Writing a Proposal for your Graduate Thesis: What to Expect and What is Expected

By: Jordan Traut

For many English graduate students in the department, writing the thesis proposal feels like an overwhelming, and perhaps, daunting first-step in the march toward graduation. Compared to the thesis itself, however, the proposal is a relatively short supporting document, serving as a guide to propel students through their heaviest writing assignment at the university. Why, then, is it so intimidating? One possible answer: it cements our commitment to our final thesis idea. That is stressful.

It is more manageable to discuss what a thesis proposal should contain. First, it should introduce you as a student and scholar, and contextualize your thesis topic. Consider starting with general questions, like: “Why me?” “What established credibility do I have to talk about this?” “Why now?” “What gap in the field or curriculum needs to be filled?” Dr. Mando, Associate Professor of English specializing in Rhetoric and Science Studies writing, recommends focusing your research goals. 

He says, “You’ll be more successful answering a narrow research question deeply and thoroughly than you will skimming the surface of a very broad one. A graduate thesis proposal has a lot to do with scope. You need big ideas that have emerged from your readings and the artifact(s) you are studying, but the sign of a mature thesis proposal is a focused research question that recognizes the fact that significant contributions do not need to be massive in scale.”

If that advice is too much for you to digest where you’re at in your writing, Dr. Pfannenstiel, Graduate Coordinator specializing in Digital Writing and Composition, recommends simply starting your proposal by stating, “this thesis will…” and filling in the blank. She explains, “you will always have [this] one sentence to return to as you write,” not only the proposal, but the thesis as well. 

Next, you will want to include an outline of your anticipated thesis chapters. This could mean one paragraph for each chapter. Or you might want to break apart your sections in a different way. Take creative liberties but be sure to include what research materials will aid you along the way. 

Dr. Mando explains, “by describing, analyzing, and interpreting your artifact(s), you will help [your committee and readers] better understand that artifact, and through that process you must help scholars better understand the theories that drive your research.” “Setting realistic goals” in this portion of the proposal, according to Dr. Pfannenstiel, can shape the outcomes of student success later in the thesis writing process. 

Lastly, you will want to expand on the potential of your work. How will it contribute to the field, shaping and changing the way scholars like you think? If you want to apply to PhD programs, consider including how your thesis research will benefit a particular institution of interest. Dr. Pfannenstiel recommends explaining how your “thesis adds to the on-going academic conversation.” 

I had hoped to submit my thesis proposal in the summer before my last year of graduate school. I struggled with writer’s block; I knew what I wanted to write about, but I worried about meeting the expectations and standards of my committee. Ultimately, it was Dr. Craven, Professor of English specializing in Film Studies, who suggested I not let page numbers get in the way of telling my committee exactly what I want my thesis to be about. I had no problem expressing myself in person. Why not focus less on expectations and more on content? 

Dr. Craven proposes that students utilize the proposal to engage their committee members before the draft and defense. “By getting the readers’ inputs before your defense,” she says, “you will end up with a better final product and avoid last-minute major concerns.” Consider how the proposal can inspire you, as a student and scholar, “to be more confident in your approach as you enter the thesis defense.”

Be picky. Decide what advice you like and what suggestions work best for your thesis ideas. Then be sure to tailor it to meet your unique needs and your original style. After all, your thesis is about filling the gaps in scholarship with your voice. 

Be flexible. Be open to change. The thesis proposal is merely an outline–a graphic organizer of sorts–to keep you on track and show what your committee members can look forward to reading in your final thesis draft and defense.