Developing the Proposal for Dissertation


Without paying attention to the following criteria, the student is likely to make many false starts. Notice that the criteria expand on the ideas in Fig. 3-2.

The Interest of the Researcher

Personal interest is very important, but the completion of a THESIS AND DISSERTATION may well involve some very uninteresting work. For example, if a THESIS AND DISSERTATION involves statistical analyses, the tables to display the findings may represent hours of tedious work. Moreover, personal interest can engender bias and limit objectivity. On the other hand, some students report that a topic that was “just a topic” at first grew in interest as it moved along the THESIS AND DISSERTATION path (Isaac et al., 1989).

The Background of the Researcher

To start with an unfamiliar topic is unwise and disadvantageous. Topics close to one’s prior preparation and experience offer better possibilities for success.

Students who propose topics outside the scope of their training or experience must spend a great deal of time becoming familiar with a new field. It is unlikely that such a beginning will ever result in the broad background really needed to do the study well. More likely, lack of a broader understanding of the subject will lead to mistakes in the conduct or in the interpretation of the research.

The Technical Competence of the Researcher

The student should have technical competence related to the topic. For example, the level of competence a student researcher has in research tools should be influential in choosing a topic. Some topics by their nature call for complex statistical analyses. Others may demand sophisticated archival or library search procedures, complex interview techniques, use of advanced computer programs, or facility with foreign languages. Choice of topic and design should be guided by consideration of the skills possessed versus the skills required.

It is not enough simply to follow a recipe without really understanding it. For example, there are computer packages that offer complete, complex statistical analyses, and they can be great time savers. But, the use of such a package does not excuse the researcher from responsibility for understanding fully the techniques employed. A guideline recommended by Gay (1996) is that one should not use the computer to perform an analysis that is not understood, or at least studied extensively. The same writer encourages aspiring researchers to become proficient in using some of the more sophisticated handheld calculators that allow one to enter one or two sets of data and, by using the appropriate keys, to have the results of a desired analysis displayed. Similarly, any other technology essential to the research should be thoroughly understood before use.

Importance of the Topic

Check your perceptions of topic importance with others you respect, such as colleagues, your advisor, other faculty members, administrators, and other investigators. If most others see the topic as important, it probably is. But, also use some other tests. When you are finished with the THESIS AND DISSERTATION, will anyone read it? Could it be published? Does it address an issue of topical interest? How will it affect the academic field or profession? Questions like these lead to answers also useful for the written introduction to your proposal for they will help to give readers a background and a context with which to judge the worth of the topic (Association of American Universities [AAU], 1990; W. G. Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992; Isaac et al., 1989).

One element of particular importance is generalizability, that is, whether it is likely that the findings of the investigation can be applied to other situations. A study that would not generalize would be one done on a population and under conditions so unusual that one could not expect the same results in many other situations.

Appropriate Size and Scope

Topics should be limited to those possible and feasible for one person to do within the expected time period. The honors thesis should fit into the last 1 or 2 years of undergraduate study, along with courses and seminars. A master’s thesis, if pursued along with the other requirements for the degree, requires 3 to 6 months. Ordinarily, one completes the dissertation in several years if working full time on it. Some do take longer, but universities usually invoke a time limit of 4 to 6 years.


This is a period of information power. From note taking to literature searching and from data collection to data analysis, automation technology now accelerates research while encouraging both more comprehensiveness and more precision in the THESIS AND DISSERTATION enterprise.

Central Role of the Librarian and the Library

Because of technological advances, public and campus libraries have more material available than ever before. A library is still a place , to be sure, but it now has the capability to provide the user with the resources of many other libraries in addition to its own. Moreover, the user has access to that vastly enlarged store of material with almost incredible ease and speed (King, 2000; Rice, 1989; Sherman, 1999).

For example, UMI’s Digital Dissertation contains citations and abstracts of 1.5 million dissertations and theses. The database includes theses and dissertations from the first U.S. dissertation (1861) to the most recent. Those published from 1980 include an author-written abstract and are available free to university academic libraries (e.g., the University of Pittsburgh , For most dissertations, beginning in 1995, full-text dissertations are available in PDF (portable document format) computer file format. Search screens lead to advanced search strategies. Each record can be searched by author, key word, and title (for example, a title search will examine all dissertations that have a selected word in them, such as feminism ). Terms can be combined to create a new search using Boolean operators.

Once you find useful information, you can print the abstract, download the complete document in some cases, and in other cases print a 24-page preview of the dissertation . You can also mark the citation list of dissertations for later printing, downloading, or sending an E-mail.Similarly, there are databases of E-books in academic libraries. Again, using the University of Pittsburgh library system as an example, the system offers Web access to thousands of E-books through netLibrary , a virtual lending library accessible through the Internet. These E-books are published references books, textbooks, and monographs that have been converted into digital form. They can be searched as you would search any other materials in the library on-line catalog.Successful students learn quickly how to use help from librarians and how to use their own computers independently and to operate from distant workstations to make the most of library resources. Here are the most important guidelines:

1. Ask for information and help. Inquire about on-line or compact disk databases related to the topic(s) of interest to you and find out how you can access them, independently , if possible. As an example, find out if FirstSearch can be made available to you since it has many databases, is adding to them, is relatively inexpensive, and is considered to be user friendly. There are other good ones, too.
2. Become fully acquainted with the library and the roles of the various librarians, many of whom are specialists. If you wish, they will assist you in learning to maximize your skill in using catalogs and periodical indexes; they will advise you on search methodology; they will introduce you to the world of computer-assisted literature searching; and they will guide you to special collections. Also, librarians understand disabled student needs and services. These are but a few of the multifaceted capabilities of professional librarians, but they illustrate that they are powerful allies in the research process.
3. Most modern information technology can be utilized from home or office with a five-component microcomputer workstation: computer, keyboard, monitor, printer, and modem. Such a basic station allows one to capture and store the products of a search session for personal use by downloading to your own disk. Subsequently, the references can be recast into any of the common bibliographic citation forms using commercially available programs (Rice, 1989). Several programs are available (for example, EndNote, Reference Manager, ProCite) to help you do the citations according to the reference guide you select. They also help with endnotes, reference notes, and the proper way of citing material in text. Trial versions of such programs are available at the ISI Researchsoft home page (

In summary, recognize each librarian as a highly qualified information specialist as well as a very valuable resource person with respect to the complex and involved operations of academic and professional libraries. Seek the aid of librarians on a one-to-one basis to further your skills. Remember that it is more important that your library affords you access to a source than that your library owns the source. And, become skilled at accessing your own campus library via computer because that skill can be readily leveraged into access to the other major library holdings of the nation.

Computer Search Services

The university reference librarian is an excellent initial contact. Be ready to say what your purpose is, what field you want to explore, and how you expect to use the information. There are powerful gen-eral search engines to help research a topic. Among the most common are AltaVista (, Lycos (, Google (, and Dialog ( Libraries have access to hundreds of databases, and growth and technical improvement are very fast paced in library information storage and retrieval. Therefore, the student ought to stay in close consultation with reference librarians, the on-campus experts in how best to use the current and emerging tools.

Six Steps for the Student in Database Searches

In the section above on the role of the library and the librarian, we urged students to acquire key library skills and personal computer PC) competencies. Now, those capabilities must be extended and put to practical use (York et al., 1988).

  1. To search a database efficiently, one must have a topic, or at least a topic area, in mind. To get ready, it is best to examine some current articles bearing on the topic area under consideration. List key words and phrases, as well as their synonyms, to describe each of the concepts in the topic. It might be helpful to consult an index or abstract thesaurus, such as the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors or the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms .A printed copy of the index or thesaurus will give you a good idea of the type of citations that will be retrieved using a particular term and the amount of literature available on the topic. If possible, list several citations from the indexes or abstracts to articles that are considered pertinent to the topic.

Then, try to think of a title for a paper on the subject of your choice. See if you can get all of the main ideas about your topic into the title. An example might be “Government Policy Development and Implementation Respecting Brazilian Universities in the Past Decade.” Since databases are queried by the presence of key words, singly or in combination, the words in the title thus concocted will probably include those you will use when specifying the kinds of documents you wish to retrieve. At this point, or earlier, we recommend seeking advice from a librarian trained in search strategies. Since databases can be programmed for retrieval by approaches other than key subject terms, the library specialist may be able to direct you to a more efficient or effective way to call up the information you wish to locate.

  2. University research libraries, and thus the university community, have access to many databases. Some are available without cost to students and faculty because the research library paid the annual fee. Even if this is not so, often the vendor offers a free trial for your perusal. The home pages indicated below were retrieved on May 18, 2002.

For example, the Center for Research Libraries (home page is a not-for-profit consortium of colleges and universities that make available scholarly research

resources to faculty and students of the major research libraries of America . The collection includes over 5 million volumes of research material that is often unavailable in individual libraries.

ISI Web of Science ( offers citation reports, documents, proceedings, and news in the world of science. ISI Web of Knowledge ( offers citation products, such as Social Science Citation Index , specialized content, evaluation and analytical tools, information management tools, and document delivery. These are available to students for a fee, which may have been paid by the university library.

EBSCO offers biographic and full-text databases designed to meet the research needs of academic, biomedical, governmental, and public libraries. It also is a good source for articles from magazines such as Time and Newsweek .

The Internet Public Library ( is an initiative of the University of Michigan School of Information. It offers on-line texts, Web searching, references, magazines and serials, and newspapers.

ERIC (, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is a bibliographic database of education literature consisting of two files, Resources in Education and Current Index to Journals in Education . Resources in Education covers documents, consisting of research reports, curriculum and teaching guides, conference papers, and some books. Current Index to Journals in Education covers published journal literature from over 700 publications in the field of education.

LexisNexis ( provides publications on line in the fields of law, public records, company data, government information, and information from academic and business organizations. It has a searchable directory of on-line sources.

H. W. Wilson ( offers an information retrieval system for the World Wide Web, including search tools to access records in science and technology, art, corporate data, and full-text article-form journals in the general sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Another source of information is the multitude of mainframe list servers related to various fields. The research librarian is the best source of help in finding what you need. For example, there is a list directly related to higher education, with categories such as academic , administrative , and student . There are many listserv addresses in each category. A related subject listserv ( lists journal articles using CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) data on college students. Such lists are often searched by research librarians and are made available to the university community through the library system’s home page.

The home page of other organizations may also offer a great deal of information to the dissertation writer. For example, there is the Library of Congress home page (, which provides access to legislative information, copyright forms and information, and the library catalog.

The examples above are but a small sample of what is available, and availability changes daily. New sites come on line periodically. The best policy is to ask your research librarian for help and to be specific about the thesis, honors paper, or dissertation topic you wish to research. In addition, it can be productive to search a topic yourself. There is no substitute for spending hours on your computer following leads, opening new searches, and trying new search engines to find information on your research topic.

Database searching often turns up more listings (hits) than you can handle. There is a danger that you will find yourself so interested in the many leads that you get distracted from the main show. It is better to discipline yourself to use that surplus to narrow the search in the most appropriate ways. If you examine carefully the nature of the hits you are getting, you can fine-tune your search strategy to narrow the range and focus on just the information you need for your research. The more you know about your research topic and the more focused you are, the better equipped you will be to narrow your search appropriately.

3. Decide how much of each retrieved document you want to receive and keep, either as a printout or a computer file. For the first trial of the search, you may wish to look only at the bibliographic citations to judge whether to change your search terms or to combine them in different ways. Once satisfied that the search is retrieving the kinds of documents you need, you may then want to obtain abstracts of the references you have chosen as probably most relevant to your topic. A next step often is to select, from the abstracts, the documents that seem to be most relevant, ones you would consider primary sources. For those, you will need to have the full text.
4. Copies of the full text of books, documents, and articles may be obtained in a variety of ways if they are not shelved and circulated by your own library. Time and ready reference are usually quite important to student researchers, so you may want to own personal copies of the primary source materials you will be studying, quoting, and discussing with your committee members. If a book or monograph is in print, the university bookstore can usually obtain a copy. Before you buy, however, check with the research librarian. Increasingly, libraries are sharing information in hard copy or on the Internet. Often, print materials such as books and journals are available through interlibrary loan or other borrowing processes that will bring you the material on a timely basis. Just one example is the Center for Research Libraries, an international not-for-profit organization of colleges, universities, and libraries that makes available scholarly research to users such as graduate students and faculty. Some database services, such as ERIC, also provide not only bibliographic resource information, but also journal articles, books, conference papers, research reports, and so on in the field of education. Similar databases exist in other academic or professional disciplines. The research librarian is an invaluable help in finding the sources of information you need.
5. Try starting with search strategies that focus on subjects in your academic program area and the research area of interest to you and to potential advisors. The research librarian can be of great help here, of course, but some suggestions for a start, depending on the discipline, might be the Academic Search Elite , MLA International Bibliography , Public Affairs International , Science Citation Index , Social Science Citation Index , and so forth. These may be accessible through the library system. From this information,
you can get an idea of who are the important authors and researchers, their areas of expertise, and the quality of the work. Another indication of the quality of the work of authors is how often they are cited by peers, and many of the databases, such as those indicated above, will give you that information. All this information is available in your research library and, in many cases, on your home computer through access to the library’s home page.

There are specialized search engines for many different categories, such as health and medical information, multimedia information, and legal searches. The work of King (2000) is a helpful source ( There are even a number of sites that can be used to find specialized search engines, a sort of search engine for search engines. One list ( links the viewer to major search engines including children’s search engines; metacrawlers; multimedia, news, and specialty engines; these are divided into subject areas. Another is SearchEngineGuide .Com (, which lists thousands of search engines, each listed in a subject directory. Each entry provides a brief summary. Finally, there is a Web site devoted to finding information on the invisible Web ( The invisible Web contains searchable information resources with contents that cannot be indexed by traditional search engines. Many search engines fall into the invisible category because their index of links is stored in databases rather than on Web pages. The sites mentioned in this paragraph were retrieved on May 19, 2002.

6. Keep in mind that no computer search will be complete. Many commonly used databases only reach the mid-1960s. Also, there may be a lag from publication to insertion in a database. No matter how well descriptors are selected, significant publications may slip through the net. Moreover, not all journals and other publications are referenced in ways amenable to computer searches.

Despite these drawbacks, this search approach is a major time saver for what it does do. The routine clerical jobs involved are accomplished rapidly and accurately; it is almost incredibly quicker and more efficient than hand-done card index and journal directory work.

When building the reading list, explore the possibility that published bibliographies on the topic may already exist. Ask the librarian about Bibliographic Index and other publications used to discover such lists. On-line bibliographic searches will yield useful information. Some are free, but many valuable searches require a fee. Before paying a fee, check with your research librarians at the university; they may already subscribe to the service, which is then available for the use of the whole institution. Examples of excellent services that require a fee are Dialog ( and LexisNexis ( If you can afford it, these services may well be worth the money for they provide access to full-text, up-to-date specialized bibliographic databases that may be unavailable on line anywhere else. In evaluating the cost of the service, consider the time and energy, as well as the hidden costs, that the service may save you. A careful cost analysis may lead to the decision that the service is worth it. Research libraries also subscribe to CD-ROMs (compact disks-read-only memory), which may be very helpful in bibliographic searches. Again, the librarian is the person to ask for expert advice.

A fortunate researcher may come upon an author whose work is particularly useful. In that case, one can use bibliographic citations to explore the works on which this author drew as well as works that derive from those of the author. To move backward in time, explore the citations in the author’s bibliography. To work forward, ask the librarian about the possibility that your author’s work may appear in a citation index. Doing this not only increases the chances of encountering especially relevant studies, but also familiarizes the student with the names of scholars and institutions working in that area of interest.

Book reviews are also useful to researchers. They tell you whether the book is thought to be important enough to review. Often, the reviewer, especially in professional journals, is a respected peer and thus is a person eminently competent to review the book. Even in more general periodicals, the editors try to get authorities to review books. In addition to its importance, the review can tell you whether the book is well regarded, and it can also tell you whether the book is likely to be relevant to your research. Book reviews are an excellent way to bring yourself up to date on the research in your area of interest and to lead you to important names and concepts.

Your research librarian can be a great help in locating book reviews in your research area, and your university research library may subscribe to a number of sources. Some examples are Book Review Digest , Book Review Index , Political Science Reviewer , Social Science Index , Reviews in Anthropology , Current Book Review Citations , Index to Book Reviews in the Humanities , and Humanities Index . Your library may have its own search system that will lead you to the periodical indexes, then to the subject area, and finally to book reviews. Usually, university research libraries have home page indexes, which will lead to book reviews, and in some cases to full-text reviews.

To summarize, your computer can be a very useful tool in carrying out a literature search, but it will do only what you tell it to do. It will not think for you.

Published Suggestions for Research Topics

A number of academic and professional groups publish annual reviews of research. Recently, also, the interest in direct publication of books and periodicals via electronic networks has led to testing the practicality of the idea. For example, the journal Catalyst is now available on the net ( .html). This journal’s emphasis is on continuing education through two-year colleges, so researchers with that interest can read or copy the most recent articles in the journal from their own computer screens. In many cases, sets of electronic journals are made available to research libraries and are made available to users through the librar-ies’ home page. For example, university research libraries may have full-text electronic access to all Wiley Interscience journal titles. Another example is the Cambridge University Press list of journals. Aca-demic Search Elite , a multisubject index to over 3000 magazines, may also be available on your university library system home page.

It will pay to inquire of your own library staff about such direct access to books and periodicals relevant to your research topic. These typically contain recommendations about needed studies. Such published suggestions may be of help in selecting research topics. It should be understood, however, that some will be outside the interest and capabilities of the student because they call for special equipment, access to subjects, investigation of competence areas, and special staff and funds beyond those the student researcher can provide. Often, however, the student’s professor or department chairperson will be able to suggest portions of those topics that need to be researched and that are within the student’s reach. Such suggestions are especially valuable because they imply an interest in the topic by the faculty.

Journals in hard copy or CD-ROM are also excellent sources to search. If you are partial to a particular subject, reading the latest issues of journals in that field can stimulate interesting research possibilities. The problem will be to focus on a few feasible topics from among the interesting things one might do. Many journals can be searched electronically using electronic journal aggregators and services. Such services can usually be found on the home page of the libraries of research universities. For example, the University of Pittsburgh library system home page ( lists more than 20 aggregators and services. One of them is the Johns Hopkins University library home page (, which provides access to hundreds of journals in the social sciences, mathematics, and humanities from a number of distinguished university presses, including Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Oxford .

Internet Research Sources

There are many sites that can help your editing task, such as checking references against the text and putting your THESIS AND DISSERTATION into American Psychological Association (APA) style. There are even sites that help you more than by providing simple editing. Inputting dissertation writing into a search engine (e.g., Overture) or inputting writing your dissertation into the Google search will lead to sites that will help in getting started, in organization, in language clarity (if English is your second language), in statistics and data analysis, and in publishing your research. Some sites offer free service, some university sites are available only to registered users, and other sites collect a fee. Examples of some specific sites (retrieved September 25, 2002) are as follows:

  1. The ( site helps with editing, checking references against the text, putting your study into APA style, and preparing for your oral defense.
  2. A site for dissertation writing assistance ( provides rewriting, editing, statistical analysis, and other assistance for students in the thesis and dissertation writing process.
  3. Advice on research and writing from Carnegie Mellon University , School of Computer Science is provided at This site is a collection of advice about how to do research and how to communicate effectively (primarily for computer scientists). It has advice on writing and publishing and how to organize your thesis, advice to authors of extended abstracts, hints on good writing , and advice on submitting papers and getting them accepted. There are leads to a number of other very helpful sites.
  4. UMI’s dissertation services provide a wealth of information to help in preparing the proposal ( and dissertationServices/prepare/).
  5. The Dissertation Doctor ( provides assistance in getting started on your dissertation or thesis, managing advisory relationships, preparing your proposal, boost-ing productivity, staying focused, troubleshooting, and surviving catastrophes.
  6. Dissertation hints from Napier University Business School include an outline and guide to writing each chapter ( –
  7. The ( site was created to support research in general and doctoral students specifically. By joining this on-line global community, members are put in contact with other students conducting similar research and have access to useful research links.
  8. The Elfin Forest Software Group thesis writer ( site provides a package to assist in the writing and preparation of a thesis or dissertation . It includes leads to Thesis Dissertation Writer (version 1.2), which guides you through every step of your thesis, contains a paragraph-by-para-graph content guide, answers all your “What do I write?” questions, gives numerous examples to clarify concepts, and works with stencils that you type over. It has a point-and-click easy-to-use format. This site also leads to APA Reference Writer, with a point-and-click easy-to-use format, and MLA Referencing Software referencing guide, with point-and-click easy-to-use format. Also available is a Point and Click Statistical Package (version 1.0), with easy-to-use point-and-click format, input data from the keyboard or from a data file, and output to a screen, printer, or file.

Suggestions of research topics are provided, along with checklists to help bring ideas into focus. We offer sample suggestions to illustrate that students will find that each field of study can be reviewed for the research done as well as the research that may need to be done. In some specialized narrow fields, one may not find a source entitled “Needed Research in…, ”buttheneeds of the field can be conceptualized by reviewing the research that has been done and then identifying logical next steps. Research is never ending; it usually raises as many questions as it attempts to answer and raises them in the very process of attempting to find answers. That is why almost every report of research contains the seeds of future investigations. Professors who are familiar with the research in their field are, without a doubt, the best sources for ideas about the research that yet needs to be done.

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