Academic Proposals in Graduate School

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

The Thesis Proposal

There is no one formula for a thesis proposal, given the range of disciplines and organizational sequences for processing it. The advice here is meant to raise your awareness of some of the underlying functions and issues around this important event in your graduate experience. Think of the thesis or grant proposal as a way of raising your voice to speak out within the academic community.

Process (how to do it)

  • Look closely at departmental specifications (about timing, scope, length, readers, etc.)
  • Ask other graduate students in your department about their experiences; look at past proposals
  • Try out your ideas as widely as possible, especially with your supervisor and committee members. Make the most of chances to take part in informal discussions, drafts, preliminary meetings, presentations at colloquia, etc.
  • Don’t procrastinate; delay just isolates you.

Function (what it’s for)

  • Show why your research idea is interesting within the field (by discussing what others have done and not done).
  • Show that you can carry it out (by sketching your methodology.
  • Limit your promises: exclude things you won’t get to (texts, topics, methods) as well as outlining those you will use.
  • Remember that your proposal is a document to be filed, not a promise to be fulfilled in every detail.

Rhetoric (how it gets through)

  • Start with why your idea is worth doing (contribution to field), then fill in how (technicalities about topic and method).
  • Give enough detail to establish feasibility, but not so much as to bore the reader.
  • Show your ability to deal with possible problems or changes in focus.
  • Show confidence and eagerness (use I or we and active verbs, concise style, positive phrasing).

A Note on Grant Proposals

Graduate students are often asked to write grant proposals along with their thesis proposals, and they sometimes find themselves part of teams writing proposals for funding to support their lab activity. Compared to a thesis proposal, a grant proposal typically contains more detail about practical matters such as resources, funding, and timelines. It may be expected to contain a section on how the results of your research will be evaluated (e.g., by practical results). Be as realistic as possible about these matters, remembering, for instance the typical “50% rule” about funding: if your estimate is more than 50% above the reviewer panel’s estimate of likely costs, it may be disqualified. But continue to use the advice above (including the recommendation to gain the reader’s interest early), within the constraints of these practicalities and the length and format guidelines.

When writing as part of a team, work out individual responsibilities before starting. Take extra care to ensure that all parts of the document are included, correctly formatted, and consistent with each other.

You will find useful information about grant proposals at the websites for granting agencies, such as SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research. These sites also contain news stories and press releases indicating the agencies’ concern with public perception of research projects. For information about research at U of T, see the websites for U of T’s office of Research and Innovation and the Faculty of Medicine’s office of Research (RIR).