Criteria for Success

A strong thesis prospectus…

  1. Introduces your audience to your field of research by providing motivations, aims, and current strategies to answer some fundamental question. Provides a strong – but quick – literature review and analysis.
  2. Explains the limitations in the current research strategies or methods through literature review and/or original analysis.
  3. Demonstrates the need for improvements and potential impact to the field.  Literature review and/or original analysis show that the limitations identified matter.
  4. Clearly explains your proposal to make specific improvements to some part of the field.
  5. Provides a practical approach for undertaking this research, including timeline, backup plans and, if necessary, a list of required coursework

Structure Diagram

Purpose

The purpose of your prospectus is to introduce, motivate, and justify the need for your research contributions. You want the audience to come away understanding what your research will do, why it is needed (motivation), how you will do it (feasibility), and most importantly why it is worthy of a PhD (significance).  These are the fundamentals they need to know, not a step-by-step to-do list.  Put yourself in the perspective of your PhD committee: what would you need to know in order to approve a project?

Most importantly, demonstrate the significance of your work.  You intend to solve a real and important problem, and you are willing to dedicate years of your life to it, so 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 prospectus.  This group will always include your PhD committee and your research advisor and may include scientists and engineers at your funding source.  While the small audience may make you less interested in committing time to your prospectus, the exercise of motivating and justifying your work plan will be critical to your PhD.

Since the readers of your prospectus will be limited, 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 question: “what is this research, and why does it matter?”

Skills

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.

  1. Introduction.  Provide only the necessary information to show how your research fits into the broader field.  Cut out “interesting details.”Describe succinctly the motivation and strategy for your research.  By the end of the introduction your audience should understand the basics of what you will do and why you will do it.  They will not yet understand the details or how you will do it.  This will be explained in your background and proposed work sections.
  2. Background/Methodology. Describe the current research methods 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 work.   You are not trying to make your reader understand everything about the topic or demonstrate how much you know.
  3. Objectives. Although not strictly necessary, the objectives provides an opportunity to summarize all of the goals of your work.  This is best for projects that tackle many interrelated problems.  Give your audience a very brief description of what you plan to accomplish.  Think of this as your 10-second elevator pitch.
  4. Proposed Work. Explain how your work will solve the problems that you have identified.  Provide just enough technical specificity to leave the reader with a firm grasp of what you will do. This will be much more detailed than the objectives section, but again, avoid details that are merely “interesting.”
  5. Timeline/Coursework.  You need to provide a traceable set of time structured goals and deliverables.  You want to graduate, so make sure that you have a plan to do so.
  6. References.  This is a standard section listing references in the appropriate format (MLA, APA, etc.)

Think of the importance of the sequential order 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, and in the proposed work they learn that your proposal addresses all of 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 of the prospectus 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 information.  This will bore your audience, who either already knows this information or does not see why they should care.  Cut anything that doesn’t answer the what and why of what people are doing. Keep it short.  Your breadth 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.

Undertaking a PhD can be daunting, and trying to revolutionize your field might be even more so.  However, motivating your contributions to help move your field forward can be more manageable to undertake. 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 revolutionized in order to move forward.”

Justify your research plan

Since your prospectus is a proposal to overcome an identified problem/limitation, you need to identify the steps needed to complete the task.  Though your PhD will evolve during the years that you take to complete it, the set of tasks and timeline that you identify in your prospectus will help determine the trajectory of your research.  Think carefully about the amount and type of work that you will be able to complete in 2-3 years.

It is good to identify all of the areas that need improvement, but what set of tasks can you reasonably complete to make a measurable impact during your PhD? Answering this question alone is a significant contribution and should not be neglected.  A good plan now can save a lot of wasted work a few years down the road.  Plan some specific reflection points when you’ll revisit the scope of your project and evaluate if changes are needed.  Some pre-determined “off-ramps” and “retooling” ideas will be very helpful as well, e.g.,

“Development of the model will rely on the experimental data of Reynold’s, however, modifications of existing correlations based on the validated data of von Karman can be useful as well.”

Make sure to consider back-up plans if everything doesn’t go as planned, because it won’t.  Be prepared for what to do if you encounter a significant roadblock and need to alter your plans.  You won’t be able to predict what you will encounter, but thinking about alternatives early on will make you feel much better when you do.