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The thesis proposal is a challenging task to complete itself and does NOT need to be any harder. In this article, we outline the steps needed to complete the thesis proposal, some common challenges graduate students face, and resources to help you navigate them. If you have specific interest in the written thesis proposal, we encourage you to check out our guide on the thesis proposal document. If you want to learn more about the oral component of thesis proposal, check our guide to the oral component.

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Planning Your Thesis Proposal

Timeline. The following timeline should give you a general sense of when you need to complete each step in the process. Make regular appointments with Comm Fellows to keep yourself accountable to internal deadlines you set for yourself!

Early August: choose a thesis committee and send invitations
Mid-August: work with your committee to schedule your oral presentation
7 weeks before proposal: begin outlining the research plan
6 weeks before proposal: begin writing rough draft of the written proposal
4 weeks before proposal: edit, revise, and finalize submission
3 weeks before proposal: the written proposal must be submitted
3 weeks before proposal: begin drafting oral presentation
2 weeks before proposal: edit, revise, and practice with different audiences
Day of proposal: Pass with flying colors

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Choosing your committee. Your thesis committee serves as subject matter experts and technical consultants to your research project. Therefore, you want to choose faculty members whose expertise is closely related to your research project and who you are comfortable going to for advice, feedback, and consultation. Aside from your thesis proposal and thesis committee meetings, you are encouraged to have frequent one-on-one interactions with committee members to discuss technical aspects of your project. In addition, your committee members will potentially serve as recommendation writers for your career beyond your PhD.

You should work with your advisor to carefully select committee members who fit these characteristics and will best help you achieve success in your PhD. In doing so, consider the following requirements from the graduate student handbook:

“The Thesis Committee must have two or more members in addition to the research advisor(s). At least two members of the Thesis Committee must be faculty members in Chemical Engineering. At least one committee member must be a Chemical Engineering faculty member who is not the research advisor. The research advisor will serve as the Thesis Committee Chairperson. For students in the PPSM program, the research advisor need not be a Chemical Engineering faculty member, but must be a PPSM faculty or affiliate. For students in the CSE PhD program, the Thesis Committee must contain a member of the Center for Computational Engineering (CCE).”

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Scheduling your proposal. Once you have identified committee members, you should personally invite them to be part of your thesis committee. If they accept, you can immediately start planning a date for your oral presentation, which will dictate your individual timeline. Consult with your advisor (or their administrative assistant) to identify a series of potential dates and times, and relay these to your committee members (and their administrative assistants). Once you establish a date and time, you should immediately reserve a conference room – your group’s administrative assistant can help with this. Consider resources you will need when presenting, such as whiteboards/chalkboards, projectors, and ample seating.

Typically, in the fall, thesis proposals will be anywhere from late October to mid-December, depending on your committee’s availability. When scheduling, keep in mind major conferences in your field that may restrict availability, such as AIChE, BMES, etc.

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Advisor input

Advisor input on your thesis proposal varies widely across the department and there are no uniform guidelines. Some advisors will treat this as an exam and provide little to no support while others will be with you every step of the way. Discuss with your advisor how much input/feedback you can expect and what their expectations are for your proposal before you begin the process.

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Identify the idea of your proposal

Interact with your advisor and peers to evolve your idea. Interesting ideas usually arise from interpersonal interactions, where multiple parties sharing different perspectives all contribute to the ideation process. If you are unsure what topic is appropriate for your thesis proposal, you can seek suggestions from your advisor. Summarize the data you have so far (it can be your preliminary data, data that others in your lab have collected, or literature data), give some thoughts on your own ideas for your thesis proposal, and ask your advisor for feedback. If you don’t have an idea in mind, be honest with your advisor and ask for your advisor’s opinions. Apart from your advisor, who might be too busy to give you timely feedback, you could also seek suggestions from your lab mates. They are the ones who have recently gone through their own thesis proposal, and they may have invaluable insights for you to learn!

Create a bulleted list of your project’s vision and impact. When you have a clearer understanding of your project, a good way to organize your thoughts is to write, item-by-item, a list of your project’s vision and impact. This list could serve as a reference when you are writing them in a coherent way.

List out a set of aims to solidify your idea. Once you have a clearer idea in mind, the next step is to list out a set of aims to solidify your idea. These aims should provide achievable steps that allow you to approach your thesis. Again, consult your advisor or your lab mates to see if they agree with your plan, or they can suggest other alternatives for you to consider.

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Understand your Committee

Your thesis committee members are your only audience. This is a unique situation, because you know who your audience is and their technical background. While this defined audience and scope is different from what you typically experience, you could use this to your advantage to effectively motivate them.

Learn your committee’s background. One of the important steps to motivate your audience is to learn their background. Once you are aware of 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.

Your committee should be your ally! Consider your committee members as your allies who are trying to help you to navigate the field that you will be exploring. They want to learn your critical thoughts on a scientifically challenging problem, because that is what is going to help you grow to become an independent researcher. To cultivate this independence, you can provide your problem with a scope and show what you are feasibly planning to accomplish.

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Tips for preparing your thesis proposal

Seek help regardless of where you are in the process. Not only ideation, but also the rest of the process, needs participation and help from others. It is through interacting with others that we gain insight from our practice and grow as a researcher. Talk to your advisor, lab mates, friends, and Comm Fellows and ask for help! This shouldn’t be a lonely process. Comm Fellows are often the most available and accessible resource for you to discuss about the content and structure of your thesis proposal. We provide a safe space for you to share concerns about your work. You can sign up for an appointment at any point in the process. Book an Appointment here.

Begin with the end in mind. You will need a plan to carry out your thesis proposal, as this is typically a weeks-long project to complete. Reverse plan from the day you will finish your thesis proposal presentation, to the day you need to submit a copy of your written thesis proposal, and eventually to the day that you need to start. Lay out what needs to be finished and when it needs to be completed, which will allow you to keep yourself accountable. Allow for some flexibility in your plan so you can adapt to the roadblocks and new challenges that arise along the way.

Focus on the now and your plans. Sometimes, worries about limited data and past challenges can be overwhelming and distract you from preparing your proposal. In addition, you may feel stressed leading up to the day when you hand in or present your proposal. It is perfectly human to have concerns about the past and future, everyone experiences them to some degree. What you have control of is the present and your plans for future events. Focusing on these tangible aspects will give you a much better sense of control and reduce your worries.

If you are concerned that your committee might ask about your past work, you can prepare a response to their inquiry, and ask your advisor or your lab mates for feedback. If you think that the state of your research is unclear to the point that you don’t feel comfortable presenting it, then you could consider moving your proposal timeline to a later time. If you decide to do this, make sure to consult with your advisor and propose a timeline to verify that you are on track.

Start small and start often. Instead of trying to tackle the entire document at once, which often will lead to anxiety, burnout, and frustration, see if you can break it down into manageable steps. Often, we fall into the trap of worrying about the completion of the document, despite the worries themselves not helping us in anyway. Gently remind yourself to focus on starting instead of finishing, because that is what you can choose to act on. Starting small will give you confidence and starting often (for even half an hour) will lessen your workload.

Be patient with yourself. Everyone’s thesis proposal has some challenge – it is universal and unavoidable. Being aware that the process is nonlinear for everyone and expecting setbacks when you start can help you respond more efficiently when difficulties occur. Be kind and patient towards yourself, because you need them to take care of yourself. Ask yourself: What can I do now to make myself comfortable when working on my proposal?

Use tools to manage your reference. As the number of references you are reading and citing during your preparation stage becomes larger, it is easier to organize them using a dedicated citation management software (e.g., Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote). A citation management software not only does a good job in bookkeeping, it also can help you to track your own ideas that stemmed from the literature. Since you will be likely to co-write and edit manuscripts with your lab mates, you can use the same citation management software as your lab. Plan ahead some time to install the software and become familiar with how to use it – it might take more time to learn than you think.

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