Thesis Proposals: Common Elements
Department requirements for thesis proposals can be quite different, so pay careful attention to your department's and advisor's guidance when writing your proposal. Many departments provide a template for the thesis proposal, which will specify which elements you must include and how your proposal should be formatted. In spite of the departmental variation, most NPS thesis proposals require you to answer the following questions:
Context and issue: What problem are you responding to? What is your research question?
Your research responds to real world problems or to existing scholarship that revealed unanswered questions. Perhaps recent historical events have led to new threats, challenges, or needs. Perhaps old technology or approaches have become obsolete, or just aren't up to the demands of current applications.
The research question frames the object of your research in the form of a question, complete with a question mark. Identify your research question clearly and directly. You may have more than one research question, depending upon your department.
Significance: Why is the research you propose worth pursuing? What makes it significant?
In explaining how the research you're proposing is significant, you are essentially responding to: "So what?" Be clear about how answering your research question will help in dealing with the real world or scholarly problem you've identified.
For example, the signficance of your research might be to enhance our understanding of a major historical event, allowing us to make better decisions in the future; or your research might improve the efficiency of technical systems, saving money and keeping up with developing challenges.
Literature review: What has been written about the topic and the problem in other scholarly literature?
As you plan your thesis research, you will review a great deal of literature in order to understand what scholars who study your topic know, what these scholars agree and disagree about, and how they go about seeking answers.
If your thesis proposal requires a literature review, use it to identify the important themes in what you have read, particularly those that have shaped the question you are asking and your approach to it.
Often your research question could result in multiple answers. In identifying one or more hypotheses, you narrow the scope of your research, specifying potential answers you will explore or test. Your research is then designed to find out if one or more of your hypotheses are true.
In other cases, the research question and hypothesis are more closely bound to each other. In these cases, your research question essentially states your hypothesis in the form of a question.
Discuss how your research is structured and how you will go about it.
Identify the choices you have made in designing your research. For example, in the social sciences, be clear about what time periods or case studies you have selected. In a more technical field, you might explain your choice to use a certain lab material or software.
Explain why you have made these choices and what the implications are, including how the choices may limit your findings. Showing that you have considered possible limitations reflects well on your credibility as a researcher.
Finally, be clear about the stages or steps involved in conducting your research. What do you need to do first? What will your final step be?
Most thesis proposals require you to consider how many chapters you will write and what each chapter will contribute to the document. Often, this structure can be modified if needed during the writing of the thesis itself.
Helpful Thesis Proposal Links
Handout: "What's a Thesis Proposal?" by Gary Langford, NPS Systems Engineering department
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