4 tips on how to make writing your thesis proposal a bit easier.

Lessons Learned From Proposing My Thesis: Writing

Once you’ve got your committee sorted, it’s time to get to work. You’ll need to write up a document and then present it to your committee. But, you already know that.

Really, the first step is to discuss your plans with your committee. I’m going to assume you’ve done that already because I’m probably not qualified to give you advice on the content of your dissertation [1]. Once you’ve got the content in mind, though, I can offer you a few tips on seeing it through.

Some of these tips are organizational, others informational, and others are based on productivity tricks I have previously written about. Don’t necessarily take them as gospel, of course. Just find what works for you.

Perfection is the enemy

You may feel like your proposal document has a lot of gravity to it — like it’s a year-to-date distillation of your academic worth. It’s not that. Few people are even going to read your proposal document in its entirety. Probably not even your whole committee.

It’s just a guide, mostly for yourself, that details what you plan to do for your thesis. The contents of this guide are: (1) a little bit of what you’ve done, why you’ve done it and what you’ve learned from what you’ve done; (2) a little bit of what else you want to do based on what you’ve already learned; (3) how you plan to do it; and, (4) a timeline that breaks step 3 down into milestones.

It doesn’t need to be perfect because no one expects you to predict the future well. Your committee just wants to make sure that you have a plan and have thought it through. In other words, the proposal is just a document that forces clarity where this is ambiguity. It’s there to work out the kinks in your plan and force you to think critically of not only the research contributions of your work, but also the logistics of getting it done. Perfection at this stage is pointless — everyone’s plan changes to some degree.

Start with a big picture diagram

The most useful piece of advice I got from my adviser was to start with a big picture diagram of what I’ve done, what I plan to do, and how what I plan to do fits in with what I’ve done. You’ve probably spent most of your graduate life working on one-off projects, but your thesis is about fitting all of that into a single compelling story. The big-picture diagram is a visual encoding of that story, and it can guide you through writing your proposal and, later, your actual dissertation.

Making the diagram will probably require some effort, especially if you’re a schizophrenic researcher [2]. But, there is probably a binding thread to your work, even if you don’t yet realize it. A good way to find this binding thread is through affinity diagramming.

Here’s how to affinity diagram. First, write down each of your projects, interests and proposed project(s) onto a sticky note. Cluster sticky notes that have “affinity” for each other — that is, that seem like they belong together. Come up with a name for each cluster. Repeat the process again with the clusters you just created — that is, group the clusters that have affinity for one another. Continue until you reach a top-level category. The name of that top-level category can probably be part of the title of your dissertation. Your big-picture diagram should start at the next level (the first level of categorization below the top-level). Once you have the big-picture overview, you can filter out individual sticky notes that you think don’t fit or are irrelevant to your story. You probably want to keep your core background work and proposed work, though.

While writing your proposal document, use your big picture diagram as an outline. Include it in your introduction as a narrative structure that will guide readers through the document. It will help you put everything together into a tight narrative.

Write slowly

Once you’ve got your big picture diagram, you’ll know what you need to write. At that point, it’s just a matter of execution. It can be a daunting task, but it’s only hard to start. Once you get going, it’s easy to pick up momentum. But, unless you have an especially tight deadline, I do not recommend cranking out the document as quickly as possible.

In my opinion, your proposal document should be written slowly. You can write your dissertation with haste, sure, because at that point the work should be done. But the process of writing your proposal document should be seen as an opportunity to mull over and refine your idea. If you crank out the document as quickly as you can, you won’t have much opportunity for reflection. If you write slowly, however, you might find, as I found, insights that help make your arguments and your work far stronger. You’ll be more thoughtful about limitations. You’ll just generally be more prepared to tackle tough questions.

A counter-point is that if you prepare your document as quickly as possible, you can get feedback earlier in the process. That’s true in theory, but I find it doesn’t work especially well in practice. Again, your committee is probably scatter-brained and busy. If you give them your document four months ahead of time, they’re just going to defer getting to it for three months. Even if they get back to you sooner, I would argue that there’s a lot of value to reflecting and thinking critically of your own ideas before you get feedback. If you don’t, you may be too easily swayed by your committee’s ideas of what should be done. This is supposed to be your thesis, ultimately, so you should take ownership of it.

Overall, I would aim to have your document done about 3 days before your deadline. Spend the rest of your time editing. In writing your proposal document slowly, you will have done a lot of editing already, so you probably won’t need much time for high-level editing.

Establish a daily writing routine

Anyway, here’s how to write slowly: time-box yourself. Establish a daily writing routine where you write for X minutes or hours. Keep X relatively small. I limited myself to about two hours every afternoon. You can do more, or less, depending on how quickly you need to have the document prepared. Try and keep it to as little as possible while still being able to make significant progress, though.

Also, make sure you write daily. That’s important so that the benefits of writing slowly can kick in: that is, reflection and iteration. If you write daily, you’ll have your proposal content in the back of your mind even when you’re not actively thinking about work or Research. This back-of-the-mind thinking is exactly the sort of slow, carefree reflection that can lead to powerful insights. Also, daily writing helps preserve context so that you can make the most out of your short writing bursts.

If you have trouble starting, I suggest using success spirals. You can read my previous posts to get specific instructions on how to use them, but the basic premise is that you start with small goals that are impossible to fail and build up momentum through daily, habitual practice.

Concluding Remarks

I actually used all of these tips in writing my own proposal, so let it be known that I practice what I preach. But, your mileage may vary. At the very least, hopefully this post gives you some inspiration on how to go about writing your proposal document. Let me know if it does!


[1] Unless you work broadly within usable privacy and security, in which case maybe I’m qualified.

[2] I adopted this term from Desney Tan. Basically, it means that you work on lots of different things with seemingly no overarching purpose. I do that.

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