Criteria for Success

A successful thesis proposal:

  1. Identifies a vision for your research – what fundamental question will you address?
  2. Motivates why your research is necessary. What is lacking in the current literature? Why has no one else done this?
  3. Provides a detailed research plan explaining the feasibility and significance of the work you propose. How are you going to accomplish what you want to? Why should your committee give you a PhD for accomplishing this?

Structure Diagram

Identify Your Purpose

The purpose of your proposal 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 (vision), 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 to approve a project? 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

Only your thesis committee will read your thesis proposal. Despite the small audience, the practice of motivating your work will be critical to your PhD. This will be a good first practice in a skill that you will be developing over the next several years.

Because you know exactly who will be on your committee, you can tailor the amount of background and technical content directly to your audience. Consider what your committee members already know as experts in their specific field. Provide enough detail that all committee members will be able to understand your proposal. Consult with other students in your group or in classes above you who have had overlapping thesis committees to get a sense of the background and technical detail required for each committee member.

Remember that your committee wants to learn if you are able to think critically about a scientifically challenging problem. To demonstrate this skill, you need to be able to provide your problem with a scope, and show what you are feasibly planning on accomplishing. Being able to defend the vision and feasibility of your ideas is another skill that you will continue developing throughout your PhD.


Structure your proposal in a common manner

While some variation is acceptable, don’t stray too far from the following structure ( supported by the Graduate Student Handbook). See also the Structure Diagram above.

  1. Cover Page. The cover page has any relevant contact information for the committee and your project title. This is what people will see first when reading your proposal, so you want to make it look clean and professional.
  2. Specific Aims. The specific aims are the overview of the problems that you plan to solve. Think of this as your one minute elevator pitch on your vision for your research. (< 1 page)
  3. Background. Your background begins addressing the motivation for your project. Why do you have the vision you do? What is missing from the current literature that makes your projects necessary? You do not need to review the whole field here, but provide enough to show that you have done your reading. Cut out extraneous information. Be succinct.
  4. Research Plan. Demonstrate, with preliminary data – if warranted, how you will be approaching the problems you have just identified. Provide enough technical specificity to leave the reader with a firm grasp of what you will do. This will be much more detailed than the specific aims section, but again, avoid details that are merely “interesting.” Be explicit about any anticipated challenges, and address any concerns about the feasibility through alternate methods/approaches.
  5. Safety. Provide a description of any relevant safety concerns with your project and how you will address them.
  6. Timeline. 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.
  7. 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 specific aims, your audience should be intrigued by a key problem, and are primed 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 research plan 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 background 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?” You are trying to convince your readers that your proposed research deserves a PhD. 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 advance your field can be more manageable to undertake. For example, “Successful development of the proposed model will enable high-fidelity simulation of shear-induced crystallization” is a specific and convincing motivation, compared to, “The field of crystallization modeling must be revolutionized in order to move forward.”

Describe your research plan

Since your thesis proposal 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 proposal 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 3-4 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 Reynolds, 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.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Thesis proposal ex. 1
Thesis proposal ex. 1

This thesis proposal enabled the author to successfully pass the qualifying exam during the 2017-2018 academic year 2 MB

Thesis proposal ex. 2
Thesis proposal ex. 2

This thesis proposal enabled the author to successfully pass the qualifying exam during the 2017-2018 academic year 1 MB