Guidelines for Writing an Effective Thesis Proposal

Guidelines for Writing an Effective Thesis Proposal is primarily meant for graduate students, but can also apply to undergraduate researchers whose report is typically more focused.

A thesis proposal is an essential element in the development of a masters or doctoral thesis. Depending on the department or group, a proposal may be mandatory or optional (it is almost always mandatory at the doctoral level, but at times optional at the masters).

The proposal serves many objectives including the following:

  • Effectively communicates the intentions of your research to your technical advisors and peers, so that they in turn may provide critical feedback.
  • Convinces your technical advisors that your plan has sufficient value and is realistic.
  • Helps focus and structure your work, so that you have a clear idea of the thesis or hypothesis you intend to investigate.
  • Ensures that you have the “big picture” of the work you are doing through a critical assessment of the motivations and applications of your problem and by investing in a survey of the research area.
  • Allows you and your advisor to negotiate a good plan for your work so that you know how to begin and may also compare to your progress for useful “self-evaluation.”
  • Answers the following questions:
    • If your thesis works out, how will applied science be better off or have changed?
    • What societal impact will this research have (as engineers our work always has intrinsic societal impact, but we need to be explicit regarding how our work will positively affect the community at large)?

There are many styles to a thesis proposal (and in doing research), but I suggest the following structure to my students. If you have another preference, please go ahead (be creative), but just make sure that all the following elements exist in your document. In my opinion, a good proposal can be easily reworked into the first chapter of your final thesis. Please note that a thesis proposal takes much planning and time (the research plans and literary presentation are both very important).

  • Problem Formulation –What is the specific problem that you are trying to solve (be exact)? Provide a mathematical description wherever possible and illustrate with figure(s) to help elucidate what you are doing. The problem can be formulated as a question. One of the biggest problems I have observed with formulation of the thesis problem involves scope. Often the problem statement is too broad (usually as a result of not being specific enough in the selected framework to describe the problem — i.e., the problem has been sufficiently narrowed down), or involves too many/ too few things to be solved in the given time frame of the thesis.
  • Motivation
    – Why are you investigating this problem? Why is at an important issue? You need to discuss the reasons you are going to spend years of your life solving this problem. You can motivate the problem by:

    • Discussing trends in research, current events and industry, among other areas. The more specific the examples and motivation you have, the better.
    • Describing the technical deficiencies of existing solutions (or lack of existing solutions) to address the problem. This should involve general conclusions that you have formed about the fundamental problems with existing work. Existing work is not described here, but the conclusions should be stated.
  • Applications – Describe what the existing applications are that would benefit from finding a solution to the problem you have specified. You will find many applications in your literature survey. What gives this section (and your proposal) even more merit is if you discuss novel applications that others have not considered. Can you see any other extended uses of the work? As a student (and in most cases someone who is new to the area), you have an advantage that you can see things from a new perspective. In addition, keep in mind a target application for your work. Families of solutions exist to problems. Selection of the right solution must be suited to a specific application.
Survey (a.k.a Literature Review) of Previous Work
  • Classification of Existing Techniques – The purpose of a survey is to convey to the reader (in a reasonably succinct form) what has been done in the previous literature. A good way to provide the “big picture” is to provide a classification of existing methods/analysis (remember biology — genus, species?). A classification is by no means unique; there are different taxonomies that can be used. However, your job is to find the best one that suits your thesis formulation. For example, if you are researching new transform domains in which to hide steganographic data, then your taxonomy can be effective by dividing existing techniques according to the transforms they use. Please note that newer areas (especially at the ad hoc stage) are sometimes harder to find solid taxonomies for. However, it can be done through
    creativity and insight.
  • A classification map, which should be included in this section, is an overall diagram starting with a node representing “all techniques” and then splitting the node into category nodes that are further split, and so on. The leafs of the tree can represent fundamental classes of techniques/analyses (that don’t make sense to break down any more) or the techniques/analyses themselves (in areas that are relatively new without many existing contributions). The tree can get quite complex depending on the taxonomy selected and at times some techniques may seem to fit in multiple categories. However, modifying your classification can help simplify things. A description of the map is necessary to describe how the techniques are divided and to provide insight into why this is a good methodology.
  • Literature Review – The actual description of each approach should reflect any differences in the problem solved (compared to that formulated in the thesis), any assumptions made, the novelty of the work (i.e., the contributions of the method/analysis to the body of research), the advantages and limitations as well as any fundamental trade-offs observed. If you are dealing with a very large body of existing work, be selective in what you survey. Also, in your description, you can group methods that build on top of each other to simplify this section.
  • Trends and Areas of Future Development – A literature review should be greater than the sum of its parts. One way in which to achieve this quality is to identify general trends and insights in the work you have read. Based on how things are evolving, do you see a natural evolutionary step? Research almost always builds on itself. Does all existing work have similar characteristics that are limiting in some way? Your answers to these questions should enable you to identify both trends and necessary areas for future development. This also provides the motivation discussed in the previous section.
  • Tip – It’s important to be on top of the research in your area, so it is recommended that you do as thorough a review as possible. Also, keep in mind what other researchers say about different work to identify how different contributions are interpreted and have impact to a general area.
Proposed Solution
  • Chacteristics of a Good Solution – Make a list of what an “effective” solution looks like and prioritize the characteristics if you are targeting a given application. Define what the characteristics mean to your problem formulation and discuss the necessary fundamental compromises and why you prioritized as you did.
  • Tool-Sets – As engineers we often borrow existing tools to solve a problem or we develop novel tools to do the job. Application-oriented work often borrows tools whereas pure research can, to some degree, invent them. Describe what types of tool-sets that you expect to use in your work and why you believe they are a good fit. The tools may include analysis techniques, previously proposed algorithms.
  • Hypotheses – Discuss why you think the proposed tool-sets will solve the problem and improve upon any previous work. You should defend your hypotheses with both evidence based on previous work (you can reference instances, which may not be related to your exact problem, where the tool-set has worked well), and intuition (this is where it helps to predict and infer new directions from existing work. This part will not be simple to do. If this part was easy, then your scope may be too specific. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” Proving your hypothesis is the objective of your thesis.
  • The Solution – Present your actual methodology to address the problem. Start with a global perspective with block diagrams and then break each component of the block diagram into parts that you discuss more specifically. If there are elements that are as of yet undecided, state what they are. These elements will comprise the tasks in your research milestones.
  • Preliminary Results – Here is where the results of naive or partial implementations of your ideas go. You have suggested a particular solution for a number of reasons. These reasons should ideally not just be based on what previous work has said. It is also good to do your own analysis (even if in the beginning you have to assume everything is Gaussian!) or simulations (even if you must assume the most ideal conditions) to help justify your approach to solving the problem.
Research Milestones
  • Tasks – Determine the effective problems you intend to pursue in your thesis. What will you design? What will you analyze? What will you experiment with? What will you simulate? You must list these in chronological order and show the relationship between the different stages. These must be specific. Just saying “I intend to analyze the algorithm” is insufficient for a proposal. You should discuss how exactly you will approach the analysis process and discuss the tool-sets you intend to try.
  • Milestones – List and elaborate in chronological order how you will work on the various tasks you have set out to do. These may be overlapping in time. What is important here is that you give yourself enough time to do everything including writing up the thesis which will take months (and of course make sure it is within the timeline of your degree requirements). Take into account if you will be TAing, working, or taking courses. Any of these tasks can reduce your research time by at least a factor of two. For those who must build chips, you must take into account fabrication times, etc.



If your thesis proposal is an official component of your degree requirements, then the length may be set. Different schools have different guidelines, so check the length at your graduate office.

Other Tips
  • Research, especially for those who come directly out of an undergraduate program, can seem deceptively easy or low-volume. It truly is the result of persistence, hard work and accountability. Your consistent efforts will shine through in a good proposal.
  • If you are stuck, try going outside your area for inspiration. There may be potential in borrowing tools/solutions from other areas.
  • Get to know your library resources (especially the electronic ones)., INSPEC and IEEE/IEE Databases are excellent must-use resources.
  • Write your proposal well. Make sure it is organized, easy to read, has proper grammar and conveys what you intend to say in the simplest possible way. Do not use complicated words. Think before you write any paragraph to make sure there isn’t an easier more straightforward way to convey the information. Your ideas will not be accepted as easily and you will not be necessarily given the credit you deserve if you frustrate the reader. One way to do this is to make it possible to read the first sentence of every paragraph and understand the document. Each paragraph may start general and go specific. Writing is a personal thing, so it is important to practice writing, pay attention to others’ writing in order to develop a style that is comfortable for you.
  • Have a peer read over your thesis before you give it to your advisor. Their feedback will be invaluable for the presentation of the work and to help you identify if any part of the document needs more justification.
  • Feedback from advisor during the formulation of a thesis is often invaluable. However, the quality of the feedback you get is a function of the quality of the work you present to them. Instead of saying “I have no idea what to do” (which, believe me, will anger even the most kind advisor), try working through the problem and come up with a number of potential solutions that you can discuss with your advisor. Also, if your advisor is busy, be persistent, and keep up by arranging periodic contact hours if you don’t have regular meetings.