Writing a thesis proposal is the first step in the transition from student to graduate. However, the task can be a complex, time-consuming one. Many students struggle with their thesis proposals because these documents require some knowledge of the information to be used, even before it has been completely researched. Nevertheless, thesis proposals provide ample opportunities to focus a student's thinking, while they successfully document what they have learned in the subject of interest. Proposals (also called 'prospectuses') are used to demonstrate to a dissertation or thesis committee that a student has the capacity to develop effective research skills. A thesis proposal that has been well executed is the perfect document to use after committee approval. It can be helpful for grant and scholarship applications, IRB petitions, and queries of publishers who can review the manuscript.

Components of the Correct Thesis Proposal

Most thesis proposals will contain versions of the following elements, although their length and level of importance will vary from discipline to discipline. Details will vary by project and topic. Thesis proposals are the documents that relate to the projects they outline. They can be used in larger projects. Most proposals range from 20 to 30 pages and include a bibliography; this requires the writer to make important choices about when and whereto elaborate within the text of the document.  

Literature Review

A relevant literature review within the thesis proposal demonstrates that the student has read the relevant literature and is familiar with it to the extent that he/she can be conversant with its key issues. This review should clarify that the inquiry in question will be meaningful. In order to accomplish this, the writer should:

  • Clarify key concepts
  • Demonstrate one or more of the following 
  • Demonstrate the importance of the research
  • Supplement and explain any weaknesses inherent in earlier research
  • Previous researchers have not delved into the exact same topics of interest
  • Place relevant research into context

A literature review should lead easily from paragraph to paragraph using clear, easy to understand language.

A section entitled “effective methods” should be used to convince committee members of the student's ability to address all research questions ethically. They should be kept within the bounds of the discipline being discussed.

Specificity in the effective methods used section will help demonstrate the student's overall knowledge of the topic. In this section, he/she should:

  • Indicate clearly what the proposal will study
  • Consider the various approaches that may be required to gain a thorough understanding of the proposal's topic.
  • Identify methods as clearly as they can be explained. The student should demonstrate that he/she knows everything about methods and how to use them.
  • Provide explanations of how you will address each of your research questions
  • One's choice of methods should be justifiable. 

Once your readers have a clear sense of what you are doing and how you are doing it, they will want to know why it is worth doing, and so it is often helpful to make this explicit.