Guidelines on Writing a Research Proposal

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Guidelines on writing a research proposal


This is a guide to writing M.A. research proposals. The same principles apply to dissertation proposals and to proposals to most funding agencies. It includes a model outline, but advisor, committee and funding agency expectations vary and your proposal will be a variation on this basic theme. Use these guidelines as a point of departure for discussions with your advisor. They may serve as a straw-man against which to build your understanding of both your project and of proposal writing.

For USM students, the same rules apply as for proposals everywhere in the world.

Proposal Writing

Proposal writing is important to your pursuit of a graduate degree. The proposal specifies what you will do, how you will do it, and how you will interpret the results. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is done. In approving the proposal, your committee gives their best judgment that the approach to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results. Both parties benefit from an agreed upon plan.

The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and what you expect will result. Being clear about these things from the beginning will help you complete your thesis in a timely fashion.

A good thesis proposal hinges on a good idea. Once you have a good idea, you can draft the proposal in an evening. Getting a good idea hinges on familiarity with the topic. This assumes a longer preparatory period of reading, observation, discussion, and incubation. Read everything that you can in your area of interest. Figure out what are the important and missing parts of our understanding. Figure out how to build/discover those pieces. Live and breathe the topic. Talk about it with anyone who is interested. Then just write the important parts as the proposal. Filling in the things that we do not know and that will help us know more: that is what research is all about.

Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don't make the project too big. Your proposal will be perhaps five pages and certainly no more than fifteen pages long. (For perspective, the American National Science Foundation limits the length of proposal narratives to 15 pages, even when the request might be for multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is the merit of the proposal which counts, not the weight.) Shoot for five pithy pages that indicate to a relatively well-informed audience that you know the topic and how its logic hangs together, rather than fifteen or twenty pages that indicate that you have read a lot of things but not yet boiled it down to a set of prioritized linked questions.

Different Theses, Similar Proposals

In the abstract all proposals are very similar. They need to show a reasonably informed reader why a particular topic is important to address and how you will do it. To that end, a proposal needs to show how your work fits into what is already known about the topic and what new contribution your work will make. Specify the question that your research will answer, establish why it is a significant question, show how you are going to answer the question, and indicate what you expect we will learn. The proposal should situate the work in the literature, it should show why this is an (if not the most) important question to answer in the field, and convince your committee that your approach will in fact result in an answer to the question.

Theses which address research questions that can be answered by making plan-able observations (and hypothesis testing) are preferred and perhaps the easiest to write. Because they address well-bounded topics, they can be very tight, but they do require more planning on the front end. Theses which are largely based on synthesis of observations, rumination, speculation, and opinion formation are harder to write, and...
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