ARTICLE 3: How to Structure your Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


In my previous post, I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally.

In this post, I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

There is no synergy between universities about the meaning of a dissertation versus a thesis.

Most dictionaries call a research report on Ph. D. level a dissertation, and a research report on masters degree level a thesis.

These are the meanings that I will use in this and all my other posts on research methodology.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require you to cover the following in your research proposal:

  • A title for your dissertation.
  • Table of contents.
  • The context of the research.
  • The goals of your study.
  • Research approaches and methods.
  • The table of content for your dissertation.
  • Bibliography.
  • Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a Ph. D. will succeed or not.

I, therefore, will discuss each point separately in future posts.

For now, I will just mention a few salient issues to remember.

Let us look at the eight points.

A title for your dissertation

The title for your dissertation should be brief and descriptive.

Members of the Postgraduate Committee or your study leader, if you already have one, might suggest a different title.

The title can change at any time during your studies.

You will need to check if the title is still valid with your study leader from time to time.

Table of contents

The table of contents is an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

The context of your research should also be the scope or limits of your research.

Context is always relevant to postgraduate research and it will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your research.

This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.

Research approaches and methods

Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.

Your choice of research approach and method will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.

You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of content for your dissertation

The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.

It can also serve as the scope for your research.


Your bibliography cannot be complete and final yet.

You will need to consult many more data sources when you start doing serious research.

You should list the sources that you already consulted and the sources that you believe you will consult.

Endnotes and footnotes

You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.

They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.


In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal.

What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a Ph. D.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well.

That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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