PhD thesis proposal

You’ve successfully completed the comprehensive process and are now ready to finalize your proposal. What does that involve? The academic calendar provides important context for this process and outlines timelines and committee structure.

Normally, PhD candidates submit a dissertation proposal to the committee in time to ‘defend’ it by the end of the second year (sixth term) in the program. There is no formal defense but there is an expectation that PhD candidates will present their proposal to the advisory committee, and to revise the proposal to address all concerns and issues raised. Once the committee is satisfied with the proposal it can be approved and the milestone form completed.

Expectations regarding proposal content and structure vary. You are strongly recommended to discuss with your supervisor and committee the final content and structure of your proposal. However, there are some common proposal elements that can be used to prepare a draft and that can be modified as needed. A general proposal structure (and approximate single-space length estimates) is outlined below:

General Proposal Structure and Content

  • Title page
  • Table of contents (provide a list of tables and figures as appropriate)
  • 1.0 Introduction and problem context (1-2 pages): Outline the scholarly and practical/social relevance of your project. Explain the core sustainability challenge or problem, and indicate how your work can address this challenge (i.e., the ‘so what’).
  • 2.0 Research questions/objectives or hypothesis (1 page): Outline your core research questions and/or objectives or hypothesis. Align questions/objectives/hypothesis with the core problem articulated above. Ensure subsequent sections of the proposal (literature review, methodology) refer back to and address these questions/objectives/hypothesis.
  • 3.0 Literature review and conceptual framework (3-5 pages): Situate your research within the relevant scholarly literature; identify key gaps and limitations and set the foundation to justify your topic and your methodological approach. Work to develop of a clear theoretical or conceptual framework for your research.
  • 4.0 Methodology and methods (i.e., research design) (3-5 pages): Establish the philosophical and epistemological foundations for your work and situate your choices about methods and tools for data collection, analysis and synthesis. Clearly outline specific methods, highlighting their strengths and limitations with regard to your research specifically. Indicate the relationship among your data collection and analysis plans and your research objectives/hypotheses, and any assumptions you are making in the process.
  • 5.0 Expected outcomes and contributions (1-2 pages): Identify and discuss the expected outcomes and novel contributions you hope to make – these can be theoretical, empirical and/or focused on applied or policy contexts. If you are planning to follow a dissertation by manuscript format (see guidelines below), tentatively outline the expected focus of the three main manuscripts.
  • 6.0 Schedule of activities (1 page): Provide an expected schedule of tasks and activities starting with proposal approval and ethics clearance, through to expected timelines for first drafts and proposed defense date.
  • 7.0 Budget (as necessary) (1 page)
  • 8.0 References (as required)
  • Appendices (as necessary): Consider including as needed such information as interview questionnaire/questions or other protocols and information as appropriate; details on methods or analytical tools that don’t need to be in the main body of the proposal, etc.

Dissertation by manuscript*

SERS PhD students may in consultation with their supervisor and committee decide to follow a dissertation by manuscript format. In the manuscript option, the thesis will comprise the following:

  1. An introductory chapter(s) that outlines the problem context for the work, establishes its purpose and objectives, situates the work in the broader literature, and explains how the manuscripts presented in the body address the purpose and objectives. Typically, an integrated overview of the methodological approach and methods will also be included (however a standalone methods chapter or standalone literature review may be permitted to avoid excessive chapter length)
  2. Manuscripts (at least three for which the PhD candidate is first author; and possibly others for which the PhD candidate is not first author) that present research findings/contributions. Typically these will be manuscripts for refereed journals, but other formats, such as book chapters, may be appropriate. The manuscripts may submitted, in press, or published.
  3. A concluding chapter that outlines the principal findings and contributions of the total research effort.
  4. References cited in each manuscript, and in the introductory and concluding chapters, are normally consolidated at the end of the thesis.
  5. Appendixes may also be included as part of the thesis.

The entire thesis must be formatted according to the requirements of the GSPA. All chapters, including those presenting previously published work, must use a consistent format, and must be continuously paginated.

The following are other requirements for the manuscript thesis option:

  1. An important principle that must be followed in developing the manuscript thesis is that the entire document will comprise a conceptual "whole". Thus, the manuscripts should relate to the overall purpose of the PhD research program and its objectives. It is not acceptable for a student and his or her advisor to work on separate "projects" during, or outside of, the PhD program, and then submit manuscripts relating to these projects for the thesis. It is also not acceptable to include manuscripts completed prior to the commencement of the PhD program.
  2. The first-authored manuscripts must be dominated by the intellectual effort of the student, and these manuscripts must be written by the student.
  3. Where multiple authorship occurs, there must be a preface statement in the thesis outlining the roles of the respective authors, and clarifying the extent and nature of the contribution of the thesis author. Co-authors must sign the statement to indicate that they are in agreement with the evaluation of the roles and contributions of the various authors.
  4. In no case can a co-author serve as an external examiner for the thesis.
  5. When previously published, or in press, work is reproduced in the thesis, waivers from copyright holders are normally required. These should be included as an appendix.

* Adopted from the Waterloo-Laurier Joint Program in Geography.