How to write a Thesis Proposal?


You are working through your course requirements and the actual thesis work is looming. Where do you start? The essential requirements for a thesis (formal departmental policy) are:

The basic steps involved in this process are:

The Proposal

The first step toward a great thesis is a great thesis proposal. You should meet with your thesis supervisor to identify a research topic and formulate the details of the project. The thesis proposal will help you to gain an understanding of the background of your project, develop or adapt appropriate methods, and summarize the state of your project. The goal here is to progress as far as possible with the elements listed before embarking on time-consuming (and possibly expensive) data collection and analysis. The more you can accomplish in the proposal, the further you can drive the project in the end, and hopefully, the easier life will be when you are in “thesis mode” (for both you and us!)The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to demonstrate that:

  1. the thesis topic addresses a significant problem;
  2. an organized plan is in place for collecting or obtaining data to help solve the problem;
  3. methods of data analysis have been identified and are appropriate for the data set.
  4. the proposal exists as a contract between you and your supervisor. It sets out what needs to be done, defines the limit of the project, and gives you a clear route to achieve the goal of finishing it on time.

If you can outline these points clearly in a proposal, then you will be able to focus on a research topic and finish it in a timely fashion. A secondary purpose of the proposal is to give you experience in the art of proposal writing. Any future career in Earth or Environmental Science, whether it be in industry or academia will require these skills in some form. We are well aware that the best laid out research plans may go awry, and that the best-completed theses sometimes bear only little resemblance to the thesis planned during the proposal. Therefore, when evaluating a thesis proposal, we are not trying to assure ourselves that you have clearly described a sure-fire research project with 0% risk of failure. If there was no risk of failure, it wouldn’t be researched. Instead, what we’re interested in seeing is if you have a clear handle on the process and structure of research as it is practiced by our discipline. If you can present a clear and reasonable thesis idea, if you can clearly relate it to other relevant literature, if you can justify its significance, if you can describe a method for investigating it, and if you can decompose it into a sequence of steps that lead toward a reasonable conclusion, then the thesis proposal is a success regardless of whether you modify or even scrap the actual idea down the line and start off in a different direction. What a successful thesis proposal demonstrates is that, regardless of the eventual idea you pursue, you know the steps involved in turning it into a thesis.

Structure of a thesis proposal

Your thesis proposal should have the following elements in this order.

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Thesis statement
  • Evidence of serious consideration of the literature
  • Approach/methods
  • Preliminary results and discussion
  • Work plan including time table
  • Implications of research
  • List of references
  • Signatures

The structure is very similar to that of a thesis or a scientific paper. You will be able to use a large fraction of the material of the thesis proposal in your final thesis.

Title page

  • a short, descriptive title of the proposed thesis project (should be fairly self-explanatory)
  • author, institution, department, supervisor(s), and date of delivery


  • the abstract is a brief summary of your thesis proposal
  • its length should not exceed ~200 words
  • it should present a brief introduction to the issue
  • make the key statement of your thesis
  • give a summary of how you want to address the issue
  • refer to the principal techniques used to address the issue
  • include a possible implication of your work, if successfully completed

Table of contents

  • list all headings and subheadings with page numbers
  • indent subheadings


  • this section sets the context for your proposed project and must capture the reader’s interest
  • explain the background of your study starting from a broad picture narrowing in on your research question
  • the introduction should be at a level that makes it easy to understand for readers with a general science background, for example your classmates

Thesis statement

  • in a couple of sentences, state your thesis
  • this statement can take the form of a hypothesis, research question, project statement, or goal statement
  • the thesis statement should capture the essence of your intended project and also help to put boundaries around it

Literature overview

  • review what is known about your research topic as far as it is relevant to your thesis
  • cite relevant references
  • some theses will require a substantial review of the literature, which may extend to several pages. This section can usually be used directly in the thesis.


  • this section contains an overall description of your approach, materials, and procedures
    • what methods will be used?
    • how will data be collected and analyzed?
    • what materials will be used?
  • include calculations, techniques, procedures, equipment, and calibration graphs
  • detail limitations, assumptions, and range of validity
  • citations should be limited to data sources and more complete descriptions of procedures
  • do not include results and discussion of results here

Preliminary results and discussion

  • present any results you already have obtained
  • discuss how they fit in the framework of your thesis

Work plan including timetable

  • describe in detail what you plan to do until completion of your thesis project
  • list the stages of your project (e.g., in a bulleted list or table format)
  • indicate deadlines you have set for completing each stage of the project, including any work you have already completed
  • work in possible presentations at the AGS or similar conferences
  • discuss any particular challenges that need to be overcome

Implications of Research

  • what new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we do not already know?
  • why is it worth knowing, what are the major implications?

List of references

  • cite all ideas, concepts, text, data that are not your own
  • if you make a statement, back it up with your own data or a reference
  • all references cited in the text must be listed, using either Canadian Journals of Science or APA format
  • do not use footnotes
  • list all references cited in the text in alphabetical order using the Canadian Journals of Science or APA format


  • conclude your proposal with signatures from both the student and the supervisor(s), recognising that you agree on the work to be undertaken. The proposal exists as a contract between you and your supervisor(s). This does not mean that adjustments cannot be made as work proceeds, but is a benchmark you can go back to as you consider what still needs to be done.

How to write the proposal

Proceed in the following order:

  • Meet with your supervisor(s) to discuss what you will be doing
  • Hit the library and read about it
  • Make an outline of your thesis proposal before you start writing
  • Prepare figures and tables
  • Figure captions
  • Methods
  • Discussion of your data
  • Inferences from your data
  • Introduction
  • Abstract
  • References

This order may seem backwards. However, it is difficult to write an abstract until you know your most important results. Sometimes, it is possible to write the introduction first. Most often the introduction should be written next to last.

Helpful Hints


  • “A picture says a thousand words!” Figures serve to illustrate important aspects of the background material, sample data, and analysis techniques.
  • A well chosen and well labeled figure can reduce text length, improve proposal clarity, and aid the reader in developing an image of the work proposed. Proposals often contain figures from other articles. These can be appropriate, but you should consider modifying them if the modifications will improve your point.
  • The whole process of making a drawing is important for two reasons. First, it clarifies your thinking. If you don’t understand the process, you can’t draw it. Second, good drawings are very valuable. Other scientists will understand your paper better if you can make a drawing of your ideas.
  • Make cartoons using a scientific drawing program. Depending upon the subject of your paper, a cartoon might incorporate the following:
    • a picture of the scientific equipment that you are using and an explanation of how it works;
    • a drawing of a cycle showing steps, feedback loops, and bifurcations: this can include chemical or mathematical equations;
    • a flow chart showing the steps in a process and the possible causes and consequences.
  • Incorporate graphs in the text or on separated sheets inserted in the thesis proposal


  • Poor grammar and spelling distract from the content of the proposal. The reader focuses on the grammar and spelling problems and misses keys points made in the text. Listen to your writing program when the grammar and spelling checkers identify issues.
  • Read your proposal aloud – then have a friend read it aloud. If your sentences seem too long, make two or three sentences instead of one. Try to write the same way that you speak when you are explaining a concept. Most people speak more clearly than they write.
  • You should have read your proposal over at least 5 times before handing it in.
  • Simple wording is generally better.
  • If you get comments from others that seem completely irrelevant to you, your paper is not written clearly enough.
  • Never use a complex word if a simpler word will do.

How long should it be?

  • There is no set length for your proposal – this is up to you and your supervisor. The main determinant here is the review of background literature. If your topic has extensive background literature, this section may well run to 10 or more pages – and will be used verbatim in your thesis. It is not essential to critique every paper ever written that is related to your project, but you must demonstrate you have consulted previous work thoroughly.
  • Putting aside the background literature, we recommend the remainder of your proposal be no more than 10 pages in length.

What happens next?

Your thesis proposal should be reviewed by your supervisor and submitted to the graduate co-ordinator. Masters thesis proposals are then distributed to all faculty to review – this usually takes two weeks or so, and you should expect them to read it through in detail. You will likely get editorial suggestions, and possibly substantial amendments. Commonly we look at the resources required to do the work (how many analyses? who is paying?), and the timeline. Don’t submit a proposal in June saying you will collect the samples in May, when we all know you didn’t! Your proposal will be returned to your supervisor, who will discuss the comments received with you. If necessary you will be asked to rewrite the proposal in light of these comments, and once completed you should re-submit it to your supervisor, who then will inform the graduate coordinator that the proposal is complete. (In the event that the graduate coordinator is your supervisor, s/he will inform the head.) A copy of your revised proposal, signed by you and your supervisor will be lodged in your file. Then you get on with the thesis itself

criteria for good research

Whatever may be the types of research works and studies, one thing that is important is that they all meet on the common ground of scientific method employed by them. One expects scientific research to satisfy the following criteria:

1.   The purpose of the research should be clearly defined and common concepts are used.

2.   The research procedure used should be described in sufficient detail to permit another researcher to repeat the research for further advancement, keeping the continuity of what has already been attained.

3.   The procedural design of the research should be carefully planned to yield results that are as objective as possible.

4.   The researcher should report with complete frankness, flaws in the procedural design, and estimate their effects upon the findings.

5.   The analysis of data should be sufficiently adequate to reveal its significance and the methods of analysis used should be appropriate. The validity and reliability of the data should be checked carefully.

6.   Conclusions should be confined to those justified by the data of the research and limited to those for which the data provide an adequate basis.

7.   Greater confidence in research is warranted if the researcher is experienced, has a good reputation in research, and is a person of integrity.

In other words, we can state the qualities of a good research as under:

1.   Good research is systematic: It means that research is structured with specified steps to be taken in a specified sequence in accordance with the well-defined set of rules. The systematic characterization of the research does not rule out creative thinking but it certainly does reject the use of guessing and intuition in arriving at conclusions.

2.   Good research is logical: This implies that research is guided by the rules of logical reasoning and the logical process of induction and deduction are of great value in carrying out research. Induction is the process of reasoning from a part to the whole whereas deduction is the process of reasoning from some premise to a conclusion which follows from that very premise. In fact, logical reasoning makes research more meaningful in the context of decision making.

3.   Good research is empirical: It implies that research is related basically to one or more aspects of a real situation and deals with concrete data that provides a basis for external validity to research results.4.   Good research is replicable: This characteristic allows research results to be verified by replicating the study and thereby building a sound basis for decisions.

SMART Characteristics of Good Objectives

An objective is more specific than a goal; in what ways? A Good Objective is SMART

In preparing a project design, and when writing a proposal (for approval or for requesting funds), the goals of the project are stated. The goal is easily defined as the solution to the problem that has been identified. The problem with such a “goal” is that it is too general; it is not easy to obtain consensus as to when it has been reached.

That is why, when preparing project documents, a distinction is made between a “goal” and an “objective.” An objective is derived from a goal, has the same intention as a goal, but it is more specific, quantifiable, and verifiable than the goal.

Let us say that the problem identified by community members is “Lack of clean drinking water.” The solution to that problem, the goal, then is “To bring clean drinking water to the community.” You can demonstrate to the group the vagueness of this goal by going out of the room and returning with a single glass of water, showing it to them. “OK, here is some water. I have brought it to the community. Now, is the project complete? Have we achieved the goal?”

Of course, they might laugh or say that it was obvious that they did not mean only a glass of water when they said, “To bring clean drinking water to the community.” Your reply is then that the project design or proposal must be very specific about each objective so that there can be no room for different interpretations.

Remember, every objective must start with the word, “To.” An easy way to remember the characteristics of a good objective, is the acronym, “SMART.” It stands for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound.” 

S pecific

M easurable

A chievable

R ealistic

T ime-Bound

When identifying objectives as part of an exercise in preparing a project design or proposal, use the SMART acronym as a check list, to see if the objective is a good objective. (Making sure each objective begins with the word, “To.”) The objectives must be derived from, and consistent with, the intention of the identified goals.

The objectives of a project should be “SMART.” They should be:

S pecific: clear about what, where, when, and how the situation will be changed;

M easurable: able to quantify the targets and benefits;

A chievable: able to attain the objectives

(knowing the resources and capacities at the disposal of the community);

R ealistic: able to obtain the level of change reflected in the objective; and

T ime-bound: stating the time period in which they will each be accomplished

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