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University of Pittsburgh

PhD Degree

The Dissertation Proposal

Students having a good time at the Pirate game in Pittsburgh.

Guidelines for students in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Linguistics:


The dissertation proposal is both a blueprint for the dissertation research and a written understanding between you and your committee. It is a blueprint in the sense that it provides the guiding conceptual focus and methodological plan. Although an approved proposal may be changed in minor ways as good judgment warrants, any major change must be cleared by the dissertation advisor and perhaps the committee as well. It is an understanding between parties in the sense that it describes an agreed-upon course of action and level of effort, i.e., what the committee expects and what you will do.

All this said, a dissertation remains a negotiated document borne of your original idea and your own approach. Models of successful proposals are on file in the department office or available from your supervisor, but once again, there is no guarantee that imitating a past proposal will reduce negotiation with your committee. There is no formula to follow for a successful proposal or dissertation, and there is no guarantee that acting upon the proposal will make the dissertation acceptable to the committee.

Your dissertation advisor and the members of your committee expect you to invest a good deal of thought and effort in the proposal because it is, in fact, the beginning of your dissertation. You will use the proposal to guide you in your research, and you will compose parts of your dissertation directly from the proposal. The committee will refer to the proposal when evaluating the dissertation.

Students are expected to familiarize themselves with the regulations governing graduate study at the University of Pittsburgh.

Definitions and Order Steps in Preparing the Proposal

  1. Dissertation advisor: The first step is to choose an advisor. This must be a faculty member in the department (this includes faculty with a secondary appointment in the department) who is a member of the graduate faculty. Although you may ask whomever you wish, the individual may decline for various reasons. It is best, of course, to select a dissertation advisor who has knowledge of and interest in your topic, and with whom you have a good working relationship. The dissertation advisor's role is that of leading member of the dissertation committee. You will work closely with the dissertation advisor from the inception of your topic through all the stages of the proposal and the dissertation. During the actual research and writing of the dissertation, you will work mainly with the dissertation advisor. Important note: If you choose to be away from Pittsburgh after you pass your comprehensive exams, you must let your advisor know this. You cannot expect an advisor to be as efficient in helping you if you choose to live a long way away as when you are in Pittsburgh. Giving advice and comments by e-mail is much more time-consuming than giving comments on hard copy by hand. An advisor may decline to be your advisor if you choose to be away. These comments apply to readers as well.
  2. Readers: These are the members of your committee besides your dissertation advisor. One of these readers must be from outside the department. They also must be members of the graduate faculty unless special permission has been obtained from your dissertation advisor, the director of graduate studies, and the graduate school. Your whole committee must be approved by the departmental chair. You need a total of four readers, including your advisor. The dissertation committee consists of four members—your dissertation advisor and three readers—one of whom must be from outside the Department of Linguistics. Readers will work with you mainly during the proposal stage. They may be consulted about questions that fall in their fields of expertise, but they normally respond in writing only to the last draft of your proposal. At the defense, the readers again play an important role in approving the dissertation. Readers need not be the same as those who served on your comprehensive exam committee (you may change them), but ideally there should be a continuity of membership between the two committees.
  3. Proposal: Your written plan for the dissertation, 20–30 pages in length. It should be no more than 10,000 words, including notes.
  4. Proposal meeting: A formal meeting between you and your committee members to discuss and approve/disapprove the proposal. It cannot be scheduled sooner than two weeks (three is preferred) from the time you submit your copies of the proposal to the graduate secretary for distribution.
  5. Institutional Review Board (IRB) or human subjects review: The IRB of the University of Pittsburgh must approve all research plans that involve the study of human participants. Meeting dates for this committee may be obtained from the Web page of the Pitt IRB. Your application to the IRB must be submitted before the IRB meets (see Web page for deadlines) but after your committee has approved it.
  6. Pilot or preliminary study:A pilot is a reduced version of your actual study, usually conducted to see how the actual study is likely to proceed. In many cases, it is highly recommended. For the pilot an IRB approval also is required.

Format of the Proposal

It is best to work closely with your dissertation advisor about the format of your proposal. The American Psychological Association or Linguistics Society of America are the two choices for style guidelines; the decision to select one or the other should be made in consultation with your dissertation advisor. Your proposal and dissertation should follow closely the one you choose. In general, proposals usually consist of these main sections:

Title Page

The title page should include the following information:

  1. the tentative title of your dissertation;
  2. the designation dissertation proposal;
  3. the date it is submitted to the department office;
  4. your name, address, e-mail address, and telephone number;
  5. the name of the department; and
  6. a listing of your dissertation advisor and readers.


The introduction should establish the context of your study—what you want to study and why you want to study it. It should contain the specific research questions you plan to address.

Review of Literature

The term "review of literature" can be misleading when it comes to theses and dissertations, because these works require much more than review or summarizing the published literature on a topic. A good review of literature builds a case for the study at hand by identifying unanswered questions and establishing the need vis-à-vis existing research. The review of literature charts the territory on what is and is not known, shows where problems lie with respect to what is not known or what needs are not met, and concludes by showing how the student's research will address this problem. Hence, the emphasis should be on synthesis, not summary.

A good review of literature situates the researcher in a line of inquiry and shows how the researcher will contribute to a dialogue in the academy. To accomplish this, it is often necessary to summarize studies, but these should be summaries that serve to contextualize the study at hand by laying out assumptions with respect to both classic or well-known research and whatever studies (minor or major) are germane to your investigation.

The review of literature should aim for focus and case building more than sheer breadth. The review of literature and your research questions should be related explicitly. The research questions should appear to be an outgrowth of what is or is not already known on the topic and should identify the key concepts and theoretical framework to be used.


The methodology—whether it be a qualitative, quantitative, historical, mixed design, or other—is a detailed description of what you plan to do to gather and analyze data. It is important to say what you will observe and record and what you will do with these observation and recordings. Be aware that claims about phenomena that are not directly observable must still rest on some type of evidence. For example, if you wish to say that you will observe students' critical thinking while they are being tutored at the writing center, then you need to say what you will regard as evidence that the students are engaged in critical thinking and how you will record it. Another way of saying this is that all key concepts require an operational definition.

You may wonder how you can say what you will do with your data until you actually begin to collect it, especially in naturalistic studies in which much of your design and analysis are emergent. This is why it is an excellent idea to conduct a pilot or preliminary investigation. This will allow you to see and experience your dissertation research without constraints or obligations, and it will enable you to write your proposal from experience and knowing what to expect.

Even if you do conduct a pilot study, you still may be concerned that being too specific about your methodology will confine you to a course of action you'll regret. But keep in mind that you may express parts of your methodology as contingencies ("If I encounter x, then I will do y. Otherwise, I will ..."). And you can always talk with your dissertation advisor and committee members about making changes. In truth, anxiety about being too specific tends to arise while writing the proposal, not while doing the dissertation. Students usually find that being specific about methodology is more a help than a hindrance when they are doing the dissertation research.

It is also a good idea to include a time line, beginning with a proposal meeting and ending with graduation, for all of the milestones in your study. An example time line might be:

  1. PhD year four, early fall: Proposal meeting.
  2. PhD year four, fall to early spring: Data collection.
  3. PhD year four, spring and summer: Data analysis and writing up the dissertation.
  4. PhD year five, fall: Revisions based on committee's advice. Begin looking for jobs. Meet with committee for annual progress report.
  5. PhD year five, spring: Complete revisions and defend. Attend job interviews.
  6. PhD year five, summer: Graduate. Work on getting a publication ready from the dissertation before beginning a new job.

Outcomes of the Proposal Meeting

At the conclusion of the proposal meeting, the committee will likely decide one of the following:

  1. To pass the proposal as is or with minor changes. The student can then be admitted to candidacy.
  2. To delay decision on the proposal pending revisions. Another proposal meeting is then usually necessary.
  3. To disapprove the proposal. If the proposal is disapproved, the candidate must submit another proposal within six months. If no proposal is forthcoming after that time, a student may be dismissed from the program.