Developing Your Thesis Proposal

General Information for Writing Your Thesis Proposal

Your thesis proposal needs to be completed by the end of your second semester as a classified grad student. Prior to beginning to write your proposal, you need to have (1) chosen a general topic of interest, (2) identified a primary advisor, and (3) done extensive reading of scientific literature in your topic area.

What is the thesis proposal? The proposal is a way to show your committee that you have a comprehensive understanding of a field of research and that you have developed a research question that deserves to be answered. One way to think about your thesis proposal is that it should be equivalent to the first half of your thesis, or a journal article; it should replicate the information that will end up in your introduction and methods sections of your thesis. Before you sit down to write, you should have done extensive reading, made an annotated bibliography, and be able to sketch out an outline for your research question.

Length: There are no requirements for length. Most successful proposals are between 8 and 15 pages long.

Format: There is no specific format required for your proposal.  Most proposals include the following components:

  1. Summary (or abstract): A brief, 1-paragraph summary of your proposal. This should describe the background for the topic, the research question, the methods that will be used, and the significance of the study.
  2. Introduction: This is usually the bulk of your proposal. One way to think about the introduction is as an inverted pyramid: the first paragraph or two will be very broad, starting with concepts that everyone is familiar with. This portion of the intro sets the context for the study and explains the important theories and concepts that set the stage for the research. Subsequent paragraphs will narrow the focus, delving into recent research on the topic and discussing specific research studies and findings. Many students find that it is useful to break this middle section up into sub-sections that deal with the important issues relevant to your research question. This is where you need to show that you are familiar with the relevant literature related to your topic- in the process you should be citing all of the major authors in the field. The last few paragraphs of your introduction will state what the unknown issues and questions are, and will culminate in the formulation of your own research question(s). The last portion of the introduction should clearly state the hypotheses you will be testing and describe why the question is important to answer. Essentially, the introduction is your way of convincing other scientists and environmental managers that your question is important to investigate and that the findings will have significant consequences for our understanding of ecology and sustainability fields.
  3. Methods: Like the introduction, the methods section is usually broken up into sub-sections. Many students include a section on "sampling design" to describe how they are selecting sites or determining the number of replicates or treatments to use. Other sub-sections will depend on the specific field or lab methods you are using (e.g., leaf chemistry, bird surveys, etc.). Many students also include a sub-section on data analysis and statistics, especially if they will be using complex or unusual analytical methods.
  4. Expected Results: You should have a clear idea of what your data will look like, so you should be able to describe the expected results and create mock versions of your results in the form of tables or figures. It is important to plan the form that your results will take long before you begin collecting data.
  5. Time table: a brief table or written summary indicating the order ands timing of your thesis research is helpful for your committee (and you).
  6. References: you will undoubtedly be citing numerous journal articles, books, technical reports, etc., especially in your introduction and methods sections.

Here are some recommended links to advice for crafting your proposal: