How to write a thesis proposal

I. Framework
II. Structure of a thesis proposal
III. Order in which to write the proposal
IV. Tips
V. Resources

I. Framework

Senior research projects in Environmental Sciences have the following elements in common:
  1. An environmental issue is identified.
  2. Other people's work on the topic is collected and evaluated.
  3. Data necessary to solving the problem are either collected by the student, or obtained independently.
  4. Data are analyzed using techniques appropriate to the data set.
  5. Results of the analysis are reported and are interpreted in light of the initial environmental issue.
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).

The purpose of writing a thesis proposal is to demonstrate  that

  1. the thesis topic addresses a significant environmental problem;
  2. an organized plan is in place for collecting or obtaining data to help solve the problem;
  3. methods of data analysis have been identified and are appropriate to the data set.
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.

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.

II. Structure of a thesis proposal

Your thesis proposal should have the following elements in this order. 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

Abstract Table of contents Introduction Thesis statement Approach/methods Preliminary results and discussion Work plan including time table Implications of Research List of references

III. Order in which to write the proposal

.  Proceed in the following order:
  1. Make an outline of your thesis proposal  before you start writing
  2. Prepare figures and tables
  3. Figure captions
  4. Methods
  5. Discussion of your data
  6. Inferences from your data
  7. Introduction
  8. Abstract
  9. Bibliography
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.

IV. Tips



V. Resources/Acknowlegements

  • 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 scientific writing
  • Some of the material on this page was adapted from:
  • see Master's guidelines