How to write a thesis proposal in 5 simple steps

How to write a thesis proposal in 5 simple steps

For grad students, the most important proposal in the world is the thesis proposal. The thesis proposal is an outline of the research work you plan to do in your thesis or dissertation.

It’s a roadmap on which your academic and professional career depends. As with any other type of proposal, the more careful the planning, the better the results you’ll get from your thesis proposal.

Once you have decided on a topic the fun of putting together the thesis proposal itself begins.

Writing the proposal itself is challenging, but with the right templates and strategies, it is entirely doable.

This blog post will explain how to write a preliminary thesis, and how to overcome some of the hurdles most graduate students encounter along the way. And we’ll even provide you with a free proposal template to help you get started.

How to write a thesis proposal in 5 simple steps

  1. Outlining
  2. Defining a structure
  3. Planning the writing
  4. Writing the thesis proposal
  5. Proofreading your proposal

Step 1: Outlining

Your thesis proposal starts with outlining the materials you’ve gathered. This is very important because the thesis proposal is as much for your benefit as it is your instructor.

If you can carefully outline the parts of the thesis, you can follow the outline in conducting the research to develop the actual project.

What your instructor is likely looking for is evidence in your proposal that you understand the process of data collection. Making it clear that your research will incorporate reviewing and integrating relevant literature is a big part of the proposal.

To do this most effectively, you need to know the structure of a thesis proposal. Here are the steps you’ll take to outline your thesis:

  • Create a separate section with your thesis statement at the top of the outline.
  • List out the main points you’re going to be making.
  • Label your points with Roman Numerals.
  • Write out supporting statements underneath the main points.
  • Label your supporting statements with letters.
  • Continue to add sub-ideas and statements until your ideas are fully fleshed out.

Step 2: Defining a structure

You need to know the common structure of a thesis proposal. The typical parts are as follows:

  1. Abstract: This is the outline or the summary of your work and research methodology.
  2. Introduction: An introduction is what sets the stage for the rest of your paper. It puts the rest of your research and ideas in the correct context.
  3. Existing literature/significant prior research: All of your ideas will be supported with research and other well-known literature. This gives your work credibility, and helps you avoid accusations of plagiarism.
  4. Thesis or project statement: Your thesis statement is a concise explanation of the argument made in your paper.
  5. Approach: In this section, you’ll include a brief overview of how you plan to approach the topic and the research method used for your work.
  6. Potential outcomes: In this section, you’ll outline what you expect to find through your research project.
  7. Limitations: Every study comes with its own unique limitations or constraints which impact the results. Outline these limitations, and explain how they could impact the findings in your research proposal.
  8. Contributions to knowledge: This is your opportunity to explain how your work will contribute to your field of study.
  9. Proposed dissertation chapters: And finally, this section will include an outline of how you plan to write and format your dissertation.

Step 3: Planning your writing

The best way to put together an organized thesis plan is to organize how you will write it before you get started. Many thesis proposals have been rejected simply because the students didn’t plan their writing and instead tried to hack it all together.

If you attempt that, it will show, and the thesis structure is likely to be rejected.

Don’t let that happen to you. Plan the flow of your writing — and stick to the plan!

The usual flow of writing a thesis proposal is as follows:

  1. Outline: You’ll start by coming up with a detailed description of the major points you’ll be making in your thesis.
  2. Prepare visuals (any charts or tables): If your thesis includes any visuals, like charts or tables, it can help to prepare these ahead of time. This will help support the arguments made in your thesis.
  3. Describe methodology: In the methodology chapter, you’ll explain the approach you took while compiling your work. This should explain the validity of your research and add credibility to your work.
  4. Explanation of data: In this section, you’ll include an overview of the data you uncovered.
  5. Conclusions drawn from your data: You’ll also include a brief explanation of the conclusions you’re drawing from the data, and how you believe the data supports your thesis.
  6. Introduction: Again, the introduction sets the stage for the rest of the paper.
  7. Abstract: Your abstract is a concise summary of the paper.
  8. References: The reference list is a complete list of the resources you used to create your thesis. This is also known as a literature review, and it shows how your work fits within the larger field of study.

Note that the writing of the thesis proposal does not follow the actual structure of the thesis proposal. Simply put, how can you write an abstract if you do not know what the research actually says?

You have to write out of sequence to be able to create an accurate introduction and abstract.

Step 4: Writing the thesis proposal

Once you’ve planned your writing, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get it done! Thesis proposals are written in formal style, which is what sets them apart from many other types of proposals.

Although the proposal will be in formal style, it is still important to keep it simple — work towards concision while maintaining academic objectivity, leveraging readability.

Step 5: Proofreading your proposal

A thesis proposal is no place for typos or poor readability. If you show your proposal to a fellow student or friend and they have a hard time understanding what you are trying to say, even though they are in your field, you will want to revise.

The best practices for thoroughly proofreading a thesis proposal are as follows:

  • Read the proposal to yourself (aloud!) — you’ll spot problems with grammar and sentence structure more easily this way
  • Do not proofread it immediately after writing it — give your brain a rest so you can view it objectively
  • Consult with colleagues first — have three friends or colleagues that have a deep understanding of the material proofread it first.
  • Use multiple spell checkers — this will help you identify any hard-to-spot errors.
  • Remember that your future success depends on a successful thesis proposal — make sure it’s error-proof to maximize your odds of acceptance.

5 helpful tips to write a better thesis

If you know how to write a business plan or even how to write a PhD dissertation proposal — then you are very lucky. But in most cases, many people need help.

These 5 tips can help to relieve the pain that is thesis writing.

1. Know the requirements

Review all the requirements for your proposed project with your supervisor before you get started. If he or she defines the length of the final paper, you’ll need to also work out the other requirements of the thesis. Things like font and spaces are likely important too.

For example: There is a big difference between a thesis that is 200 pages with 12 point font versus the same length at 14 point font. One is much easier and one is much harder to read.

2. Constantly check your work

Much of your thesis work will entail editing. As soon as you start your thesis, you’ll realize that the more work you do, the more difficult it is to go back and review it.

Remember that rewriting will take up a huge chunk of time, and that’s okay as this naturally happens with these kinds of projects. Professional writers can easily attest to this. Also, be mindful of developing your own style of writing.

3. Don’t leave questions unanswered

The original purpose of your thesis was to find solutions to a certain problem, wasn’t it?

But even within your research, you will discover that there will always be more questions to be answered. Do not ignore them. Draw additional attention to those questions in your conclusion — it may provide you with a base for separate work.

Remember: If you open up new questions, make every attempt to resolve them.

4. Keep a list of references from the start

A lot of people make the same mistake — not all citations appear in the reference list. Before you submit your thesis, tripple check each and every one of your citations and references.

To make this a lot easier on yourself, start a literature review as soon as you start drafting your thesis.

5. Take advantage of useful apps

There’s a lot that goes into writing a thesis proposal, and you need a way to stay organized and keep track of the various due dates.

Using a Gantt chart or a Kanban board can help you organize the details of your project and manage the various due dates.

And the advantage of using specialized apps is that they prepare you to use professional tools like the Salesforce AppExchange.

Apps like Salesforce can help small businesses streamline and simplify many business processes.

Are you ready to write a thesis proposal?

Is it “that time” for you? Is it time to apply yourself to make your first substantial contribution to research in your field?

The first part of the deal is a rock-solid thesis proposal and we think you’ll be off to a good start with the tips from this how-to.

If you need a little additional guidance, feel free to use our free thesis proposal template. This template lays out the basic outline of how your thesis should look, which will save you valuable time.

Have you written a thesis proposal before? Please share your experiences with us in the comment space below.

Frequently asked questions

  • A thesis proposal is a summary that details an outline of your work. It identifies a problem that you’re researching, clearly states all the questions that will be researched as well as describes the resources and materials you need.

  • For graduate students, a thesis proposal is your opportunity to outline a problem and explain the significance of your work. A strong thesis statement should contain the following three elements:

    • Specific: You’re probably making multiple points within your dissertation, but your thesis should tie them all together into one specific research question. Your readers should understand the exact point you plan to make in your work.
    • Unique: A thesis statement should be unique and include some degree of controversy. You’re not trying to restate what everyone else is saying about that topic — you’re most likely challenging a widely accepted view and inviting discussion and further research.
    • Succinct: A thesis statement should be as succinct as possible. You need to find a way to express your point in as few words as possible.

  • A thesis statement sums up the main point made in your work in just one to two sentences. It should be as concise as possible, and provide your readers an introduction to the main argument in just 30 to 40 words.

Originally published May 9, 2014, updated May 27, 2021

Bethany is the Senior Manager, Content Marketing at PandaDoc. She has over 10 years in the sales and marketing industry and loves crafting new stories and discovering new content distribution channels. Outside of the office, she spends her time reading, working out at Orangetheory or trying a new Brooklyn brewery with her husband and two French Bulldogs, Tater Tot and Pork Chop.

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