Writing Thesis and Dissertation Proposals

Published: Tues., February 11, 2020

Doctoral students or masters students writing a thesis (Option I), may be required to present a proposal to their committee about the topic they want to research and about which they wish to write. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln does not have a requirement at the Graduate College level for preparing a proposal or prospectus, as it may be called, so there are no published guidelines from Graduate Studies. In order to determine the expectations for a specific program, you may want to consult your program’s graduate student handbook, your advisor, or committee. The requirements differ due to the nature of the programs offered and the level of the degree.

There are different proposal processes between programs in the humanities, the Fine Arts, social sciences, or those found in STEM fields. Depending on the field of study, the dissertation or thesis topic may be determined by the area of research of your advisor and funding available to support the research. It may grow out of a concept you discovered in the classroom or as a result of other work you have done. It could be a topic you are passionate about in your personal interests or related to current employment. In any of these instances, the research will be the stepping stone for the student to become an independent researcher guided by their advisor. In one program, the topic evolves out of the results of the student’s comprehensive exams. In some cases it is through discussions and initial research experiences with scientists in the field of interest that helps formulate the focus of the student’s research. This may not include a formal written document as is seen in other academic areas.

After the topic has been decided, in consultations with your advisor, you will need to determine the required content and format of the proposal. Will it be written or oral? What should be included? By when should it be completed? Is it part of another requirement? Your advisor and Graduate Student Handbook should help in this regard. Standards for the program should be described so that all students know what is expected.

You should consider the development of the written proposal to be the first step toward completing the thesis or dissertation. In many cases, it will provide a good foundation for future work on the document through initial research into the scholarly literature which then informs the student of the areas needed for research and helps formulate the methodologies to be used.

An example of a humanities department's prospectus includes a formal statement of purpose or the topic of the dissertation, a review of literature or scholarly works, an outline of the chapters detailing what they will include or the planned analysis and a bibliography. This must be of a quality by which the committee can determine academic rigor of the student’s proposed research. Another department sets a number of page expectations along with a theoretical construct and a discussion of materials to be examined. In STEM and social science fields, the proposal will likely include at least a discussion of prior literature and research leading to your research question(s) and then your methodological plans.

The timing of the submission and/or presentation of the dissertation proposal may also be dictated by the timing of other program requirements. Some programs may have the proposal as part of comprehensive exams. This may necessitate writing some initial chapters of the dissertation which reflect the need for the research (where’s the gap in knowledge?), a discussion of current literature about the topic or theories on which the research is being based as well as the methodologies to be used to conduct the research. If the student is researching with human participants the IRB will want know this information so it is beneficial to begin to process this information in a way that speaks to the proposed research processes.

The scheduling of proposals may be determined by the academic program guidelines with expectations of the amount of coursework that must be completed prior to and the amount of time required to be available prior to the next milestone in the process. If there is an oral component to the proposal submission, it may coincide with a seminar or committee meeting for the student. For many students, the proposal will be written as they are completing required coursework and preparing to work on their thesis or dissertation more full time.

In the end, program guidelines and advisor guidance are critical in determining the requirements and process for the dissertation or thesis proposal. You are encouraged to begin the discussion of this early so that you can combine it with other activities during their academic career. Often students can find opportunities to use assignments for class as a way to work on components of their proposal. The UNL Writing Center may also be able to help you with your proposal if you would like additional feedback on your writing.