The Doctoral (PhD) dissertation teaches students to work as an independent scientist in a research field of their choosing. It typically takes at least three years to complete (not including required course-work) and must contain original work. A well-done dissertation creates new knowledge of interest and use to others. A prospectus is a description of the proposed research, together with an oral defense of the proposal. To get started, try the approved LaTex template. A student typically files a PhD prospectus just after his/her second year.

The steps for a Master's thesis prospectus are the same as for a dissertation prospectus. The only difference is that the scope of a Master's thesis is not as extensive. A master's thesis is expected to represent mastery of existing research methods and need not necessarily contain the level of original work that is expected of a dissertation. A student typically files a MS prospectus just after his/her second semester.

Research is a step into the unknown but is always done with an expectation of what will be accomplished and why it is important. No dissertation/thesis can begin without a clearly written vision of this expectation and how it is to be achieved. This is the purpose of a prospectus; to explain the proposed research in as much detail as possible. Before thesis or dissertation research can be started, a prospectus must be approved by the student's Advisory Committee and the graduate coordinator.

A strong prospectus will contain the following:

  1. A clearly-stated, well-defined, research problem with well-documented importance. The prospectus must persuade the committee that solving this problem is significant and possible to do with an amount of work appropriate for the degree. All critical points regarding this problem must be supported by a thorough survey of relevant literature.
  2. A specific set of questions to be addressed, and a methodology for answering those questions. Preliminary results which give evidence for the probable success in answering these questions should be presented if available. "Success" does not mean that the expected results must be achieved - if the end is assured why do the research? However, an idea of the expected results must be articulated well and shown to be achievable.
  3. A sound scientific basis. The reasoning must be thorough and free from detrimental bias. The methodology must include adequate controls to verify the end results. The entire research plan must be clearly founded upon established scientific principles.
  4. An identification of necessary resources including: faculty mentoring time, laboratory space, equipment, supplies, and travel money. It must be shown that these resources will be available for the duration of the proposed research.
  5. An appropriate style and format. Consult previous prospecti, available from the department office, for examples. Use the approved LaTex template.

Check List for Completion

Choose an Advisor and Research Topic: The first major step in a dissertation / thesis is to decide on a research topic and the advisor with whom the research will be done. It is assumed that the student already brings with them at least a rough idea of what they want to study. Students are required to attend research meetings in the first semester to get to know the professors and become familiar with their research. They are also expected to seek out professors for consultation and advice as needed. They should decide on an advisor and project before the end of the first semester. Please note that it is the student's responsibility to find an advisor, not the other way around. However, a student can expect to have access to all research-active professors and to be treated professionally and courteously by them as they explore research possibilities.

Write the Prospectus: A LaTex template and other LaTex helps are provided to assist the student in writing a prospectus. LaTex is the journal submission language of choice for physics and astronomy and students should become familiar with it. LaTex compilers are on all the student computers. Instructions are in the template itself and on the download website.

Schedule Presentation: The student schedules a prospectus presentation with the graduate secretary after finding a time when all the members of the committee can meet. Typically the presentation will not take more than one hour. A common forum is the regular weekly meeting of each research group. The presentation is open to all faculty and students in the Department and will be advertised in the weekly departmental calendar. The deadline for submitting the announcement is twelve noon on the Friday preceding the week of the presentation.

Give Presentation: At the presentation the student will explain the major points of the proposed research, how it is to be done, and why it is significant. The student will respond to questions and comments from the audience. Feedback on how to modify and improve the quality of the proposed research is encouraged.

Revise Document: After the presentation and in consultation with their advisor, the student modifies the prospectus and circulates it for approval among the committee members. If desired the chairman may request a second defense at which point the student schedules it as before. Once the prospectus is approved by the committee, the student collects their signatures and submits it to the graduate coordinator or graduate secretary.

Final Approval: The prospectus receives a final review by the Graduate Coordinator. If necessary, final revisions are made, after which the prospectus is signed and a copy placed in a binder in the department library.

The student, the advisor, and the department all keep copies of the prospectus. It often is consulted to ensure that the evolving scope of the dissertation stays within the agreed-upon parameters.

Changes to the Prospectus

Should the student or the advisor decide that the research has changed significantly enough to warrant a major revision, then a new propsectus is written and the process for approval is repeated. If a member of the graduate committee changes, the approval process is not repeated but the student should give the new committee member a prospectus copy.