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Working Plan Guidelines


The following sections describe a typical format and provide guidelines for producing the plan. As with all aspects of the graduate program, however, this departmental recommendation provides a minimum guideline only. Each student's advisor and Advisory Committee have the authority to require a more elaborate or differently formatted plan that meets the particular needs of the student and project.

Plan Deadline

    The plan is due, signed by the Advisory Committee members and the department head, in the departmental office by the end of 9 months.

    If the plan is still not completed 4 weeks after the deadline, the department head will declare the student "not in good standing" and remove the student from assistantship/fellowship funding.

    The plan is due, signed by the Advisory Committee members and the department head, in the departmental office by the end of the student's 12-month year in residence.

    If the plan is still not completed 8 weeks after the deadline, the department head will declare the student "not in good standing" and remove the student from assistantship/fellowship funding.

    Of course, exceptions to these deadlines will be considered, for extenuating circumstances

Working Plan

A thesis or dissertation working plan is a description of the intended research project of a graduate student. The purpose of the plan is to help the student design a project that is explicit, well justified, has clear objectives, can be performed with resources and time available, and has methods that achieve the intended results.

The plan also has other benefits. It teaches the student how to approach and conquer a major project based on rational scientific methods. It stimulates communication among the student and Advisory Committee members. It demonstrates that collaboration and peer review are essential parts of professional endeavors--especially in science. It provides a basis for evaluating progress by the student and the Advisory Committee. In general, our faculty endorses planning as an essential part of science and as a skill to be mastered.

The signed and accepted plan is a good-faith agreement by the student to complete the planned work as part of the degree program. However, the plan can be changed if accomplishing the intended project becomes impossible. Minor changes are expected in any project and need not be approved formally. However, major changes--adding or dropping objectives, adopting entirely different methodologies, changing taxa or study locations, for example--must be approved explicitly by the Advisory Committee.

The plan should emphasize what information is being sought, how it will be sought, and how the project will proceed to its conclusion. Therefore, the written plan should be relatively short in total, brief in justification and literature review, detailed in methodology, and detailed in schedule.

Typical Outline

All drafts of the plan should be printed double-spaced on one side of the paper. Each draft should be dated and given a version number. Pages should be numbered.

  • Title Page

  • The title should be as succinct as possible while still conveying the major aspects of the project. A good title is easily retrievable in a keyword search. A good rule of thumb is to view the title as a one-line abstract, typically less than 10 words.

  • Introduction and Justification

  • This section should be approximately 5-10 pages long. It describes the background for the intended project. This section communicates why, among all possible topics, this topic was selected. (To focus on the specific area of work intended, describing the current thinking to which the project relates, the recognized gap in knowledge that the project addresses, how the project will advance knowledge in that area, and how the project's outcomes will benefit science or management).  This section should end with a series of hypotheses, if appropriate, and with a series of objectives that will be addressed in the project. An objective is a specific statement that defines a major subunit of the work to be conducted. See examples on the attached sample title page.  This section may include a literature review (or the literature review may be a separate section). Although each student is responsible for thoroughly searching, analyzing, and synthesizing the literature as part of the planning process, for the purposes of a plan, the written literature review should describe and cite only those writings that are necessary to substantiate the assertions in the text. A comprehensive literature review is necessary for project planning and before data collection, and an extensive written literature review may be required in the thesis or dissertation. The realities of conducting fisheries and wildlife graduate student research, however, often prohibit such a written review as part of the working plan; hence the working plan literature review should focus on the project's justification, objectives, and methods.

  • Methods
  • The methods section is a critically important part of the plan and, hence, should be the longest and most detailed. Students sometimes spend enormous effort on the "introduction and justification" and then touch lightly on the relationship between what they want to learn and how they will learn it. The consequence may be a project that breaks down early because the methods or sites are not appropriate or that breaks down late because the data cannot be analyzed validly or because those data don't address the objectives.  This section should comprise the bulk of the plan--with substantial coverage devoted to each objective. This section includes, for each objective, descriptions of the study site(s)/facilities, the types of data to be collected, the methods of collection (including equipment and materials), the collection schedule, resources required, analytic methods, and intended statistical treatment. Because many students may be in early statistics classes while producing the plan, statistical descriptions may be general and can be detailed later as the project develops. If the project progresses as planned, this section will provide the basis for the methods section of the thesis or dissertation.

  • Literature Cited
  • This section should be completed in the format desired by the student's major advisor, usually the journal format of The Wildlife Society or American Fisheries Society. Follow the CBE Style Manual if in doubt.

  • Time Schedule

  • The last section of the plan should be a chart demonstrating the intended schedule for completing the thesis or dissertation. For each objective, the schedule describes the period during which each major activity--sample collection, sample processing, data processing, data analysis, thesis preparation--will be preformed.  As with the plan in general, this schedule is a good-faith agreement that the student will proceed according to that schedule. Its inclusion in the plan allows the student, major advisor, and Advisory Committee members to match the scope of the intended work with the time allocation--thereby determining if the project is appropriate for the time allowed and the resources available.

Procedure for Writing and Approving a Plan

The writing and approval process should be consultative and interactive, and each student should expect substantial and repeated constructive criticism, resulting in major changes in the project plan from the student's first concept. This process helps avoid two common problems made by new researchers. First, new researchers often envision projects that are too large and complicated (ecologically or logistically) for the time and resources available. Second, they often work independently for a long time, with the intention of developing the "perfect plan" to present to their advisors and committees. The successful student can avoid these traps by remaining open to new ideas and communicating regularly with his/her advisory committee members.

The planning process should begin explicitly when the student has formed an Advisory Committee. At the first meeting of the committee, the student should present, at least, the general area of his/her intended project and a series of possible objectives of the project. Over the next several months, the student should meet regularly with committee members to discuss the project. Those interactions should focus first on the objectives of the project, then on the general approaches to the project, and finally on the detailed methodologies. Different faculty members prefer different styles of interaction--some like to meet informally; some like to have some written materials to review before a meeting; some do not want to review written plans until late. Students should ask what their advisors prefer--and proceed accordingly.

In all cases, however, the successful strategy includes regular communication with individual advisors. The unsuccessful and unacceptable strategy is to hide the plan until the student thinks it is complete. The plan must be provided to the Advisory Committee with adequate time to have the plan approved formally before the deadline and before field collection or laboratory work begins.

The Student's Responsibility

The student is responsible for progressing on his/her plan conscientiously and steadily. The student is responsible for the content of the plan, including searching, analyzing, and synthesizing the literature, and developing detailed methodologies for review by the advisor and Advisory Committee. The student is responsible for producing understandable and grammatically correct documents, including text, tables, and figures, for review by the Advisory Committee.

The student is responsible for progressing on schedule, including contacting Advisory Committee members, assuring their adherence to time guidelines and responding in a timely manner on his/her committee.

If an Advisory Committee member is not responsive to the student's requests for help, the student should seek intervention through his/her advisor. If a non-responsive pattern persists, the student may consider replacing the faculty member on his/her committee.

The student is responsible for reporting to the committee any changes in the plan as the project progresses and for writing plan amendments and acquiring committee approval as needed.

The Major Advisor's Responsibility

The major advisor is responsible for guiding the student through the working plan process. The major advisor stimulates ideas for research, introduces the student to the scientific and technical literature, provides contacts with relevant professionals and scientists, and guides the student on scientific problem solving. The major advisor works most closely with the student on the form and substance of the plan, providing detailed constructive criticism on logical thinking and presentation of ideas and on writing style.

The major advisor is responsible for enhancing the overall development of the student. In the context of the working plan, the advisor conscientiously should monitor the student's progress, assuring that the student and Advisory Committee members are working closely together towards the goal of designing an appropriate project and completing the plan by the necessary deadlines.

The Committee's Responsibility

The members of the Advisory Committee (including the major advisor) are responsible for critically assessing the student's plans to assure that the project will provide an effective learning experience. They must assure that the project meets the requirements of scientific methodology; is rational; appropriate for degree pursued; can be completed with the time and resources available, and is professionally, scientifically, and ethically sound. The Advisory Committee is not responsible for detailed editing of the student's writing.

During all review stages, Advisory Committee members are responsible for reviewing draft materials and returning constructive comments to the student, generally in writing or through a meeting, within 2 weeks of receiving them (time needs beyond 2 weeks should be explained to the student).

Advisory Committee members who believe that the student has not communicated well and has not progressed on the plan should inform the student's advisor, attempt to determine the reasons for lack of communication and progress, and help to correct the problem. If the pattern persists, the faculty member may consider resigning from the student's committee, or recommending unsatisfactory progress at the first evaluation.

The Department Head's Responsibility

The department head has oversight responsibility for assuring that the student, major advisor, and advisory committee members are acting in good faith in the development of the plan. The department head monitors the progress of all students in the program and reports the status of student progress to the department faculty as a whole. The department head has the responsibility and authority for enforcing the policies and procedures of the department, college, and university.



Dana Keith
Assistant to Department Head
Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM100, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5573
Fax: (540) 231-7580


Dr. Sarah Karpanty 
Graduate Program Coordinator 

Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM150, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-4586
Fax: (540) 231-7580
Email: karpanty@vt.edu


Stephanie Hart, Director
The Advising Center
Cheatham Hall, RM138, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5482
http://cnre.vt.edu/students Email: cnre_students@vt.edu