It’s time to write your thesis/dissertation proposal … er, uh, prospectus … um, wait, what is it that we graduate students write before we actually write a thesis or dissertation? And how do we write this thing?
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. I know that I had many questions when writing my proposal, and I recall many of my colleagues feeling the same. Let’s start by clarifying, somewhat, the difference in the terms “proposal” and “prospectus.”
These terms are used interchangeably by many universities, and whatever you call it, this piece of writing is basically an outline of your proposed study as you see it now. Some universities do distinguish between the terms “proposal” and “prospectus”; see Walden University (click here) where a prospectus is actually the plan for a proposal! But a proposal, in general, is a written piece that seeks to convince its audience to do something, buy something, or accept a solution. If you think about it, a thesis or dissertation proposal does just that for your committee: you are writing to show your committee members the plan for your ultimate project, and you hope they accept your design. No one expects that you will know exactly what your thesis or dissertation will ultimately look like at this stage, however.
So let’s move on to the actual the document. As Alice N. T. Reid, on her website, says, a (general) proposal “offers a plan to fill a need.” The thesis/dissertation proposal fits that description exactly, as it should suggest that your project will fill in a gap, however small, in the existing scholarship on the same topic. But, again, what are the requirements for this proposal?
Here is where variety comes in; there are as many kinds of proposals as there are theses and dissertations. For this reason, you should check with your advisor to see what she or he suggests. All proposals contain one or more research question/s and how those will be addressed, and all have a bibliography. All give the context of what is currently being discussed regarding the topic, but, other than that, proposals vary, depending on the study and the discipline the work is situated in.
I found that typically, proposals are about 20 pages, but I’ve heard of many being much shorter or longer. Carolyn Law, NIU’s thesis advisor, suggests not to worry about page length; instead, she says to “outline your proposal based on necessary sections.” She advises you to think of the proposal as a contract or action plan to keep you focused throughout your research project.
After you talk to your department, you could search other university websites for department-specific advice as well; for instance, Brown University’s History Department gives exacting details as to how to write a proposal in history at Brown. Don’t forget, too: books! Several resources focus on helping writers of theses and dissertations. One example, with a 72-page chapter on writing proposals, is: Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters.