Dissertation Proposal Writing Style

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
Abstract
  • 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
Introduction
  • 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
Approach/methods
  • 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. http://www.noaa.gov/public-affairs/grounders/ozo1.html, 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

Figures

  • "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.

Grammar/spelling

  • 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:
  • http://www.geo.utep.edu/Grad_Info/prop_guide.html
  • http://www.hartwick.edu/anthropology/proposal.htm
  • http://csdl.ics.hawaii.edu/FAQ/FAQ/thesis-proposal.html
  • http://www.butler.edu/honors/PropsTheses.html

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    How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide

    When you get to the point of writing a dissertation, you're clearly near the end of an important stage of your educational journey. The point of this paper is to showcase your skills and capacity to conduct research in your chosen discipline, and present the results through an original piece of content that will provide value for the academic and scientific community.

    Before we get any further, let's clarify one main thing: what is a dissertation?

    This term is usually used to present the final result of independent work and research for an undergraduate program. A thesis, on the other hand, is crafted for the completion of a Master's degree.

    Dissertation - the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree.

    However, the term dissertation is also used for the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about an undergraduate or PhD dissertation; the form of the assignment is very similar, although the PhD project is much more serious.

    This guide will be useful both for undergraduate and PhD students, who are working on their dissertation projects, as well as for students developing theses for MA programs.

    It's not easy to write the best dissertation.

    Most candidates usually start with great enthusiasm, but this intimidating project can throw them to despair. The process of planning, research, and writing will be the longest and most complex challenge you've ever committed to. The end result will be very rewarding, but you might go through several obstacles to get to that point. These are some of the most common problems students have when writing their dissertations:

    • Procrastination. They think there is plenty of time to work on the project, and they keep delaying the starting point. This is a big problem, since these students usually find themselves in frantic stress when the deadline approaches. Check out article ”7 Signs You Might Need Academic Writing Help” and find the best solution
    • Lack of research skills. Students who don't have enough experience with academic writing think they just need to collect few relevant resources and extract relevant quotes from them. That's far from the truth. You need to analyze those materials thoroughly and discuss them in the paper.
    • Lack of writing skills. The dissertation paper should follow the strict rules of academic writing. You should write in proper form, style, and language; and you should make sure to implement the correct citation guidelines.

    Although the challenge seems overwhelming, the important thing is to start from the beginning and complete each stage step by step. We have a guide that will show you the right direction.

    Step 1: Write a winning dissertation proposal

    We already explained what a dissertation paper is, but what is a dissertation proposal?

    As the term itself suggests, this is a proposal for the final dissertation project, which should persuade the committee members that you're going to commit to a valuable, interesting, and complex questions. This is a shorter paper than the final dissertation, but it's equally as important because this is the point when you'll think of a significant question and you'll set up a plan for assembling information and writing the paper. Even if the proposal is not mandatory in your university, you should still write it and discuss the points with your mentor.

    These are the main points to pay attention to when wondering how to write a dissertation proposal:

    Choose the theme, question, and title

    - What problem is your dissertation going to tackle?

    - Why is it a problem for the research, academic, and scientific community you'll belong to?

    - Why is it important for you to find a solution?

    - How are you going to search for the answers?

    Do you want to find out more about choosing your dissertation topic? Check out our article.

    “How to Come up with a Topic for Your Dissertation”

    All these questions are important for making the final commitment. Make sure to brainstorm and choose a theme that will be valuable, unique, and reasonable. You don't want to end up with a too complex question that would trick you in a dead end. The question you choose should lead you to a testable hypothesis that you can prove with strong arguments.

    Discuss few alternatives of the dissertation title with your mentor before you start writing the proposal.

    Structure of the dissertation proposal

    If you want to make the proposal convincing, its format has to be clean and easy to follow. Here are the points you should include in the proposal:

    • Dissertation title
    • Objectives - Aim for up to three objectives. If you're too extensive at this point, it will seem like your plan doesn't have a focus, so you'll need to narrow it down.
    • Literature - Ask your mentor if you're expected to list some specific references in this section. If that's not the case, you'll at least need to mention the areas of study, schools of thought, and other sources of information you're going to use during the research stage.
    • Research - This is the main section, where you'll elaborate the ideas of your research question. You will clearly outline the area of research.
    • Methodology - The dissertation project can be non-empirical (if the resources come from previously published projects) or empirical (if you collect data through questionnaires or other methods). In this section, you need to explain the methods of collecting data.
    • Potential outcomes - Where do you think you'll end up after all the research and analyzing? Explain the outcome you expect to come down to.
    • Timeframe - Create a schedule that explains how you will manage all stages of dissertation writing within a specific timeframe.
    • List of references - Ask your mentor if you're supposed to include this part, and he'll provide you with the instructions.

    Step 2: Conduct an effective research

    The dissertation research stage is going to determine the overall development of your project. It has to be methodical and effective, since you don't want to waste your time reading and analyzing irrelevant resources. Here are a few tips that will help you go through it:

    • Make a timeline for the research stage
    • It's important to find enough resources to fully understand the phenomenon you're focused on, but you'll need to stop researching at one point or another.

      Many students fall into a trap: they think they have to read everything that was ever written regarding the dissertation question they are about to elaborate. How much time do you plan to spend in the research stage? Make a timeline and stay committed to it.

      The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.

    • Find the right places to look for sources
    • The Internet is a good starting place during the research stage. However, you have to realize that not everything you read on the Internet is absolutely true. Double-check the information you find and make sure it comes from a trustworthy resource. Use Google Scholar to locate reliable academic sources. Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can take you to some great publication if you check out the list of references on the pages of your interest.

      Librarians are really helpful at this point of the project development. Don't avoid the actual library and ask the librarian to provide you with some interesting publications.

    • Organize your resources
    • You have to take notes; otherwise you'll end up seriously confused and you won't know where you located a certain important argument that you plan to use. Use Evernote, Penzu, or another online tool to write down notes about your impressions, as well as the sources you plan to reference.

    The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.

    Step 3: Write a mind-blowing dissertation

    Now, you're left with the most important stage of the dissertation writing process: composing the actual project, which will be the final product of all your efforts.

    It's surprising to see that many students have some level of confidence during the previous two stages of the process, but they crack when they realize they don't really know how to write a dissertation. Remember: you already did a great job up to this point, so you have to proceed. Everything is easier when you have a plan.

    • Make an outline
    • You already have the dissertation proposal, which is a preliminary outline for the actual dissertation. However, you still need a more detailed outline for the large project. Did the research stage lead you in an unexpected direction? Make sure to include the new points in your outline.

      This is a basic outline that will make it easier for you to write the dissertation:

    • Introduction
    • The first chapter should include a background of the problem, and a statement of the issue. Then, you'll clarify the purpose of the study, as well as the research question. Next, you'll need to provide clear definitions of the terms related to the project. You will also expose your assumptions and expectations of the final results.

    • Literature Review
    • In this chapter of the dissertation, you will review the research process and the most important acknowledgements you've come down to.

    • Methodology
    • This part of the dissertation is focused on the way you located the resources and the methods of implementation of the results. If you're writing a qualitative dissertation, you will expose the research questions, setting, participants, data collection, and data analysis processes. If, on the other hand, you're writing a quantitative dissertation, you will focus this chapter on the research questions and hypotheses, information about the population and sample, instrumentation, collection of data, and analysis of data.

    • Findings
    • This is the most important stage in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity. At this point, you'll restate the research questions and you will discuss the results you found, explaining the direction they led you to. In other words, you'll answer those questions.

    • Conclusions
    • In the final chapter of the dissertation, you will summarize the study and you'll briefly report the results. Don't forget that you have to explain how your findings make a difference in the academic community and how they are implied in practice.

      At the end of this chapter, include a "Recommendations for future research" section, where you'll propose future research that will clarify the issue further. Explain why you suggest this research and what form it should take.

    • Bibliography
    • Use the recommended citation style for your field of study, and make sure to include all sources you used during the research and writing stages.

    • Manage your time
    • You'll need another timeline, but this one will be focused on the writing process. Plan how to complete your dissertation chapter by chapter. When you have attainable goals, it will be easier for you to write the project without getting overwhelmed by its length and complexity.

    • Write the first draft
    • There is no life-changing advice to give at this point. You just need to stay away from distractions, stick to your timeline, follow the outline, and complete the first draft. You already have what it takes; now you're ready to do the real work.

    Findings stage is the most important in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity.

    Step 4: Edit and Proofread the Dissertation like a Pro

    Now that you've completed the first draft of the paper, you can relax. Don't even think about dissertation editing as soon as you finish writing the last sentence. You need to take some time away from the project, so make sure to leave space of at least few days between the writing and editing stage. When you come back to it, you'll be able to notice most of its flaws.

    • Start editing
    • There is a substantial difference between editing and proofreading: editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper. You need to deal with the essence first, since it would be silly to proofread the dissertation to perfection and then start getting rid of unnecessary parts and adding more details.

      Pay attention to the logical connection between each argument. Are there any gaps in information? Fill them in with more details you collected through the research stage. Maybe you got carried away with the explanations at some point? Make sure to reduce the volume of those parts and clarify them as much as possible. The point is not in quantity; it's in quality and clarity.

    • Proofread
    • Finally, it's time to do the final few readings and catch all spelling, grammar, and style errors you made. Read word by word, sentence by sentence, and consult a dictionary or thesaurus if you have any doubts.

      If you notice that you're struggling through the stages of editing and proofreading, you should know you're not the only one with such problem. You are too attached to this project and it's difficult for you to see the flaws in it. That's why it's recommended for students to use an editing service that will bring their projects to perfection. This is a smart investment that will save you from embarrassment after all that effort and stress you went through.

    Editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper.

    Step 5: Get feedback

    Before you can submit the dissertation project to the committee, you need to get some feedback.

    Start with a friend or colleague who has knowledge in this discipline. You need to trust this person, since the dissertation is your unique intellectual property. Ask about their opinions and suggestions for improvement.

    Then, discuss the project with your mentor. He/she will point out any possible weak points, and you'll get instructions on how to finalize the process before getting ready for the presentation.

    The dissertation writing process is a great challenge, which not all students are capable to cope with. You need to keep in mind that you've come this far in your studies, so there is no other way to go but forward. Tackle the project stage by stage, and you'll soon complete the most important paper in your whole educational journey.

    Are You Still Struggling With Your Dissertation?

    Check out our Services and see how we can help!

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