preparation of the dissertation proposal


1. How do I take the very first step in moving the concept out of my head and into a preliminary draft to show my advisor?
2. How can I develop an outline to move my concept draft into a first draft of a proposal manuscript?
3. How should I state the problem and define and clarify the limits of my investigation?
4. What literature must I review for the proposal?
5. What must I include about how the study will be conducted?


Write Answers to Questions

Moving the proposal out of your head and into written form can be done in stages. The very first stage can be quite informal (Locke et al., 2000).

One way that works for a lot of students is to write a few short sentences about each of the seven questions below. (Change the order, if you wish, and add other points if you think they are important.) The

*The proposal is sometimes called an overview or a concept paper. Operationally, the terms seem to mean the same.

critical thing is to check your place on your time line and to start to write answers to the following questions no matter how dissatisfying the first draft.

1. What is the tentative title? What do you call what you want to do? What is its name?
2. Why do you want to do it? What will you know or be able to do or say when you are through? (At this stage, an involved theoretical justification is unnecessary.)
3. To accomplish what you want to do, what steps will you have to take? Can you put the steps in sequential order? What facilities will you need? Why?
4. What kinds of help do you think you will need to do what you want to do? When? How might you get that help?
5. Will the project involve people other than yourself? How? To do what? For how long? Will you need any special permissions?
6. What actually goes on if you start to do what you propose? How would it start? What would a typical day be like at the beginning? When you are partway through? At the end?
7. How do you think you could show whether you accomplish what you set out to do? How could you prove it to someone else?

After writing “first draft” answers to these questions, put the document aside for a day or two in your “Proposal Notes” file. Then, come back and reread it. Make whatever amendments you think it needs for increased clarity.

Computer Help in Preparing Proposal

Take the time to enter and save on your computer what you have in mind, even though it may be a rough draft. Be sure spelling and punctuation are correct. Learn to use spelling checks and grammatical helps from computer software. An outline program, such as that of Microsoft Word, helps one to think in orderly and deductive sequence. Double space your work, with wide margins. Set the program to put your name and date on each sheet. Make at least three copies: one for your file, one to hand to your advisor, and one for you to use while talking with your advisor. Save your work in a computer file.

Why so much detailed emphasis on this point? It is essential to set the stage so there is nothing to distract the advisor’s attention from the content of what you have written. A businesslike beginning by the student encourages any advisor to try very hard to be helpful. Of course, it is the advisor’s obligation to assist the student in any event. But, a clearly prepared and error-free statement, even one that needs much more substantive work, will help the advisor to feel that guidance will be taken seriously by the student.

Moreover, this is often the crucial first step in the student’s own filing and record keeping. It should set a model for a continuing pattern of neatness and orderliness. Many students have told us that part-way through the THESIS AND DISSERTATION process they discovered that sloppy note taking and careless storage made information retrieval an all but impossible task. Early attention to details will sharply reduce the chances of losses and misplacements. Thus, the first stage in writing the proposal is one that can be quite informal as to style, but it is one that should be very deliberately organized to introduce a businesslike tone into both the initial conference with the advisor and the records of the student. Develop a regular system to save and file all work on the word processor or computer in a THESIS AND DISSERTATION directory, always properly cited in the form to be used eventually in the final document (e.g., APA, MLA). Endnotes, footnotes, and citation systems can immeasurably help store and later find notes and their citations.

There are Web sites that will help you in thinking about selecting your topic. One is filamentality ( Filamentality helps you in selecting a topic by providing Web searching tips. It lets you “fill in the blanks” to gather good Web sites and guides you with interactive pages that help you shape your ideas around your goals.

Dissertations Abstracts (http://www. dissertation is a guide to abstracts on all dissertation topics on line; it includes thesis help and free consultation. This guide was prepared to help graduate students in preparing theses and dissertations.

Use University Guidelines and Regulations

Even though we encourage informality in first drafts, we also suggest that familiarity with formal guides and requirements for the THESIS AND DISSERTATION will pay dividends for the student. Problems are less likely to occur if guidelines on procedural and editorial matters are studied at the outset by the student and the advisor together. Such joint study ought to be done in a spirit of understanding. Clarifying the rationale for each of the guidelines and determining how they can be most helpful to the student, while they also serve the broader purposes of improving communication among the professions and other scholarly groups, is the goal.

Figure 4-1 contains an alphabetized list of topics about which universities often have specific regulations pertaining to THESIS AND DISSERTATION procedures and format. We urge students to use Fig. 4-1 as a checklist while developing the THESIS AND DISSERTATION first draft and, as needed, later. If, for instance, you think you may need to include a drawing in your manuscript, if you may need to preserve the confidentiality of certain data, or if you have questions about any other of the 87 items in the figure, it is best to ascertain the facts early. Your advisor, your department chairperson or executive officer, your dean’s office, and the graduate office of your university are the places to go for details about any of the checklist items.

Many professors believe a useful approach is for the student to become familiar with the contents of the university procedural guide at the same time that the THESIS AND DISSERTATION problem is being conceptualized. Fol-lowing that, frequent reference to the university manual can help the student organize notes and rough drafts so that minimal time is lost in moving toward an acceptable final manuscript.

Use of Style Manuals

Faculty members and students need style manuals. The former use them to quickly refresh their memories about questions, to look up recommendations about new problems in writing as they arise, and to monitor, generally, the consistency of their own writing . Frequently, faculty members write for more than one colleague audience; the accepted styles of the two may vary. For instance, the American Educational Research Association, the American Institute of Physics, the American Psychological Association, and the Social Work Yearbook all have somewhat different styles prescribed.

Some style guides associated with academic disciplines are available on line. For example, the home page of the American Insti-tute of Physics ( leads you to their Style Manual , available on line. Graduate students should become familiar with the accepted style manual in their discipline and use it from the day of admission to the day of graduation. Knowing the style system for citations in scholarly papers will save a great deal of time in graduate school as well as later in professional life. The APA style manual, commonly used in the social and behavioral sciences, is another example of a style system for which there is on-line information and help. The home page ( will lead writers to help in understanding and using APA style in writing papers and articles. There is also help (APA, 1999, 2001) on how to format references, citations, headings, statistics, tables, and Internet document citations.An excellent text to help new writers is Mastering APA Style: Stu-dent’s Workbook and Training Guide (Gelfand and Walker, 2001).

Abbreviations, symbols, and nomenclatureAbstract


Ann Arbor , Michigan , services and depository

Appeal procedure for variation from regulations


Artwork mounting


Changes and correctionsChecklist of final clearance requirements

Citation systems

Citing Internet information

Classified materials

Committee size and composition

Computer searches

Computer programs appropriate to the THESIS AND DISSERTATION

Confidential documents and other material

Copies required


Copyrighted material; quotations and other uses

Database searchesDean’s responsibility

Definitions of terms

Department chairperson’s responsibility

Differentiation of university, school, and department requirements

Editorial consultation or assistanceEndnotes

Enrollment at time of THESIS AND DISSERTATION defense

Exceptions to the written THESIS AND DISSERTATION

Faculty responsibilityFinal copy (deposit copy)


Foreign language use

Format consistency

Forms requiring signatures

Figure 4-1 Administrative and technical matters included in thesis and dissertation regulations.

Illustration captionsIllustrations (including foldouts)

Instructions for nonfilmable material and color

Line drawingsLocal style regulations
Major divisions of THESIS AND DISSERTATIONManuscript reproduction or duplication




Model overviews (proposals, prospectuses)

Multiple authorship

Music scores

Optional forms of THESIS AND DISSERTATION report to university Order of contents Overview, submission and approval of Ownership of THESIS AND DISSERTATION (literary rights)
Paper specificationsPersonal copies


Placement of nontext materials

Previously circulated, published, or publishable material

Proofreading responsibilities

Publication rights

References and bibliographies Residency requirements
Sample committee approval formSample title pages

Selecting a title

Separate volumes (long papers; multivolume)

Software programs


Special fees and dates for payment

Statistical packages

Student responsibility

Style manuals suggested Style manual troubleshooter’s checklist and supplements Subdivisions of major divisions Survey of earned doctorate’s report
Table of contents (sample) Tables and figures Time limits and schedules for submission Typewriters Typing contracts Typing services
University copies Use of reprints of student or major professor Using the work of others
Vita (biographical sketch)
Word processor formats and programs Working with the committee

The most commonly used style manuals are listed in this book’s reference list. Each faculty member and student should inquire about the school’s style requirements and abide by them. Foreign students, still developing skill in scientific and professional English writing , often need to be attentive to the characteristics of THESIS AND DISSERTATION prose (Gibaldi and Achtert, 1999; Land, 2001, Turabian, 1996).

Style manuals do not necessarily help improve writing skills or be logical and clear in thinking and writing . There are books published to do this, and some are quite readable and useful (Evans and Evans, 1957; Fowler, 1965; Gelfand and Walker, 2001; Newman, 1980; Strunk and White, 1979; Zinsser, 2001). Once adequate general writing skill is attained, however, the style manual, if used thoughtfully, can be a material aid to producing high-quality prose in a form acceptable for professional publications.


In developing the proposal, you can use the Internet to find examples of outlines that may help you think through in an orderly fashion the contents of a dissertation or thesis proposal. A simple way to find outline help is to enter terms such as outline ( outlining ) or outlining skills into search engines (e.g., and find a site like ActionOutline ( This is software that lets you organize your bits of information in a tree outline form. This software is for sale, but there is a free trial download that may help you construct a useful outline.

Many universities and colleges maintain Web sites that have outline samples and assist in imparting outlining skills and guides to grammar and writing . For example, Capital Community College has a site that helps (, as does the Purdue University Online Writing Lab ( This site has sample outlines; information about writing research papers; search engines; search helps; help with grammar, spelling, and punctuation; reference materials and resources; and professional writing aid.

Format of the Presentation

Some advisors recommend that the student prepare only a two- or three-page prospectus to take to the committee for approval. Others go much further, requiring not only a detailed research plan, but also a summary of preliminary research results. Many schools and departments have, in recent years, printed information on proposal requirements in a Bulletin on Master’s and Doctoral Study or something similar. Also, ask your advisor to let you read two or three recent proposals that were considered of good quality to help you plan yours.

At this stage, writing must become more formal. It will save time if drafts approximate the form and style of an actual proposal as it will appear when completed. Then, each draft will be a closer approximation of the end goal. You will find this step-by-step development helps you to reach closure on what, at the beginning, might appear as an overwhelming task. Use of a word-processing program can greatly facilitate the preparation of each approximation and reduce the task to more manageable proportions.

In THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs, often a substantial amount of first-hand, observable data are gathered and analyzed. Yet, many other THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs take the form of a policy conceptualization analysis and interpretation or of a theory-based, critical examination and synthesis of a specific body of knowledge on a particular issue or topic.

Every THESIS AND DISSERTATION, of course, relies on the assembling of systematic evidence to focus on the problem at hand. The sources of evidence and the nature of data vary, though, and so do the methods of acquiring and analyzing material. Theoretical syntheses ordinarily depend heavily on both primary and secondary sources. Much of the material studied will be more qualitative than quantitative. It is in the uniformity, the consistency, and the systematic approach to such data that the theoretical synthesis displays its objectivity and its openness to replication. Policy analyses tend to rely largely on library sources such as articles, books, documents, essays, informants, official transcriptions, special surveys, and reports. The arraying and ordering of pertinent information from such sources for analytical assessment is a major challenge to the investigator, and the skill, clarity, and sophistication with which that is done is a prime consideration in judging the merits of the work. Empirical studies emphasize control, in the sense that the investigator sets up the conditions of the investigation and specifies detailed questions that will be answered or hypotheses that will be tested. The identification, application, or observation of a treatment effect is a common part of such studies, as is the analysis of data.

Each of these THESIS AND DISSERTATION forms is probably best presented by following a somewhat different structure or outline. In this chapter, the Table of Contents of the most frequent form of proposal, the empirical study, is highlighted (Fig. 4-2). Appendix B offers expanded outlines that might be helpful for other THESIS AND DISSERTATION types. They are suggested guides; prescriptions cannot be written because no two projects will be exactly alike.

Adapt the Format to the Problem

The goals and methods of a study shape the proposal; different studies will emphasize different things. Some may fit the standard format, but others may require adaptation (Krathwohl, 1988).

The same point about using the objectives and the procedures of the intended study to determine the format of the proposal is made by Meloy (2002). She devotes a large portion of her book on qualitative research to elaborating that principle, using correspondence from dissertation students for illustrative examples.

The most recent statement of the Council of Graduate Schools (199lb, p. 13) on options for the form of the dissertation points out the following:

Whether the form of the dissertation is a monograph, a series of articles, or a set of essays is determined by the research expectations and accepted forms of publication in the discipline, as well as by custom in the discipline and the student’s program. In the humanities and some of the social sciences, the dissertation … reflects the individual scholar’s approach to research and can ultimately form the basis for a monograph published by a university press. Several article length essays…may be the heart of the dissertation in economics at a number of universities. In engineering and the physical and biological sciences, which are increasingly team disciplines with large groups of investigators working on common problems, dissertations often present, in varied formats, the results of several independent but related experiments.

The council goes on (p. 14) to make a very important point: “How a discipline normally conducts its work is distinctly related to that discipline’s expectations for the Ph.D. dissertation .”

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. The problem
A. Rationale, significance, or need for the study
B. Theoretical framework for the proposed study
C. Statement of the problem
D. Elements, hypotheses, theories, or research questions to be investigated
E. Delimitations and limitations of the study
F. Defenition of terms
G. Summary
III. Review of the literature
A. Historical overview of the theory and research literature
B. The theory and research literature specific to the THESIS AND DISSERTATION topic
C. Research in cognate areas relevant to the THESIS AND DISSERTATION topic
D. Critique of the validity of appropriate theory and research literature
E. Summary of what is known and unknown about the THESIS AND DISSERTATION topic
F. The contribution this study will make to the literature
IV. Research procedures
A. Research methodology
B. Specific procedures
C. Research population or sample
D. Instrumentation
E. Pilot study
F. Data collection
G. Treatment of the data
H, Summary
Appendix A, B, … (as needed)

Figure 4-2 Table of contents for a proposal.

Thus, it is vital that the student knows, or ascertains, the norms and expectations for dissertations (and theses as well) in the student’s program and discipline. If in doubt, ask the advisor. Also, review several dissertations or theses recently completed in the department; note the name of the research advisor and the format, content, theoretical basis, and the methodology employed in the examples reviewed (Hawley, 1993).

Although no format is common to all institutions of higher education, Fig. 4-2 encompasses the topics ordinarily included. View this outline as a general guide rather than a prescription. Adapt it as necessary or as required by the advisor or the university. The material that follows is keyed in sequence to the items in the Table of Contents shown in Fig. 4-2.



Acquaint the reader with the topic. Make it short-only a page or two-but make it useful. First, tell the reader what the study will be about and why it is important and timely. Arouse the reader’s interest; build a desire to read on and find out more. Set the stage for what comes after, putting important parts of the topic area in their proper perspective.

Second, be direct, not tedious. Make the Introduction a tasty tid-bit, a sample of the good things to come. Aim it at an intelligent, well-informed person, but one who is not deeply involved in the particular problem addressed.

Writers rely on diagrams to explain ideas or concepts too difficult to put into simple sentences. Most languages are unidimensional and sequential, so it is impossible to verbalize several things at the same time. But a diagram, like a picture, can readily accomplish what mere words cannot. The same is true of graphs and charts. Therefore, we urge that the capabilities of the computer be used to create and insert illustrations in the body of the THESIS AND DISSERTATION. This helps the reader, as well as the researcher, to visualize complex relationships or interactive processes. It can be especially important in making this and other sections of the proposal both concise and clear. Tufte (1990, 1997, 2001) supplies superior examples of illustrations made by computer. After reading the Introduction, one should be able to guess accurately what the problem is. Everything in the Introduction culminates in the statement of the problem as the next logical step.

The Problem

Rationale , Significance , or Need for the Study : Since the heading “The Problem” begins a new chapter of the THESIS AND DISSERTATION proposal, it is appropriate to link it to the prior chapter by first summarizing what appeared in the Introduction, which ought to take no more than two or three sentences. What appears in this section in addition should serve to sharpen and make more precise the purpose of the study. Remember, the committee rightfully expects the student to be able to state, convincingly, the chief reason(s) for doing the study, the potential value(s) that could flow from doing the study, and the urgency to do this particular study at this time. This section needs usually only three or four short sentences. Point out that what is presented here will be elaborated later in the THESIS AND DISSERTATION document, if that is necessary. This is the place to present, succinctly, the rationale, significance, or need for the investigation.

Theoretical Framework for the Proposed Study : Many important research topics do not have a clear relationship to a theory. One example is a study that established the most appropriate type size for reading materials to be used by persons with severe vision impairments. It was an important study, but one that was essentially pragmatic, meaning that it pertained to or primarily was concerned with practical results or outcomes. In the case of the type-size study, the problem was to ascertain a size of print that would allow as many visually impaired persons as possible to have access to reading materials while at the same time keeping the size and the bulk and the cost of the printed materials within reason.

On the other hand, some THESIS AND DISSERTATION proposals are eclectic in their frames of reference, meaning that they select from a variety of theories or systems of thinking rather than building on or testing some part of one theory. Examples can be found in the literature on methods of rehabilitating criminals, for which a variety of parts of theories of criminal justice, social learning, punishment, and morality may be interactive.

Finally, there are many studies that aim specifically at challenging or attempting to validate individual theories or at testing the accuracy of predictions made from specific theories. Individual theories are numerous, ranging across all academic and professional disciplines.

Two essential points ought to be included in this section of every proposal. First, it should be made clear whether the framework of the investigation is pragmatic, eclectic, or focused on a single theory, with a brief explanation of why and how. Second, the framework, whichever it is (or in whatever combination), should be stated, with appropriate references to the primary sources where full information on the applicable theories or systems of thought may be found.

Statement of the Problem

The Statement of the Problem is a short section, but perhaps the most important in the proposal. It lays down a guide to follow in all that comes after. At the same time, it is a serious agreement between the proposer and the faculty. Some institutions even refer to it as having contractlike characteristics. In any case, the statement of the problem will be carefully scrutinized by the faculty and, once accepted, will not be changed without faculty permission and agreement. Once accepted, the student researcher will live with the statement until the mission is completed or aborted.

State your concept of the problem in clear prose. Make it the initial paragraph of the statement of the problem. Be brief. Build on the introduction to provide information concerning the reasons why the study is proposed, what it would accomplish, and the anticipated outcomes.

After the purpose is given, a paragraph or two ought to suffice for the remaining statement of the problem. Choose words carefully. Do not promise more than is necessary to do the study in a reasonable time. The problem statement has to follow logically the purpose statement. It may be expressed as a question or a statement, preference depending on the individual researcher, the faculty member guiding the research, and the nature of the topic. The statement gives direction to the study, gives essential information about the scope of the study, and suggests, without giving details, how the study will be carried out. The statement must be clear, concise, and unambiguous.

Elements of the Problem

Elements are stated in studies that do not require hypotheses. * Sometimes, elements in THESIS AND DISSERTATION proposals are called research questions or components. By whatever name, they are the specific parts of the problem studied as opposed to other parts, usually unnamed, not studied. Thus, the elements help define and make more specific the problem statement.

Hypotheses, Theories, and Research Questions

The hypothesis is stated as a suggested solution to a problem or as the relationship of specified variables. It retains the character of a guess until facts are found to confirm or discredit it.

As one might expect from the spelling, the word comes from the Greek hypothesis , meaning groundwork, foundation, supposition. The plural is hypotheses. It has come to have a meaning similar to one of the Greek meanings-supposition. It could be called a supposition, proposition, or unproved explanation tentatively advanced to account for observed facts or phenomena.

One or more hypotheses may be generated by a thorough analysis of the theoretical and factual background of the research problem. Without formulating hypotheses, a researcher wastes time in directionless investigation.

People sometimes go beyond giving tentative explanations for what they seem to see. They often use these explanations as a base for further investigation to determine, if possible, whether the tentative explanations seem accurate as a description of what is happening and even whether the explanation predicts what will happen under certain conditions. There we find the relationship between hypotheses and research. Researchers usually want to find an explanation for a phenomenon (i.e., Why is there so much more divorce than ever before

*Some complex investigations may contain both elements and hypotheses.

in the United States ?). First, they review the research and the speculation of others. They then develop likely hypotheses (alienation from earlier mores, breakdown in family life, increased mobility, societal changes, loss of influence of religious groups, and so on). Finally, they formulate a problem (study) that may more accurately ascertain what is contributing to the rise of the divorce rate.

Investigators develop hypotheses to help give direction to their work. The engineer who scans mountain terrain before directing a mining operation or laying out a roadway makes inferences based on facts and observed conditions in coming to a decision. The engineer hypothesizes , that is, expresses an informed opinion as to the correct approach to the problem. The child development specialist notices that boys seem to take to science and mathematics more readily than do girls. The specialist guesses, that is, hypothesizes , that the difference arises because young boys and girls are differentially exposed to science and mathematics and differentially rewarded for showing interest in them.

Hypotheses are not confined to the experimental research mode. In fact, it is the rare study in any research mode that does not involve hypotheses, either explicitly or implicitly. A hypothesis is a shrewd guess, an assumption, an opinion, a hunch, an informed judgment, or an inference that is provisionally put forward to explain facts or conditions or to guide how one starts to attack a problem. A hypothesis helps in determining the information (data) to be gathered and the investigative methods to be used.

Most students have working hypotheses when they start to consider investigations. These are conjectures formed to guide the initial stages of any inquiry.

A student can hypothesize (state a hypothesis) about almost anything because the term simply refers, as we have said, to a more or less educated guess. It is a little more difficult, though, to make a testable hypothesis, which means phrasing the educated guess in such a way that you can determine how correct the guess is. Sometimes, one can state the hypothesis in a way that makes it absolutely testable. But, most of the time, it is possible only to obtain a qualified test, not an absolute one.

If hypotheses are to be used, they should be well chosen. Keep each one simple, straightforward in language, and ascertain that it meets recognized criteria, such as the following:

1. Are there good reasons, practical experiences, theories, or previous research findings that tend to support it? If so, it can be said to have construct validity .
2. Is it possible to collect and analyze data in such a way as to show whether the hypothesis stands up? If so, it is testable .
3. Does the hypothesis focus on the problem being studied? To be relevant , a hypothesis must answer part or all of the matter being investigated.

Another important and conceptually related, Greek-derived word is theory . Perhaps the most misleading notion is that a theory is an impractical explanation, something that sounds great but will not work or, even if it does work in some sense, it is so far above the common person that it is not useful. In sharp contrast is the comment by Gard-ner, who said a theory is one of the most practical tools of the modern world. He gave the example of the plumber who daily uses theory to practice the trade in an expert manner. The plumber who uses inflammable plastic pipes in the walls of a new house or expects water to drain uphill does not know much about either theory or plumbing ( Gardner , 1978).

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1985, p. 1223) defines theory, for our purposes, as “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phe-nomena.” In comparing hypothesis with theory and scientific law, the same dictionary (p. 594) makes a useful distinction in that

Law means a formula derived by inference from scientific data that explains a principle operating in nature. Law implies a statement of order and relation in nature that has been found to be invariable under the same conditions. Hypothesis implies insufficient evidence to provide more than a tentative explanation. Theory implies a greater range of evidence and greater likelihood of truth than hypothesis [but much less certainty than law].

Theory explains the relations among events or facts, although not completely. For example, theory attempts to explain the relationship between economic conditions and buyer preferences or between home conditions and child-abuse behavior. Theory can provide a framework to generate hypotheses or questions or problem element statements. In turn, they guide research procedures, objectives, and data collection. For example, to propose and study the effects of a new prison discipline code, we should be able to say why (in theory) we think it will be better. In this general sense, every THESIS AND DISSERTATION proposal should be based on theory.

If the investigator is seeking direct answers to certain questions, it is not necessary to state hypotheses formally and design the study to test them. If it is believed, however, that coincidental relationships may exist and should be revealed, or if it appears that one factor may be the cause or the result of another, a hypothesis may be the best way to state what the investigator is setting out to uncover. We encourage students to take the initiative with their advisors to discuss whether a given topic might better be approached through setting up hypotheses, by posing questions, by enumerating the problem elements, or by some combination of the three. Significant parts of the study design will be influenced by that decision, notably the data collection, data analysis, and presentation and interpretation of the results.

Delimitations and Limitations of the Study

The two words delimitations and limitations are often confused. A limitation is a factor that may or will affect the study, but is not under control of the researcher; a delimitation differs, principally, in that it is controlled by the researcher.

In psychology, it is common to use a questionnaire to ascertain the status of something, for example, the job specifications of clinical, school, or counseling psychologists who are employed by public agencies. In such studies, a very common limitation is the willingness of individuals to respond at all, to respond in a timely fashion, and to respond accurately. These are limitations on the study; that is, they are important possible effects on the outcomes of the study, and they are not controlled by the researcher.

In such studies, also, it is common to have a delimitation as to size or nature of the group questioned, for some appropriate reason. In the example used, the size might be limited to those in one state, those working in urban regions, or those in certain types of agencies. Also, the size might be limited to 10% or 20% of known psychologists in such employment to keep it to a manageable number.

Limitations and delimitations should appear only when they are imposed by the nature of the problem being studied. Limitations typically surface as variables that cannot be controlled by the researcher but may limit or affect the outcome of the study. Research honesty demands that every important limitation be spelled out for the reader and the committee. In our experience, limitations become problems to students when they are not specified. Every study has its limitations; it is best to call the committee’s attention to them. If the limitations are critically damaging to the study, the best time to find that out is when the proposal is in the thinking-and-planning stage, not later.

In a similar way, plainly stated delimitations help everyone involved to think through the design of the study. Delimitations are integral parts of the design because they set parameters; they tell the reader what will be included, what will be left out, and why. A good statement of the problem will itself be somewhat limiting and delimiting, of course. However, in this section, one should find detailed strictures recognized by the researcher, but not apparent in the brief problem statement.

Definition of Terms

There are two major reasons for defining one’s terms in doing research. First , define each expression that is used in a special, very precise sense in the proposal. Unfortunately, unless it is defined, there is not always agreement on the meaning you intend for a word or group of words. If a common word is used in a specific way in the student’s field of study, that needs to be stated.

Second , the proposed research may depend on an operational definition of a term. Operational means that the expression used must be definable in terms of observable, identifiable, and repeatable operations. For example, the expression functional literacy is, in itself, open to many interpretations. But, if it is specified as a 5.0 or higher-grade equivalent score in reading speed and comprehension on a particular nationally standardized test, then functional literacy becomes defined by those operations used to identify it, and its meaning is unambiguous because of the operational definition. For another example, two common terms in education are school quality and achievement . Neither of these concepts means very much unless the user defines the meaning operationally. For example, achievement may be defined as the level of test scores from x test, y form, given at z time throughout the school system. School quality may be defined operationally by a number of variables, such as expenditure per child, educational level of teachers, years of teaching experience, and pupil test scores on specific tests. Thus, an operational definition is one that specifies the operations that will define the word. Operational definitions not only allow one to say precisely what is meant by terms used, but these definitions also establish a basis for objective tests for the outcomes of the proposed study.

Four general dictionaries we have found useful in defining terms are the Oxford English Dictionary (13 vol.) by J. A. H. Murray; the Random House Dictionary of the English Language , Unabridged , the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language , College Edition ; and the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary . Many professional fields (e.g., education, medicine, psychology) have well-recognized specialized dictionaries. Librarians are excellent consultants on this and related matters.

Terms that are current or changing in concept may be best defined by their usage in professional and scholarly writing . Eminent persons in the field of inquiry you have chosen will define precisely the difficult terms in their work in order to be clearly understood. The student researcher is on safe ground to cite and use those definitions if they are needed in the proposed research.

Another variation is to review the definitions used by the top scholars in the field and critique them in terms of their appropriateness to the proposed research. There is nothing wrong with ending up with your own new definition based on a review of definitions found in the literature provided your definition is demonstrably more useful and appropriate for the study.

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