The dissertation proposal constitutes a necessary stage, after some initial research has been accomplished (including a broad review of the literature) and a topic has been chosen. It should offer an opportunity to present your ideas on paper in an orderly fashion, to summarize the literature you have read and the preparatory work you have done so far, and to highlight the particular issues that have not been resolved by previous research.
Components of a Dissertation ProposalA. Specific Aims: The section should describe the research problem, list the hypotheses to be tested or the "products" to be developed. It should briefly but concretely state the critical idea behind the proposal. Rather than stating a general area of research ("the relationship between variable A and B"), it should attempt to outline testable hypotheses, ask precise question unanswered so far, or describe new estimates to be derived.
Example: Ronsmans list her specific aims as follows: I shall... Be interested in (i) assessing whether child mortality is clustered in families in this community; (ii) assessing the relative role of within- and between-family heterogeneity in the risk of child death observed among families; (iii) measuring the extent to which family size discloses the existence of clustering of child mortality.
B. Background and Significance: In most instances, the background will be provided by a literature review that delineates the work done by others in this area and identifies the gaps which the project intends to fill. The literature review seeks to present the state of knowledge and theory on the set of issues examined, the contradictions among previous published studies, and possible flaws or omissions in existing research that should be remedied.
C. Preliminary Studies: The proposal should reflect your own work as well as the work of others. In this section you should demonstrate that you have begun to master your data set, ascertained the prima facie validity of your hypotheses, and made initial tabulations of certain variables. If your research will involve field work, you may describe preliminary work related to the research question in existing data sources (such as fertility surveys or censuses) and show how they have led you to determine the research question, and why they cannot provide a full answer to it. The demonstration that the proposal reflects work in progress will be important to demonstrate your ability to conduct research to your dissertation committee.
Example: Larsen introduces her study by describing her previous published work in this area, and presents a simulation analysis as a prelimary step to her analysis of fertility surveys.
D. Experimental Design and Methods: The last section should include a description of your data and of the methodologies that will serve to analyze and interpret them. A number of quantitative and qualitative methodologies can be resorted to. (See for example the use of simulation in Larsen or the longitudinal analyses is Ronsman; neither use multivariate models. The use of such models is, however, very common in dissertations, and their presentation in dissertation proposals will be covered at length by Philip Morgan in another session.) The place occupied by methodological innovation varies from research project to research project. Some dissertations may be entirely devoted to the description of a methodology or to the production of new estimates. Remember, however, that it is as tools to solve research problems rather than for themselves, that techniques are valuable ultimately. In this session, we shall not discuss the methodological section of the proposal.
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