Breaking it Down: Writing a Doctoral Dissertation Prospectus

Susan E. Baer, Contributing Faculty Member, School of Public Policy and Administration, Walden University,

 This essay was originally published in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2020 series.  

I teach and mentor doctoral students who are writing qualitative dissertations in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University.  Students often feel overwhelmed throughout the dissertation process, beginning with the initial phase of writing their prospectus.  To attempt to make the process of writing a dissertation prospectus more manageable for students, I have found that one useful approach is to divide the prospectus into sections and ask students to write one section at a time.  Then, I provide feedback on each individual section, and the student makes needed revisions to each section.  When completed, she moves forward to write the next section and so on until the prospectus is finalized.

At Walden, this process begins with the student identifying a research problem and writing a problem statement.  Often a new doctoral student has a general topic of interest that is broad and needs to be much narrower in focus.  To narrow the focus and identify a specific research problem to study, students must review the existing literature on their topic of interest and identify a gap in the literature.  Asking students to review relevant literature and write an annotated bibliography may help them to narrow their focus and identify a research problem.  The students must ultimately write and rewrite a draft problem statement.

After completing their problem statement, students need to write the often elusive research question or questions for their qualitative dissertation study.  The student’s research question should flow logically from her problem statement.  Students need to consider multiple factors when writing a research question including proper phrasing, assessing the feasibility of addressing the research question, and possible Institutional Review Board (IRB) implications, among others.

When a suitable research question is found, the student next writes the purpose section of her prospectus.  This section connects the research problem being addressed and the focus of the study.  Again, the student writes and revises this section until all instructor feedback is addressed.

Students next must find and select an appropriate theoretical or conceptual framework for their dissertation study.  Selecting an appropriate framework is crucial, because it grounds the dissertation study and serves as a blueprint of sorts for the study.  To identify an appropriate framework, students must search and review the existing literature.  In certain cases, I ask students to consult a university librarian if additional assistance is needed.  The selected framework should help the student to answer her research question.

The student must next write a significance section for the prospectus.  Issues the student must address in this section include explaining why the study is important, how the study will begin to fill a gap in the literature, and how the study’s findings might lead to positive social change.

Students next must determine the nature or approach of their qualitative study.  The research design selected should best address the study’s research question.  Then, students write the possible types and sources of data section as well as the limitations, challenges, and/or barriers section of the prospectus.

The students must also write and include a background section in the prospectus that consists of ten relevant annotated journal articles published within the last five years.  This section must also include keywords or phrases searched and databases used.  Finally, students need to include a references list using the most updated APA style as well as a title page.

Dividing the dissertation prospectus into smaller sections and writing one section at a time in a logical order and addressing all instructor feedback for each section allows students to complete the prospectus in a more manageable way.  This method might reduce students’ anxiety and sense of feeling overwhelmed, and it has the potential to enhance student success.


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