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Writing Your Thesis Proposal Like a Pro


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Satisfactorily completing a master's or PhD thesis—which includes background research, original research, and writing—indicates that you are qualified to join the community of scholars who advance our collective understanding of the world.

Why write a thesis proposal?

The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to convince a faculty committee that you know enough to move forward with your Master's or PhD research. This transition from a master's or doctoral degree student to a master's or doctoral degree candidate amounts to a stamp of approval from the university, and comes with substantial benefits. You are authorized to conduct the proposed research, and can attach the university's name to yourself and your research. Depending on the field and institution, this approval can come with direct financial support in the form of research or teaching fellowships.

Approval of your thesis also comes with improved access to university resources, including faculty who can guide your research and career; research equipment and facilities; and specialized libraries, collections, and databases. A university affiliation also opens doors to many other resources. Do you need to interview survivors of childhood sexual abuse? Your recruitment flyers will get much better results if your name is followed with a university affiliation. Do you need tissue samples of rare brain tumors, or access to ancient Egyptian documents written on papyrus? That university affiliation will help.

While a thesis proposal is specifically to fulfill academic requirements, you'll likely use the same general strategy later in your career. You may write grant proposals to secure research funding from organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities or the March of Dimes. You may write investment proposals to secure funding for the new drug your company is developing, or the new charter school you are planning with like-minded educators. In all these cases, you are describing a problem that needs to be solved or a question that needs to be answered, and explaining why you and your idea deserve their support.

What is in a thesis proposal?

Different programs have different guidelines for a thesis proposal, but typical requirements are as follows:

  1. Title: A one-sentence summary of your thesis proposal.
  2. Project summary: A ~250 word summary of your thesis proposal. You should introduce your system and question, outline your research methods, and state your anticipated results and conclusions.
  3. Introduction: This section provides context for your research by providing background information on the questions being addressed and explaining how your work will fill a gap in our knowledge or change the way we think about something. You should also discuss why your study is of general interest. In the final introductory paragraph, clearly and concisely state your research question and hypothesis or hypotheses.
  4. Proposed study: Here you present, in as much detail as possible, the study you propose to conduct. Your study should be feasible with the time and resources that are available to you. It should also advance our collective understanding of the field, even if your hypothesis turns out to be wrong. Be sure to provide enough detail so that a reader with a basic understanding of your field can understand what you plan to do. Common techniques do not need to be explained, but be sure to describe the variations to the procedure that are specific to your experiment. Be sure to include appropriate controls, such as sham treatments for experimental manipulations. Consider your research methods carefully—do they really test your hypothesis or hypotheses?
  5. Anticipated Results: Consider the possible outcomes of your study, how you would interpret them, and how they would allow you to discriminate among your hypotheses. Will you be able to meet the goals you set out in your introduction? Be sure to consider how your anticipated findings would change the way we think about the topic and how they fit in the context of the field. This is also the place where you should consider potential shortcomings or limitations of your proposed study. You may also speculate on the generality of your findings and suggest follow-up questions that might stem from your work.
  6. References: Depending on your degree program and area of research, your reference list may include as few as 10 references (for a master's program involving a small research project) to well over 100 references (for a PhD program in an area of intensive study). The goal of earning a master's or PhD degree is to demonstrate competency as a scholar who can advance our collective understanding, so you must become familiar with the literature in your field of study. Plan on spending a lot of time assembling your reference list and working to understand the research described.
  7. Tables: If appropriate.
  8. Figures: If appropriate.

How do I pick a topic?

Whether you're working towards a master's degree or a PhD—or writing a thesis proposal as a classroom assignment—you'll spend a lot of time working on your proposal. Be sure to start with a topic that is of genuine interest to you.

In fields where research requires a lot of specialized equipment and resources—your possible thesis topics will be limited to what your thesis advisor and department are willing and able to support. In those fields (i.e., many of the biological sciences), you largely choose your thesis topic when you choose your department and your advisor. Choose carefully. Graduate students in these fields may spend less time choosing a thesis topic, but may spend more time on background reading in these areas of intensive study.

Students in all fields will have some limitations. For sociology research, you'll be limited by the populations you have access to. In the humanities, you may be limited by the availability of primary sources. If your research requires studying ancient calligraphy scrolls housed in a Taiwanese museum, you better be sure you can get to Taiwan and gain access to those scrolls.

Even with these limitations, the number of possible research topics can seem impossibly large. As you put together a list of possible topics, keep in mind that the goal of your graduate research is to contribute something new to our collective understanding. If you choose a research topic that has already been extensively studied—such as Shakespeare's use of figurative language or unique characteristics of the bacterium E. coli—you will have lots of previous studies to wade through and few options for novel research.

Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash
Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash

On the other hand, if you pick a topic for which there is almost no previous work—such as the romantic habits of homosexual Alaskan scuba divers—you will likely have trouble convincing your thesis committee that you can gather meaningful data in a reasonable amount of time. In general, you want to pick a topic that has been covered in existing research—or that is a straightforward extension of existing research—but that still has many important, unanswered questions.

Searching the literature

Whether you were assigned a research project based on what your advisor can support, or start with a list of interesting topics, your next step is to dig into the published literature.

A good place to start is to read several recent research papers on your topic of interest; most papers suggest follow-up studies in the discussion section. Alternatively, a review paper often considers what research might be pursued next. Remember that this is a research proposal, not a literature review. For your selected topic, you need to develop a testable hypothesis—that you have the resources to test. This is where talking to your advisor, senior graduate students, and other people in your field is essential. They can offer insight on what is really feasible.

As you read these primary research papers, notice that the format closely parallels the format of a thesis proposal. If the title doesn't catch your eye, you are less motivated to read the project summary (or abstract). If the abstract doesn't sound interesting, you are less enthusiastic about reading the introduction. If the introduction doesn't clearly and convincingly describe why the research is needed, you are unlikely to care about the results. Aim to write a clear and convincing thesis proposal.

Final comments

It often helps to start with an outline. Be sure to include citations and a reference list in your outline and early drafts. It is imperative to correctly cite the previous work that has led to your thesis proposal, and many hours have been lost trying to track down lost citations.

Be sure to follow your graduate program's guidelines for the thesis proposal. There are often specific requirements for the font, margins, word count, tables, figures, number of references, and how citations should be formatted.

Be objective in your language: test hypotheses, do not try to prove them. Discuss your thesis proposal with your advisor, your classmates, and anyone who is willing to listen to you. Talking about your ideas often helps to clarify them, and others might catch errors that you may have overlooked. This is a major benefit of being part of a community of scholars.

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