Thesis proposal guidelines

In Spring 2016, the BE REFS hosted a workshop for second years about preparing for the thesis proposal. We also worked with the department to clarify guidelines and expectations in the handbook. For your reference, we’ve gathered information into an easy-to-digest bullet-point format. Many thanks to Andee Wallace (BE 2014) for compiling this document!

Make sure to refer to the latest version of the handbook for the most up-to-date thesis proposal expectations and requirements. Also remember that the BE Communication Lab is available to help you plan and write your proposal!

Oral examination

The purpose of the Oral Exam is to test the student’s ability to:

  • Explain their thesis project,
  • Defend their scientific rationale,
  • Propose alternate approaches, as necessary

Proposals should:

  • Provide motivation,
  • Describe and justify the envisioned approach
  • Summarize progress made to date

Preliminary results supporting the proposed research are beneficial, but not required, for the Thesis Proposal or the Oral Exam.


Must be complete by December 1st of your 3rd year.

Date must be scheduled by the beginning of the fall semester.

If it cannot be scheduled by Dec. 1, a petition must be submitted to the Graduate Committee by August 1st with an explanation for why along with their commitment for a target date; the Graduate Committee will approve or deny the petition request.

The Proposal

The student is responsible for:

  • Arranging the Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam meeting with the Thesis Committee Members
  • Reserving the location (plan for the meeting to take two hours)
  • Arranging the meeting at least two months in advance (because it may be difficult to find a mutually agreeable time for all involved)
  • Notifying the Thesis Committee members and the Academic Office by e-mail about the day, time, and location of the presentation once the meeting is scheduled
  • Registering for Thesis Proposal (20.951) for 0-24-0 credit units during the term in which the Proposal is defended
  • Sending email reminders to the Thesis Committee two weeks and one week before
  • Delivering a copy of the Thesis Proposal to each of the Oral Exam Committee Members and to the Academic Office at least one week prior to the Thesis Proposal presentation
  • Preparing a 30-minute presentation
  • Being prepared to be examined in depth on subject matter directly and tangentially related to all aspects of the Proposal. The questioning need not be restricted to the Proposal itself, but may expand into areas impinging on the Thesis topic.

The day of the presentation:

  • Print out slides for the Thesis Committee to each have a copy
  • The student should give the thesis chair a “Report of Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam Meeting” form (Yellow Form, see Appendix).
  • The Committee Chair must complete this form to confirm the outcome of a Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam Presentation.
  • The completed form should be submitted along with any comments or recommendations made by the Thesis Committee to the Academic Office.
  • From there, copies will be distributed to the student, the advisor, and the Committee Chair. If the Proposal presentation is acceptable, a “Pass” grade will be recorded for 20.951.

If questions arise about the format or style of the presentation, the student should contact the Oral Exam Committee Chair.

Preparing for your proposal

Assembling your thesis committee

During the spring of the second year:

  • Agree with the advisor upon members of a Thesis Committee
  • Submit the Ph.D. Thesis Committee Form to the Graduate Committee Chairs (i.e. Forest & the Academic Office) to request approval of the Thesis Committee membership
  • Keep in mind that May and August tend to be difficult to schedule professors due to unavailability – aim for late May / June

The Committee should be comprised of:

  • Thesis advisor(s)
  • A minimum of two additional members (three is better), at least one of whom must be a member of the BE faculty; can be from outside of MIT/Boston
  • The Committee Chair (who presides at all Committee meetings, including the Oral Examination) must be a BE faculty member.

Selecting a Thesis Committee:

  • Select based upon expertise, accessibility, feedback, success (how successful they are at bringing students to graduation), personality style, attitude toward methodology
  • Think about interviewing potential Committee members or speaking with their lab members
  • The goal of the Thesis Committee is to provide guidance on the various aspects of the student’s project
  • The Thesis Committee has the responsibility of advising a student on all aspects of the thesis experience, from the proposal process through the preparation and defense of the final document
  • Ask Forest/Doug for their perspective on who you’re thinking about for the Committee
  • The Thesis Committee constituted for the Oral Exam may change over the course of the student’s research (requires approval of the Graduate Program Chair via a petition)

Writing the proposal 

Title Page (One page)

Include the title, the date, your name and signature, the advisor’s name and signature, and the notation “Thesis Proposal”. Note that a signature from the Academic Office is also required to confirm that your proposal adheres to the format described here.

Abstract (Less than 300 words on One page)

  • State the significance of the proposed research
  • Include long-term objectives and specific aims
  • Describe concisely the research design and methods for achieving these objectives
  • Highlight the specific hypotheses to be tested, goals to be reached, or technology to be developed, which are intended to be your original contributions
  • Avoid summaries of past accomplishments

Overall Objective & Specific Aims (One page maximum)

  • Articulate the overall objective of your thesis project
  • Outline a set of specific aims by which your work is intended to accomplish this objective
  • Be sure to clearly state the hypotheses to be tested, goals to be reached, or technology to be developed.

Background & Significance (Three to Five pages)

  • Sketch the background leading to the present research
  • Critically evaluate existing knowledge
  • Specifically identify the gaps that your research is intended to fill
  • State concisely the importance of the research described in this proposal by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives.

Research Design & Methods (Six to Eight pages)

  • Along with the Objective & Aims section, this is the most important part of the proposal. The majority of your time should be spent making this part of your proposal strong, direct, and completely clear.
  • Describe the research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project; it is generally most effective to do this according to the same outline as in the Objective & Aims section
  • Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted
  • Describe any new methodology and its advantage over existing methodologies
  • Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims
  • As part of this section, provide a tentative timetable for the project. Point out any procedures, situations or materials that may be hazardous and the precautions to be exercised

Preliminary Studies (Three to Four pages)

  • This section may alternatively be located before the Research Design & Methods section
  • Use this section to provide an account of your preliminary studies that are pertinent to your research project and that support your specific aims
  • Note: it is not necessary to have obtained a substantial amount of preliminary data in order to submit or defend the proposal, although it will be expected that you have begun to undertake some of the key methods to assess their feasibility

Literature Cited (No page limits – not included in the 20 page limit)

  • List all references
  • Each reference must include the title, names of authors, book or journal, volume number, starting and ending page numbers, and year of publication
  • References are not included in the page limits. However, only references pertinent to the proposed research should be included. 

Appendix (No page limits – not included in the 20 page limit)

  • Copies of published or submitted articles pertinent to the proposed research for which you are an author may be included
  • Such publications are neither expected nor required at the time of Thesis Proposal presentation.

Format and Page Limitations

  • Proposals must be single spaced using 12 pt font and 1 inch margins
  • Figures may be embedded into the text, but they must be readable
  • The font within figures must be at least 9 point and the figure captions must be at least 10 point.
  • Devote one page each for the title page, abstract and specific aims.
  • Use between 13–17 pages for the remaining sections (Background & Significance, Preliminary Results, and Research Design & Methods). Note that although the maximum recommended page limits for these sections add up to a total of 17 pages, you are expected to expand and contract these sections as you see fit so that the total is no more than 17 pages.
  • Page limits include both text and figures. References are not included in the page limits.
  • The total length of the document should not exceed 20 pages (including 3 pages for the title page, abstract and specific aims; not including references or appendices).

After the proposal

Committee meetings

It is expected that the student and supervisor will hold progress reviews with the entire Thesis Committee at least once a year.

  • Oral Exam / Thesis Proposal – summer after 2nd year
  • One Regular Thesis Committee Meeting w/ Progress Report (at least one, there can be more) – required within one year of the Oral Exam
  • Final Thesis Committee Meeting Report (must include all Thesis Committee members) – do at least 6 months before intended Thesis Defense date
  • Thesis Defense to the Thesis Committee (open to the public)
  • Progress Reports are required once a year or more frequently if the Thesis Committee so requests
  • More frequent one-on-one meetings are strongly recommended

Preparing for committee meetings

  • One week before, the student should deliver annotated Specific Aims to each of the Committee Members. The aims should be 2 pages long (at most/ 12pt font). After each up-to-date Specific Aim, please add a few sentences outlining the status of that aim.
  • At the presentation, the student should hand out photocopies of slides to the Thesis Committee Members. Also, the student should provide the Committee Chair with a yellow “Verification of Presentation” form to complete and submit to Academic Office.