I was talking to some of the MA students here applying to the PhD program. They were told something between 2 pages (single spaced) to 10 pages (double spaced) would be the standard expectations. Mine was a little bit of overkill, but since I hadn’t done a NT research project, I needed to show that I had developed some background in the area in order to go into the PhD program instead of having to do the MATR first and then PhD.

As I’ve marked essays and thought about my own papers and projects, I think a simple but important aspects of thesis proposals/essay introductions are these:

  1. Context — What’s the larger discussion that your topic fits under?
  2. Problem — What’s your thesis question?  What’s the current state of state of scholarship on that question, and why is your question still unanswered?
  3. Solution/Thesis — What is it that you might propose as a solution?  You may even offer this as a question…’Is it that X is the key to unlock this problem?’
  4. Plan of Attack/Method — How will you go about answering the question?

Here’s the proposal format that a friend of mine passed on to me and that I used. It’s really designed for the first chapter of a thesis, so you may drop 1.9 and 1.10 for the proposal.

1.1 Introduction
1.2 Framing the Issues (basic readings on the topic—how people approach it)
1.3 Seeing the Problem (what’s the angle you’re looking at and which approach you take)
1.4 Justification of Study
1.5 Asking the Questions
1.6 A Working Hypothesis
1.7 Aims and Objectives
1.8 Tools for the Task (aka Methodology)
1.9 Definitions
1.10 Presuppositions

The key thing for the proposal is to clarify what question and subquestions you are attempting to answer.


22 Responses to “The Thesis Proposal”

  1. Ben Says:

    Here’s another good summary of what’s needed in a proposal:

    The application needs to identify clearly and succinctly:

    (a) main research question;
    (b) significance of (a);
    (c) intellectual field the research would contribute to;
    (d) methodology/how you would investigate (a);
    (e) indicative bibliography.

    Thus, it needs:

    A brief statement that puts your proposal/topic in context.
    A brief comment that suggests a gap, that something is needed: e.g., ‘up to now there has been insufficient attention given to …’
    Two or three sentences pinpointing your particular research question(s). Perhaps one major question, with a small number of subordinate and connected questions.

    A few sentences on significance: why this question/these questions matter and to whom; its/their potential implications for policy/practice/understanding.

    Two or three sentences ‘locating’ the investigation academically: the study would build upon and contribute to work in the field; bringing two or more different fields of inquiry into dialogue. Imagine the thesis is published: where, on the library shelf, would it be placed?

    A few sentences outlining methodology to be adopted (concentrate on your verbs here); what ‘tools of enquiry’ will be used. [And if, appropriate, some of the skills needed] (Will there be travel; observation; action research; questionnaires; interviews; analysis of institutional documentation; literature review; conceptual analysis; archive work … ).

    Somewhere in the above it would help to suggest wherein might lie the originality of your proposed study.

    Provide an indicative bibliography (be aware of the type of material you refer to); its intellectual status; aspects considered by a panel might be ‘up-to-dateness’, authoritativeness, depth, representativeness, relevance, etc of items identified.

  2. Richard Says:

    This, I’m sure, will prove to be of great use (in the early stages of applying to do my PhD in Theology) – Thank you, Ben!

  3. Ben Says:

    glad to be of help.

  4. Greg Says:


    Thanks for the very helpful information. How far developed should the proposal be before beginning an email correspondence with a potential supervisor? I would like to contact Prof. Watson at Durham with an idea but do not have it developed enough yet for a thorough proposal.

  5. Ben Says:

    Greg. That’s a good question. I had a paragraph that I sent to each of my prospects in addition to my CV and general info about myself for initial contact. You’ll find, in fact, that the best prospects will give you ideas about your proposal. For instance, John Barclay sent me about a page response with some great ideas that really sharped my proposal. In the end you just need a research question and potentially a proposed solution for the paragraph and something that sets it within a wider context. I suppose it should be like an abstract for an article or a conference proposal.

  6. anna Says:

    thank you. you have helped me to give an outline to my ideas

  7. Hi Ben
    Thanks for putting the CODEC thing on your blog. Do you think you will produce a definitive version of your ‘Writing a Proposal’. Looking at the one’s coming in for the CODEC PhD programme, there is a great need for people to highlight the methodology – so the first comment on here rather than the first version. Also, discuss the thing with the potential supervisor! I am sure people would much prefer to work through something with someone than have to reject a proposal because it hasn’t been sharpened up first. Hope to see you around Durham sometime…

  8. Ben Says:

    Thanks Pete for comment. I suppose at this point I hadn’t planned to update things since I’ve still only dealt with my own and don’t have the experience in critiquing them. Your note about methodology is helpful, and my experience definitely matched your recommendation to discuss things with the potential supervisor.

  9. Very helpful website with good information. Thanks for putting all of this out there for others.

  10. bf Says:

    OH !!! what you’ve done is too great to me ! i find the light to write a good proposal. Thank you

  11. Thanks for the help! Great work

  12. jimmy Says:

    anyone show me an example of an indicative bibliography?

  13. Becc Says:

    What is an indicative bibliography.The references you are reading?

    1. Ben Says:

      It’s just a list of top works on the topic you are addressing.

  14. E.R. Says:

    I just happened to find this webpage, thank you God! I am applying to University of Edinburgh, have a professor who has said he would welcome an applicaiton/PhD proposal on conservative Evangelicals use of media and their theological take on The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrine of the Church in the context of using the media to advance their theological agenda. If this makes no sense I am surrounded by high school students as I type… I am having a difficult time getting my head around all this but I do think it has some possiblities… any suggestions?

    1. Ben Says:

      This sounds quite interesting. I’m afraid though that I don’t have much experience in crafting proposals outside of the historical setting. I was talking yesterday to a friend about the basics of abstracts, and he commented on the helpfulness of the basic structure I use: context, problem, (hypo)thesis, and structure of the study. If you hit those things, the supervisor will at least be clear on what you think you are tying to do.

  15. SJP Slabbert Says:

    Starting my PhD on the Imprecatory Psalms and the Christian. Can Christians read/pray/study these Psalms? These Psalms form part of the Word of God, but they appear to contradict the NT ethic of loving your neighbor and your enemy. My thesis is to try and prove that the Imprecations do not really differ in essence, although perhaps in degree, from the NT ethic.

    I am still busy with my proposal, so there is still a long way to go.

  16. mike whitney Says:

    I am trying to develop a scholarly level proposal on a reading of Romans, focusing on Romans 4:1-3. I was also doing a translation on a Romans 5 article by Otfried Hofius, so I was adding your list and dict.cc for assisting in creating an interlinear of the German text — though this task isn’t finished.

  17. Maria Paul Says:

    Is indicative bibliography and indicative annotated bibliography same?

    1. I think the indicative relates to a list of key texts. If they add “annotated” then you need to provide a sentence or so with each one listed on what its thesis is and/or its unique contribution to the debate.

  18. Hello Ben,

    Thank you for this great resource. My question: approximately how long are bibliographies expected to be for thesis proposals? 200 works?

    1. Depends on the length of the proposal. For a short one 15-20 would probably be adequate. For a longer proposal, I would guess something in the range of 30 or so, basically like a journal article.

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