How to Write a Research Proposal

Writing a research proposal for a PhD degree needs to be demystified. It should be the natural next step in your development as a scholar and not a giant leap for humanity. The most important thing to realize is that this is not too different from writing other papers. It just needs to be tighter, more carefully proofed, and more rigidly structured than other papers you have cranked out in your academic career. Follow these steps and you will almost certainly have a successful research proposal at the end.

Instructions

    • 1

      START THINKING ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH TOPIC PROPOSAL AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

      Working on your dissertation proposal from day one of your PhD program is the idea way to keep moving. You can change your mind a time or two, but try to stick with it from there. Remember you don't have to stick with a hypothesis, just a research area. Keep focusing all of your reading and research on that area to save you time and deepen your thought process. When you hear objections or concerns face them fully. These are key helps in sharpening your thinking so that your research topic is carefully worded.

    • 2

      TARGET YOUR GENERAL RESEARCH AREA ON EVERY PHD PAPER YOU WRITE.

      If you still can target every paper you write in the direction of your general research area. Even if it won't likely be put into your research proposal or your dissertation it helps you become familiar with the relevant literature for your literature review.

    • 3

      TEST OUT YOUR RESEARCH TOPIC WITH A FEW CLOSE PROFESSORS.

      Pay for lunch or coffee with a few trusted by sharp professors. Throw out your research idea and take notes on a napkin. Ask for reading lists and research directions. Get advice and garner their support. This is a key step! As in every political environment the decision is made before the meeting is held. The more people you have consulted with on your project the more people you have on your side when the review of your research proposal comes.

      They will say things like, 'He worked on this for me in an independent study and did a very good job' or 'I talked with her about this over coffee and it seems like she has a very keen understanding of the problem at hand.' If that happens you are in! That's worth the cost of lunch or Starbucks don't you think?

    • 4

      FIRST, CLARIFY YOUR PROBLEM FOR THE RESEARCH.

      The problem should easily present itself, grab the reader's interest, stand up and say 'Now this project needs to be done.' Don't say 'though this area has experienced a lot of attention I have something small to offer.' Instead write, 'one major oversight in this field of research is the problem of x.' If you can slip in the word lacuna, fantastic. That is of course, if you have found a lacuna and know what a lacuna means. I would hate for you to say you have a lacuna but now even know what it means. (Just for you Three Amigos fans)

    • 5

      SECOND, OFFER YOUR TENTATIVE HYPOTHESIS.

      This isn't your dissertation proposal. It is your research proposal. So don't make too certain or broad of a statement. It is your educated hunch that.... Fill in the blank. This should be plausable, logically coherent, and immediately interesting. You will know you have something like that when your professor says 'huh...' and sits back during coffee. If she says 'I never thought of it that way' you are in like flint. But, even if she hasn't she probably won't admit it. So just go for the 'huh.'

    • 6

      THIRD, DEMONSTRATE YOUR INITIAL LITERATURE REVIEW.

      Again this is not your dissertation proposal, and definitely not your dissertation, so don't go overboard. Just show that you have done your preliminary research and no-one that you know of has written on this proposal. That way if you find that they have, there will only be an isolated voice or two and you can simply give your different perspective or research result on the issue and still come out with a dissertation and those all important three letters (think automatic raise). If you find someone who has written on it, read their work! Then find a way to present a different hypothesis, or a shift in emphasis, or even radical critique.

    • 7

      FOURTH, EXPRESS THE PURPOSE AND METHOD OF THE PROJECT.

      These go somewhat together. What you want to accomplish will determine your method, and your method should flow out of what you want to accomplish in your research and eventually in your dissertation. Some department don't need to see the method at this point, other fields require it. So read your school's proposal guidelines and follow them to a 't'. The purpose clearly states what this is going to accomplish, prove, discover, or disprove. The method should be fit to the purpose. Your advisor should be able to read your purpose, look at your method and say 'Yes. That will do it all right.'

    • 8

      FIFTH, SIXTH, SEVENTH, EIGHTH, and NINTH IF NECESSARY, PROOF PROOF PROOF AND REVISE AND PROOF.

      Simple spelling and grammar errors at this level of academics spell sloppy scholarship and often receive an automatic bounce back. There goes another month of your dissertation time or comps study time. So, get as many eyes looking at your paper, your citation, your bibliography, your format etc. as possible. Ideally your residence committee will look it over with a fine tooth comb and give you several chances to get it perfect before sending the research proposal in for approval to the PhD powers that be.

Tips & Warnings

  • A good relationship with your advisor goes a long long way.
  • For a research proposal, often brevity with clarity is a virtue. Follow your department's guideline.
  • Don't get so bogged down with perfectionism that you wait months to turn it in. Do a good job. Proof several drafts. But eventually hit send and get the ball rolling. They will let you let you know
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