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Because of the greater uncertainty involved, students often
agonize more over doing a thesis proposal than they do over
actually completing their dissertation. In an effort to reduce
some of the uncertainty, this memo contains my suggestions for
the content and format of a thesis proposal in Computing. It is
a companion to my piece on the dissertation itself: THOUGHTS
ON THE STRUCTURE OF CS DISSERTATIONS, which can be found at URL
The purpose of the thesis proposal is to convince the reader that
the student is sufficiently prepared to enter candidacy and produce
a dissertation. To do this, it must give evidence that the student
understands the field, has recognized and defined a worthwhile
problem, and has an approach and plan for solution.
As a demonstration of this, I look for the following items in the
+ Problem motivation
+ Related work
+ Problem description
+ Research questions
+ Thesis statement
+ Solution approach
+ Evaluation criteria
+ Plan of Action
A. Problem Motivation
The problem that you are trying to solve needs to satisfy several
criteria: it must be relevant, it must be significant, it must not
have been already solved, it must be well-defined, its solution must
be feasible, and it must be neither too large or too small.
1. Relevance, Significance, and Timeliness
You are working in a field, Computing, and within an area of Computing
such as compilation, or systems. Areas are not arbitrary–they are
defined by a class of related problems such as language translation or
resource allocation. As such, your topic normally will belong within
some field. The field defines a vocabulary and, more importantly,
it lays out the important or defining issues for itself. Hence,
it is important that you describe your problem using the vocabulary
of the field. Moreover, it should address an issue that the field
Interdisciplinary theses are possible and, in fact, the College of
Computing encourages them. However, they increase the burden on the
student to justify relevance and significance to multiple fields
One approach to insure relevance and significance is to pick a
problem that lots of people are working on. There is a danger
here, however, that someone else solves the problem before you do.
This is called being “scooped”. A remedy is to “leapfrog” the
competition; that is, to assume that someone will solve one of the
field’s outstanding problems soon, and that their solution will
raise a further problem that you, with your great foresight, will
have a head start on solving. The risks of this strategy are
Another, less common, difficulty is to pick and solve a problem
before the world is ready for the answer. PicturePhone, a way to
send video over telephone lines, was solved in the early 70’s, but the
enabling conditions for its adoption still aren’t all the way here.
One thing that your committee will look deeply at is how well
you have defined your problem. One way you must deal with this
is by having explicit evaluation criteria and exit conditions.
These, in turn, require you to put a lot of effort into rigorously,
possibly formally, defining the problem. Student often find that
when they try to do this, the problem either becomes too hard
or it disappears entirely.
3. Feasibility and Size
As a general rule, graduate students are ambitious and often describe
a research plan that is too large or too difficult. In fact, the most
commonly occurring comment that a committee gives to a student upon
hearing a proposal is to pare it down and focus on the essentials.
I see nothing wrong with this, and, in fact, have told students to
describe an overly ambitious research agenda in order to give the
committee something to recommend :-).
B. Related Work
When you have reached the stage where you are writing a thesis
proposal, you should have a firm understanding of the work of other
researchers in your field, both past and current. In fact, you
should be one of the world’s experts in your area. If this seems
daunting, consider it as part of the price that you have to pay to
earn that description. To obtain that understanding, you should
have both a deep and broad familiarity with the research
literature. By “deep”, I mean that you should have read all of the
papers in your area to the extent that you can understand their
contribution, its weaknesses and its relevance to your work. By
“broad” I mean that you should also be familiar with work in
related fields, to the extent that you have read the key papers
and survey articles.
There is a danger that the Related Work section of a proposal
(or a dissertation, for that matter) can give the impression of
being boilerplate. That is, that it was independently created and
appended to the proposal because the proposal has to have a Related
Actually, discussing related work is a part of motivating the
research. Recall that part of problem motivation is relationship
to a field. And this relationship is justified by the historical
record of important results in the field. Ideally, the Related
Work section should be distributed into the Motivation and Problem
Description sections as exposition and citation of the fields
defining results. However, exact placement is less important
than demonstrating that the student understands what is truly
relevant and significant.
C. Problem Description
Most of the work preceding a thesis proposal goes into defining a
problem and demonstrating a feasible approach to its solution.
Consequently, an important part of the proposal is a precise
presentation of what that problem is. There are two components of
this presentation: a set of salient research questions and a thesis
D. Research questions
A Ph.D. dissertation is an argument or demonstration of a thesis.
The argument has a structure, called its rhetoric, that consists of
a series of assertions, each individually justified, that when taken
together imply the thesis. If we use the analogy of a mathematical
proof, the thesis statement takes the place of the theorem being
proved, and the answers to a set of research question takes the
place of the assertions.
E. Thesis statement
The work preceding a proposal involves detecting and defining a
problem that is worth solving and making sufficient progress in
solving it that the student can convince the committee that the
solution can be completed in a reasonable time. An excruciating
impediment to success with the first part of the above is to
construct a thesis statement.
The exercise is difficult because it requires the student to say in
a single sentence what it is that they will be trying to convince
the dissertation reader of. The single sentence requirement forces
the student out of the morass of details with which they have been
concerned to a high level of abstraction. And, recalling that a
“thesis” is an argument, the thesis statement requires the student
to express their proposed results in positive terms with appropriate
A generic example of a thesis statement goes something like the
The FOOBAR algorithm will be able to solve the MUMBLE problem in
time proportional to the log of the size of its input, thereby
improving the current best solution.
F. Solution Approach
You must be able to convince your committee that you are on the
right track. Part of this process is to define the problem and
part of it is to motivate its importance. But the most important
part is to demonstrate that your approach has a real possibility of
succeeding. The most direct way to do this is to point to already
published results. Specifically, your proposal should include a
fleshed-out summary of your preliminary results and citations of
Within the College of Computing, there is a tendency for proposals
to come relatively late in the research process, sometimes
occurring only a few months prior to the defense. In my mind, this
defeats the purpose of the proposal, in which the committee can
provide significant input to guide the direction of the research.
Hence, you need to find the right moment–after you have enough
results to demonstrate feasibility but not too late to benefit from
your committee’s advice.
As stated above, a dissertation is an argument. Arguments are
structured as a sequence of supported points. So one important part
of the proposal is to provide a sketch of the argument. One way to do
this is to provide an annotated outline of the dissertation itself.
This has the added benefit of getting the student started on the
process of writing the dissertation itself.
G. Evaluation Criteria
Ultimately, the goal of an advisor is to train a PhD student in terms
of his or her research skills. Essential skills include critical
reading, problem recognition, writing, and, most importantly, research
evaluation techniques. These techniques will vary with the research
field. For example, theory students will have to devise formalism
and express arguments mathematically. Human factors students have
to devise and conduct experiments and perform statistical analyzes.
Engineering students usually provide validation for their work in
terms of a prototype and one or more case studies. All of these
skills must be learned and practiced, and no proposal is satisfactory
without a well-defined evaluation plan.
The primary quality criterion for Computer Science research is not
some fuzzy excitement generated by an idea, but rather the extent to
which the idea can be generalized and applied. And the best way to
demonstrate this quality, is to have a convincing validation.
H. Plan of Action
A thesis proposal is just that–a proposal. Part of what is being
proposed is an idea of how to solve a problem. But the committee
also needs to determine the feasibility of completing the proposed
work in a reasonable amount of time. Like any planning effort, the
task to be accomplished should be broken down into activities.
Dependencies among activities should be recognized, and time
estimates should be prepared. A sketch of this plan should be
included in the proposal
The proposal process should be one of convincing your committee that
you have defined and circumscribed an important problem, that you have
a promising new approach to solving it, that you know how to determine
whether it works or not, and that you have the requisite skills to
do the work. The proposal itself should present this evidence in a
coherent fashion in a way that simultaneously demonstrates maturity
and solicits suggestions for improvement.
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