Computer Science Dissertation Proposal Sample

Like many universities, the School of Computer Science requires applicants for our PhD in Computer Science to submit a research proposal as part of their application, along with other supporting documents like academic references and transcripts (= list of courses you have taken).

  • If you would like to be my PhD student, it would help a lot if you contact me personally and discuss your research proposal with me. You will have the advantage that I will know precisely who you are and we will have already agreed on a research area before you formally apply to the University. It will also help me track your application.
  • The most important thing is that the research proposal should be relevant to my interests for PhD research topics. Many PhD applications are rejected because the student proposes some mundane IT stuff or a kind of supersized undergraduate project that is not suitable as a thesis topic in Computer Science.
  • Don't be intimidated by writing the proposal. You are not competing with established researchers, but only with other students in the same position as you. What we are looking for is aptitude and potential for research, rather than something perfect.
  • You do not have to be impossibly specific or commit yourself to a precise thesis topic. In fact, much of the first year of a PhD will be spent on reviewing the state of the art and coming up with the official Thesis Proposal that identifies the topic of the dissertation.
  • A research proposal is often expected to contain a timetable. Personally, I do not require a lot of detail here, as research is by its nature unpredictable. Nonetheless, it is important that you show that the proposed work is realistic for the timeframe. (Three years is standard for a full-time PhD in the UK, four years if you are a Teaching Assistant.)
  • Quality counts, not quantity. I would be quite happy with a concise research proposal of four pages or so. But if you can write more, great. If I review your application, you can also expand your proposal later on.
  • You should have learned something in your previous degree (by way of the final-year or Masters dissertation) about writing rigorously and in scientific style. Make good use of these skills.
  • Read and cite relevant literature from Computer Science journals and major conferences. Google Scholar and the ACM Digital Library are useful for that. For the kind of research I am interested in supervising, the POPL and PLDI conferences are very relevant.
  • Reading the literature helps with learning the appropriate style of writing in Computer Science.
  • You could discuss relevant background knowledge that you already have, such as your (undergraduate or MSc) dissertation, or courses that you found particularly enlightening and relevant.
  • What is expected in a PhD research proposal is strictly about your reseach interest, and their intersection with mine. You do not need one of those "personal statements" with guff like "Ever since I was three years old, it has been my dream to study at your esteemed institution..."

Different supervisors (= thesis advisors) may have different views on what constitutes a good proposal, and which parts are important. The above advice is based entirely on my personal views on what I would hope to see from an applicant who wants to work on a doctorate with me.

Welcome to the on-line version of the UNC dissertation proposal collection. The purpose of this collection is to provide examples of proposals for those of you who are thinking of writing a proposal of your own. I hope that this on-line collection proves to be more difficult to misplace than the physical collection that periodically disappears.

If you are preparing to write a proposal you should make a point of reading the excellent document The Path to the Ph.D., written by James Coggins. It includes advice about selecting a topic, preparing a proposal, taking your oral exam and finishing your dissertation. It also includes accounts by many people about the process that each of them went through to find a thesis topic.

Adding to the Collection

This collection of proposals becomes more useful with each new proposal that is added. If you have an accepted proposal, please help by including it in this collection. You may notice that the bulk of the proposals currently in this collection are in the area of computer graphics. This is an artifact of me knowing more computer graphics folks to pester for their proposals. Add your non-graphics proposal to the collection and help remedy this imbalance!

There are only two requirements for a UNC proposal to be added to this collection. The first requirement is that your proposal must be completely approved by your committee. If we adhere to this, then each proposal in the collection serves as an example of a document that five faculty members have signed off on. The second requirement is that you supply, as best you can, exactly the document that your committee approved. While reading over my own proposal I winced at a few of the things that I had written. I resisted the temptation to change the document, however, because this collection should truely reflect what an accepted thesis proposal looks like.

Note that there is no requirement that the author has finished his/her Ph.D. Several of the proposals in the collection were written by people who, as of this writing, are still working on their dissertation. This is fine!

I encourage people to submit their proposals in any form they wish. Perhaps the most useful forms at the present are Postscript and HTML, but this may not always be so.

Greg Coombe has generously provided LaTeXthesis style files, which, he says, conform to the 2004-2005 stlye requirements.

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