Formal Thesis Proposal

Deadline for the Formal Proposal

The formal, written thesis proposal is due by 4:00 pm on the third Friday of September. You are expected to turn in 2 hard copies of your document to the Chair by this deadline. The Chair then distributes these copies, with one delivered to your assigned thesis adviser and the other delivered to a second reader, who will be one of the other neuroscience faculty. The Chair decides who the second reader will be.

Evaluation of the Proposal

After you turn in your proposal, the neuroscience faculty meet to discuss all of the proposals. Questions that the faculty have in mind during this discussion include: is the project fully envisioned, does the project contribute uniquely to the literature, is the project manageable in the time frame of 1-semester or 1-year, do we have enough laboratory and fiscal resources to see the project to completion, does the student have the skill set needed to complete the thesis, are there specified hypotheses, is the proposed methodology suitable to test those hypotheses, does the student understand what statistical/analytical approach is needed to test the hypotheses, is the student’s writing up to the level that we would expect from a W3 class. After this faculty meeting, your thesis adviser will give you feedback either in email or in person. The feedback may be very general or may be very detailed with constructive criticism. The constructive criticism may mean that you have to go back to the drawing board for certain components of your methodology and/or may have to consult a different literature to problem-solve a sticking point. The constructive criticism may also include an expectation that we see a reworking of your thesis proposal by a certain date.

General Format of the Proposal

The formal proposal will have the format of: Title Page, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, References, Appendices (if appropriate). As for setting a tone in the thesis proposal, you should assume you have an audience of people interested in neuroscience who do not necessarily have a background in your research area. Assume for example, the reader is another neuroscience major in a completely different specialty. More info on each section of the document is next.

On the title page, please include your name, the title of the project, the date, the name of your thesis adviser, and whether your project is one semester or one year. The abstract comes next on its own page and should be approximately 150 words or less. Usually the abstract takes the form of a sentence or two to lay out the problem/set the stage, followed by a sentence or two about the methods to be used, then a sentence or two about how you will analyze your data, and a sentence or two to end that explains why your project is important in the grand scheme of the literature. Since you have not completed your project, you will be writing the methods/results part of the abstract using the future tense (e.g., Participants will undergo…; Data will be analyzed by…).

The introduction starts on its own page and will probably be the longest section of the document. In the introduction, you want to give enough background information about your topic that the reader is led naturally to your hypotheses. Typically you start out broad, making it clear to the reader why the topic itself is worth studying. The bulk of the introduction is a literature review, where you discuss what is known already about the problem, citing the relevant literature as you go along. It should be clear in or after the literature review what remains unknown, which is your segue to why your study is an important extension to the literature. This will lead to your specific proposal for the study with a few sentences about exactly what you will be doing in your study and how you will do it. The introduction usually ends with a declaration of your expectations or hypotheses.

In the methods section, you should provide the following information as appropriate: who are the subjects, what stimuli or equipment are needed for experimentation/manipulation, what are the steps in your protocol, along with a description of the kinds of variables you will be getting from your methodology. Each subsection may be its own paragraph or many paragraphs, depending on the study. The goal is to give the reader a detailed roadmap of what you will be doing and what you need to do it. Since you have not executed the study yet, you will be writing the methods section in future tense. One detail we wish to stress is that it is important for the reader to know what variables will result from your methodology. For example, say you are administering a 75-item self-report questionnaire to a group of people. How do you score this questionnaire? Is there just one resultant variable (e.g., a raw total score), or perhaps 10 resulting variables (e.g., subscale scores)? What does a high number mean versus a low number? If you are using a score to divide your sample into two smaller subsamples, how exactly will you do this? As another example, let us say that you are videotaping behavior of mice as they move around a square box. How will you score the videotaped footage? Are you getting a frequency count of 3 behaviors in 1-minute intervals? Are you labeling a certain behavior on a 7-point scale? Again, be clear about what kinds of variables are generated during your protocol.

In the results section, you will give the reader a sense of what statistical or other analytic/descriptive approach you will use to test the hypotheses. Since you have not completed the project yet, you will again be using the future tense. The analytic approach that you suggest to use should mesh with the kinds of variables you have just described in the methods section.

For the references section, you should list out the full citation for any work you have cited parenthetically in the earlier parts of the document. In terms of mechanics and style guides, you should check with your thesis adviser what style is the preferred choice.

Helpful Hints

(1) Since the formal thesis proposal is the first start of your writing for the thesis itself, it is imperative to start keeping track of your references as you go. We strongly encourage you to use RefWorks or another type of software to help manage your references section.

(2) When you are doing web searches for your literature review, it is a good idea to check multiple search engines.

(3) Do not procrastinate. The deadline for the formal proposal will come upon you soon enough, and a lot of work goes into it. This is definitely not something to leave to several days before the deadline.

(4) It is a very good idea to set up earlier deadlines with your thesis adviser for completion of each section. Your adviser will want to see drafts (sometimes multiple drafts) of each section to check it for completeness, accuracy, and for quality of writing before you assemble the full package and print the hard copies. Keep in mind that your thesis adviser has multiple thesis students, each of whom is going through the same process as you. This means that your adviser will be reading multiple drafts from multiple students; hence, earlier deadlines keep you on track and help the adviser manage the supervision load.

(5) There is no set page limit or page limit goal for sections in the thesis proposal. The proposal is complete when you have been thorough and have addressed all the points as laid out above. Each project is different, and each student’s thesis proposal will be a different length.

(6) If you worry that your writing skills are not as good as they can be, then by all means take advantage of the writing services we have on campus. The writing center has excellent staff who are specialized to read in/for the sciences. There is no shame in visiting the writing center or making an appointment to meet with a writing specialist. However, you will want to budget extra time for this. Doing a good job on your proposal, with or without extra writing help, will require you to start early.