Preparing a thesis proposal

  • With the help of your thesis director, you must prepare a written thesis proposal—that is, an explanation of what you plan to do. There are sample proposals from past years on file in the History Department office.

    There are two good reasons why you must write a thesis proposal—because the university needs it to give you approval to add the thesis to your schedule and because you need it to clarify your own plans. The “Request for Independent Study” form that you must use to register for your thesis requires that you attach a proposal. The form asks for: (1) a rationale for conducting an independent study, (2) the purpose of the study, (3) objectives, (4) activities to accomplish objectives, (5) required reading or bibliography, (6) evaluation process, (7) use for special purpose such as Honors credit, and (8) number of credits. If you are doing a thesis over more than one semester, you need to fill out the independent study form each semester and adjust the proposal appropriately for what you expect to accomplish during that part of the work.

    Even if the university regulations did not require a proposal, prudent students would want one for their own benefit. A good proposal guarantees that you have a plan that will work because you have to confront questions that you might otherwise skip over. Is your plan practical given the time you have? Will you be able to get the data or primary sources you need? Will you need equipment or access to special collections of documents? What is a reasonable timetable to accomplish each step of the work? Will you need to apply for any grants of money to cover extraordinary expenses? Do you and your director have the same expectations about what you are going to accomplish?

    When you draw up your final plan, keep it sharply focused. Above all else, you want to avoid getting halfway through and realizing that your project is too big to finish on time. You can always add another dimension later if you find yourself running ahead of schedule (unlikely!), but it is much harder to cut and pare when you’re in a panic mode because time is running out.

    As part of the first semester work involves narrowing the topic, you may not be able to attach a fully developed thesis proposal to that semester’s independent study form. In fact, preparing a full proposal may be one expected outcome of your first semester’s work. But even if your first-semester proposal is broader and more tentative, you still want to be as concrete as possible in terms of what you expect to accomplish and how your thesis director is going to evaluate your progress.

    Important note: If your research involves human subjects, you may need to seek approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board. This certifies that your research follows ethical procedures in its dealings with individuals. Your director will be able to tell you whether you need to seek such approval. Oral history projects can sometimes require this sort of approval.