Thesis Proposal Requirements

An approved thesis topic and a designated thesis supervisor are requirements for admission to the doctoral program. A doctoral thesis must be based on an original piece of research that the candidate has designed and carried out. After successfully writing the PhD Comprehensive examination, the student will begin preparations to write and defend the PhD thesis proposal. Departmental approval of a thesis proposal is provided only after the student has been successful in a formal defense of the proposal.

The primary purpose is to protect the student. The examiners of the proposal will have read the entire proposal critically and will, in many cases, have searched the key references in the literature to ensure that:

  • the proposed study will move the literature in the area forward
  • the methodology proposed is appropriate and
  • if completed, the project is worthy of a PhD.

If a thesis proposal passes critical review at this stage, the student is reasonably assured that following the proposed methods will result in a defensible PhD thesis. The proposal defense was implemented primarily to prevent students from reaching the stage of final thesis defense only to learn that their project has a fatal flaw which makes it indefensible.

A secondary purpose is to strengthen the thesis design, methods, theory, and rationale through productive conversations and critical feedback.

Another objective of the proposal defense is to screen out students who clearly are unsuitable for the program. It must be stressed that it is highly unlikely that any student who has successfully completed the courses and the comprehensive examination will not be capable of developing a suitable proposal. However, in the unlikely event that this does occur, it is much better to reach this conclusion before any more time and effort are invested by the student. Following a successful defense, the student's task is then to complete the work using appropriate methods and using the proposal as a guide.

Preparing A PhD Thesis Proposal

It is your responsibility to note the following:

  1. Each PhD student must defend his/her thesis proposal prior to initiation of thesis research. If you begin your thesis research prior to defending the proposal, you risk losing all work done to date if the committee requires revisions.
  2. The proposal must be defended within a year of writing the comprehensive examination. Students who have developed their program of research prior to being admitted into the PhD program may be allowed to defend their proposal at any time after admission into the program.
  3. All research involving human subjects must be approved by the Review Board for Health Sciences Research Involving Human Subjects (Office of Research Ethics, Support Services Building, Room 4180) before subjects are recruited.

Selection of the Topic

The selection of your thesis topic may be the most important decision you make in the PhD program. The topic you choose will be a major determinant of your success in the program and may also shape the direction your career takes after graduation. As well, going through the experience of selecting a suitable topic is excellent preparation for a research career in which you will often be selecting research questions.

The selection of your thesis topic is a creative process and, except under unusual circumstances, should be done by the student, not the supervisor. Supervisors have a major role to play in helping guide the student toward a good choice. The process varies from individual to individual but often the student first selects the general area of interest and then independently reviews the literature in their chosen area to determine what study would move the state of knowledge forward. An acceptable variant on this pattern would be the situation where the supervisor suggests the area but then the student independently reviews the literature and narrows the topic. Another variant might occur when the student has not as yet decided on the general area but reads something which stimulates a question worthy of inquiry.

The actual research question(s) should generate a study of appropriate scope: small enough to be completed in a reasonable time frame but large enough to be a substantial effort and contribution. In this regard, input from faculty is needed as it is impossible to quantify what constitutes "enough but not too much" since this varies with subject area and study type. A good rule of thumb is that, when completed, the study should be suitable for publication as 2-5 papers in reputable epidemiology, biostatistics or public health journals. However, the scope of a PhD dissertation should have more depth and dimension than a journal paper study. For example, small "side questions" enrich a PhD thesis whereas in a journal paper these side questions may not be discussed.

When selecting a topic, students should consider the technical skills, methodology and content areas with which they are already familiar as well as those in which they wish to acquire familiarity during the process

Study Design

A biostatistics PhD thesis should be methodological in nature. Statistical methodologies should be proposed or evaluated. The methods could be algebraic or simulation based. Data analytic studies would, ordinarily, not be suitable. However, data analysis for the purpose of providing examples of the application of the methods under study would be seen as complimentary to the methodological components of the thesis.

An epidemiology PhD thesis should be based on the study design most appropriate for the question. The study may involve primary data (collected for the purpose of the study) or may involve the use of secondary data. When data are from secondary sources, the student should be careful to ensure that the study is question driven and not data driven (i.e. no "fishing") and that the study is adequately complex. A routine clinical trial would, ordinarily, not be a suitable PhD thesis.

Should a Pilot Study be Done Before the Proposal Defense?

This is a question that can only be answered with "it depends." Benefits of conducting a pilot include the obvious advantage that, at the time of proposal defense, the student will have some idea of study feasibility, availability of subjects etc. However, if it takes a significant investment of time and resources to conduct the pilot study, then it may be prudent to wait until after the proposal defense in order to ensure that the topic itself is acceptable.

Since almost all passing proposals will be subject to certain conditions and modifications, it is not unrealistic to assume that, in the latter case, the examination committee might pass the proposal conditional on the outcome of a pilot study.

Thesis Proposal Format

The length of the proposal should be about 20-25 pages (printed on one side of the paper, with 1.5 or double spacing between lines) and should mimic a grant application in that the reader should be able to judge the science based on those 20-25 pages.

The components of the proposal should include (1) an introduction (1 page or so) stating what is being studied and why it is being studied; and (2) a literature review covering the most important studies which have been done and explaining to the reader how the proposed study will move knowledge forward in this area. It is understood that the student will have prepared a full literature review prior to proposal submission. However, the examination committee is only interested in reviewing a summary of the literature review. You may wish to bring your full literature review to the defense in case any questions are directed toward the literature; (3) a statement of study objectives; and (4) a description of study methods. For most study types, this would usually include study design, data collection, data analysis and sample size calculation. Some indication should also be given regarding the feasibility (e.g. subject availability, time frame for completion) of the study.

Appendices should include: data collection forms, testing instruments, letters of permission for secondary data source access and any other materials necessary to convince the committee of the proposal feasibility. Note that for secondary data sources, there may be situations where the letters of permission may not be available at the time of the defense (for example, if the student needs to submit the defended proposal to the agency prior to obtaining permission). Do not add appendix materials that are not essential for judging the science of the proposal.

A well-written proposal will link all sections of the proposal. For example, it should be clear to the reader how each data item collected is going to be used and how data will be analyzed to satisfy each of the objectives. Examples of past thesis proposals are available for loan from the Academic Programs Coordinator.

Four copies of the thesis proposal should be submitted at least 4-5 weeks prior to the proposal defense.

Ethics Approval

It is essential that ethics approval be sought before the study begins. However, it is recommended that the ethics submission should follow the proposal defense so that the final proposal is submitted. Information regarding the process for ethics submission can be obtained from the Office of Research Ethics.

Thesis Proposal Defense Process

At least EIGHT (8) WEEKS before the anticipated date of the proposal defense:

  • The student will meet with his/her supervisor and the full supervisory committee to ensure the readiness of the proposal.
  • The student (with input from the supervisor) submits suitable names for the examining committee by the 8 week deadline using the Intent to Submit a PhD Proposal form (PDF Icon PDF, 148 KB).

Three examiners are required for the oral proposal defense. All members must hold at least a Teaching/Advisory Membership (TAM) with the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS). We recommend that two members be from within our department/program. The third examiner must be from another department at Western, selected because of expertise in the content area of the proposal. To ease the difficult job of finding a time when three people can meet, the list of possible examiners should have enough names to allow for substitutions. 

Up to a maximum of three proposal defense examiners may later serve as dissertation examiners providing they meet SGPS regulations for dissertation examiners. Proposal examiners and thesis examiners must not be members of the student’s supervisory committee. Finally, the department will arrange for a examination Chair and a suitable room for the defense, and will confirm the arrangements by letter or e-mail with all the members of the examining committee.

AT LEAST FOUR (4) TO FIVE (5) WEEKS before the anticipated date of the proposal defense, the student will submit a copy of his/her thesis proposal to the Academic Programs Coordinator for distribution to each of the three examiners and one to be held in the department for the Chair of the examining committee.

After a successful defense and once any corrections/revisions are complete, the student will submit a copy of the revised proposal to the Academic Programs Coordinator for the department library.

Failure to successfully defend the proposal may be followed by a second attempt at a later date. Following the second failure of a proposal defense, continuation in the program will require the approval of the Departmental Graduate Affairs Committee.

On occasion, a student may instead develop a research protocol. A proposal-style thesis would be acceptable only in the situation where the actual study is too large to be fully implemented as an PhD project. It must be a protocol developed to the point of implementation together with evidence of its feasibility. A proposal-style thesis will ideally still contain a data collection and analysis component (perhaps a pilot study) and all implementation details should be specified.

Proposal Defense Examination Committee

The proposal defense committee will consist of a Chair and three carefully selected examiners. At least two of the examiners will be faculty members from within the department, usually from the specific field which the student is concentrating (Epidemiology or Biostatistics). The third examiner must be from another department at Western, selected because of expertise in the content area of the proposal. This is a decision which needs to be tailored to the specific area of the thesis proposal.

Usually, the thesis supervisor will suggest names for the committee (with input from the student). However, it must be recognized that workloads vary and the department may have to substitute another examiner. Please see the department's PhD Thesis Proposal Defense Timelines document for additional important information. Note that the proposal defense process begins 8 weeks prior to the intended defense date.

Structure of the Proposal Defense

When the student and supervisor feel that the proposal is ready for defense, a full supervisory committee meeting must be held. This is for the protection of the student and also to ensure that the examiners' time is not wasted on a proposal which is not ready. The Intent to Defend a PhD Proposal form must be signed by the supervisor and student, and submitted the Academic Programs Coordinator 6-8 weeks in advance, prior to the setting up of the examining committee.

The proposal defense is a formal process, but is not public. At the beginning of the defense, the Chair of the examining committee will ask the student to leave the room while the committee members talk briefly with the supervisor. They will discuss how the proposal looks generally, ascertain the nature of the questioning, review the objectives to be met and decide the order of questioning and the format (e.g. 15 minutes per examiner in round 1 and 5 minutes per examiner in round 2).

When the student returns, he/she will give a brief (15 minute) summary of the proposal. Questions will be posed by the three examiners in the order agreed upon and the student will have an opportunity to respond to the questions. No outer limit is set on the length of the defense. It may run 1-2 hours. During this period of time, the thesis supervisor will take notes on any points he/she feels are important to discuss later with the examining committee and/or the student.

Following the defense, the student will be asked to leave the room temporarily so that the examining committee and the thesis supervisor can discuss. The thesis supervisor will be given an opportunity to make any comments he/she considers important. Following this, the examiners will discuss the outcome of the proposal, which will be one of:

  1. acceptable for the project to be undertaken (there may be minor revisions but committee does not need to review the revisions)
  2. acceptable subject to revisions and/or submission of feasibility data (concerns are sufficient that the committee or designated member(s) need to re-review the revised document; however, meeting specified requirements should ensure a suitable proposal)
  3. unsure pending revisions and feasibility data (committee will re-examine the revised proposal)
  4. unacceptable as a PhD project

In the case of outcomes 2. or 3., a revised proposal or new information pertaining to the proposal will be reviewed. The same examination committee will remain in place and the re-review will be considered as part of the same attempt. In the case of outcome 4. [unacceptable], examiners will discuss whether a change of specific focus might allow the student to develop a proposal in the same general subject area or whether the student should be advised to pursue another area entirely.

The student will be informed by his/her supervisor when it is time to return to the room to hear the decision. The examiners will give a brief description of the reasons for the decision and then will make arrangements to meet, either individually or collectively, with the student at a later time to provide the student with more detailed feedback. It is anticipated that the thesis supervisor will play a major role in providing feedback to the student as well.

What if the Proposal is Deemed as Unacceptable?

If the project is not accepted, the student has another opportunity to try to produce a defensible proposal. A project is not accepted if the examiners feel that the study does not meet the requirements for a PhD. This is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the candidate. A very good student can occasionally propose a project that, while well-designed, lacks the scope necessary to make it appropriate for a PhD thesis in this department.

Although unlikely, it is possible that a student may not produce a defensible PhD proposal on the second try (noting that this has not happened in all the years that we have had a proposal defense requirement!). An unacceptable second attempt may be considered evidence that a student is unable to generate a PhD level study within the discipline and is considered grounds to withdraw the student from the program. Continuation in the program will require the approval of the Departmental Graduate Affairs Committee.

Thesis Proposal Public Lecture

In 2-4 months following successful defense of the project, the student will give a public lecture on the thesis proposal. The public lecture will be 20-25 minutes in length followed by questions from the floor. The public lecture is an opportunity to receive, from all faculty and students, useful input regarding the proposed study. It is hoped that, in the lecture, the student will disclose some of the details of the examination process. This serves an educational function for other students preparing for the process. It also helps demystify the process in that, if a major revision is required, students understand why. The public lecture also gives students experience at preparing and giving a seminar. Delivering public presentations is a normal and expected part of academic life.