3.5 Constructing the Title, Table of Contents, Timeline and List of References

The elements most commonly required for a proposal beyond the chapters themselves are a title, a table of contents, a timeline and a list of references. The title, table of contents and list of references you include with your proposal chapters should be specific to the proposal, but they should also anticipate the completed thesis and (certainly in the case of the table of contents and list of references) will later be revised for inclusion in the thesis. The timeline, on the other hand, is a proposed schedule for completion of the thesis, so it is needed only for the proposal, but it will prove helpful in the future as you work at drafting the entire thesis. I deal with each of these elements separately in the following paragraphs.

3.5.1 The Title

The title of your proposal should be a first version of the title your thesis will ultimately bear (see also Section 1.1.1 and Sections 4.2 and 6.1), and if you need to register the title of your thesis with your university during or after the proposal process, your proposal title will probably need to be exactly the same as your final thesis title. Very few elements of a piece of academic or scientific writing have to accomplish as much in as few words as the title does. The title is the first part of your proposal (or thesis) read by your committee members; it is one of the primary elements by which those interested in your topic will ultimately be able to find your thesis in a library catalogue or online search; and it is usually also the only part of your thesis that will appear on your résumé or C.V. (curriculum vitae), so it should be concise, informative, engaging and, ideally, elegant. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), ‘a title should summarize the main idea of the manuscript simply and, if possible, with style’ (2010, p.23). It should concisely inform your readers about the research you plan to do in your thesis, mentioning the main topic and nature of the thesis, perhaps the methodology, location and subjects of your research, the variables or theoretical issues you will investigate and the relationship between them, and it can also hint at what you expect to discover. It should be worded in an interesting and eloquent way that allows the language you use to carry nuances and allusions (perhaps even a little word play if this is allowed) while providing the necessary details with precision. In the title ‘Effect of Changing Weather Patterns on Home Insurance Policies: Clients Left Out in the Cold?’ the word ‘Cold,’ for example, not only refers to the unpleasant physical reality of those who lose their homes due to natural disasters, but also implies a certain lack of warmth on the part of insurance companies who do not provide support in such situations. The subtitle as a whole hints at the nature of the results anticipated, with the question mark leaving the matter uncertain and thus inspiring (one hopes) the interested reader to discover the answer by reading on.

However, titles are also best if they are as short as possible, and some style manuals and university or department guidelines set strict word or character limits on titles. The Publication Manual of the APA (2010, p.23), for instance, recommends limiting a title to twelve words or less, which renders the example title I have provided in the preceding paragraph too long at fifteen words. There are, then, both practical and creative reasons for avoiding all unnecessary words in your title: adverbs and adjectives are rarely needed and should be used sparingly and to maximum effect (‘Changing’ in my example title above, for instance, alludes to changes in both the weather and the coverage provided by insurance policies), while words such as ‘study,’ ‘method’ and ‘results’ are usually extraneous in that they tend to accomplish very little and can simply burden a title and render it more awkward: ‘Results Suggest that Clients Might Be Left Out in the Cold’ says basically the same thing as the subtitle I have above, but it uses almost twice as many words and simply is not as catchy. Do check university and department guidelines, however, as identification of the type of study or the specific methodology used may be required in your thesis title, usually as a subtitle along the lines of ‘A Qualitative Study’ or ‘A Randomised Trial.’ Furthermore, the nature of scholarly titles differs among disciplines, and some universities and departments will have very specific title requirements in terms of length, style and content, so be sure to construct the title for your proposal (and final thesis) in a way that conforms to all relevant guidelines.

Notes (whether footnotes or endnotes) should normally not be attached to titles and it is best to avoid abbreviations of all kinds in a title simply because they are not as clear as full terms are, though in the case of some terms, the abbreviations are better known than the full versions (‘IQ,’ for instance, as well as ‘AIDS’ and ‘CD’) and are acceptable for titles: few thesis committees would expect you to use ‘intelligence quotient’ instead of ‘IQ’ in your title. If you find that you absolutely have to use abbreviations in your title, be sure that they are standard or at least relatively common and will be familiar to your readers (for more information on abbreviations, see Section 6.3). Indeed, all terminology, specialised or otherwise, that you use in your title should be appropriate to the audience you anticipate (for more information on specialised terminology, see Section 5.3). Be sure to use capitalisation correctly and consistently, whether you decide on or are required to use a minimal pattern of uppercase letters (initial capitalisation on only the first word and proper nouns) or initial capitalisation for all main words, and to punctuate your title effectively (with a colon, for instance, between the main title and subtitle; for more information on capitalisation and punctuation in titles, see Sections 5.6, 6.1 and 6.2.1). If a running header (or footer) using a shortened form of the title is required, you should choose the words for the shorter form carefully so that they retain and emphasise key aspects of the full title. Your title contains only a few of the many words you will write as you produce your thesis, but it ultimately needs to represent that thesis perfectly, professionally and attractively, so consider carefully all suggestions on the part of your supervisor and other committee members and be prepared to alter and polish your title during the proposal process, especially if you will not be able to make changes to it after this stage.

3.5.2 The Table of Contents

The table of contents should be a list of everything that is contained in the proposal, including the titles of all chapters and other main parts, as well as the headings of any sections and subsections within each chapter or part. Paragraph headings, on the other hand, especially unnumbered ones, often do not appear in a table of contents, but they may need to be included for some theses, so do check university and department guidelines (see also Section 1.1.5 and Section 4.1, and for information on headings, see Section 6.1). You should ensure that all titles and headings in the table of contents appear in the correct order and match those in the thesis itself exactly in terms of content such as wording, numbering (if used), punctuation and, in most cases, capitalisation. As the table of contents for this book does, a table of contents should also list the page number on which each chapter, part or section begins, which means, of course, that the pages of your proposal (and of the thesis that follows) should be sequentially numbered with Arabic numerals. Since your text will shift in relation to the page numbers whenever you make changes, even small ones, it is wise to add the page numbers to your table of contents only when you feel the proposal chapters are basically complete, and to check them to make absolutely sure the page numbers in the table of contents accurately represent the position of the individual chapters, parts and sections immediately before formally submitting the document for the proposal meeting. 

On the other hand, you may want or need to include an active table of contents in your thesis (that is, a table of contents that will automatically take readers to particular parts of your thesis when they click on the appropriate heading in the table of contents in your digital file). If so, you can do this by using heading styles in Word and automatically inserting the table of contents (see Section 6.1.1 for details on how to proceed), and in this case page numbers will usually automatically update as changes are made to the text, but not always, so a final check is still a good idea. Although it is not usually required, you might also want to add in tentative titles for other chapters and parts that have not yet been written, but that you are planning to include in the completed thesis: this provides your committee members with a concise outline of the entire thesis as you envision it at the proposal stage, but it may not be wanted, so do ask, and if you are including a timeline as well, it is somewhat redundant.

3.5.3 The Timeline

Appendices in the sense of material that is supplementary to the main text and too long or complicated to be included in notes are not usually required in a proposal and may not be required at all for some theses, but if you do need to include one or more in your proposal, you can, in most cases, do so (see Section 1.4.1 and Section 4.6.1 for more information on appendices). There is one kind of appendix, however, that is almost always required in a proposal and that is a timeline, which is a chronological schedule of your progress in the research and writing you do for your thesis. The timeline is usually arranged by weeks or by terms or semesters, and may go all the way back to the beginning of a candidate’s postgraduate course work, though it usually does not need to do so. It may include the schedule for the proposal process itself, and it must contain a schedule for completion of the remaining stages in the thesis process. The timeline can take many different forms from a table with detailed information about your activities every week to a simple list of dates and the parts of your research and writing you plan to have completed by those dates. Whether long and complex or short and simple, however, it should contain information about the completion and examination of your thesis, as well as any other major stages along the way (the drafting and revision of individual chapters, for instance).Your supervisor and perhaps other members of your thesis committee should be able to help you with the design of a timeline appropriate for your thesis and department, and many universities and departments will have examples and templates for student use, so do ask about this and consult whatever resources may be helpful.

It is a very good idea, by the way, to indicate in a diplomatic way in your timeline any necessary consultation with and feedback from your committee members (e.g., ‘Week of 14 Jan.: meeting with supervisor to discuss results chapter’ or ‘Month of March: revising chapters in response to committee feedback’). The timeline is an informal contract of sorts which tells your committee members that you will do your very best to meet the deadlines you have set for yourself, so giving those busy scholars the information they need to know just how important it is to your schedule and ultimately your progress that they do their very best to meet those deadlines as well can be helpful. Also, if for some reason problems arise (perhaps one of your committee members will be away precisely when you will require feedback according to your timeline), they can be addressed at once and compromises can be made to ensure that your progress on your thesis continues unhindered. Constructing a timeline can be time-consuming, difficult and even painful, particularly if you have a penchant for procrastination, and you need to be both realistic and demanding in assessing your efficiency, but it can be an effective tool for keeping you on track and enabling a successful working relationship with your thesis committee.

3.5.4 The List of References

The final element of your proposal should be a list of the sources you have used in preparing the proposal; depending on the referencing system you use, this list will usually be entitled ‘References,’ ‘Works Cited’ or ‘Bibliography.’ You should, of course, use appropriate references throughout the proposal chapters as you write them, and if the type of in-text references (author–date, numerical or in-note) and the corresponding style for the reference list has still not been determined, you should definitely work to resolve this by consulting with your supervisor and perhaps other members of your committee before you add citations to your text and construct the reference list, because both short in-text references and full bibliographical references in notes and/or in a list require a great deal of effort to change, especially if you need to change numerical references to one of the other kinds or vice versa (for more information on referencing systems and styles, see Section 7.2). I deal with references in detail in Chapter 7 (see also Sections 1.2.6 and 1.4.3), but I want to emphasise here the need to include in your list of references every source you have cited in your proposal, whether in the literature review or other chapters. It is usually also appropriate to include any sources that you think you will use in your thesis, though you have not yet done so in your proposal, but this may not be needed or wanted, so do check university and department requirements or ask your supervisor.

The type of references you are using will determine the shape of your list – for numerical referencing, for instance, the sources in the list appear in numerical order, and for author–date referencing a single alphabetical list moving from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ is the norm – but you may want to divide your list into sections such as ‘Primary Sources’ and ‘Secondary Sources’ or ‘Randomised Controlled Trials’ and ‘Theoretical Studies.’ Such divisions tend to disrupt numerical and alphabetical arrangements, however, so again, it is worth checking with your supervisor and department to be sure that dividing your list of references is permitted or appropriate. Generally speaking, a list of references should accommodate any guidelines provided by your university, department or thesis committee and present the sources you use in your thesis in a way that is as well suited as possible to those sources and the overall nature of your thesis and as accessible as possible for your readers.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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