Around here, we require our graduate students to formally present a thesis proposal. The aim of the presentation is to expose your planned work to a broader audience, in order to get feedback about its originality, level of difficulty, appropriateness to your program, and the feasibility of the planned research approach. You might also get some good leads on literature or people to talk to. Sure, your supervisor has been thinking about all of this stuff, but more opinions are often better.
Besides, preparing the presentation forces you to thoroughly think things through.
Before you can do a reasonable thesis proposal, you need to understand what a thesis is. So, if you haven’t already read it, pop over and have a look at my guide to understanding the engineering thesis. I’ll wait.
At the proposal stage, you should have pinned down, to a reasonably precise degree, the research you propose to undertake. Your proposal presentation should offer a clear explanation of this.
In particular, your proposal should answer the following questions (although not necessarily in this order):
What is the problem you intend to address?
If you can’t explain your research problem, clearly and concisely, you probably don’t understand it.
Why is the problem interesting and challenging?
Remember, much of your audience will be from outside your domain. They need to understand not just what your problem is, but why it’s an appropriate research topic at the masters or doctoral level.
In what sense are previous solutions to the problem inadequate?
In rare cases, you’re attacking a completely new problem that no one has ever attempted to address. However, it’s much more common to be making an incremental improvement on previously-existing work. You need to understand what this work is, and to be able to explain it. If you don’t understand how your work fits in with previous work, you’re likely to waste time reinventing the wheel.
Remember, a week in the laboratory can often save an afternoon in the library.
What is your proposed approach to addressing the problem?
At the proposal stage, it’s not enough to have an understanding of the problem; you also need to know how you intend to solve it. This doesn’t mean you need to know the solution yet (that’s what your research is for), but you do need to have some idea of what you’re actually going to do.
You do not need a project management chart with time lines and milestones in your presentation. Rather, you need to explain the key steps that will get you from your current level of knowledge to the conclusion of your research.
How will you evaluate your work?
This is related to question 3, above. The criteria by which you judged previous solutions unsatisfactory are exactly the criteria you should be using to evaluate the success of your own work.
Obviously, your style must be your own. However, here are my thoughts on what makes for an effective proposal presentation:
The classic mistake is to try and cram an hour of material into the twenty minutes allotted for your presentation. Don’t. Instead, choose your material carefully to tell a clear and coherent story at a reasonable pace. Edit ruthlessly: keep all the important stuff and remove the irrelevancies. (Your ability to do this is probably a good indication of your ability to do quality research.)
I like to hear the entire proposal (or at least points 1, 3 and 4 above) in the first three sentences of your presentation. For a classic engineering thesis (see the guide), these sentences might be something like:
For my thesis work, I propose to evaluate the feasibility of an ultra low power ferbling. Previous ferbling designs are adequate for actuating the current generation of terfnergles, but for a miniaturize terfnergle the power requirement of the ferbling becomes a limiting factor. To achieve a lower power usage, I plan to apply recent developments in kalnick fabrication, which have not previously been used in the ferbling design context. I will now elaborate these ideas in more detail…
At this point, most of your audience probably has no idea what ferblings, terfnergles, or kalnick fabrication are. That’s OK; what they do have is a mental map of where your presentation is going. You can (must!) fill in the details as you go along.
Be as specific as possible. For example, if you have an agenda slide (which is not necessarily a good idea), don’t use bullet points like “Problem”, “Previous solutions” and “Proposed approach.” Instead, say something like “Implications of terfnergle miniaturization”, “Current ferbling designs”, and “Applying kalnick fabrication”.
Your slides should provide visual support for your oral presentation; they should not be a replacement for it. Try to keep the number of words on your slides to a minimum. Pictures, diagrams, and graphs are great material for slides.
Above all, rehearse in front of a critical audience, accept their feedback, and revise as necessary. If your presentation is clear and coherent, we can concentrate on the content of the proposal, without being distracted by irrelevancies — which means that you’ll get more useful feedback on your proposal.
Good luck! I’ll be the guy with the beard and the hard questions.
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