How to write a thesis proposal
Structure of a thesis proposal
Order in which to write the proposal
Senior research projects in Environmental Sciences have the
following elements in common:
The final outcome of this process is a senior thesis that you will
complete in the spring semester. The goal of the fall
semester is that you identify a research topic, find a research
mentor, formulate a hypothesis, understand the background of your
project, develop or adapt appropriate methods, and summarize the
state of your project as a thesis proposal. The goal is to progress
as far as possible with the elements listed above during the fall
semester. The more you can accomplish during the fall, the further
you can drive the project in the end, and the more relaxed the
spring semester is going to be for you (and us).
- An environmental issue is identified.
- Other people's work on the topic is collected and evaluated.
- Data necessary to solving the problem are either collected by
the student, or obtained independently.
- Data are analyzed using techniques appropriate to the data
- Results of the analysis are reported and are interpreted in
light of the initial environmental issue.
The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to demonstrate
If you can outline these points clearly in a proposal, then
you will be able to focus on a research topic and finish it
rapidly. A secondary purpose of the proposal is to train
you in the art of proposal writing. Any future career in
Environmental Sciences, whether it be in industry or academia will
require these skills in some form.
- the thesis topic addresses a significant environmental
- an organized plan is in place for collecting or obtaining
data to help solve the problem;
- methods of data analysis have been identified and are
appropriate to the data set.
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 research.)
Instead, what we're interested in seeing is if you have a clear
handle on the process and structure of research as
it's 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.
of a thesis proposal
Your thesis proposal should have the following elements in this
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 senior thesis. Of course, the
state of the individual projects at the end of the fall will vary,
and therefore also the format of the elements discussed below.
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Thesis statement
- Preliminary results and discussion
- Work plan including time table
- Implications of research
- List of references
- contains short, descriptive title of the proposed thesis
project (should be fairly self-explanatory)
- and author, institution, department, research mentor,
mentor's institution & email address, advisor's name,
instuitution and email address, and date of delivery
Table of contents
- the abstract is a brief summary of your thesis proposal
- its length should not exceed ~200 words
- 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
- include a possible implication of your work, if successfully
- 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
- review what is known about your research topic as far as it
is relevant to your thesis
- cite relevant references
- the introduction should be at a level that makes it easy to
understand for readers with a general science background, for
example your classmates
- 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
Preliminary results and discussion
- 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, technique, procedure, equipment, and
- 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
Work plan including time table
- present any results you already have obtained
- discuss how they fit in the framework of your thesis
Implications of Research
- describe in detail what you plan to do until completion of
your senior thesis project
- list the stages of your project in a table format
- indicate deadlines you have set for completing each stage of
the project, including any work you have already completed
- discuss any particular challenges that need to be overcome
- use this gantt chart
format for your time table
List of references
- what new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we
do not already know?
- why is it worth knowing, what are the major implications?
- 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
- all references cited in the text must be listed
- cite single-author references by the surname of the author
(followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
- ... according to Hays (1994)
- ... population growth is one of the greatest environmental
concerns facing future generations (Hays, 1994).
- cite double-author references by the surnames of both authors
(followed by date of the publication in parenthesis)
- e.g. Simpson and Hays (1994)
- cite more than double-author references by the surname of the
first author followed by et al. and then the date of the
- e.g. Pfirman, Simpson and Hays would be:
- Pfirman et al. (1994)
- cite newspaper articles using the newspaper name and date,
- ....this problem was also recently discussed in the press
(New York Times, 1/15/00)
- do not use footnotes
- list all references cited in the text in alphabetical order
using the following format for different types of material:
- Hunt, S. (1966) Carbohydrate and amino acid composition of
the egg capsules of the whelk. Nature, 210, 436-437.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (1997)
Commonly asked questions about ozone.
- Pfirman, S.L., M. Stute, H.J. Simpson, and J. Hays (1996)
Undergraduate research at Barnard and Columbia, Journal of
Research, 11, 213-214.
- Pechenik, J.A. (1987) A short guide to writing about
biology. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 194pp.
- Pitelka, D.R., and F.M. Child (1964) Review of ciliary
structure and function. In: Biochemistry and Physiology of
Protozoa, Vol. 3 (S.H. Hutner, editor), Academic Press,
New York, 131-198.
- Sambrotto, R. (1997) lecture notes, Environmental Data
Analysis, Barnard College, Oct 2, 1997.
- Stute, M., J.F. Clark, P. Schlosser, W.S. Broecker, and G.
Bonani (1995) A high altitude continental paleotemperature
record derived from noble gases dissolved in groundwater from
the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. Quat. Res., 43,
- New York Times (1/15/00) PCBs in the Hudson still an issue,
- it is acceptable to put the initials of the individual
authors behind their last names, e.g. Pfirman, S.L., Stute, M.,
Simpson, H.J., and Hays, J (1996) Undergraduate research at
Order in which to write the proposal
. Proceed in the following order:
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.
- Make an outline of your thesis proposal before you
- Prepare figures and tables
- Figure captions
- Discussion of your data
- Inferences from your data
- "Pictures say more than 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,
and improve proposal clarity. 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. A co-author of mine has advised me: make figures
that other people will want to steal. They will cite your
paper because they want to use your figure in their paper.
- 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
- 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
- Modern computer technology such as scanners and drafting
programs are available in the department to help you create or
- 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. Modern
word processing programs have grammar and spell checkers.
- 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
The senior seminar website has a very detailed document on "How to write a thesis"
which you might want to look at. Most of the tips given there
are relevant for your thesis proposal as well.
Recommended books on
Some of the material on this page was adapted from:
see Master's guidelines