Education is evolution; it is the process during which you emerge as a specialist and learn many vital skills, such as critical thinking, independent research, theorizing, and conceptualization of practical problems. Which is the best chance to show what you learnt to your supervisors? Naturally, you have been writing and submitting tons of essays and research papers during several years of higher education, and you might even have completed several in-depth research projects… But is that enough for the university to award you a degree? Definitely not.
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Evolution into a thoughtful, skilled critical thinker able to conceptualize problems and apply theoretical knowledge to solve them should culminate into the production of a serious independent research endeavor. The one that you will complete on your own, responsible for the entire process, and dealing with all steps and hurdles of the scholarly investigation progression. This usually takes the form of a thesis or dissertation – a large-scale investigative work that serves many functions we will discuss further.
What is a thesis proposal?
This document serves as a starting check for your research subject and project; the proposal is reviewed by the university’s committee to test the feasibility of your study, the topicality of the selected problem, and the overall realism to embrace the problematic with the suggested research methods. In plain words, it is what you propose to research in the dissertation, and your proposal may either be approved by the committee (which gives you the green light to go on with the actual research) or will be rejected (urging you to look for other topics or other methods of researching the one you have offered).
Why write a proposal?
Most universities require all students to complete the proposals first before embarking on the actual dissertation process to have a control document verifying that you understand the topic, that you have picked the right one, and that you have a plan of how to arrive at the expected results. Since the dissertation writing process takes minimum one year, and at times several years, the committee has to be sure that you will not waste time on a non-feasible topic, and will not spend several months or years to get stuck somewhere in the middle of the research and to start searching for alternatives.
Hence, proposal writing serves to answer a number of vital questions without which the initiation of thesis composition is senseless:
- Has the student thought through his/her topic in terms of viability and commitment to it?
- Can it really ‘work’ as a thesis and fit into the concept of academic work?
- Does it deal with a significant research problem?
- Can the formulated research objectives add to the existing knowledge?
- Is the selected methodology workable?
- Is the chosen theoretical and conceptual framework appropriate?
- Will the researcher be able to collect the needed data with the selected research methods?
- Is the thesis likely to produce important conclusions and recommendations with a real value for the field of science and the community?
Besides disclosing some important insights to the thesis committee, the process of composing the thesis proposal is also a point of revelation and important self-reflection for the aspiring researcher. While working on the proposal document, you will be able to give honest answers to the following questions to yourself:
- Am I really interested in this topic enough to research it to the end and find insights I am looking for?
- Am I willing to invest the time and effort to make this research happen?
- Am I aware of the amount off work involved in the full thesis completion?
As a result of completing this exercise, both the student and the committee thus clarify important aspects of the dissertation process and manage the initial stage of research conceptualization.
Functions of a proposal
Depending on your level of study and purposes pursued via thesis writing, the proposal may be a helpful starting point for you in many ways.
- It helps to think out the research project in the variety of its implications, thus enabling the prediction of any potential difficulties that may be encountered in the process.
- For students who are not yet decided about the research focus, a proposal is an excellent opportunity to explore several options in practice. By writing on a specific subject, you try researching it; formulation of the research problem and objectives is an empirical testing of whether there is indeed a problem worth studying.
- For those who face skepticism of supervisors about their study focus’s topicality, a proposal is a space to show why the issue is urgent, and to propose perspectives and angles from which the study may be approached. Making the research problem visible makes it easier to convince the committee about the need to go on with this study.
Requirements for a proposal
First, it is essential to keep in mind that the proposal will differ depending on the thesis type you are about to start composing. To date, three major thesis types are common in the academia:
- Honors Thesis. This type of independent research is assigned to completion by students accepted to Honors programs at the end of their senior year. These works represent the culmination of seniors’ undergraduate work and serve as examples of their capacity to involve in an academic topic. It rarely expands beyond 10,000-20,000 words in length, so the average size of such a thesis is 40-60 pages, and the proposal for such a thesis is usually 3-5 pages, including only the core information about the research subject, problem, and proposed method.
- Master’s Thesis. The thesis of this type usually serves as a culminating proof of the student’s right to be awarded a Master’s degree, and represents a more profound piece of research. While Master’s programs may require both minor theses (those similar to honors theses in length and complexity) and major theses stretching to 50,000 words, a size approximating 100-150 pages is more typical for a serious scholarly paper for the Master’s level. Completion of this thesis is conducted to demonstrate advanced knowledge in a narrow field of specialization and to conduct an independent investigatory inquiry by testing hypotheses, critically analyzing existing evidence, and linking the thesis findings with broader knowledge in the field. Proposals for such theses are naturally longer, and usually take up to 15 pages.
- PhD Thesis. This is the most substantial type of thesis writing; it is the epitome of scholarly research regarded as the highest verifiable academic credential. It is a comprehensive, lengthy, and in-depth study of some research problem with full demonstration of mastery of methodological techniques, conceptual research foundations, and the overall research process. PhD research is considered valuable only if it truly contributes to a specific field of knowledge, is entirely original and relevant for the professional field in national and international contexts. Given that PhD these may reach over 100,000 words in length (which is almost 400 pages), sometimes proposals may be required up to 50 pages, with a rich body of background research concerned, and a rich detail for the proposed conceptual substantiation of the study, as well as methodology peculiarities.
Based on these three classes of theses, it is up to you to decide which length to plan and what components to include. However, though there are numerous types of research and theses are written by students of different specialty and for different levels of education, some universal characteristics are relevant for each proposal:
The initial part of proposal containing the problem statement, research question, objectives, and core definitions. It should explain what topic you plan to study and what the subject area is. You should show it clearly that you understand the practical problem, which in its turn lays the basis for a research problem that you are exploring.
Actual justification of the problem’s significance. It shows how your study will contribute to knowledge and fill the existing gaps in literature, which have not yet been adequately addressed. Here, you should explain why the problem is indeed pressing and show why it must be studied – this is done best by revealing how it will open up a new field of knowledge or shed light on the present-day gray areas in some discipline.
This is where you come directly to ways of examining the subject. Indicate the type of methodology and data you will use. Explore your approaches to examining the problem – whether it is qualitative or quantitative, relate it to existing theories and models. Give as much detail as possible about the data-gathering procedures so that they look practical, workable, and realistic for the committee. It is essential to be realistic here and to discuss potential limitations and deviations from the initial plan – low response rate, challenge finding appropriate respondents, ethical issues, etc.
A summary of your primary stakeholders – people who you think will benefit from your research, the audience at which your study is directed. Explain how your study findings may help the community and enrich some field of knowledge.
Structure and order of proposal completion
The proposal’s layout is standard, but some pages are optional for inclusion, so check your university’s requirements and remove the ones you may not need. We are presenting the most exhaustive list of everything you may need in your proposal document:
- Table of Contents
- List of figures
- List of tables
- Body of the proposal (we’ll discuss it in detail below)
- Curriculum vitae
The simplest proposal form should contain such minimum components as:
- This is the gist of your proposed study, with all details of research problem, hypotheses, theoretical and conceptual framework, a brief description of the study’s significance, scope, definition of key terms, and an account of the study’s limitations.
- Here, you present what is known on the topic, from which angles it has been studied before you, what the theoretical and empirical research approaches to it are. This section traditionally ends with the formulation of research gaps based on the thorough evaluation of available research on the subject.
- In this part, you should lay out the details of your proposed research design, sample size calculations, sampling procedures, relevant data about intended research subjects, instruments of data gathering, data processing tools, and statistical procedures for analysis if you plan to use any.
- Provide the timing for each activity of the thesis writing process.
For broader and larger thesis proposals, specialists also recommend the following more detailed structure of a proposal consisting of three chapters:
Chapter 1: introduction
- Introduction (it should introduce the dissertation topic and value of holding the study, give an overview of chapter contents, and have a structured, logical flow)
- Background (providing a summary of results from prior empirical research on the topic and identifying the need addressed by the current study)
- Problem statement (stating a specific problem proposed for research and identifying the population affected by it, suggesting how the study may contribute to solving that issue)
- Purpose of the study (declaring the study aim and identifying the methodology with which it will be achieved)
- Research questions (discussing research questions and relating them to the problem statement)
- Advancing scientific knowledge (defining the research gap and need in the literature, showing how the proposed study will address that need and contribute to available body of knowledge)
- Significance of the study (showing how the current study is going to fit into the prior body of research and how it will contribute to the field)
- Rationale for methodology (identifying the specific methodology proposed for this study, justifying its selection in favor of other research designs)
- Nature of the research design for the study (describing why the selected design is the best one fitting the formulated research problem and questions, stating who the target population is and from which sample, by which means data will be collected to answer research questions)
- Definition of key terms (describing and explaining all words that may be unknown to a layperson, defining study variables, and providing all definitions with citations from credible, scholarly sources)
- Assumptions, limitations, and delimitations (clarifying assumptions of methodological, theoretical, and topic-specific nature, and exploring limitations the study may encounter)
Chapter 2: literature review
- Introduction (introducing the key themes to be explored in the chapter)
- Theoretical foundations (identifying models and theories from seminal sources to build a comprehensive conceptual framework for research question development, research phenomena and variable identification, and selection of instrumentation)
- Review of literature (examination of empirical research available on the research subject)
- Summary (a brief reiteration of key points found out during the literature review)
Chapter 3: methodology
- Introduction (presenting a summary of research focus, purpose, and outlining the structure of chapter)
- Research methodology (explaining the selected method and rationale for its selection instead of alternative methods)
- Research design (describing the actual design and explaining why it best fits the collection of data from the identified study population and for selected variables)
- Population and sample selection (discussing the setting, target population and sample, type of sampling used to locate study participants, and how the sample will be protected)
- Sources of data (identifying types of data and instruments needed for its collection, scales and measurements used to define various groups)
- Validity (defending procedures used to estimate the validity of collected data)
- Reliability (defending procedures used to estimate the reliability of collected data)
- Data collection and management (detailing the entire process of data collection to enable the study’s replication by other researchers)
- Data analysis (identifying various types of analysis applied to collected data)
- Ethical considerations (discussing potential ethical issues surrounding the study and ways of dealing with human subjects’ protection and data protection)
- Limitations and delimitations (discussing the potential impact of limitations and delimitations on the outcomes of the research)
Additional tips on making your thesis proposal ideal
Even doing all this may not guarantee you an excellent thesis proposal, so follow some additional life hacks to maximize your chances for success and make the most out of the chance to present your research plans and ideas to the audience:
- Writing a great thesis proposal is impossible without checking how others did that. So make sure to read at least 8-10 academic articles relevant to your topic and study some materials on methodology in research to build a coherent, logically flowing piece of research proposal.
- Derive the argumentation, language, and style from articles you have read and adopt the scholarly stance in your proposal to sound professional. Train to write academically, and ask some peers to review your draft for a better impact.
- Studying materials online or in a library is definitely highly informative, but keep in mind that only strict compliance with your university’s guidelines can guarantee you a successful defense of proposal and a go-ahead with actual research. So, stick to your educational establishment’s guidebook in every step and produce a proposal your committee wants to see.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions; your supervisor is there to help you, after all. When you are in doubt, schedule a meeting with the mentor and clarify all troubling issues with him or her – the supervisor is the one who knows for sure what should be done!
We do hope that this comprehensive guideline will be of real help in thesis proposal composition. Good luck with this vital step of your path towards a degree!