Developing the proposal

1. What particular steps should I take to ensure that I’m on the right track in my consideration of possible topics?
2. How should my own background influence my choice of a topic?
3. How long should my study take to complete?
4. How can libraries and librarians facilitate my selection of an appropriate topic?

Between the end of course work and the serious initiation of the thesis or dissertation is a period when most students falter, and many drop out. Immediate attention to establishing a personal time line, to gaining an understanding of the meaning of THESIS AND DISSERTATION work, and to locating and agreeing on a research advisor are key steps that very much improve the chances of completion of the requirements of the degree. That is why the first two chapters of this book emphasize those activities. The title of this chapter indicates the next important step: development of the proposal.

The time line (Fig. 1-1), in its first 14 steps, covers the schedule for the development of a THESIS AND DISSERTATION proposal. The schematic diagram of the proposal process (Fig. 3-1) can be used to help the student check progress toward proposal completion and approval in a more detailed way. The diagram has been updated and expanded from one presented by Castetter and Heisler (1988), and we acknowledge the source of the idea with appreciation.

With respect to the schematic diagram, this chapter is concerned mainly with the first major segment at the bottom of Fig. 3-1, namely, selection of the problem by the student. In moving through this and succeeding stages, we again urge students to set target dates realistically and to try hard to meet or exceed them. In this connection, some students report that they make an enlarged photocopy of this diagram and mount it on the wall behind their computer or typewriter keyboard.

The schematic diagram (Fig. 3-1) used terminology applicable to most disciplines, but not all. When the THESIS AND DISSERTATION is to be, for instance, a play, a musical composition, or a sculpture, the stages and activities in Fig. 3-1 do not, strictly speaking, fit the project well. With consultation from the research advisor, we most urgently recommend that the student construct a schematic diagram that better fits the proposed project.


Many students have rewarding THESIS AND DISSERTATION experiences because they find their academic advisors genuinely interested, enthusiastic, and ready and able to help in the next step, that of research advisors. If the academic advisor does not fit this description, the student and the advisor can explore together the possibility of selecting another faculty member to serve. Remember the selection of another faculty member to serve as research advisor has no negative connotation. Assuming it is done for the right reasons, it can be a positive step, a demonstration of honesty and maturity.

If the academic advisor suggests that the student work on the THESIS AND DISSERTATION topic with another faculty member, the referral should be specific. If the statement is something like “Go work with someone else, ” a deeper problem may be involved. The advisor who really wants to be helpful will suggest another eligible faculty member who would be more appropriate to the student’s topic, will probably talk with the suggested faculty member, and may well offer to continue to be helpful in such ways as, for example, serving on the overview committee.


According to the Digest of Educational Statistics (NCES, 1999, Table 211), students with disabilities on U.S. campuses made up 5.35% of undergraduate enrollment and 3.20% of graduate and first professional enrollment (the home page of NCES is The percentage may continue to increase.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 of the U.S. Congress prohibits discrimination against “otherwise qualified” handicapped individuals. The Section 504 conditions apply to all educational institutions, whether private or public, that receive federal funds.

The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have held that educational institutions, in making the otherwise qualified determination, must provide “reasonable accommodation” to mitigate the handicapping condition.

Determine whether your institution has a distance learning center and how you might use it. Distance learning takes place when a teacher and students occupy separated localities, but interact by some form of technology, such as a satellite or computer telephone network. The practice began more than 75 years ago when public school teachers and classes were linked by telephone or radio with homebound or hospitalized pupils. Now, via the Web and E-mail, distance learning provides opportunities for students at all educational levels, especially those students for whom physical access to the school and its specialized personnel present problems.

Seligman (1992) makes a persuasive case for offering an entire doctoral program through distance learning. While that may not represent reality at your institution, it may prove feasible for some of the THESIS AND DISSERTATION work, especially advisement and independent study, when temporary or permanent handicaps present access difficulties.

To avoid problems, misunderstandings, and perhaps costly delays in the THESIS AND DISSERTATION process, students with handicaps or disabilities should discuss their special requirements openly and fully with their advisors early, before embarking on a project. Since many faculty members may still be unfamiliar with accommodations to such conditions, the student may have to do some “educating” in the preliminary discussions (C. D. Long, 1997b).

But, just “talking it over” with the advisor is not enough. The student should keep notes of discussions and of oral agreements. Further, in preparing the written proposal for the THESIS AND DISSERTATION, the student should include specifications as to how accommodations are to be made, if anticipated, at each stage of the THESIS AND DISSERTATION journey, including the final examination. Thus, when the committee signs off on the proposal, the student has, in writing , the commitment that impediments to progress arising from handicapping or disabling conditions will be minimized.

For up-to-date information on relevant laws and regulations, contact the U.S. Access Board in Washington , D.C. (1-800-872-2253) or use their excellent Web site (, a good source of information about access issues. In addition to its rules governing physical access in general, that board publishes rules regarding telecommunications access and Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.

The Department of Special Education at the college or university where the student is enrolled is a resource for faculty who are expert in accommodations for all varieties of handicaps. They usually know the local situation well.


Schools and departments differ widely in their acceptance of various substantive content and forms of investigation. For example, one might reject investigative approaches that do not involve controlled experimentation. Another might disqualify studies incorporating ex-trasensory perception or astrology. Another might welcome controlled experimentation equally with historical and qualitative research and works of biography or fiction. Students, therefore, will save much time in searching for potential topics if they first determine whether they face any restrictions on which types of research or investigative methodology the faculty may approve.

Aids to Thinking About Prospective Topics

Veteran advisors in our interviews seem to agree that students should have little, if any, difficulty in finding suitable topics. The main problem, they contend, is to pick the one best suited to the individual student’s interests. New THESIS AND DISSERTATION students tend to disagree with veteran advisors on that matter. Many express bewilderment, anxiety, uncertainty, and lack of self-confidence. In short, they do not know how to get under way on a topic search, how to recognize a potentially good topic when they see it, or how to judge the worth of a topic when one is suggested to them (W. G. Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992; Zuber-Skerritt and Knight, 1986).

Use the computer and the Internet to help you think about potential topics. For example, consider reviewing Dissertation Abstracts Online (retrieved August 24, 2002, from Dissertation Abstracts Online is a definitive subject, title, and author guide to virtually every American dissertation accepted at an accredited institution since 1861. Selected master’s the-ses have been included since 1962. In addition, since 1988, the database has included citations for dissertations from 50 British universities. Beginning with Volume 29, Number 2 (Spring 1988), citations and abstracts from European dissertations have been included in this file.

The index to theses of Great Britain and Ireland ( is a comprehensive listing of theses with abstracts accepted for higher degrees by universities in England and Ireland . This database covers theses accepted from 1970 to 2001.

Award-winning dissertations can be of use in developing a proposal. Typing “award-winning dissertations” in search engines such as Google will provide access to quite good information. To find the dissertations in your own discipline, check with your professional associations or academic societies.

Figure 3-2 is a checklist of sources to help identify potential topics. It can be valuable to use this checklist or to make a personal one as part of your file. The number of “no’s” on the checklist can be an index to the thoroughness and seriousness of a student’s search for possible THESIS AND DISSERTATION topics. One reason why veteran advisors feel that potential topics abound is because, as professors, they are routinely involved in most of the activities tapped by the checklist.

1. Have you ascertained if there is a publication on approved types of topics in your school or department? Yes___ No___
If there is, have you secured and studied it? Yes___ No___
2. Have you talked with five or more students who are past the overview stage and learned how they found their topics? Yes___ No___
Did you ask them about other topics related to theirs? Yes___ No___
3. Have you asked for permission to attend THESIS AND DISSERTATION defenses at your school for familiarization and topic ideas? Yes___ No___
4. Are there university-affiliated or private research agencies or groups in your region that conduct studies in your field and whose current activities you have explored? Yes___ No___
5. Are you attending local regular meetings or colloquia of professional groups in which you are interested? Yes___ No___
6. Have you examined the THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs in your field for the past five years on file at your school? Yes___ No___
Have you talked directly about THESIS AND DISSERTATION ideas with the authors of at least five of them in which you have some interest? Yes___ No___
7. Have you compared and contrasted the scholarly and professional interests of your school’s faculty with your own? Yes___ No___
8. Have you discussed THESIS AND DISSERTATION work in general with a faculty member with whom you feel comfortable and at ease? Yes___ No___
9. Have you reviewed library sources in print. as well as Web sites, for dissertation abstracts. on-line dissertation services, electronic theses and dissertations, and full-text electranic journals? Yes___ No___
10. Have you browsed through the publications and Web sites of professional and academic organizations that represent your own major and minor fields of study, looking for research needs suggested by authoritative figures or committees? Yes___ No___

Figure 3-2 Checklist of thesis or dissertation topic sources.

Collecting a List of Potential Topics

In the beginning of Chapter 1, suggestions were made about identifying topics that might allow the student to initiate a productive conference with a potential advisor. It was indicated that possible topics would surface from analysis of publications of that faculty member, publications of others writing in the same field, and THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs recently directed by that faculty member. Those topics, and any others the student has in mind, should be recorded. It is good to state a possible title for the topic first and then to write a sentence or two about what the study might entail. Examples appropriate to various professions and academic disciplines might be

Title : Emotional and Intellectual Characteristics of Early Readers

Procedure : Children who learn to read before starting kindergarten would be studied to learn their emotional and intellectual similarities and differences from one another and from children who learn to read in the conventional way.

Title : Communication Channels Used in Obtaining Corporate Information

Procedure : People inside and outside corporations need and acquire corporate information. The formal and informal channels they employ in acquiring needed information would be determined, described, and analyzed.

Title : The Emergence of Artificial Intelligence

Procedure : An analysis will be made of devices that simulate human thought processes, beginning with the earliest known ones. It is hypothesized that behaviors like memory and computation were simulated first and only later combined to produce more complex phenomena like problem solving, anticipation, and prediction. Primary data will be records of patents and actual devices in museums and collections.

Title : Shunning as a Social Control Mechanism

Procedure : The origin and usage of shunning in Judeo-Christian religious and secular groups will be found by reference to official and other verifiable documents. The employment and the consequences of shunning will be reported, and shunning will be assessed as to its effectiveness in the control of the social behaviors that prompted its use.

Title : The Behavior of Sound Waves in Earth’s Upper Atmosphere

Procedure : Upper atmosphere conditions will be simulated in laboratory chambers. Sound will be emitted and recorded. The recordings will be contrasted with recordings of sound made under like conditions on earth’s surface. The laboratory findings will also be compared with the findings predicted by a mathematical model based on theory.

Title : Cause of Pain in Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Procedure : It is hypothesized that the pain of osteoarthritis arises from cartilage wear rather than inflammation, as is now commonly held. The results of administering acetaminophen, a simple painkiller, will be compared with the results of administering the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. The test population will be male and female volunteers aged 65 years and above, randomly assigned to treatment groups.

Title : Estimating Need and Demand for Emergency Transportation

Procedure : Three highly probable conditions of emergency will be simulated. Traffic engineers, police traffic control staff, and public transit management personnel will provide need estimates and their rationales for each simulation. These will be analyzed and a formula developed to maximize accuracy of estimate.

Title : Causes of Runaway Behavior in Children

Procedure : A sample of children who have histories of two or more runaway attempts will be studied to determine the antecedent conditions they connect with the decision to run away. Family, social welfare agency, and police recollections and records will be used as corroborative information.

Title : Public Expenditure Patterns in the United States and Canada

Procedure : A comparative analysis will be made of expenditures in the two countries on items that account for major components of national, state and provincial budgets.

Title : The Influence of Awards to Poets on Trends in American Poetry in the 20th Century

Procedure : Determination will be made if and to what extent awards to poets are followed by changes in style or content by other poets.

Title : Cost Containment in Health Care in the United States

Procedure : Inauguration of containment plans will be followed by consequent cost-consequences analyses. Conclusions will be drawn as to trends and gains/losses.

Each of the above 11 examples falls far short of a research proposal. Rather, each notes an idea for possible development. However, a prospective research advisor almost certainly would talk more seriously with a student who presented such notes neatly typed than with one who presented the same material orally. Moreover, to put ideas into succinct written form usually results in one being better prepared to discuss them.

When one has assembled and recorded a group of likely topics, it is time for another major step, a careful examination of each one to determine its relative appropriateness in relation to the others. That will be a matter of judgment, of course, but it is possible to channel that judgment by raising a number of questions that highlight significant factors that deserve consideration. That is the purpose of the next sections.

Social Sensitivity Considerations

Socially sensitive research has an aim, a topic, methods or procedures, subject treatment, conclusions, or reporting considered by one or more groups to be illegal, insulting, indecent, immoral, or unethical. Sieber and Stanley (1988) present a basic and cogent analysis of the concept.

Research qualifying as “socially sensitive” includes, for example, studies that challenge beliefs; expose personal or group-held secrets; invade privacy; question or defy authority; arouse negative emotions; violate religious principles; go against established practices; disregard laws; ignore civil rights; do physical, emotional, or material harm to subjects or to institutions; deceive, ridicule, disparage, or coerce subjects; falsify or hide research objectives or methods; encourage immoral or unlawful behavior; put individuals unknowingly at risk; or distort or falsify data, conclusions, or reports with regard to any of the above. This litany is illustrative only because what may matter little to one person may seem gravely insulting or demeaning to another.

Certainly, social sensitivity should not prevent or even inhibit really necessary and ethically sound research. We do suggest, though, that topics that promise to be socially sensitive be approached most cautiously by THESIS AND DISSERTATION students. For one thing, work on such matters often calls for experience and wisdom in research management that students are only beginning to acquire. Moreover, it is difficult enough to conduct a THESIS AND DISSERTATION for a topic that is inoffensive without adding the burden of handling the investigation and its defense under a cloud of real or potential social disapproval.

Assessing Topic Feasibility and Practicability

Using the next checklist (Fig. 3-3) can save time and help narrow a group of potential topics to a few that merit more thorough consideration. The list starts with general questions and then breaks into six subsections that are applicable to topics that call for different investigative approaches. It pays to read all of the questions in each subsection because the questions themselves sometimes trigger important ideas.

As a special note, one should not be put off or overwhelmed by these questions. Some of them are tough, and some may seem at first to pose insurmountable obstacles. But, there is help in the rest of the chapter, in following chapters, and from advisors. It is rare that any topic comes through this checklist unscathed entirely at first. It is in the follow-up repair work and polishing that a topic begins to assume acceptable, workable form.)

The most important thing about the checklist’s 42 questions is their power to alert one , to force one to think in specific , detailed ways while considering TID topics .


According to the Institute of International Education ‘s Open Doors (T. Davis, 2001), in 1954-1955 there were 34,000 students from overseas in the United States . They constituted 1.4% of U.S. enrollment. By the 2000-2001 academic year, that number had increased more

A. Questions about the topic in general
1. Is there current interest in this topic in your field? In a closely related field?
2. Is there a gap in knowledge that work on this topic could help to fill? A controversy it might help to resolve?
3. Is it possible to focus on a small enough segment of the topic to make a manageable THESIS AND DISSERTATION project?
4. Can you envision a way to study the topic that will allow conclusions to be drawn with substantial objectivity? Is the data collection approach (i.e., test, meta-analysis, archive study, questionnaire, interview) acceptable in your school?
5. Is there a body of literature available relevant to the topic? Is it accessible by computer, and is a search of it manageable?
6. 7. Are there large problems (i.e., logistic, attitudinal) to be surmounted in working on this topic? Do you have the means to handle them? Does the topic relate reasonably well to others done in your school? If not, have you information about its acceptability?
8. Would financial assistance be required? Is it available?
9. Are the needed data easily accessible? Will you have control of the data?
10. Do you have a clear statement of the purpose, scope, objectives, procedures, and limitations of the study? A tentative table of contents for the report? Are any of the skills called on by the study ones that you have yet to acquire?
B. Questions for topics employing a research question or hypothesis
1. Do you have acceptable statements of research questions or hypotheses?
2. Can you specify how you will answer the questions or test the hypotheses?
3. Would the THESIS AND DISSERTATION be a contribution if the findings do not support the hypothesis or fail to answer the questions?
4. Have subsidiary questions or hypotheses been identified that deserve study along with the major ones?
5. Are the alternative questions or hypotheses that might explain the findings anticipated?
C. Questions for topics requiring interviews for data collection
1. What style or type of interview is best suited to the objectives of the study?
2. Does an interview protocol exist that fits the purposes of the investigation? Has it been pilot-tested?
3. How will the data be recorded and collated for optimum speed, accuracy, and reliability? Can the computer be used for this?

Figure 3-3 Checklist of topic feasibility and appropriateness.

4. How will matters of confidentiality and permissions be handled?
5. How will bias in the interviewer and the respondent be minimized or measured?
D, Questions for topics using a questionnaire approach
1. What forms of questionnaire will be most productive for this kind of study? Has it been pretested?
2. How will questionnaire items relate specifically to the purposes of the investigation?
3, Why is the questionnaire the tool of choice for data collection? Can it be computerized?
4. How will it be assured that the questionnaires will be answered?
5. How will the questionnaire responses be validated? Analyzed?
Questions for topics involving mathematical analysis of data
1. What quantitative analyses are planned? What will they produce?
2. Are the quantitative analyses appropriate to the kinds of data collected?
3. What level of confidence will be accepted as significant? Why?
4. Are there computer programs that will save time, energy, and money? Are they available?
5. What rational and subjective interpretations will need to be given to the statistical findings to make them meaningful?
F. Questions for topics making use of existing data from other sources
1. Are the data relevant? Reliable and valid? Complete?
2. Are there limitations on the present or future availability or utilization of the data? Can data be accessed by computer?
3. Why is it better to use these data than to collect one’s own afresh?
4. Will additional data need to be collected? What and why?
5. What obligations to the other sources go along with publication based on these data? Who will own the data?
G. Questions for topics involving tests and testing in data gathering
1. Are the tests the most valid and reliable obtainable?
2. Do the tests discriminate against significant groups in the sample?
3. Do the tests provide direct measures of the key variables in the study?
4. How will confidentiality be preserved?
5. What interpretations will be needed to make the test results meaningful in relation to the purpose of the investigation?
6. Are the tests physically or psychologically invasive?
7. Can the tests be administered, scored, and results arrayed, tabled, and analyzed by computer?

than 15-fold to about 547,867 students from overseas. Thus, foreign students make up not only an important segment of higher education in the United States , but also a growing segment as well.

Also, foreign students are critically important to the graduate level, especially some advanced fields such as the physical and natural sciences, business administration, engineering, and computer sciences. Total percentage of doctoral degrees conferred to foreign students was 26.7% in 1994. As the number of U.S. citizens earning science and engineering doctorates has been declining, their places have been taken by foreign students (Atkinson, 1990; NCES, 1997). Foreign students with temporary visas earned 33.5% of all physical science Ph.D.’s and 53.3% of the engineering doctorates in 1994.

In some large research universities, foreign students actually outnumber domestic students in doctoral programs such as business and engineering. If the trend continues, it may be that the majority of faculty members in these areas will be foreign nationals or immigrants since faculty members are prepared in doctoral programs. For example, in 1985, two-thirds of all postdoctorate engineering positions went to non-U.S. citizens (Pool, 1990).

The foreign/domestic ratio of students is not peculiar to the United States . A large proportion of European doctoral degrees go to foreign students (Johnson, 1996). Approximately half of the engineering doctoral degrees awarded in the United Kingdom are earned by foreign nationals. More than a third of doctorates in the natural sciences given in France go to citizens of other countries. Inthese cases, though, the large segment of foreigners is probably in part attributable to the tradition begun in the days of colonial territories.

Problems Encountered by Foreign Students

Zuber-Skerritt and Ryan (1999) provide important insights into the lives of non-English-speaking graduate students and suggest valuable strategies and practical guidance for individual advisors. Understanding students’ lives in the university as well as cultural and academic backgrounds is a prerequisite for successful supervising.

Two difficulties foreign students often encounter are topic relevance and writing . The first arises when students know what problems need solutions in their own countries, but find few professors who understand the problems or think them suitable for investigation. The second, writing , appears as a problem if students have not acquired the specialized composition skills needed to phrase thoughts in the combination of professional and academic prose common to THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs in English-speaking countries (CGS, 1991a).

Our best advice about the topic problem is for the student to persist in the search for an advisor who will listen with sympathy and understanding. The student should look for departments and schools that have “International, ” “Inter-, ” “Cross-Cultural, ” “Ethnic, ” “Pan-American, ” “Asian, ” “Middle Eastern, ” or similar expressions that smack of interests that cross national boundaries in their names. It is appropriate to seek those out, even though they may be outside the school or department in which the student is enrolled. Very often, pro-fessors in schools or departments with multinational interests also have appointments in other academic departments or professional schools or know professors there who would be good advisors for foreign students interested in problems that relate to their homelands. Other foreign students and lists of recently completed THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs can give clues, too.

With regard to the writing problem, there are three possible solutions. The first is to write in one’s native language and to have an advisor and committee members who can read it or employ a professional translator for those who cannot. A second solution is to take instruction in English academic and professional writing . Such courses are offered at a number of universities. A third possibility is to engage the services of an editor. Inquiries among professors and students will sometimes reveal that there are faculty members who provide editorial services for students for a fee. This can be a delicate arrangement, but we have seen it work very effectively. The editor must be someone not otherwise connected with the student’s course of study and THESIS AND DISSERTATION work. Also, the advisor and committee must know of and sanction the use of editorial help, and the assistance must be carefully provided so that it deals only with organization, style, composition, written expression, and the proper use of language, strictly avoiding any substantive or methodological elements.

If editorial service is to be employed or otherwise provided to the student, it is strongly urged that the arrangement be spelled out in writing , with copies to all relevant parties. At least one copy of the

agreed-on arrangement should be initialed or signed by the student, the advisor, the committee members, and the appropriate department chairperson or dean. That copy should be kept on file in the graduate office. Also, it is definitely advisable that the editor employed has a clear knowledge of the terms of the agreement and be acceptable to the advisor and the department chairperson or dean.


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