- Skip to primary navigation
- Skip to content
- Skip to footer
Get energized to finish your thesis and follow your passion with our free guide
Your Thesis Proposal Isn’t Just About Getting Your Degree
I remember the time that I was in the process of writing a thesis proposal in my second year of graduate school.
It had to be 10-20 pages long, which was short compared to the length of the actual doctoral dissertation (close to 200 pages).
Yet, I found myself stuck because as a relatively young student I had to propose how to do an extensive research project that would take years to complete.
There was so much information in the literature and so many directions in which I could take my research, that it was challenging to nail down one project that would have a high chance of success.
The irony of graduate school is that you are there to become an expert, but how do you come up with a plan for your thesis if you do not have any expertise to begin with?
How are you even supposed to know what “acceptable” thesis proposal is?
After many discussions with my supervisor I finally selected a topic that:
- Was well-known to many faculty at my department so I had many resources
- Was realistic for my time frame
- Great learning experience to help me learn many different skills
- Had a relatively high chance of success.
While writing my thesis proposal brought me face to face with the worst case of Writer’s Block I had experienced until then, I also gained a deeper understanding of the process of academic writing.
Through my years of helping graduate students finish their thesis on time, I realized that we always used the same process for writing a thesis proposal.
This process is designed to help you draft a thesis proposal that can be completed on time and prepares you well for your ideal career.
Invest sufficient time into the process because the more you polish your proposal, the better you will understand the background, the methods, and the research questions.
Depending on your school your thesis proposal can range from 5 to 80 (yes, that’s not a typo) pages, but it needs to answer the following three questions
- Where is the other side? (What is the purpose of my thesis? )
- What resources I need to get there? (funding, expertise, information, equipment)
- What steps do I need to take (and in what order) to get to the other side?
It is very rare for students to have answers to all three questions when they begin graduate school, but through structured research the answers become clear with time.
Read on and find out how to write (or rewrite) your proposal so that you get approval from your committee and you get the experience that you want from graduate school to help you move on with your career.
Five Steps To Writing a Thesis Proposal
Is your thesis proposal already finished? No worries.
You can still rescue yourself from the vicious cycle of diving into one dead-end project after another and getting more and more frustrated with each passing year.
So, how do you write your thesis proposal so that you can graduate within a reasonable amount of time and get the training you need for your career?
An ideal thesis proposal is one that is robust and flexible.
You need to design your research so it is not easily swayed by Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will, and usually at the worst time).
Your thesis proposal is the blueprint for your thesis (and your life in the next few years), so plan a project that can be completed with the available resources in a reasonable amount of time.
Number 1: Choose an area of research that you are excited about
When you begin writing a thesis proposal, your advisor might give you a choice of dissertation topics.
What criteria should you use to make this decision?
The most important advice that former graduate students have given is that your thesis topic should cover an area that you are truly passionate about.
Regardless of your field, you will have good days and bad days.
On good days you will be enthusiastic and motivated to work.
On bad days, you might question whether your research makes any sense, and you might even doubt your ability to graduate.
If you pick a meaningful topic, the daily setbacks in your research will not bring you down.
You will still be working in an important field, and you will be learning the skills and expertise necessary for your career.
Number 2: Select a project which balances novelty with established research
Given that you want to finish your thesis within a reasonable amount of time, should you research a novel or “hot” area, or to go with a “safer”, better-understood topic?
One way to answer this question is to visualize yourself at every stage of your thesis.
How will you make it happen?
Can you gather the resources and complete the work by your proposed graduation date?
Most likely your project will take longer than you anticipated, so allow some flexibility to account for contingencies.
The general rule of thumb is that things take 2-4 times longer than predicted.
If you have little expertise, begin your work by exploring questions in well-understood areas.
For example, you could learn the basics of your field, by extending the research projects of previous students, or trying to reproduce their data.
Starting your research in an area where the methodology has been established will teach you the necessary research skills for your field.
Once you learn the basics, you can expand your research by exploring novel areas, and build your own unique niche.
Number 3: Ask well-defined open-ended questions for your thesis
One of the mistakes that some PhD students make while writing a thesis proposal is that they ask “High-risk” questions.
The most common type of high risk question is a “Yes/No” question, such as “Is this protein produced by cells under these conditions?”
The reason that Yes/No questions can be “high-risk” is that sometimes the answers are only publishable if the answer is “Yes”.
Negative results are usually not interesting enough for publication and you could have spent months or years researching a question that has a high chance of not being published.
For many students open-ended questions have a much higher likelihood of success.
In the case of one student in Biology, he thought about asking a question such as: “Do cells produce a particular protein under these conditions?”
However, if the answer had been “No”, it would not have been publishable.
Instead, he phrased his research question as follows: “What proteins do cell produce in these conditions”? or “How does XYZ influence the production of proteins”?
Be sure that your question is well-defined.
In other words, when you ask your thesis question, think about the possible outcomes.
What results do you expect? Are they interesting and publishable?
To summarize this key point, consider the following when constructing your thesis question:
1) Ask open-ended questions
2) Be sure that your possible outcomes are interesting and publishable
Number 4: Look for projects that are educational and incorporate marketable skills
Think about your progression through graduate school as a pyramid.
As the years pass, you become more and more specialized with fewer and fewer people being experts in your field.
By the time you graduate you will be part of a small community of people who specialize in your particular area.
On the other hand, you will probably need a diverse skill set after graduation, so it is important to avoid the common mistake of narrowing your pyramid too quickly.
It is not necessary to learn all the subspecialties, but do familiarize yourself with the background literature and technical skills in your field.
Some students make the mistake of focusing only on finishing graduate school quickly, rather than taking advantage of the learning opportunities.
One way to add marketable skills to your resume is to collaborate on a side-project.
For example, if you specialize in cell culture then it would be advantageous if you collaborated on a project that added a different but related skill set such as DNA/RNA work, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry or imaging.
If you browse through job listings you will get an idea of which skill sets employers look for.
Collaborating on complementary projects will help you to broaden your marketable skill sets, and also help you in deciding which career path is best suited for you.
Number 5: Visualize your finished publication(s)
A physics PhD student I worked with had an advisor who outlined each paper even before the research was started.
He wrote down what questions he wanted to be answered, and what each graph and table should show.
This method was so helpful for the student, that he still designs his research papers in advance.
As you are in the process of writing your thesis proposal draft some preliminary answers to the following questions:
- What is your central hypothesis or research goal?
- What is the motivation for this study?
- What have other groups contributed to this research?
- What methods do you need to learn to complete this project?
- What are the possible outcomes, or results, of this study?
- What will your tables and graphs show?
- How does this work contribute to your field of research?
Visualizing your publications while writing a thesis proposal will motivate you to work, because most graduate students feel a sense of pride when they hold their very first published paper in their hands.
Most likely, the answers to the above questions will change with time and you might have several setbacks or forks in the road.
Fortunately, most students become more efficient as they progress through graduate school.
Your cumulative experience will pay off during your last year when you are racing to finish your research and your dissertation simultaneously.
In the meantime, work on defining your questions and methods meticulously, so that you will have a realistic plan to work with.
The last step in the process, “Visualizing your finished publications”, is probably the most important one in the 5-step process of writing a thesis proposal.
First, visualizing the end result of a major project is very motivating in itself. Second, publishing a paper is one of the most important steps towards earning your graduate degree.
Most PhD programs require at least one publication.
When you structure your research, and the writing of a thesis proposal, by asking the right questions, you will be able to design a realistic project that can be completed in time and provides you with marketable job skills.
….and finally remember that:
The perfect thesis does not exist.
We are usually our own worst critics.
This is ironic, considering we are the only ones who know how much work we have put in already.
Give yourself credit for all the work you have already done.
Yes, there may be a long road ahead of you but consider this inspiring quote:
“You didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
If you made it this far, you have what it takes to go just one step further.
Everything that you have accomplished have brought you to this point in your studies and career.
All of us wish that we had accomplished more than we have, but genuine confidence will come from realizing how far you have already come.
What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to your thesis proposal?
Leave a comment below and I will reply to you directly.
Engage with Finish Your Thesis on social media
Get started with your free copy of “Finish Your Thesis Faster”
Download my strategic guide to fire up your motivation, get laser focused and accelerate your thesis writing starting today.
How to write a thesis proposal
II. Structure of a thesis
III. Order in
which to write the proposal
Senior research projects in Environmental Sciences have the following elements
- An environmental issue is identified.
- Other people’s work on the topic is collected and evaluated.
- Data necessary to solving the problem are either collected by the student,
or obtained independently.
- Data are analyzed using techniques appropriate to the data set.
- Results of the analysis are reported and are interpreted in light of the
initial environmental issue.
The final outcome of this process is a senior thesis that you will complete
in the spring semester. The goal of the fall semester is that
you identify a research topic, find a research mentor, formulate a hypothesis,
understand the background of your project, develop or adapt appropriate
methods, and summarize the state of your project as a thesis proposal.
The goal is to progress as far as possible with the elements listed above
during the fall semester. The more you can accomplish during the fall,
the further you can drive the project in the end, and the more relaxed
the spring semester is going to be for you (and us).
The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to demonstrate that
- the thesis topic addresses a significant environmental problem;
- an organized plan is in place for collecting or obtaining data to help
solve the problem;
- methods of data analysis have been identified and are appropriate to the
If you can outline these points clearly in a proposal, then you will
be able to focus on a research topic and finish it rapidly.
A secondary purpose of the proposal is to train you in the art of proposal
writing. Any future career in Environmental Sciences, whether it
be in industry or academia will require these skills in some form.
We are well aware that the best laid out research plans may go awry,
and that the best completed theses sometimes bear only little resemblance
to the thesis planned during the proposal. Therefore, when evaluating a
thesis proposal, we are not trying to assure ourselves that you have clearly
described a sure-fire research project with 0% risk of failure. (If there
was no risk of failure, it wouldn’t be research.)
Instead, what we’re interested in seeing is if you have a clear handle
on the process and structure of research as it’s practiced
by our discipline. If you can present a clear and reasonable thesis idea,
if you can clearly relate it to other relevant literature, if you can justify
its significance, if you can describe a method for investigating it, and
if you can decompose it into a sequence of steps that lead toward a reasonable
conclusion, then the thesis proposal is a success regardless of whether
you modify or even scrap the actual idea down the line and start off in
a different direction. What a successful thesis proposal demonstrates is
that, regardless of the eventual idea you pursue, you know the steps involved
in turning it into a thesis.
II. Structure of a thesis
Your thesis proposal should have the following elements in this order.
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Thesis statement
- Preliminary results and discussion
- Work plan including time table
- Implications of research
- List of references
The structure is very similar to that of a thesis or a scientific paper.
You will be able to use a large fraction of the material of the thesis
proposal in your final senior thesis. Of course, the state of the individual
projects at the end of the fall will vary, and therefore also the format
of the elements discussed below.
- contains short, descriptive title of the proposed thesis project
(should be fairly self-explanatory)
- and author, institution, department, resreach mentor, mentor’s institution,
and date of delivery
- the abstract is a brief summary of your thesis proposal
- its length should not exceed ~200 words
- present a brief introduction to the issue
- make the key statement of your thesis
- give a summary of how you want to address the issue
- include a possible implication of your work, if successfully completed
Table of contents
- list all headings and subheadings with page numbers
- indent subheadings
- this section sets the context for your proposed project and must capture
the reader’s interest
- explain the background of your study starting from a broad picture narrowing
in on your research question
- review what is known about your research topic as far as it is relevant
to your thesis
- cite relevant references
- the introduction should be at a level that makes it easy to understand
for readers with a general science background, for example your classmates
- in a couple of sentences, state your thesis
- this statement can take the form of a hypothesis, research question, project
statement, or goal statement
- the thesis statement should capture the essence of your intended project
and also help to put boundaries around it
- this section contains an overall description of your approach, materials,
- what methods will be used?
- how will data be collected and analyzed?
- what materials will be used?
- include calculations, technique, procedure, equipment, and calibration
- detail limitations, assumptions, and range of validity
- citations should be limited to data sources and more complete descriptions
- do not include results and discussion of results here
Preliminary results and discussion
- present any results you already have obtained
- discuss how they fit in the framework of your thesis
Work plan including time table
- describe in detail what you plan to do until completion of your senior
- list the stages of your project in a table format
- indicate deadlines you have set for completing each stage of the project,
including any work you have already completed
- discuss any particular challenges that need to be overcome
Implications of Research
- what new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we do not already
- why is it worth knowing, what are the major implications?
List of references
- cite all ideas, concepts, text, data that are not your own
- if you make a statement, back it up with your own data or a reference
- all references cited in the text must be listed
- cite single-author references by the surname of the author (followed by
date of the publication in parenthesis)
- … according to Hays (1994)
- … population growth is one of the greatest environmental concerns facing
future generations (Hays, 1994).
- cite double-author references by the surnames of both authors (followed
by date of the publication in parenthesis)
- e.g. Simpson and Hays (1994)
- cite more than double-author references by the surname of the first author
followed by et al. and then the date of the publication
- e.g. Pfirman, Simpson and Hays would be:
- Pfirman et al. (1994)
- cite newspaper articles using the newspaper name and date, e.g.
- ….this problem was also recently discussed in the press (New York Times,
- do not use footnotes
- list all references cited in the text in alphabetical order using the following
format for different types of material:
- Hunt, S. (1966) Carbohydrate and amino acid composition of the egg capsules
of the whelk. Nature, 210, 436-437.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1997) Commonly asked questions
about ozone. http://www.noaa.gov/public-affairs/grounders/ozo1.html, 9/27/97.
- Pfirman, S.L., M. Stute, H.J. Simpson, and J. Hays (1996) Undergraduate
research at Barnard and Columbia, Journal of Research, 11, 213-214.
- Pechenik, J.A. (1987) A short guide to writing about biology. Harper Collins
Publishers, New York, 194pp.
- Pitelka, D.R., and F.M. Child (1964) Review of ciliary structure and function.
In: Biochemistry and Physiology of Protozoa, Vol. 3 (S.H. Hutner,
editor), Academic Press, New York, 131-198.
- Sambrotto, R. (1997) lecture notes, Environmental Data Analysis, Barnard
College, Oct 2, 1997.
- Stute, M., J.F. Clark, P. Schlosser, W.S. Broecker, and G. Bonani (1995)
A high altitude continental paleotemperature record derived from noble
gases dissolved in groundwater from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. Quat.
Res., 43, 209-220.
- New York Times (1/15/00) PCBs in the Hudson still an issue, A2.
- it is acceptable to put the initials of the individual authors behind their
last names, e.g. Pfirman, S.L., Stute, M., Simpson, H.J., and Hays, J (1996)
Undergraduate research at ……
III. Order in which
to write the proposal
. Proceed in the following order:
- Make an outline of your thesis proposal before you start writing
- Prepare figures and tables
- Figure captions
- Discussion of your data
- Inferences from your data
This order may seem backwards. However, it is difficult to write an abstract
until you know your most important results. Sometimes, it is possible
to write the introduction first. Most often the introduction should
be written next to last.
- “Pictures say more than a thousand words!” Figures serve to illustrate
important aspects of the background material, sample data, and analysis
- A well chosen and well labeled figure can reduce text length, and improve
proposal clarity. Proposals often contain figures from other articles.
These can be appropriate, but you should consider modifying them if the
modifications will improve your point.
- The whole process of making a drawing is important for two reasons.
First, it clarifies your thinking. If you don�t understand the process,
you can�t draw it. Second, good drawings are very valuable. Other
scientists will understand your paper better if you can make a drawing
of your ideas. A co-author of mine has advised me: make figures that
other people will want to steal. They will cite your paper because
they want to use your figure in their paper.
- Make cartoons using a scientific drawing program. Depending upon
the subject of your paper, a cartoon might incorporate the following:
- a picture of the scientific equipment that you are using and an explanation
of how it works;
- a drawing of a cycle showing steps, feedback loops, and bifurcations: this
can include chemical or mathematical equations;
- a flow chart showing the steps in a process and the possible causes and
- Incorporate graphs in the text or on separated sheets inserted in the thesis
- Modern computer technology such as scanners and drafting programs are available
in the department to help you create or modify pictures.
- Poor grammar and spelling distract from the content of the proposal.
The reader focuses on the grammar and spelling problems and misses keys
points made in the text. Modern word processing programs have grammar
and spell checkers. Use them.
- Read your proposal aloud – then have a friend read it aloud. If your
sentences seem too long, make two or three sentences instead of one.
Try to write the same way that you speak when you are explaining a concept.
Most people speak more clearly than they write.
- You should have read your proposal over at least 5 times before handing
- Simple wording is generally better
- If you get comments from others that seem completely irrelevant to you,
your paper is not written clearly enough never use a complex word if a
simpler word will do
The senior seminar website has a very detailed document on ” How
to write a thesis ” which you might want to look at. Most of the tips
given there are relevant for your thesis proposal as well.
Recommended books on scientific writing Some of the material on this page was adapted from: http://www.geo.utep.edu/Grad_Info/prop_guide.html http://www.hartwick.edu/anthropology/proposal.htm http://csdl.ics.hawaii.edu/FAQ/FAQ/thesis-proposal.html http://www.butler.edu/honors/PropsTheses.html