Center for Urban Transportation Studies

College of Engineering and Applied Science

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


          The thesis is intended to give the student an experience in independent work to demonstrate advanced knowledge in a field of study.  It occurs near the end of a student’s education and provides an opportunity to bring together their education and experience into a realistic problem solving effort.  The student works closely with an advisor on a problem of mutual interest.  The following is a set of guidelines for the preparation of a thesis in transportation.  The guidelines are divided into four areas:  general guidelines, the planning phase, the project phase, and the documentation phase.  Each of these phases will be discussed below.  It should be pointed out that these are general guidelines and that your advisor can modify them as necessary.


General Guidelines


          Thesis credits may be taken all in one semester or split into several semesters (i.e. one or two credits the first semester and two or one the second semester).  The student should set aside a fixed period of time for thesis work.  For example, you may regularly devote Mondays and Wednesdays to it.  Students should also see their advisors regularly with a minimum of once every two weeks and preferably once a week when the thesis is most active.  Choice of a topic will depend on student interests, advisor interests, and particular project requirements.  A topic should be found early in the final semester of full-time studies with a goal of completion the following summer or fall.  Once a topic is selected, the student should stay with it to its completion.  The work on the thesis can be divided up into three phases, the planning phase, the project phase and the documentation phase.  Students should allocate their time carefully to assure that it is used efficiently.


The Planning Phase


          The Beginning:  One of the keys to developing a successful thesis is the careful planning of it from the outset.  The mechanism for project planning is a proposal.  The function of a proposal is to answer four questions:  1) What will be done?  2) Why is it an important thing to do?  3) What are the objectives and scope of the work?  and 4) How will it be done?  The following is a sample outline of a typical proposal:


1.     Introduction – including a statement of the problem to be studied – why is it an important thing to do?

2.     Objectives of the work (a clear, concise statement).

3.     Scope and limits of the project.

4.     Preliminary survey of related work and literature

5.     Proposed procedure (may be a series of steps, task flow diagram, etc., including a schedule for when the tasks will be done).

6.     Sources of data to be used.

7.     Anticipated results (i.e., what questions will the project answer, or what problems will be solved; what benefits will result when the work is completed?)

8.     Schedule of work by task

9.     Preliminary outline of the thesis report.


          Although this may seem to be a lot of work, experience has shown that it pays off by making the project phase more manageable.  The proposal should be reviewed by your advisor as soon as it is ready.  Substantial parts of the proposal can also be used in the final documentation of the project since many of the items discussed in the proposal should also appear in the final report, usually as the first chapter in a thesis.


The Project Phase


          The actual work on the project is called the project phase.  It is a good idea to keep a diary or project log during the phase and to see your advisor regularly.  It is quite easy to put off the project and do other things.  Your advisor may request at their option that you fill out progress report sheets (a sample is attached) for each time you meet with them.  Meetings with an advisor are also useful opportunities to gain perspective in the project.  It is a point where you look back at what has been done and a look forward at what remains to be done.  It is also useful to write up rough statements of what has been done occasionally to help you later in the documentation phase.


The Documentation Phase


          The documentation phase or the preparation of the thesis should occur continually during the project.  The proposal and progress reports written during the project phase can form the basis for much of the final document.  The following is a general outline for a thesis report.  Of course, it is possible to deviate from this outline as the needs of the project dictate.


Beginning Material:

i.e. title page, abstract, key word list, table of contents, list of figures and tables, acknowledgements


Chapter 1:

Introduction – statement of the problem, hypotheses, why it is important, objectives of the work, scope of the work


Chapter 2:

Background and Literature Review – discuss related work and indicate how it relates to your report


Chapter 3:

Procedure – describe the procedure used in your project, data used, and how it was obtained


Chapter 4:

Results – indicate what happened and interpret what it means


Chapter 5:

Conclusions and Recommendations – summarize conclusions and what they mean (i.e., answer the question, “So what?”).  What changes and further work do you recommend?


References and Appendices


          Students must form a thesis committee consisting of two people from their area of interest and one or more from other departments or interests.  Usually these are people you have taken courses from.


          Students should follow TRB publications and UWM Graduate School guidelines for general style for the thesis report.  A thesis will usually undergo multiple drafts:  drafts for review by the student’s advisor, and following approval, a final draft for their thesis committee.  In very rare instances these two drafts are one and the same (the current record is 14 drafts).  You may, at the discretion of your advisor, submit a handwritten rough draft for his/her review.


          Due dates for the rough draft and the final draft will be set by your advisor.  Students should do everything possible to avoid a “last minute rush” on the thesis during the end of the semester.


          Generally, a thesis committee needs at least a week to review the thesis prior to an oral exam.  Ideally, exams should be scheduled at least a month in advance to avoid scheduling conflicts.  A student should allow one week between the oral exam and the Graduate School deadline for submitting the thesis, so the student can respond to comments and corrections provided by the committee.  The student should prepare a brief (twenty slides or less, 15 to 20 minutes) presentation of their work for the oral exam.  Although the oral exam tends to concentrate on the thesis, any topic in the student’s course of study may be covered in the exam.


          The thesis should be written in such a way as to present a lasting document that adequately records all work and supports the conclusions.  The thesis should be typed, double spaced, on good quality paper.  Standard margins, headings, etc., as required by the Graduate School, should be used.  All plans, etc., should be bound into the report and folded to 8 ˝” x 11” size.  Students may retain the original for their own use, but should furnish committee members and the department with one copy each.  Student should also submit a pdf version of the thesis.


Amount of Effort


The total amount of effort on a thesis can vary greatly depending upon the topic.  On average, students have spent roughly the equivalent of two to three courses of work on their thesis.  (The same MS degree can be obtained by a non-thesis option that substitutes 9 classroom credits for the 3 credits of thesis, so the amount of work is about the same between both the thesis and non-thesis options.)  It is possible to finish a thesis in one semester, but students needing to finish other requirements of their programs and students working full-time outside the university should plan on taking two or more semesters.


Length of the Thesis


          Many students are curious as to how long a thesis should be.  A thesis should be a short as possible and still cover the topic.  The range of page lengths for thesis in transportation over the last several years is roughly 40 to 100 pages, exclusive of appendices.  Your advisor will be able to tell you approximately what is needed for your topic.



Nature of the Project


          The project should have a strong research element.  The thesis need not be a complete research project (it can be a component of a team effort) provided that the objectives of the overall research project are clear and substantial progress is made toward achieving the objectives of the overall project.  Generally, a project can be identified as research if these conditions apply:  there are clearly stated hypotheses; the results of the research are of interest to a broad audience; the research is an extension of the state-of-the-art; and the knowledge gained during the research project contributes to the overall body of knowledge of transportation engineering.  Projects that produce a design mayor may not be research, depending upon how well these four conditions are met.  For a design to meet these conditions it must be innovative and it must be tested.  A thesis is normally thought of as an individual effort.  When the research is part of a team, it is sometimes impossible to totally separate the thesis research from the rest of the research project.  The contributions of others toward the research must be approved by your committee and noted in an acknowledgement section.  Your advisor will be able to tell you how to best report on joints parts of a team research project.


Coordinating the Thesis Project with Employment


          Some students are employed in jobs that can contribute to a thesis topic.  Example 1, a job requires a student to produce a truly innovative design.  The thesis can focus on testing the design.  Example 2, a job requires the student to obtain a substantial amount of data that is not readily available from any other source.  The thesis can focus on analyzing the data and drawing conclusions from the analysis.  This type of coordination can reduce the amount of new effort and can lead to a thesis of particular relevance to the profession.


Thesis Progress Report



Name:  _________________________________________


Date:    _________________________________________


Progress since last meeting:












Anticipated tasks for the next meeting: