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Writing a Thesis: The Proposal

The proposal cannot be written until the research has been started and a considerable amount of reading has been undertaken. To ensure that the project comes to a successful conclusion, the proposal needs to be based upon sound research. The development of a proposal is likely to follow a pattern, just as any other project. One view of the pattern can be seen in figure 1.

Illustration of relationship between 
product development and project

Fig 1. Diagram of the pattern of development toward a thesis proposal

The pattern suggests an evolutionary process. It is a process that does not really stop at the proposal write up, and continues until the research has been completed.

The process starts with the topic that is to be the basis of the research. The determination of a topic and its focus is discussed in some detail in the essay 'Getting started' in this series.

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Given a topic that will answer a research question, it is necessary to formulate an aim that states what the researcher intends. The aim needs to show the intention in an clear and succinct manner. If the researcher can explain the topic and the purpose of the research to someone who doesn't have expertise in the subject, then it is likely that a succinct and clear aim can be formulated. The wording should be such that when the aim is met the research can be said to have been completed effectively.


The aim needs to be broken down into a set of objectives, or the necessary tasks for its successful completion. Each objective is better described in terms of an outcome and its associated deliverable. There is likely to be between five and eight such objectives. The deliverables could be reports or analyses, or even simple graphs or lists. When a deliverable has been produced the outcome should be complete. Once all deliverables have been completed, the aim should have been met. In order to determine a reasonable set of objectives it is sensible to work from the top down, breaking the final research intention into appropriate stages. It is also useful to work from the bottom up and find the set that provides the path to a successful completion.

Reading Reading and More Reading

Reading about the topic is the most important part of the research programme at this stage, and needs to be wide ranging. The sources should be of a good standard, particularly academic conference papers and quality journal articles. Text books should not be relied upon, since they may no longer be accurate or up to date. The reading should encompass the topic and field of specialisation, but should also cover areas outside the topic itself, for complementary ideas and research. Sources covering the methods and research rationale of other researchers in the topic area should also be covered.
Reading will help to allow an evaluation of the data requirements of the research, where the data will come from and the methods of collection. The data sources may be questionnaires, case studies or experiments, but a justification of the sources and collection instruments is necessary. The rationale of the research is needed. This should cover all the requirements necessary in order to meet the aims of the research - 'The total How'.
The project processes must also be considered at this stage. A time and effort plan has to be made, and a risk analysis undertaken. If such plans show that the research aims and objectives are not feasible in any respect, a review of the project will be needed.
The process steps to this stage will have highlighted any deficiencies in the plans and rationale, and this will lead to a re-processing through the same stages as previously.
The proposal itself should include the following topics, though not necessarily in the order noted. The order in which they are written is also not the same order in which they will appear in the proposal document. It should be remembered that it is only the contents of the proposal that can be assessed, not the amount of effort that went into the preparation.

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Suggested Contents for Proposal

Title - A single line summarising the aim and reflecting the content of the study.

Abstract - A short summary of the aim and purpose, and the achievement to be expected. This should not be written until all other headings have been completed.

Background - An examination of the background to the project problem or topic, setting it in context. It may include a section of the company or client. It will set the scene for the reader, where necessary placing the research into its geographical location and place in time. It will thus give the reader all the necessary information to understand the framework of the proposal, its usefulness, and the expected benefits.

Critical Literature Review - An essential part of the research proposal. It is a review of the reading that has been such a large part of the research to the point of the proposal. It provides the evidence necessary to show the academic worth of the research defined in the proposal.
Objectives - The list of measurable tasks that provide the means to achieve the aim.

Research methods - The research methodology showing how data will be collected, sampling will be undertaken, and analysis will be carried out. This will clearly vary considerably from proposal to proposal depending upon the nature of the project or dissertation.

Project plan - A realistic and detailed schedule illustrated with a simple Gantt chart, showing the feasibility of the project. The tasks in the schedule should relate to the objectives.

Effort put into the preparation of the proposal gives a reward that is disproportionate to the result of efforts put in at a later stage. Producing a good proposal takes a lot of effort, reading, and initial research. Starting the reading and research after the proposal has been submitted will only lead to failure.

It would be too little too late


Martins, How to write a thesis proposal, [online] available at
<> [28-10-07]
Nussbaum, M. 2002 How to write a (Thesis / Dissertation) Proposal [online] available at
<> [29-10-07]

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