Guidelines on Writing an M.A. Thesis Proposal
Every M.A. thesis project needs to begin with an original research proposal. Any good proposal does at least two things: it articulates an interesting question or goal, and it lays out a plan for answering that question or achieving that goal.
A good proposal tells a varied reviewer audience why your project is novel, describes its significance to your discipline, presents a detailed methodology or course of action, details the preparation and resources that you have lined up to date, and commits to a final product that will contribute to the academic community’s understanding of your topic.
The ideal format and language for such a proposal varies with the audience at hand and the project in question. Different departments, programs, and agencies have different requirements in terms of the size and scope of the proposal. Regardless of format, length, or organization, a good proposal will address the following topics:
Aim and Scope: What is the goal of your project? Provide a one to two paragraph overview of the project.
Background and Context: Provide the reader with enough information to understand the nature of the project.
Research Questions: What question do you want to answer? What hypothesis do you wish to test? What themes do you want to explore?
Conceptual Framework: Here provide a short overview of the main bodies of literature that you will engage with in your project. Identify about 3 bodies of literature, provide one paragraph on each, and then discuss in a final fourth paragraph how you will bring them together. This is like a literature review section.
Methodology: What, precisely, will you do to answer the question you are posing? How is the data, analysis, or interpretation provided by your methodology logically linked to your stated goal? When and how will you take each of the steps towards achieving these goals? What logistical hurdles will you encounter? A timeline can give reviewers a clear picture of how you project will unfurl. When will you start your project, and when will you finish it? What milestones will help you gauge your progress? How will you coordinate your core research activities with your preliminary work (such as directed reading) and your post-project analysis (such as writing)?
Significance: Why are your questions intellectually important? What does the academic community in your chosen field (as represented in peer-reviewed literature) already understand about your topic? How will your project contribute to this literature? How will your objectives and methods challenge the discipline? What form will your final product take, and how will it be evaluated?
Resources: How will you draw on the expertise of your faculty mentor? Are there other contact people who will be instrumental in your project? Are you seeking, or have you received, any other sources of funding? Are there additional data sets or pieces of equipment that you will rely on?
Preparation/Qualifications: What specific steps have you taken to prepare for this project? Have you taken courses in the methods or statistics that directly relate to the project design you described above? If you will conduct research off campus, how do you plan to train (in the classroom or otherwise) for the cultural, ethical, and safety challenges associated with research travel? Have you initiated contact with people (at field sites or other institutions) who will be critical to your project’s success?
Timeline: Include a table specifying a timeline for project design, data collection, data analysis, and write up.
Budget: You may find that you need to present a separate budget—a line-item description of the funding that you need to cover your expenses. How much money do you need, and what will it be used for? How do each of these expenses contribute to the logistical demands of your methodology? A well-conceived budget provides reviewers with insight into the state of your logistical planning.
A good research proposal is not written at the last minute! A compelling account of the project you wish to pursue will take shape only with repeated revision, drawing on feedback from your faculty mentor, other advisers, and your fellow researchers. By involving your mentor in your proposal from the start, you stand to benefit even more from his or her expertise in your field. Similarly, faculty members who have seen early drafts of your proposal can direct you to the most appropriate grant programs, offer you the best advice on project design, and refer your to other useful resources on campus.
It is required for you to prepare and defend a thesis proposal prior to conducting your research. A solid research proposal will help you demonstrate to your advisers that you are capable of approaching your fieldwork in a mature and rigorous fashion; it will also increase your chances of acquiring funding from a granting agency. Perhaps most importantly, it will enable you to identify your research questions, determine your research methodology, and clarify your research goals prior to the time when you begin to collect your data, thereby paving the way for a high-quality final thesis. For all of these reasons, it is important for you to prepare your research proposal carefully, and to pay attention to the small details that can separate a good proposal from a great one.
Focus: Most students, on their first attempt, grapple with a research question that is too broad to be feasible. By carefully articulating a specific and well-honed research goal, you reassure audiences that your project will meet with success, and that your final product will exhibit real depth and sophistication. Once you have achieved this level of focus, you should put it on display by opening your proposal with a crystal clear one- or two-sentence statement of your objective. This helps reviewers orient themselves, and read the rest of your proposal more effectively.
Significance: It is important for you to address the “significance” of the project. This means “intellectual significance to members of your discipline,” not “importance to you personally,” “importance to your educational development,” or “importance to a humanitarian or ideological cause.” These motives are certainly important, but the proposal should only focus on why other researchers in your field will be eager to hear about your work.
Literature Review: Probably the single most common deficiency in student proposals is the inadequate literature review. The kiss of death for a research proposal is the phrase “... there is no literature published on my topic.” There is always literature that discusses some of the theoretical or methodological background to your research question, and you need to explain how this literature has shaped your proposed study. You want to show the reader that your project is based not on idle curiosity, but on some intellectually rigorous line of thought. Similarly, you need to engage with peer-reviewed primary research. Accounts from the popular press or the internet do not generally have the authority or accountability to provide this intellectually rigorous line of thought that you need to explore. Your literature review should not be a book report! Simply listing who has published what does not clarify your thought process. Rather, your literature review should present a critical analysis of previous work: What are its strengths and weaknesses? How do different researchers disagree with one another?
Preparation: Students with otherwise focused, original project proposals are sometimes unnecessarily vague with respect to their preparations. You should not provide an exhaustive list of courses you have taken because the courses are already listed on your transcript. Instead, you should provide a concise discussion of specific courses that directly shaped your approach to this topic. You should especially stress any coursework that explicitly trained you in the methodology and/or statistical techniques that you will use, as well as classes focused on issues surrounding fieldwork or lab work (as applicable). If your project will involve the use of human subjects, you should explain whether or not you have submitted paperwork to receive university clearance to pursue this inquiry.
Faculty: The close involvement of your faculty mentor correlates very well with the likelihood that your project will be productive. Your proposal should present an account of the interaction between you and your faculty mentor to date, and should pose a plan for continued interaction. Your proposal should make clear the balance between independence and assistance you can expect from your mentor.
Service vs. Research: Many successful research projects involve interacting with non-profit organizations, government agencies, clinical facilities, or private companies. It is critical that your proposal draw a clear line between your research agenda and your other responsibilities. Does your proposal suggest that you are pursuing a volunteer internship hastily wedded to a thin research question – or a carefully designed, intellectually rigorous study that leverages your contacts in a particular organization? The latter is much more compelling.