Note: This article is partially based on the 2017-2018 MechE Graduate Student Guide (PDF). Please check the latest guide for the most-up to date formatting requirements.
Criteria for Success
A strong thesis proposal…
- Motivates your project and introduces your audience to the state-of-the-art for the problem you’re working on.
- Explains the limitations in the current methods through literature review and/or original analysis. This should also explain why the limitations matter and why they’re the right ones to focus on.
- Clearly explains your technical approach to make specific improvements to some part of the field.
- Uses original analysis and literature to support the feasibility of the approach.
- Describes what is original about your work.
- Provides a practical outline for completing this research: a degree timeline laying out quantifiable hypotheses, experimental/numerical/theoretical techniques, and metrics for evaluation.
MechE-specific structure requirements
Your thesis proposal should be limited to 6 pages including figures and references.
In addition, you need a cover page that (only) includes:
- tentative title of the thesis
- your name
- brief abstract
- a list of your committee members
- committee chair and/or advisor should be indicated
- include their official titles, departmental affiliations, and email addresses
The purpose of your thesis proposal is to introduce your research plan to your thesis committee. You want the committee members to come away understanding what your research will accomplish, why it is needed (motivation), how you will do it (feasibility & approach), and most importantly, why it is worthy of a PhD (significance).
You intend to solve a real and important problem, and you are willing to dedicate years of your life to it, so use your proposal to get the committee excited about your research!
Analyze your audience
Unlike many of the papers and presentations you will write during graduate school, only a select few people will read your thesis proposal. This group will always include your PhD committee and your research advisor, and may include other interested MechE faculty or scientists and engineers at your funding source.
Therefore, you will typically have a good understanding of your audience before it is written. This can allow you to tailor your message to the technical level of your specific audience. If you aren’t sure what your audience could reasonably be expected to know, be conservative! Regardless, your audience is always looking to answer the questions: “what is this research, how will you perform it, and why does it matter?”
While the small audience may make you less interested in committing time to your proposal, the exercise of motivating and justifying your work plan will be critical to your PhD.
Follow the standard structure for research proposals
While some variation is acceptable, don’t stray too far from the following structure. See also the Structure Diagram above.
- Introduction. Provide only the necessary information to motivate your research, and show how it fits into the broader field. What is the problem you are trying to solve? By the end of the introduction, your audience should understand the basics of what you will do and why you will do it.
- Background/Methodology. Describe the current state of the art and related research fields in sufficient technical detail. The goal is provide just enough detail to give the reader a sound understanding of the limitations and the need for new work. Do not go into detail that does not directly help in understanding your You are not trying to make your reader understand everything about the topic or demonstrate how much you know.
- Objectives. Although not strictly necessary, this section lets you summarize concrete goals of your work, and can help to serve as a checklist for yourself as you move through the process. This is best for projects that tackle many interrelated problems. Think of this as a list of concrete (quantifiable) goals that you want to accomplish.
- Proposed Work. Explain how your work will solve the problems that you have identified. How will you address the objectives above? Provide just enough technical specificity to leave the reader with a firm grasp of what you will do.
- Provide a set of time-structured goals and deliverables. While this is not strictly necessary, your committee will want a timeline when you meet with them, so it can help to start planning now. You want to graduate, so make sure that you have a plan to do so!
- This is a standard section listing references in an appropriate format (MLA, APA, etc.)
Consider the logical sequence of your sections. After the introduction, your audience should be intrigued by a key problem, and intrigued that you know how to solve it. Through the background, they learn that this problem is more difficult than they originally realized. Finally, in the proposed work they learn that your proposal addresses the additional complexity introduced in the background, and they have confidence that you can actually solve the problem.
Summarize the current research field
You need to have a strong grasp of the broader research community. How can you contribute, if you don’t know what is done and what needs to be done?
The point here is not to educate your audience, but rather to provide them with the tools needed to understand your proposal. A common mistake is to explain all of the research that you did to understand your topic and to demonstrate that you really know your field. This will bore your audience, who either already knows this information or does not see why they should care. It’s more important to show where current gaps are. Cut anything that doesn’t answer the what and why of what people are doing. Your depth of knowledge will come through in your thoughtful proposal.
Justify the significance of your work
Answer the question: “What happens if your work is successful?” Again, you are trying to convince your readers either to give you funding or to work with you for three (or more) years. Convince them that your project is worth it.
Your research doesn’t have to revolutionize your field, but you need to explain concretely how it will move your field forward. For example, “Successful development of the proposed model will enable high-fidelity simulation of boiling” is a specific and convincing motivation, compared to, “The field of boiling modeling must be transformed in order to advance research.”
Justify your research plan
Identify the steps needed to overcome your identified problem/limitation. Though your PhD will evolve over time, the tasks and timeline that you identify in your proposal will continue to help determine the trajectory of your research. A good plan now can save a lot of work a few years down the road.
A strong research plan answers three key questions:
- What are the logical steps necessary to achieve your goal/overcome the core problem? Three steps is an often-used metric for a strong PhD.
- g., “In order to engineer material properties using mesoscopic defects, it is necessary to characterize the defects, measure how they affect material response, and identify techniques to reproducibly create the defects at specific sites within a material.”
- What set of tasks can you reasonably complete to make a measurable impact during the remaining 2-3 years of your PhD? Consider both the amount and types of work that you think you can achieve.
- g., “In my PhD, I will focus on developing high-speed dynamic imaging techniques to characterize transient defect states in metallic nanowires. I will then use these techniques to measure the properties of nanowires fabricated with three different processes known to produce different defect structures.”
- How will you evaluate success in each step? These metrics should be concrete and measurable! Putting the thought into metrics now will make it easier for your committee (and yourself) to check a box and say ‘you can graduate.’
Each of these questions should be supported by details that reflect the current state of the art. Technical justification is critical to establish credibility for your plan. Reference the material that you introduced in the background section. You should even use your research plan to tailor your background section so that your committee knows just enough to believe what you’re claiming in your plan.
Based on the tasks and metrics in your plan, establish specific reflection points when you’ll revisit the scope of your project and evaluate if changes are needed.
Include alternative approaches
You won’t be able to predict all of the challenges you will encounter, but planning alternative approaches early on for major methods or decision points will prepare you to make better game-time decisions when you come up against obstacles. e.g.,
I will develop multi-pulse, femtosecond illumination for high speed imaging following Someone et al. Based on the results they have shown, I expect to be able to observe defect dynamics with micron spatial resolution and microsecond temporal resolution. If these resolutions are not achievable in the nanowire systems, I will explore static measurement techniques based on the work of SomeoneElse et al.