should list both kinds of sources, there is no need to divide the bibliography into two corresponding parts. A three- to five-page proposal, with a four- to six-page bibliography of the sources you plan to consult, is adequate for the Ph.D. proposal. When the last draft of your proposal is complete, you should ask your supervisor to add her or his comment on page 2 of the proposal form. Submit the completed hard copy proposal to the Graduate chair, along with an e-mail copy.

Your working title should be as specific as possible about your topic and about whatever other factors are central to your analysis be they text(s), author(s), time-period, and/or methodology. A working title like "Deconstructing the Depression: Representations of the Dirty Thirties in Euro-Canadian and Indigenous Canadian Poetry" makes clear the material to be studied and the method to be employed, but of course no one title needs to indicate all the specifics listed above. Identifying in your title what theory or theories you will deploy in your dissertation is not required.

Remember to phrase your concise statement of research objectives as objectives. You are not expected to know in advance what the result of your research will be; you are expected to delineate clearly what issue(s) you wish to investigate in relation to what topic. State what you want to find out by doing the research.

Your description of the research project should indicate, as the proposal form stipulates, how the material is to be studied, the issues to be addressed, and the methods to be used are appropriate to the research objectives. To put these requirements another way, you need to make clear why you chose to study the texts you did, what features of the texts you'll investigate, and what research methods you'll use, and why. Though a chapter-by-chapter indication of what the dissertation will contain is not absolutely necessary, you should give some idea of how you think your dissertation will be structured. What will your introduction cover? Will you devote a chapter to each collection of poems, play, or theoretical approach to a problem, for example; or will you devote individual chapters to how narrative voice, delineation of character, and plot contribute to political critique in two or three novels per chapter?

You do not need to have read everything you put into your working bibliography before you make your proposal, but you must have read enough of the key texts that you can make an informed research plan. Make sure your bibliographic entries conform to an approved format, such as that prescribed by the MLA Handbook or The Chicago Manual of Style.

Finally, be sure to proofread your proposal before submission.