How to Write a Thesis Proposal

How to Write a Thesis Proposal

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Writing a thesis proposal while still only at the beginning stages of your academic education can be overwhelming. You would surely feel not adequately skilled for the job or lacking necessary skills and knowledge. True as this may be, drafting a thesis proposal long before dissertation is due may be needed because of the time required to finish your research and write the thesis itself. As a relatively inexperienced student, you could find the body of literature in your field of study overwhelming. So how do you choose what to explore?

First of all, your subject should be something that has already been extensively covered by literature. Don't worry – you will still be able to find an angle for yourself and to explore a side to the problem not covered in the previous research. But general knowledge on a broad subject of your interest should already exist.

Set a realistic time frame for your project. Allow for setbacks leading to revisions of your thesis plan because revisions are always necessary.

Choose a project which would be a great learning opportunity, allowing you to acquire a new set of skills that you will later use in your academic career.

Stay reasonable about success probability of your project. Do not choose something too far-fetched with only a slender chance of succeeding. Your goal is to graduate eventually, isn't it?

One last piece of advice before we dive into writing the actual proposal – take your time, don't rush through it, the more effort you put into drafting a proposal, the easier it will be to do your research and subsequently write your dissertation. Be sure that you've got everything covered, the background, the methodology, the hypotheses, and how the obtained data will be analyzed.

Stages of writing a thesis proposal

Before embarking on the process of drafting a proposal, let's just set one thing clear: a proposal is not the end product, it is your means to an end - your dissertation. Therefore, it can and will evolve as you become more acquainted with the subject, and as you begin your research project. So be flexible!

Stage #1: Choosing a topic for your dissertation

It may be something you come up with yourself, or you may receive a list of possible topics from which you can choose. Anyhow, it's best to choose something about which you are passionate. It will give your writing that extra edge needed to make your work outstanding. Your advisor will probably be available for consultation on choosing a topic. However, you would be well-advised to follow these recommendations:

Choose something in which you are personally interested. It will help you not to get discouraged or lose motivation along the way.

Select a topic with sufficient literature already accumulated on the subject. You can then build upon the previous work and take it a step further. Don't expect your efforts to be groundbreaking. It's only your first major project, not your life's work.

Become acquainted with the basics in a chosen field; find out what has already been done to understand how you can contribute to the body of knowledge on a particular subject.

Stage #2: setting a realistic time frame for the project

Determine the time needed to explore the available resources, come up with hypotheses, conduct research, analyze data and discuss them and to write a meaningful conclusion for the thesis. Make sure that you can accomplish this before your expected graduation date. You'll have plenty of time to do more extensive and time-consuming projects later in life.

Stage #3: defining the hypotheses for your thesis

Avoid risky “yes or no” questions unless both answers would provide you with suitable material for your thesis. If the answer "no" is a thesis-stopper that makes your material not publishable, then it's better not to use this format of questions in the first place. What can you do instead? You can use exploratory, open-ended questions, with all possible answers being 100% usable in your thesis. You’ll just have to come up with a reasonable explanation for your findings later on. Even if open-ended, your research questions still have to be operationally defined, so that there is no doubt on what they entail. Try to predict all likely outcomes of your research and incorporate them into your proposal.

Stage #4: making sure that your chosen topic of research is a learning opportunity

As you embark on a journey of your graduate education, you start from a broad basis and progressively narrow down your field of interest until it becomes more specialized by the end of your studies. But before you are prepared to turn into an expert in a highly specific area, you need to grasp the basic concepts of science and to acquire a skill set you could later refine and use in a more specific way. If a possibility presents itself, take part in someone else's project. Learning a different skill set applicable to your own work could prove beneficial. This way, you also get a chance to familiarize yourself with another area of interest that you might find worth investing your time end effort. Remember that at this stage of your education you can't possibly know where your career will lead you.

Stage #5: envision your work already published

Feel the pride and honor of becoming a published author before it comes true. This will give you the motivation to move forward even at times when you just feel like giving up. Envisioning your work already finished also serves a purpose to have a clear picture of the end goal you are trying to reach. What graphs or figures will your thesis show? What will you write in the accompanying captions? What results do you expect to obtain, and how will you present them? What will you show in your tables? What contribution will your work make to the field to which it pertains?

You don’t need to have figured out all the answers beforehand. Think of them as working hypotheses. They will likely change in the process of doing your research and writing your thesis, but they are a useful starting point. They will get more refined and closer to their final version as your work progresses.

As already mentioned a thesis is not your life's work, so it doesn't need to be perfect. In reality, a perfect research project, a perfect thesis, or a perfect thesis proposal, for that matter, do not exist. So, don't strive for perfection. Just cover all the bases, predict all possible outcomes, uncover the study’s limitations yourself instead of leaving it to your professors to criticize the imperfections of your research and most importantly – don’t be too hard on yourself. Compliment yourself on the work you have already done and encourage yourself to go on. It's all too easy to underestimate what we have accomplished and only look at the things that still await us. But we've put in a significant amount of work to get this far, and not everyone could have done it. So, it never hurts to tap yourself on the back and encourage yourself to keep up the excellent work.

The basic structure of a thesis proposal

These are the mandatory elements of a thesis proposal:

  • Title page comprising of a concise and informative thesis title that is easy to understand, and the author information including name, affiliation, the mentor’s name and affiliation and date.
  • Abstract. A thesis proposal summary comprising of no more than 200 words, introducing the topic of research, and briefly stating the intended methodology and expected results. You should also mention the implications of your study.
  • Table of contents for easier navigation through your thesis proposal. Include headings and subheadings accompanied by the numbers of pages on which they appear.
  • Introduction. An overview of what previous researchers have already discovered on the topic of your thesis to ease your reader into your field of interest and providing a basis for the formulation of research questions or hypotheses. Cite all the relevant sources. The level of complexity should be suited for your fellow students to understand, so write with professionalism but without being overly technical. It is meant to grab your readers’ attention and motivate them to read on with interest.
  • Thesis statement. Formulated in a few sentences, it can be composed in the form of an affirmation, question, or hypothesis. It should define your project precisely, portraying its essence and determining what it does or does not encompass, thus delineating it from any similar projects.
  • Methodology: a general design of the study is given here along with material and data collection techniques. You should provide details on any equipment necessary for the project.
  • Results obtained so far and discussion thereof. The preliminary results already obtained are discussed in this section giving a detailed explanation of how they correspond to the context of your thesis.
  • Scheduled time-table: description of the steps you will take towards the completion of your thesis. Time management stages can be presented in a table so an interested reader can easily discern them. Deadlines for each stage should be provided. You should also describe any possible obstacles to the completion of your thesis.
  • Implications of your study: how your research contributes to the body of knowledge already existent on the subject, how the results can be applied to a broader context to benefit the general population or to advance the science in the desired direction.
  • References: whenever you discuss any idea or piece of information you didn't come up with yourself, you should cite your source. Otherwise, it is plagiarism, and this represents a serious offense, one that you would most definitely want to avoid. When introducing a new concept, always back it up with literature sources. All in-text citations should lead to references listed at the end of your paper. The format of referencing should accord to the required propositions set by your school. Check what those are before starting to write your list of references. Copy-pasting references from scientific journals will usually not be adequate since the format of references will most probably not suit your requirements.

If your thesis proposal is well-written, you can later use its significant portion when writing your actual thesis. Certainly, the literature you collected for formulating your proposal will also come in handy during the subsequent phases of your work. You may have to change some elements upon consultations with your supervisor, but the framework will still be usable.

The basic framework for writing a thesis proposal

  • Identify a problem you would like to investigate.
  • Find out what other researchers have already written about the subject and evaluate their results critically
  • Collect the data necessary for your analysis. Either do it on your own or in collaboration with other students or by outsourcing
  • Use data analysis methodology
  • Present the obtained results and discuss them within the context of your theoretical framework, comparing them to previous relevant studies

Purposes of a thesis proposal

  • to prove that the thesis will tackle a critical scientific issue
  • to demonstrate the existence of a sound theoretical foundation for the intended research
  • to show that you have a detailed plan of how you will collect and analyze the data and that it is methodologically sound and beyond reproach

Even if you follow all the recommendation for writing a thesis proposal, there are no guarantees that your proposal will be accepted or that no further amendments will be required. It's almost impossible to get everything right the first time. The risk of having your proposal rejected can never be ruled out entirely. However, you can assure that your proposal demonstrates your understanding of the research process, of its methodology and structure. You are expected to have mastered this before writing your dissertation. You should be able to present your ideas in a precise and scientific way, to provide the theoretical background for your claims and to derive useful hypotheses, to investigate the issue thoroughly and to present the results of your investigation in an organized and systematic manner. Even if some of the elements from your proposal eventually get changed or thrown out entirely in the final version of your thesis, it will still demonstrate the general direction in which your research is going and the underlying theory upon which you are constructing it.

Finally, here are some useful tips you might want to consider when planning your thesis:

  • Use graphs and figures: it can be much easier to convey a message when you present it in a visual form. Figures can reduce the length of the text needed to explain a point; they are attention-grabbing and easily understood. Schematic explanations are easier to follow, and readers can always revert to reexamining them in case of any ambiguity they might come upon while reading your thesis
  • Be extra careful with your spelling and grammar. You don't want your readers to get distracted by poor language skills demonstrated in your work. Use spellchecking tools available in most word processing programs. Review the text yourself multiple times and then have a friend review it. If a fellow student can understand what your thesis proposal is about and follow your writing effortlessly, then it's probably good enough to be handed in and exposed to the scrutiny of your professor.

There’s no denying that writing a thesis proposal while still not advanced enough in your studies to do it proficiently, is frustrating. It's a tedious process, but it gets easier with time. So, don't be demoralized if you encounter some difficulties on the way. Just move on, everything will eventually come in its place.

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