Proposal-Writing For A Research Project Thesis And Dissertation

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.
  • 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
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

  • contains short, descriptive title of the proposed thesis project  (should be fairly self-explanatory)
  • and author, institution, department, resreach mentor, mentor's institution, and date of delivery
  • 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 completed
Table of contents
  • 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
Thesis statement
  • 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
  • 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 calibration graphs
  • 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
Preliminary results and discussion
  • present any results you already have obtained
  • discuss how they fit in the framework of your thesis
Work plan including time table
  • 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
Implications of Research
  • what new knowledge will the proposed project produce that we do not already know?
  • why is it worth knowing, what are the major implications?
List of references
  • 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 reference
  • 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 publication
    • e.g. Pfirman, Simpson and Hays would be:
    • Pfirman et al. (1994)
  • cite newspaper articles using the newspaper name and date, e.g.
    • ....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., 9/27/97.
    • 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, 209-220.
    • New York Times (1/15/00) PCBs in the Hudson still an issue, A2.
  • 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 ......

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


  • "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 equations;
    • 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 modify pictures.


  • 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.  Use them.
  • 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

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:


    For postgraduate students, finding a topic for their research proposal to work on their master’s thesis or dissertation is the quintessential part of their coursework and it can also be very time-consuming. The research proposal and project are not only essential for passing the course, but also define the students’ abilities to pass the test, show critical thinking skills and how they work independently and on research-based projects.

    The Research Proposal and Its Purpose

    Postgraduate research projects are usually written in the form of a thesis or dissertation and are of such high importance that graduate students may find this is the one are where they need to compile the most important information that’s well organized and precise. Master’s students should know that their research proposal will be brief and contain general information.

    A research proposal can typically be about 500 words and up to about 1,000 words in length. The purpose of the research proposal will be to cover the essential areas that the research project will further explore. The first step in drafting a research proposal is choosing the appropriate topic. This should be a topic the student identifies with and one that is practical enough to research within the specific time frame.

    Format for Writing Research Proposals – Is There a Standard?

    Yes, there is a standard. The research proposal template is a standard that all students use and it should be clear and concise. It should also be well-structured and follow a chronology. It must also be achievable and realistic as there are time constraints that should be observed. Close attention should be paid to relevant documentation, all supporting statements, and a clear coherency about the subject matter. The research topic that is chosen should also address any existing gaps that might be encountered within the scope of the relevant literature.

    If you are looking for help not only with selecting a thesis topic, but with writing a proposal or parts of your thesis/dissertation, please feel free to visit our order page and place your order.

    Steps for Starting a Research Proposal

    Once a research topic has been selected, the student will then use it to formulate a research proposal. As we previously mentioned, the research proposal may be about 500 words in length up to 1,000 words in length. The proposal will also include a title, a research question, a brief explanation detailing why that particular topic is relevant, the literature reviewed, the methodology and the time frame. The goal with the proposal is to submit a clear structure and outline that will further expand on the knowledge base about that particular research field. This is why students should seek a topic and research question they are curious and/or passionate about, not just one where they can easily get the approval of the course director.

    The next step after the approval is to then start on the research project. The student will then go about carrying out the stages of assembling the research project in strategic stages and cycles that are relevant to all research projects. The student will work on conducting a comprehensive literature review based on the research question, they will define and set up a detailed methodology and test whether it will work. The student will also start to collect their research data and analyze it so they can then draw conclusions defined by their data analysis. The student will also describe the research steps they utilized in depth in their research project.

            Best Ways to Conduct Academic Research 

    How to Write a Research Proposal – What’s the Process?

    The research project is an important step in completing a student’s coursework. It will show a clear and well-thought plan as a final project. When you write your research proposal format, it’s a summary that will explain what you plan on examining in your research project. It will also explore how the student will go about collecting their data and analyzing it. The proposal will give a general direction the student plans to take with their thesis/dissertation.

    For specific requirements such as overall length and the specific information the course director may be looking for and the time frame, the student should refer to the specific requirements that the course director outlines. As the student sets up the proposal, it will have a specific outline and areas to work on. These include:

    • The Introduction. The introduction states the research question and gives the research plan background information on the subject. It may also give insight to broader issues that may surround the topic.

    • The Methodology. The methodology outlines the sources the student will use to gather their research and whether they will collect quantitative data or qualitative data. The student will also include how they will analyze their data and if there are any biases in their research.

    • The Objectives. The objectives the student hopes to achieve will be mentioned here. This is a good area for the student to state the outcomes they may anticipate and goals they hope to achieve with their research.

    • Literature Reviewed. The literature reviewed will define the various citations the student used for their research. The student may also utilize works from other researchers and mention any differences or similarities they found. This is also an area to give an analysis of the work that others have completed.

    • Constraints in Research. This last section details any constraints the student may have come across in their research. Some topics may be too broad or have more complex issues related to them and the student can clearly state any constraints they came across in their understanding of the work.

    Where to Get Ideas for a Research Proposal?

    The student can find several sites online to help them come up with a research proposal idea. To find help online, the student can use the following resources to help them:

    • Research Proposal Topic Resources
    • Books (Primary and secondary sources)
    • Journals (Professional associations, trade journals, magazines)
    • Newspapers (New York Times, Wall St. Journal)
    • Video Recordings (Documentaries, films)
    • Indices
    • Governmental Reports (Census Data, Dept. of Public Health, etc.)
    • Interviews
    • Other Dissertations and Dissertation Abstracts
    • Websites

    Topics for Research Proposals

    Here are several ideas for the graduate student in need of proposal topics for their Ph.D. dissertation or Masters Thesis; they are categorized by several of the more popular departments (English, Political Science, History, etc.) and by difficulty, the more simplistic topics most appropriate for a Masters Thesis.

    English/ Literature

    Fairly Simple:

    • The Lasting Influence of the Beat Generation: How Their Literature Speaks to Posterity
    • Decadence in American Literature
    • The Macabre of Edgar Allen Poe


    • How the English Language Has Evolved Over the Last 20 Years Due to Improvements in Technology
    • Sexuality in Contemporary English/American Literature
    • Masochism and Sadism in British Gothic Literature
    • The Pointlessness of Poetry in the 21st Century


    • The Long-Lasting Effects of Individualism in British Romantic Literature
    • Environmental Ethics in American and American Indian Literatures from the 17th Century to the Present
    • The Pretentiousness of British Literature and its Exclusion of the American Reader


    Fairly Simple:

    • How History Helps Humanity Avoid Making the Mistakes of Old
    • Women’s Right and Women’s Suffrage


    • Imperialism through Asian Eyes
    • The Geographical Limitations of the Roman Empire


    • The Fall of the Roman Empire
    • Eastern Europe Before, During and After Communism
    • Comparison of FDR and Winston Churchill During World War II 

    Political Science

    Fairly Simple:

    • Inner-Workings of the European Union


    • Changes in Diplomacy After World War II
    • The History of Diplomacy Since the Middle Ages


    • Malaysian Foreign Policy in the Post-Mahathir Era, (2003-Present)
    • The Haitian Crisis of 1991-1994: Constraints and Asymmetry in United States-Latin American Relations 


    Fairly Simple:

    • Christianity in the American South
    • Buddhism in the 21st Century


    • Spirituality of the Native American Indian
    • Interpreting the Bible in the 21st Century


    • The Diverging Views of Christianity in Europe


    Fairly Simple:

    • Advantages and Disadvantages to Standardized Testing the United States
    • 21st Century Approaches to Education


    • Job-embedded Learning: How Teachers Learn from One Another During the Workday


    • A Review and Analysis of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972


    Fairly Simple:

    • Applications and the Relevance of Existentialism in the 21st Century
    • Deficient Causation in Leibniz


    • Rational Hope in Kant’s Moral Religion
    • Heidegger’s Critique of the Cartesian Problem of Skepticism


    • The Prescriptivity of Conscious Belief
    • Aristotle on Modality and Determinism


    Fairly Simple:

    • The Effect of Positive Thinking on Life Success
    • Identifying Predictors of Aggression in Children


    • Anger, Aggression, and Irrational Beliefs in Adolescents
    • Emotional Intelligence as a Predictor of Victimization Among Adolescent Males


    • Rational Emotive Behavior Play Therapy vs. Client Centered Therapy
    • Utilizing a Psycho-Educational Intervention to Reduce the Effects of Exposure to Media Images on Body Image in Young Adolescent Girls

    Criminal Justice

    Fairly Simple:

    • Adolescent Deviance Within Families and Neighborhoods
    • Procedural Justice During Police-Citizen Encounters


    • Meta-Analysis of Early Life Influences on Behavior in Criminals


    • The Effects of Individual Vulnerability and Lifestyle/Routine Activities on Fear of Crime and Perceptions of Risk in the School Setting
    • The Adoption of Crime Prevention Technologies in Public Schools


    Fairly Simple:

    • A Look at How Objective Journalism and Free Speech Sustains Democracy – and How the Absence of Both Promotes Autocracy


    • Publicity Matters: How Promotional Journalism and Public-Relations Marketing Can Go Hand in Hand
    • New Journalism: How the Incorporation of Narrative and Fiction Techniques Brought Forth an Innovative Approach to Conveying the News and News-Worthy Topics


    • The Transition from Print Media to Online/Digital Media and the Role of Both Moving Forward

    Once students have chosen a topic, they will want to ensure it’s suitable for their field of study and narrow enough that they will be able to complete it in the time frame given by their course director. For students that need dissertation or thesis help, contact Essay Masters, the World’s Best Writing Service. With knowledgeable writers that have thorough experience with dissertations, writing a master’s thesis and Ph.D.’s, we can help you with your assignment today. Essay Masters has over 200 Ph.D. level researchers and 1,800 MBA level writers ready to help you with your research project. Contact us today!

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