Proposal form

Guidelines for the Thesis Proposal
Overview (see also MA/MSc and PhD details)

The purpose of the proposal is for the candidate to demonstrate the requisite theoretical and methodological background as well as the necessary writing skills to proceed to concentrated thesis work.  A proposal typically refers to key background literature, methods/methodology, and expected contributions.  Further, the candidate must clearly describe the plan of study - what will be done, how, and when.  The proposal provides a learning opportunity for the candidate to interact with their thesis supervisory committee in a very focused way. 

Why create a thesis proposal?

  • The idea of a proposal is to introduce your topic and to contextualize it in the relevant fields; identify methods to be used; data to be collected; and utility and importance of potential results
  • Clearly state the expected contributions of your research
    • Master's - identify how your research builds upon and expands current knowledge in the field - e.g. gaps in the geographical literature; recommendations for policy and/or practice
    • Doctoral - in addition to the Master's expectations, identify significant contributions to knowledge. These may include contributions to theory and/or methods.
  • In this, you will want to answer the following:
    • Why your research is important and why does it need to be done?
    • How you will conduct your research? (method, data collection, what material you will need, analyses)
    • Where will your study area be? As this is a geography research proposal, this is paramount to highlight
    • When will your project be complete? You will want to create a realistic schedule to estimate the time required to complete the various phases of your work within your programs' duration (two years Masters / four years PhD)
    • The intent is to provide both you and your advisory committee a clear, succinct statement of your research plan to ensure that all parties agree and understand your project; and all can be confident about its successful completion

Tips for proposal writing

Know who you are writing for

  • create your proposal as if readers are not experts on your topic; avoid jargon, but do use appropriate disciplinary terms when necessary

Make your proposal inspiring

  • persuade your readers that the project is worth doing and as the researcher, you are prepared and capable to successfully execute it

The proposal is not a binding contract

  • those that are involved understand that aspects of the research may change: this document is a starting point
  • consider your proposal a blueprint for how you plan to pursue your research in a feasible, timely way


  • your proposal is an academic document first and foremost, so make sure it is edited and formatted correctly
  • the proposal should be tight and focused, while there might be a desire to have a massive literature review, this is taking away from your proposal! Keep sections, like the literature review, to a minimum and save that juicy information for your actual thesis
  • length will vary depending on project and supervisor/committee. Normally, a masters thesis proposal is roughly 10-15 pages text, while the PhD proposal 15-20 text. If you go well beyond these limits, you are not writing a proposal--you are writing a chapter: STOP!
  • have a clear title, make it intriguing and understandable by individuals not in your field

Consult your committee

  • work closely with your supervisor to develop your proposal
  • ask your committee for feedback on drafts of your proposal
  • get additional feedback from peers to ensure that your proposal is clear and concise

Essential elements of the proposal

Introduction/Statement of Question

  • make explicit the question(s) or problem(s) of your research
  • precision and focused; not broad and general
  • state the geographic aspect to the research

Definition of study area & terms

  • where will your study take place?
  • define and explain key terms and concepts of your research

Relevant background literature

  • contextualize your research in the larger field of geography
  • review and appraise works that address your general field of research
  • identify gaps; relevant debates; show where your research will fit and contribute


  • how will you analyze and interpret the data?
  • what analytical tools, approaches and strategies will be used?

Anticipated Results

  • what will the results tell us?
  • what is the utility of the research; and for whom?
  • what is the benefit of the research?

Limitations of Study

  • acknowledge the limitations in your proposed research

Tentative Timetable

  • how will you organize your time within the parameters of the program? (M=2 years; D=4 years)
  • identify in your timeline, the duration and completion times of major tasks and milestones

Bibliography and Appendix

  • limit the bibliography to works cited in the proposal
  • for qualitative work, include sample questionnaires and interview questions

Role of Committee and Draft-edit Process

The thesis advisory committee's role is to provide detailed and constructive commentary to the point that the proposal may be approved by a majority, but preferably the entire committee. It is highly recommended that the proposal process for PhD candidates involves at least one face-to-face meeting with the entire thesis advisory committee; and this is also useful for Masters candidates. Typically, at least one draft-edit sequence between the candidate and the supervisor is required to produce a proposal that is acceptable for subsequent circulation to the rest of the thesis advisory committee. Several draft-edit sequences may be necessary before final approval.  


The content and structure of the proposal should be developed in consultation with the thesis advisory committee before writing.  It is useful to organize the proposal along the same lines as the final thesis (e.g., introduction, theory or background literature, methods or research design, results or findings, (expected) contributions.  The proposal is to be written in formal style and should include a reference list of (only) material cited.  Details of the format of a thesis are outlined in section 8 of the SGPS thesis regulations.  For those students who take the Research Design course (9099) (e.g., all Masters students), the proposal is generally an enhanced version of the one submitted for 9099.  After the proposal is approved (see below) the student engages in research, aimed at the production of their thesis. 

Ethics:  Research Involving Human Participants ("Subjects")

If a student is planning to conduct research involving human participants (e.g., survey, participant observation, interviews) they need to obtain Ethics approval from the University's Non-Medical Research Ethics Board.  This is not a simple process and, since from start to finish the Ethics process takes about six weeks, the student and supervisor (along with the thesis advisory committee) need to plan accordingly.  The departmental procedures are listed on our Geography Ethics Application Screening Committee page.

MA/MSc Proposal Details 

Approval by: Supervisor and Committee. (use proposal form).

Timing: The proposal will be completed by the end of term 2 in time for diagnostics meeting, or at the very latest the end of term 3 or students may be withdrawn from the program.

Page limit: Most supervisors prefer a maximum 2500-3000 words (10-15 pages double spaced); figures, appendices, and the reference list are not part of the word/page count.

PhD Proposal Details

Approval by: Comprehensive Examination Committee (use proposal form) - majority required - full consensus preferred.

Timing: The proposal is submitted at the start of the written component of the comprehensive/proposal examination. The proposal may be questioned during the oral component of the comprehensive/proposal examination. It is typically approved in term 4 or 5 (i.e., Fall or Winter with a Fall start) and must be completed no later than the end of term 6 or students may be withdrawn from the program. Only in exceptional situations will deadline extensions be granted. An extension must be recommended to the Grad Chair by the Advisory Committee.

Page limit: Most supervisors prefer a maximum 3800-5000 words (15-20 pages double spaced); figures, appendices, and the reference list are not part of the word/page count.  

Monograph or Integrated-Article:  In addition to the format section above, it is important to identify clearly whether the thesis will be one of two SGPS approved formats   i) monograph or ii) integrated-article format.  If the thesis will be in integrated-article format, the student needs to clearly identify each of the manuscripts along with the individual problems, questions and methods involved with each. The Graduate Affairs Committee has compiled detailed descriptions of both a Monograph and Integrated Article Format thesis. Please be sure to review this document when starting to prepare for your research/ thesis writing. 

All But Dissertation (ABD):  Occurs once a student completes all program milestones.  A student can now qualify to teach a course, in lieu of a TA.