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It seems that most universities in Europe require an outline of the planned dissertation at the application stage. I think even choosing the title of a dissertation needs a lot of dialogue between the student and his supervisor. It also requires a thorough investigation on the state of art in the targeted area.

Is such proposal the definite proposal or it may totally be changed after the admission? Can you provide some tips for writing such proposal draft? How much time you think I should devote for such plan (at least)?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

First, to answer your titular question:

Is it possible?

Likely yes. Otherwise, all PhD students at this university would fail, wouldn't they :) ? Let me go over the rest of your question one by one:

It seems that most universities in Europe require an outline of the planned dissertation at the application stage.

Most seems a bit extreme. I know that this is how it works in some universities, but it certainly did not work like that in all places I worked in.

I think even choosing the title of a dissertation needs a lot of dialogue between the student and his supervisor. It also requires a thorough investigation on the state of art in the targeted area.

Correct. At my current university, people hand in their proposals during their second year usually.

Is such proposal the definite proposal or it may totally be changed after the admission?

It is almost certainly not a very definite plan, but whether it can totally change I am not sure. For instance, I would assume if it changed so much that it started to fall out of the area of expertise of your advisor, I would imagine things would get tricky.

Can you provide some tips for writing such proposal draft? How much time you think I should devote for such plan (at least)?

Rsearch the state of the art in the field you are interested in. Take a few days minimum to browse over the keywords of the papers of the top conferences in the field. Find out which professor at your university publishes in these top conferences (if there is nobody, this university may be a bad match for your field of interest), and see what the typical keywords and style of his work are.

Think about ~3 coarse-grained research questions that you think are not answered yet by existing work. You probably already needed to define a research question for e.g., your master's thesis. Make sure that the scope is a bit broader now for a PhD - you don't want research questions that are basically answerable within one paper in a few months of work (Bad: "Q1: is it possible to apply algorithm A to problem B?"). On the other hand, you do not want to be too general either (Bad: "Q2: how can security be introduced in service-oriented systems?" - this one is a real-life example).

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I do appreciate for your good answer. –  PHPst Mar 14 at 12:18

I once had to write a thesis proposal for admission to a UK university. It was explained to me that this is more of an entrance exam than an actual proposal. It is also used to gauge whether your interests lie somewhere in the vicinity of what is generally done at the department.

I don't know how other countries or universities work, but I can't imagine that anybody would hold you strictly to a proposal you wrote before becoming a graduate student. It's normal to expect that your research should be adapted along the way based on your findings, even for an experienced researcher.

The proposal I wrote (which was successful) had to be short, so I went with the following format:

  • Theory so and so implies that A is true
  • But this other theory suggests that the converse, B, would be true
  • These could be pitted against each other in an experiment involving so-and-so (details details details)

The time you need entirely depends on your knowledge of the field. It is good to invest quite some time in these things though, as they can really improve a lot the more you think about them. I'd say that it's best to try to finish it a good month before the deadline, and then take a look at it at biweekly intervals to make improvements.

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Is such proposal the definite proposal or it may totally be changed after the admission?

I had to do a similar task to get into PhD program here in Australia. It is mostly a formality and people's actual topic can vary widely. Actually it would be strange if you did not change your topic slightly. After 6 months - 1 year we are expected to give a seminar and a much more detailed proposal, this was the real one. Although again your topic can still change after that.

Can you provide some tips for writing such a proposal draft?

I would ask your supervisor for tips. Maybe they can provide you with a copy of one from a previous student. Usually the university provides a general outline of what you should discuss.

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Another Australian here, and this accords with my experience. It would help further answers if you, OP, tell us what they're expecting in terms of a format for this thesis proposal. Mine was only about 2000 words I think, and was meant to demonstrate that I had a minimum interest/knowledge of the topic before undertaking a doctoral program. Mine changed dramatically over the following 4 years. No one will hold you to exactly what you wrote in your thesis proposal. –  Jangari Mar 14 at 10:01

At least at the European university where I work, we do not require such a proposal.

However, in general, the thesis proposal is a planning document, and therefore its contents are not considered binding. Especially given the nature of research, committing someone to a particular course of action before it even begins seems counterproductive.

The proposal should be allowed to evolve over time, and possibly be changed completely if found to be unworkable or unmanageable.

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I had to write a proposal as part of the admission process in a university in Ireland for a MLitt in History. Here are some thoughts based on what you have asked and my experience.

I think even choosing the title of a dissertation needs a lot of dialogue between the student and his supervisor.

I had 2 meeting with my supervisor before the proposal was handed in. These meetings did not just entail discussion on the title, but they formed a part of it in so far as was this professor the best person in the department to supervise the masters. We had a working title quite early though.

Is such proposal the definite proposal or it may totally be changed after the admission?

I have found in my case that the title may be refined after admission. It has not being the case where we have made a major chance but rather refined the project as the research is completed while keeping it within the overall framework of the original idea.

Can you provide some tips for writing such proposal draft? How much time you think I should devote for such plan (at least)?

In my case the proposal did not have to be a long document. I think instructions were to keep it under 1,500 words. I used the following heading for my proposal.

  • What I'm going to research
  • Research Methodology
  • What has been researched about topic already
  • What will this thesis add to existing knowledge.

Finally I also put together a draft reading list of publications that I thought would form part of my research. This was not required but I felt it was a good exercise for myself and my supervisor appreciated a copy of it as well.

Thinking back I believe I had my proposal document completed in about 2-3 weeks(this includes drafting and amending).

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Thanks a lot for sharing you experience. –  PHPst Mar 15 at 14:20

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