Thesis and MRP Proposal Guide

Department of English

Guidelines for MRP Proposals and MA and PhD Thesis Proposals

The major research paper (MRP) and thesis proposal is a definition of the critical question that a student wishes to pursue in his or her thesis. It is a crucial first step toward the writing of the research paper or thesis. Its main purpose is to ensure that the student has a clear focus for research and a viable plan for the project’s organization. Writing the proposal also offers an opportunity for students to hone their skills in proposal writing— an essential task in academic research and many other fields.

Title Page

The title page should include the title of the MRP or thesis; the degree sought (MA or PhD); the name of the student; the name of the supervisor(s); and the date of submission to the graduate committee.

Format and content

MRP proposals are expected to be 4-5 pages long (1200-1500 words), MA thesis proposals are typically about 10-12 pages long, and PhD proposals 15-20 pages, including the bibliography. The proposal should define and justify the topic and indicate the critical method of the proposed research paper or thesis. The MRP proposal should demonstrate that the student has a clearly defined topic with a specific argument, an appropriate methodology, and familiarity with relevant criticism in the field. The proposal for the MA or PhD thesis shares the basic requirements of the MRP proposal, and in addition, it should demonstrate that the student has read widely in the field and show how the proposed thesis project will relate to and build on what other scholars have said about the chosen topic. The central portion of proposal should provide a preliminary outline of the argument and shape of the thesis, including the specific texts to be studied and the anticipated structure of the study (including the number and order of chapters for the MA thesis or PhD).

In defining the scope of the project, students should bear in mind the following rough guidelines for the length of the finished research paper or thesis:

  • An MRP is expected to be about 40 pages in length, including bibliography, and may be divided into sections where appropriate.
  • An MA thesis typically is about 100 pages in length, and consists of an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion.
  • A PhD thesis is about 200 pages long, and typically includes an introduction, four or five chapters, and a conclusion. However, the number and length of chapters in the thesis will vary depending on the project. It is understood that research projects will evolve and the final version of the thesis may differ from what was planned in the proposal.

The research paper or thesis proposal is both a description of and an argument for the proposed project. As Irene Clark puts it in Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation, the proposal is an argument whose goal is to persuade a knowledgeable audience: (a) that the project is worth doing, and (b) that it can be done using the methods specified, and completed within the time available (43). 

In order to be convincing, the research paper or thesis proposal must address the following questions:

  • What central issues will the research paper or thesis explore, and what questions will guide its investigation of the topic? What will it argue *about* those issues?
  • What primary texts will the research paper or thesis examine? For a thesis, how will the material be organized into manageable chapters?
  • What critical approach will the research paper or thesis take? What theoretical or critical texts, concepts, or methods will be used to frame the project, and why are they appropriate for the writer’s purposes?
  • What have established scholars in the field already said about this topic, and how will the research paper or thesis build on, challenge, complicate, move beyond, or differ from what existing scholars have said?
  • Why is this topic important enough to write about? How will the project add to our understanding of an issue that critics today find interesting and important? Why is it worthwhile to tackle this particular problem in this particular way: what will we gain by doing so?
  • For the PhD thesis, what original contribution to contemporary scholarly conversations will the project make? How will it move those conversations forward or take them in new, beneficial directions?

Since the proposal will be submitted to a Graduate Committee whose members are not all experts in the student’s field, it must be written in language that is accessible and persuasive to a broad academic audience. This is analogous to the demands of writing for external review committees, such as those of SSHRC and OGS, which are composed of scholars from different disciplines.


A preliminary bibliography listing all the primary sources and a substantial selection of secondary sources should be attached to the proposal. The bibliography for a PhD proposal will be more extensive than for an MA thesis, and both will be more comprehensive than for an MRP, but they should all include the major critical works in the area of study.


In formulating the proposal, students should keep in mind the standards for theses set by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and defined as follows in the General Regulations (you can read these on the FGPS website):

a) The Master’s MRP is similar to the MA thesis, but only about half as long. The student must show the ability to work independently in a scholarly manner, and must produce a well-researched paper on a clearly defined topic.
b) The MA thesis must show that the student is able to work in a scholarly manner and is acquainted with the principal works published on the subject of the thesis. As far as possible it should be an original contribution. However, a thoughtful and critical synthesis of the conclusions of specialists on a particular problem related to the subject of specialization may be accepted.
c) A PhD thesis must constitute a significant contribution to knowledge, embody the results of original investigation and analysis, and be of such quality as to merit publication.

Revising and Resubmitting

It is not unusual for a research paper or thesis proposal to be returned to the student for revisions. If this happens, it should not be seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to strengthen the proposal with the help of constructive criticism from the graduate committee (and, for PhD proposals, the expert readers). In the long run, taking the time to revise and resubmit a more focused, coherent, persuasive proposal will make it much easier for the student to complete a strong research paper or thesis in a timely manner. If the MA or PhD thesis proposal is sent back for revisions, it should be resubmitted to the graduate committee within two months. If the MRP proposal requires revisions, these should be completed and the proposal resubmitted to the Graduate Director within two to three weeks.

Beyond the Proposal: Information, Tips, and Resources for Writing

For information on the process of writing and submitting the proposal and research paper or thesis, please see either the Timeline and Procedures for MA with Major Research Paper or the Graduate Program Milestones Charts for the MA with Thesis and PhD. All documents are available from the Graduate Academic Assistant. You may also wish to consult the Graduate Handbook (available online on the English Grad Program page), as well as the downloadable thesis writing guide on the FGPS website.

Do not count on your supervisor to know and ensure that you follow all of the FGPS deadlines and procedures. They are there to help you, but professors are busy and often supervising more than one student; in any case, it is your responsibility to ensure your own timely progress through the program. You should ask your supervisor to set up a regular meeting schedule. The exact frequency depends on what works best for you and your supervisor, and where you are in the process. However, you should aim to meet monthly, and biweekly or weekly if you are nearing your completion deadline. You’ll get more done if you have to check in regularly with your supervisor. If the writing isn’t going well, your supervisor can suggest strategies for getting un-stuck.

For MA thesis and PhD students:
When your progress report is due, treat it as an opportunity to meet with your supervisor(s) and/or committee and discuss what you’ve accomplished and what you need to accomplish in the coming year. Don’t rush in with the form at the last minute; allow time to sit down together and really think through where you are, how much time you have left, and what your strategy will be for getting through the next stage. If you receive a report that expresses concern about your progress, and/or if you are asked to submit an extra progress report in a few months, remember that the point is not to penalize you for being a bad student, but rather to help you stay on track.
Thesis writing is a very challenging and often isolating activity. Many graduate students struggle with writer’s block, anxiety, or depression at some point, along with other professional, personal, and financial worries. Be sure to get out and see friends and colleagues at regular intervals. If you are really struggling to make progress, be sure to ask for help—from your supervisor, the Graduate Director, other professors, fellow students, and/or the counsellors at SASS, who offer academic coaching services as well as many kinds of counselling and referrals to other mental health resources. The Graduate Academic Assistant is also an excellent source of moral support and practical advice.

More Help

  • Samples of successful thesis proposals are available from the Graduate Academic Assistant. 
  • Samples of MA and PhD theses can be viewed at ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Online, which you can access through the UOttawa Library network.

There are a number of helpful guides out there to help you develop good writing habits and survive the thesis-writing process successfully. Here are a few that are most relevant to the humanities:

  • Joan Bolker, Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day
  • Eviatar Zerubavel, The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books
  • Peg Boyle Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing
  • Irene L. Clark, Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation

Other books that may be helpful on the nuts-and-bolts end:

  • MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing 
  • Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, & Dissertations (w/Chicago Style citation guide)
  • Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar 
  • Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace

Tech Support

You may want to try out some of these tools for writing, research, and time management:

  • There are many different research management software programs, each with slightly different features, but all designed to help you keep track of your expanding library of online and print publications, pdf articles, notes, and bibliographies for your thesis chapters and other writing projects. Some good ones include OneNote and Zotero. Ask around, read reviews, find one that works for you. 
  • Scrivener is a writing application that works especially well for drafting, organizing, and revising a large complex writing project. It has many features that standard word processing programs don’t, such as split-screen editing, an automatic outliner feature, various ways of organizing notes and research sources within the same project, and the ability to take “snapshots” of drafts in progress so that you can easily revert to a previous version if your revising goes awry. There is a bit of a learning curve, so it is worth spending time on the tutorial to get a feel for how the features work.
  • Finally, there are apps to help you stay focused on writing. Many are based on the Pomodoro method, where you work in timed 25-minute sessions with 5-minute breaks in between. Some also help you track how much of your time you spend per week on each work activity (e.g. research, writing, revising, teaching). Others, such as Anti-Social, allow you to block websites that tempt you to waste time. Still others help you with “singletasking” by reminding you periodically of your top priority for the day (“write for 4 hours” or “finish intro to chapter 3”). None of these eliminates the need for plain old willpower and self-discipline, but they can help, especially combined with the strategies for establishing good writing habits described in the books by Bolker, Zerubavel, and Single.

The Research Paper or Thesis

1. Research Paper or Thesis Topic

FGPS Regulation G.2 stipulates that MA thesis students must register their thesis topic by the end of their second semester, and PhD students must register their thesis topic by the end of the third semester. 

Registration of thesis topic and/or appointment of research supervisor” form:

However, as of January 2015, the English Department requires all MA thesis and PhD students to register their topic and supervisor(s) no later than January 15th of their first year. Master’s MRP students must register their supervisor with the Graduate Director by Nov 1st and their topic by the end of the first week of January.

[N.B. You must file a new “Registration of thesis topic/supervisor” form if you change supervisors, or if you add a co-supervisor. ]

2. Research Paper or Thesis Proposal

  • Upon arriving at the Department of English, the new student has an informal discussion with the Director of Graduate Studies about a proposed research paper or thesis area and a possible topic.
  • The Director of Graduate Studies refers the student to professors in the appropriate fields for informal consultation leading to the selection of a supervisor. For the MA thesis and PhD, the student may also have a co-supervisor and/or a supervisory committee. The Graduate Program strongly encourages PhD students to form supervisory committees, where possible. In consultation with the supervisor(s) or supervisory committee, the student develops the proposal.
  • The research paper or thesis proposal should give an overview of the scope of the MRP or thesis, indicating the argument, the methodological and theoretical framework, and for the thesis, an outline of the chapters. The MRP proposal should be between 3 and 5 pages in length; the MA thesis proposal should be between 8 and 12 pages plus bibliography; the PhD thesis proposal should be between 12 and 15 pages plus bibliography.
  • MRP students may submit their proposal any time before, but no later than April 1st.
  • MA thesis students are encouraged to submit their proposal as early in the summer as possible, but must submit it no later than August 1st.
  • PhD students may submit their proposals at any time during the year, but should submit the proposal within two semesters following successful completion of the comprehensive exams.
  • Once the MA or PhD thesis proposal is ready, the supervisor submits the Supervisor’s Approval Form (available from the Graduate Academic Assistant) and the student submits the thesis proposal to the Director of Gra¬du¬ate Studies, who brings it before the Graduate Committee for approval. At the PhD level, the proposal is evaluated by two area specialists in addition to members of the Graduate Committee.
  • Once the MRP proposal has been approved by the Graduate Committee, the student registers for ENG 6999 (Major Research Paper). Once the MA or PhD thesis proposal has been approved by the Graduate Committee, a passing grade is entered on the transcript.
  • Should the thesis proposal be sent back for revision, the student should submit within two months for re-evaluation. Should the MRP proposal require revision, the student should resubmit to the Graduate Director within two to three weeks.

Sample thesis proposals are available from the Graduate Academic Assistant.

3. MA or PhD Thesis Supervisor

  • Students may choose to work with one supervisor or to work with more than one professor as part of a committee system. In the case of the latter, normally one professor will be chosen as the primary member of the committee and will be considered the main supervisor. The extent to which the thesis committee participates in reading drafts of the thesis is up to the parties involved (student, main supervisor, committee members). Normally, the association between a supervisor, thesis committee, and student is formed as a result of mutual selection. Students are encouraged to be flexible in constructing their thesis proposal to ensure that the area of their work coincides with areas of specialization of Department members. (See thesis research fields, p. 26.)
  • Before January 15th of the first year of studies for both MA thesis and PhD students, the supervisor’s name will be submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. If the student has not yet chosen a supervisor by that point, the Director of Graduate Studies will be the interim supervisor. The student must submit a new “Registration of thesis topic and/or appointment of research supervisor” form once the thesis supervisor is chosen. In the unlikely event that the student changes supervisors, a new form must be submitted to document the appointment of the new supervisor.
  • The supervisor, who must be a member of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, will be responsible within the Depart¬ment for the approval of all subsequent registrations of the student.
  • Regular consultations between student and supervisor and, where appropriate, members of the thesis committee, should be arranged by a mutually agreed-upon schedule and should be initiated by the student.
  • Supervisors expecting to be absent from the University for an extended period of time (two months or more) are responsible either for making suitable arrangements with the student and the Department for the continued supervision of the student, or for requesting the Department to appoint another supervisor. Such arrange¬ments should be communicated to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies before the supervisor leaves the University.

For more information on the thesis writing process, please see the detailed guide on the FGPS website.

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