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Writing the Dissertation Proposal: A Description of the Major Elements of Chapter 1

Dissertation proposal: Chapter 1Chapter 1 of a dissertation proposal contains many sections that convey specific information. Here is a brief overview of the types of sections and the information that often appears in those sections. What follows is a description of each section one by one, inculding the background to the problem and statement of the problem.


Chapter 1 of a thesis or dissertation proposal for the social and behavioral sciences elucidates the major elements of the research topic and to some extent, the design. Because it requires that the student have a clear picture of the overall research approach, it can be one of the hardest chapters in the proposal to complete.  Chapter 1 requires the dissertation student to be able to focus the reader on the problem at hand, its relevance to society or the academic world, the goal of the research endeavor, the background, and to some extent, the methodological framework. When finished with the Chapter 1, the student should have a very clear idea where he or she is headed.

There are many different introductory sections that are often included in Chapter 1. Not all universities or departments will require the following sections, but as this hopes to be an inclusive description, any given section should be found in the following pages. The most common sections are provided first, in the order they are typically presented in a dissertation. Again, however, university departments are unique, not to mention advisors, so the order in which sections are presented here may differ slightly compared to any given sequence requirements. Finally, it should be emphasized this description covers social-science-based dissertations, not dissertations written in the humanities. In this installment, the background of the problem and the problem statement are described.

Background of the Problem

Like its title suggests, the background section introduces the reader to story behind the problem the dissertation or thesis addresses. In many cases, it functions like a brief literature review, explaining and citing some of the most relevant research informing the problem. It introduces the reader to the disciplinary dialogue concerning the major topic and variables. Unlike what occurs in a literature review, however, the relevant research is condensed rather than examined in detail. The citation of the literature is broad rather than detailed. Often, summary statements about the literature and topic will be followed by several in-text citations.

Further, if the problem, as explicitly stated in the problem statement, concerns some aspect of society or human behavior, the background section will often describe the context of the problem. For example, if the dissertation is about reducing linguistic bias in speech pathology tests, then the background of the problem might include descriptions of the context where speech pathology tests are used or the history of speech pathology tests.

Statement of the Problem

As they pertain to dissertations and theses, there are, to oversimplify, two types of problems: problems of knowledge and problems of situation or practice. Problems of knowledge are primarily academic and often abstract, conceptual, or theoretical in nature. These problems arise out of the literature and are often described as a deficiency, conflict of position or findings, or discrepancy in prediction of outcomes (Lunenberg & Irby, 2008). Bryant (2004) cites James Coleman’s study as example of a theoretical problem. Coleman’s problem was to discover “what measurable factors contribute most to variation in student achievement” (p. 44). Although knowledge gained might be applied to improve student achievement down the road (a practical problem), the focus is on gaining understanding of the variation rather than application of knowledge.

Conversely, practical problem statements concern practices and situations which have relevance in non-academic contexts such as schools, businesses, and healthcare settings and involve some social, behavioral, psychological, organizational or health related issue. When writing problem statements that focus on practice, the researcher will refer to the population, places, and situation involved in the problem rather than the question of knowledge. The problem statement will indicate in a concise manner what the problem is. Although it may seem rhetorically blunt, it certainly does not hurt to state the problem by starting out the sentence, “The problem is…” One can always edit for style later.

The Purpose Statement

The purpose statement, also referred to on occassion as the statement of purpose, indicates the primary goal of the research. Creswell (2009) claims is the “most important statement in the study” (p.111). While the purpose statement may be a paragraph or two, the heart of the purpose statement is encompassed by one or two declarative sentences that explicitly state the goal of the study. To that end, the purpose will be signaled by words such as, purpose, objective, goal, and intent, and explained with the aid of words appropriate to the method of research. For  qualitative research the purpose will described by words that indicate qualitative research’s more provisional method of inquiry such as explore, discover, understand, and describe. For quantitative-based research, the purpose is signaled by words and phrases such as compare, test, examine the relationship between x and y (x and y being variables of the study). The article, How to Write a Purpose Statement for a Dissertation or Thesis, is a more complete discussion on how to compose an effective purpose statement.

The Signifcance of the Study

This section answers the following questions:

(1) What will be the benefits of the research?
(2) Who will benefit from the research?

Answering the both question involves discussing the potential or real knowledge gained from the study and the practical application of the knowledge in real world settings. Research should add to the field of study. The additional knowledge is a benefit to those studying related matters to the research topic. The dissertation writer should spell out in detail this new knowledge and how it adds to or fills a gap in previous research.

Additionally, the section explains the agents who will benefit from the research. If, for example, the research explores the impact of support groups for older populations with diabetes, then the section would explain how the findings of the dissertation might positively impact older populations with diabetes. How might counselors, nurses and doctors use findings to better serve their clients? After reading the Significance of the Study, the reader should walk away with an understanding of the usefulness of the study both in practical and academic terms.


Bryant, M. T. (2004). The portable dissertation advisor. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Creswell, J. W. (2003). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods
(2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lunenberg, F.C., & Irby, B. J. (2008). Writing a successful thesis or dissertation: Tips and strategies for students in the social
       and behavioral sciences.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press