The Thesis Proposal

The submission of your thesis proposal should normally occur in the second year of the PhD program and before the end of the third year. You can find more information about the process on the department website. The process itself is clearly detailed, but the expected content of the thesis proposal itself is underspecified. This page describes my expectations for the students I supervise.

Formatting and Length

I strongly recommend to use the following latex template. Remember, that as per department rules, your thesis proposal must not exceed 50 pages (excluding appendices). You should also remove the front matter from the template (e.g., list of figures, chapter list etc.). The page limit is a maximum; it is not a target. Successful Thesis Proposal documents can be shorter than the limit. Writing within the page limit is important. You should add all submissions and accepted publications since the start of your PhD in the appendix.

Content

Summary

This should be 1 or 2 pages long and give a brief summary of the research you are intending to pursue. The early part of your summary, should contain your thesis statement (more examples here). The thesis statement is central to the proposal and you should build the rest of the document around it. Your goal is to demonstrate than your proposed thesis is non-trivial, novel, plausible and, importantly, useful.

You can later subdivide your thesis statement into multiple research questions, but you must ensure that they are clearly interconnected, and that they will lead to a coherent thesis story. You should also discuss why answering those questions is important.

Literature review

The goal in this section is to demonstrate your understanding of the literature, and to show the limitations of previous work. This should be the basis to your claim of novelty, and it should be clear how the proposed work fits within the existing literature. The literature review should provide a critical assessment of past work, including:

  1. the identification of foundational work in the topic area;
  2. the most closely related prior work;
  3. a clear discussion of their strengths and limitations.

You should consider that this part of the proposal will be used as a chapter in your thesis.

Progress Report

You should have done preliminary research by the time you are submitting your proposal and, ideally, have published some work based on your RPE. The goal is to show the committee what you are capable of. This helps the committee assess the plausibility of the thesis and of your proposed plan. Published papers should be available in the appendix, and you do not need to reproduce their content. You should summarize them briefly in a self-contained way.

Research Proposal

You should build from your proposal summary and discuss how you are planning to tackle your thesis and your research questions over the next few years. It may be useful to think of this in term of planned publications. You could subdivide the planned research into multiple chunks. Each chunk could be summarized into 3 or 4 paragraphs and corresponds to an academic paper. Those papers will form the basis for your thesis chapters. At this stage you should plan for at least 2 or 3 full academic papers.

Plan and Timeline

While your proposal should give the impression that failure of your research is unlikely, in reality this possibility exists. Indeed, it would not be research if failure was not possible. Consequently, your plan must account for possible setbacks and failures, and must discuss what you plan to do if something does not work out. Your plan must also contain milestones as well as there completion and success criteria. A milestone, can be, for example, the submission of a paper, the release of a dataset, the completion of some software development task etc. You may also discuss the evaluation strategies you will adopt to measure success (e.g., your system successfully prevent vulnerability X while adding less than Y% overhead.) This list of milestones should clearly and ultimately lead to the submission and defense of your thesis.

The milestones you present are your best guesses at the time of your proposal. You will not be held to them, but you should periodically refer to your schedule, update it as necessary, and become better at estimating how long it will take to complete your work. They are mostly there to demonstrate that you understand the timescale involved in overcoming different research challenges (e.g., paper submissions must be scheduled at a reasonable and plausible pace).

Finally, if you need specialized hardware or specific software resources to complete your research, this must be discussed in advance and clearly stated in your thesis.

Proposal Submission

You should plan a couple of months to work on your proposal. You should be ready to send and discuss regular updates with me during those months. Once we are in agreement that the proposal is converging towards an acceptable output, you should contact the members of the committee and schedule a date for your defense. You should send your proposal at least two weeks in advance as to leave sufficient time for the committee members to carefully review it (you should discuss this explicitly with the committee members). It is also your responsibility to identify and make sure you fulfil all the department’s administrative requirements.

Thomas Pasquier
Thomas Pasquier
Assistant Professor

My research interests include provenance, operating systems, distributed systems and intrusion detection.