Dissertation Proposal Defense Exam

Writing a good research proposal is an important part of being a successful researcher. The Dissertation Proposal Defense exam is viewed as an important milestone that helps students develop the skill of writing research proposals. PhD students write a proposal for their dissertation research that is submitted to their Dissertation Committee prior to the exam. The Dissertation Proposal Defense exam presentation gives the committee a formal opportunity to evaluate the research progress and goals of the student. Thus, the two main purposes of this exam are to develop proposal-writing skills and to obtain feedback on the dissertation research plan from the committee.

Guidance on How to Write the Proposal

  • A balance must be struck between satisfying severe space limitations and providing the most critical details. The proposal is a binding agreement between the student and the committee on the precise tasks that must be accomplished for the dissertation. Although, through frequent interactions with the committee members, the proposal may be slightly modified to reach the target objectives as necessary.
  • The dissertation proposal should include the first three chapters of the eventual completed dissertation. Bibliographic references are not included in this page count (having more references is encouraged). It is important to check with your chair on page limits and formatting requirements. If proposals are much shorter or longer than the norm, the committee will question the reasons for this. If the proposal is considered too long or short, the committee may recommend rescheduling the exam after the proposal is rewritten.
  • Three main criteria are usually applied in evaluating a proposal. The first two are similar to the National Science Foundation’s guidelines for evaluating research proposals.
    1. Intellectual merit: What is the importance of the activity to advancing knowledge or understanding?
    2. Expected impact: What impact can be expected on particular research communities and on society in general?
    3. Feasibility: How likely are the stated goals to be achieved by the student?
  • Based on these criteria, the dissertation proposal should contain:
    • An overview of the state-of-the-art, which helps to show that the student has a good grasp of the relevant research fields.
    • A clear description of the problems and goals.
    • Details of the proposed research approach.
    • Clear arguments as to why the work is interesting in terms of intellectual merit and expected impact.
    • An explanation of how the goals can be accomplished within the expected amount of time.
  • The dissertation proposal should not be
    • A preliminary draft of the completed dissertation.
    • A survey of the student’s research field.
    • An existing publication or technical report.