The art of the thesis proposal


Why are we here?

Around here, we require our graduate students to formally present a thesis proposal. The aim of the presentation is to expose your planned work to a broader audience, in order to get feedback about its originality, level of difficulty, appropriateness to your program, and the feasibility of the planned research approach. You might also get some good leads on literature or people to talk to. Sure, your supervisor has been thinking about all of this stuff, but more opinions are often better.

Besides, preparing the presentation forces you to thoroughly think things through.

Before you can do a reasonable thesis proposal, you need to understand what a thesis is. So, if you haven’t already read it, pop over and have a look at my guide to understanding the engineering thesis. I’ll wait.


At the proposal stage, you should have pinned down, to a reasonably precise degree, the research you propose to undertake. Your proposal presentation should offer a clear explanation of this.

In particular, your proposal should answer the following questions (although not necessarily in this order):

  1. What is the problem you intend to address?

    If you can’t explain your research problem, clearly and concisely, you probably don’t understand it.

  2. Why is the problem interesting and challenging?

    Remember, much of your audience will be from outside your domain. They need to understand not just what your problem is, but why it’s an appropriate research topic at the masters or doctoral level.

  3. In what sense are previous solutions to the problem inadequate?

    In rare cases, you’re attacking a completely new problem that no one has ever attempted to address. However, it’s much more common to be making an incremental improvement on previously-existing work. You need to understand what this work is, and to be able to explain it. If you don’t understand how your work fits in with previous work, you’re likely to waste time reinventing the wheel.

    Remember, a week in the laboratory can often save an afternoon in the library.

  4. What is your proposed approach to addressing the problem?

    At the proposal stage, it’s not enough to have an understanding of the problem; you also need to know how you intend to solve it. This doesn’t mean you need to know the solution yet (that’s what your research is for), but you do need to have some idea of what you’re actually going to do.

    You do not need a project management chart with time lines and milestones in your presentation. Rather, you need to explain the key steps that will get you from your current level of knowledge to the conclusion of your research.

  5. How will you evaluate your work?

    This is related to question 3, above. The criteria by which you judged previous solutions unsatisfactory are exactly the criteria you should be using to evaluate the success of your own work.


Obviously, your style must be your own. However, here are my thoughts on what makes for an effective proposal presentation:

Above all, rehearse in front of a critical audience, accept their feedback, and revise as necessary. If your presentation is clear and coherent, we can concentrate on the content of the proposal, without being distracted by irrelevancies — which means that you’ll get more useful feedback on your proposal.

Good luck! I’ll be the guy with the beard and the hard questions.

Greg Phillips

This web site is not an official publication of the Royal Military College of Canada nor of the Department of National Defence. Ce site web n’est pas une publication officielle du Collége militaire royal du Canada ni du Ministère de la défense nationale.