Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Five Steps To Writing a Thesis Proposal

English: Title page of Barry’s thesis.
Title page of Barry’s thesis (Wikipedia)
by , Finish Your Thesis:
I remember the time that I was in the process of writing a thesis proposal in my second year of graduate school. It had to be 10-20 pages long, which was short compared to the length of the  actual doctoral dissertation (close to 200 pages).

Yet, I found myself stuck because as a relatively young student I had to propose how to do an extensive research project that would take years to complete.

There was so much information in the literature and so many directions in which I could take my research, that it was challenging to nail down one project that would have a high chance of success.

After many discussions with my supervisor I finally selected a topic that was a great learning experience for me and also had a relatively high chance of success.

Through my years of helping graduate students finish their thesis on time, I realized that we always used the same process for writing a thesis proposal. This system is designed to help you draft a thesis proposal that can be completed on time and prepares you well for your ideal career.

Five Steps To Writing a Thesis Proposal 

Number 1: Choose an area of research that you are excited about

When you begin writing a thesis proposal, your advisor might give you a choice of dissertation topics. What criteria should you use to make this decision? The most important advice that former graduate students have given, is that your thesis topic should cover an area that you are truly passionate about.

Regardless your field, you will have good days and bad days. On good days you will be enthusiastic and motivated to work. On bad days, you might question whether your research makes any sense, and you might even doubt your ability to graduate.

If you pick a meaningful topic, the daily setbacks in your research will not bring you down. You will still be working in an important field, and you will be learning the skills and expertise necessary for your career. 

Number 2: Select a project which balances novelty with established research

Given that you want to finish your thesis within a reasonable amount of time, should you research a novel or “hot” area, or to go with a “safer”, better-understood topic? One way to answer this question is to visualize yourself at every stage of your thesis.

How will you make it happen? Can you gather the resources and complete the work by your proposed graduation date? Most likely your project will take longer than you anticipated, so allow some flexibility to account for contingencies. The general rule of thumb is that things take 2-4 times longer than predicted.

If you have little expertise, begin your work by exploring questions in well-understood areas. For example, you could learn the basics of your field, by extending the research projects of previous students, or trying to reproduce their data.

Starting your research in an area where the methodology has been established will teach you the necessary research skills for your field. Once you learn the basics, you can expand your research by exploring novel areas, and build your own unique niche. 

Number 3: Ask well-defined open-ended questions for your thesis

One of the mistakes that some PhD students make while writing a thesis proposal is that they ask “High-risk” questions. The most common type of high risk question is a “Yes/No” question, such as “Is this protein produced by cells under these conditions?” The reason that Yes/No questions can be “high-risk” is that sometimes the answers are only publishable if the answer is “Yes”.

Negative results are usually not interesting enough for publication and you could have spent months or years researching a question that has a high chance of not being published. For many students open-ended questions have a much higher likelihood of success.

In the case of one student in Biology, he thought about asking a question such as: “Do cells produce a particular protein under these conditions?” However, if the answer had been “No”, it would not have been publishable. Instead, he phrased his research question as follows: “What proteins do cell produce in these conditions”? or “How does XYZ influence the production of proteins”?

Be sure that your question is well-defined. In other words, when you ask your thesis question, think about the possible outcomes.

What results do you expect? Are they interesting and publishable? To summarize this key point, consider the following when constructing your thesis question: 1) Ask open-ended questions; and 2) Be sure that your possible outcomes are interesting and publishable. 

Number 4: Look for projects that are educational and incorporate marketable skills

Think about your progression through graduate school as a pyramid. As the years pass,  you become more and more specialized with fewer and fewer people being experts in your field. By the time you graduate you will be part of a small community of people who specialize in your particular area.

On the other hand, you will probably need a diverse skill set after graduation, so it is important to avoid the common mistake of narrowing your pyramid too quickly. It is not necessary to learn all the sub-specialties, but do familiarize yourself with the background literature and technical skills in your field.

Some students make the mistake of focusing only on finishing graduate school quickly, rather than taking advantage of the learning opportunities. One way to add marketable skills to your resume is to collaborate on a side-project.

For example, if you specialize in cell culture then it would be advantageous if you collaborated on a project that added a different but related skill set such as DNA/RNA work, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry or imaging.

If you browse through job listings you will get an idea of which skill sets employers look for. Collaborating on complementary projects will help you to broaden your marketable skill sets, and also help you in deciding which career path is best suited for you. 

Number 5: Visualize your finished publication(s)

A physics PhD student I worked with had an advisor who outlined each paper even before the research was started. He wrote down what questions he wanted to be answered, and what each graph and table should show. This method was so helpful for the student, that he still designs his research papers in advance.

As you are in the process of writing your thesis proposal draft some preliminary answers to the following questions:
  • What is your central hypothesis or research goal?
  • What is the motivation for this study?
  • What have other groups contributed to this research?
  • What methods do you need to learn to complete this project?
  • What are the possible outcomes, or results, of this study?
  • What will your tables and graphs show?
  • How does this work contribute to your field of research?
Visualizing your publications while writing a thesis proposal will motivate you to work, because most graduate students feel a sense of pride when they hold their very first published paper in their hands.

Most likely, the answers to the above questions will change with time and you might have several setbacks or forks in the road. Fortunately, most students become more efficient as they progress through graduate school.

Your cumulative experience will pay off during your last year when you are racing to finish your research and your dissertation simultaneously.  In the meantime, work on defining your questions and methods meticulously, so that you will have a realistic plan to work with.

The last step in the process, “Visualizing your finished publications”, is probably the most important one in the 5-step process of writing a thesis proposal.  First, visualizing the end result of a major project is very motivating in itself. Second, publishing a paper is one of the most important steps towards earning your graduate degree.

Most PhD programs require at least one publication. When you structure your research, and the writing of a thesis proposal, by asking the right questions, you will be able to design a realistic project that can be completed in time and provides you with marketable job skills.

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