Let’s see how to write a thesis proposal. Actually… let’s start from the beginning: if you find yourself wondering “what is a thesis proposal?” you probably are enrolled in the 50% of the universities that do now require you to do that. In your case, when is time to write the thesis you will approach your potential supervisor and he/she will give you a possible thesis to work on.

If you are enrolled in the other 50% of the universities, your (candidate) supervisor can’t assign you a thesis directly but you need to find and propose a topic that will be evaluated and, if properly presented, it will become your thesis.  

Both these approaches (with thesis proposal or without thesis proposal) have merits and problems. I am not going to take a particular side. At the same time, if you have to write a research proposal I will give you a few suggestions in order to “make it fly” so that you will not have to write it over and over again.

You can consider a thesis proposal as a 2-3 pages document that describes what could be your argument of the thesis. Usually, there is not a strict format or a proposed template. However, you may want to ask to your thesis coordinator or your student office in order to be sure. 

Thesis Proposal, Research Proposal, tips and suggestions
How to write a thesis proposal or a research proposal: a few tips

All you have to do is to provide a small description of your idea and propose something that is feasible and original.  Nothing more and nothing less.

A good thesis proposal has 4 elements:

  • The idea
  • The methodology
  • The tool
  • The data

Let’s see them one at the time.

The idea:

Capture in 2 sentences what you would like to investigate. Maybe you would like to use a neural network for evaluating the possibility of predicting the financial distress of a company. Alternatively, you would like to investigate how companies adopt a particular cloud computing solution. Just use your fantasy and your curiosity. At the same time start thinking to who could be a possible supervisor that will be interested in this particular topic.

The methodology:

How would you like to investigate the idea that you are proposing? Sometimes is easy, think about the first example that I made in the previous paragraph. “Neural network” is part of the idea itself and clearly suggest a methodology. At the same time, some ideas require additional specification. In the second case, for example, you are not specifying how you intend to evaluate the adoption of a cloud computing solution. If that is the case, you have to make explicit what you intend to do. Maybe you will survey executives in several companies, maybe you will conduct interviews, maybe you will look at financial data and so on.

The tool:

Now that idea is clear and the methodology is explicit is about doing what you are proposing. In other words, what tool will you be using for your investigation? Continuing with the first example, maybe you will use a particular library (for example TensorFlow) and you will build a prototype using a programming language (for example JAVA or Python). In the second case, assuming that you will conduct a survey, you will use excel or R for analyze the data and some web tool for distributing questionnaire.

It does not really matter what you plan to use as long as is feasible, you can picture yourself doing what you are proposing for the next months and is a good fit your particular case of investigation (i.e. your idea).

The Data:

Now that you have a tool, what data will you use for validating or invalidating the claims that you will be making in your thesis? In the first example, you may want to consider some financial data-set that is publicly (or not) available. Alternatively, maybe you can see if researchers use a particular benchmark and model your thesis around that idea. In the second example, if you will be survey practitioners, you will actually build the data set that you plan to analyze.

As you can see these 4 arguments are interlinked and influence each other. (i) Can you build a thesis around a neural network if you do not have data set? (ii) Can you analyze a survey if you do not have access to people that are actually working at that particular topic? (iii) Can you build a prototype if you are not familiar with programming? The more these 4 aspects will be clear the more they will marge in a flawless manner. In other words the more you want to show that you ideas is original and feasible the more you have to seek a way to integrate these 4 aspects in the proposal. This is the secret of a well written proposal!

One more tip for your thesis proposal:

There is only one remaining aspect that we need to consider. Your work do not exist in isolation but is part of a particular discipline and you must show that you are aware of what others are doing in a similar context. As general rule, you have to propose something that is relatively original. However, at the same time, it does not have to be a “game changer”. The chances that someone else is doing (or did) something similar is quite high and you want to cite a few scientifically relevant works of other researcher in the field. At the same time, you want to specify where your work will be similar and where it will differ. For example, you may want to use a similar approach (Neural Network) on a different set of data that is richer or more precise/imprecise compared to the one that other authors are using. Alternatively, maybe the problem of cloud adoption has been used only via interview and you are proposing a similar investigation but with a different methodology (a survey for example).

For this investigation, google scholar is what you need. Just find 4-8 scientific articles that are relevant and spend 1 or 2 paragraphs discussing similarities or differences.

In summary, a thesis proposal is a combination of an idea, a methodology, few tools and data. What you are proposing in these 4 categories should integrate smoothly. At the same time you need to spend some time to investigate if other authors have done something similar. You need to do that for both, use their work as a source of inspiration and ensure some novelty of your approach.

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This article (How to write a thesis proposal or a research proposal: a few tips) is part of the miniseries on how to do a good thesis, you can see the full list of posts at the following links: