Here's My Exact Guide To Starting Your Proposal
With the start of Spring semester in full swing, the most common question I get asked at the writing studio is… “What should I do before I start my research and write my proposal?”.
I read/consult on about 13 – 20 theses/dissertations a week throughout the semester and my advice are always the same. So of course, I’m going to share it with you!
No matter what discipline or major you’re in, the research and proposal writing process are almost the same. Some people may have classes for each milestone, some may have one-on-one advising, and some may just go at it alone. Well no matter where you fall, I’m here to help you get started.
Pick a Topic
Writing a proposal for your thesis/dissertation is all about the creation of new knowledge. As a writer, you have entered a niche which has its own little community of people that are constantly finding new knowledge on the topic and sharing it in order to come to a better understanding. Your thesis and future publications are you adding new knowledge to the community and furthering the development along.
The key word above is that you’re adding new knowledge.
Therefore, when you pick a topic for your proposal/thesis, it needs to be adding new knowledge to your community. This can be rather, addressing a misconception in the field or furthering the research of someone else. Either way, it just needs to be new.
So, you’re probably asking now, how do you make sure its new information?
Well, the best thing is to start with the community. The community communicates through academic articles. Start there, with the literature. If you find that there aren’t really any papers discussing your topic then there’s a gap in the literature, which means you need to hop in there and fill it!
The next thing you should be concerned with is making sure that it fits your research timeline. I know picking a topic can bring in a lot of emotions and dreams of accomplishment, but make sure that it’s a project that you can finish in the 1 semester, year, or multi-year plan that you have.
Ask yourself these three major questions: How does this affect the world? Why is this still a problem? What are you going to do about it?
The first questions, “How does this affect the world?” is probably making you roll your eyes at me but trust me there is research going on out there that is really…. Just for the sake of knowledge. This is great if you’re a heavily funded lab at a corporation or big-time research institution. However, for most of us, our research projects are funded that way, so we need to pick a topic that is important and has the potential to get funding later on if needed. I guess you would also want it to be intriguing enough to get into a journal as well haha. I mean why else are we even here, if not to publish.
So, what I’m trying to get at is that you need to make sure that your research is addressing or adding more knowledge to a problem that is being faced in the world. This helps you secure potential funding and publishing.
The next question is going back to making sure that you’re adding new knowledge to your community. If your topic isn’t a problem and it’s been fixed, what’s the point of doing more research? You want to make sure that your topic is addressing a problem that is still relevant and proposing a better alternative or resolution. This question is also very important because you will be addressing it in your literature review.
Lastly, the question “What are you going to do about it?” is what your whole thesis/dissertation will be built upon! You found a problem affecting a population, its still a relevant problem that does not have an adequate solution, and now you’re going to inform your small community on how you think the problem should be resolved and why using evidence from your study.
If your topic can’t clearly answer these questions, then you may want to sit with an advisor and discuss what kind of similar topics can address them and build a study around that.
If your topic does address the questions, then you should start doing some literature research.
Get the facts
Once you’ve picked a topic and made sure it answered the three big questions above, it’s time to start researching the facts. This step is crucial because you should still be on the lookout to see if someone has already studied this specific topic in the same manner that you want to propose, but you will also need about 20 or so articles in order to be able to write your introduction and literature review if your topic is unique.
Below are some of my favorite databases and search engines that I’ve used in my research. Some of these may not fit with your field of research but google scholar and PubMed are always great places to start for a quick and dirty search.
If the following databases aren’t specific to your field and you’re finding it difficult to find articles on your topic, you may want to consult a librarian in your field to help you find the correct databases to use.
My favorite databases and search engines for research are:
3. Your university library
Remember, you want about 20 or so articles to help you write your introduction and literature review.
Draft a proposal
Proposals are an easy and fast way for researchers to share their topic and proposed methods of action for the research. Proposals usually include an extensive background of the problem, usually answering the three big questions mentioned above, the aims of the project or the hypothesis, and an outline of the methods with explanations. Proposal lengths vary from 3 pages to 20 pages, it generally depends on who you’re submitting it to. Some grants only want proposals to be about 3 pages long, while some advisors will want a 20-page overview. Both lengths have their advantages, but it’s best to check with whom you are submitting the proposal to beforehand.
Get it approved
After drafting the proposal, make sure to have it read by someone inside of your field to make sure the lingo is correct, and it sounds professional. I always recommend that a second person reads your work, someone that is completely removed from your field. I usually have a friend from the biology department, or a creative writer read my work to make sure that my language is straightforward and easily understandable for others outside of my field to read.
Once I’ve gone through that, you can begin discussing the project/proposal with potential advisors. It’s always good to remember that most proposals won’t be accepted as is, and THAT’S OK. Researching with others is often hard and people must remember what they can bring to the research and what is out of their field. Most advisors are not out to torture you and are often trying to help you get through this process and easily as possible, so don’t take it personally if they want to change a couple things. Another thing to remember is that open communication is key to getting proposal approval and working on a research team, make sure to always openly discuss how you feel about the direction of the project and if you have any opinions.
Well, there you have it, my exact process of starting an awesome proposal! I hope this article helps you plan the perfect proposal that will get you an awesome project and advisor. If you’re going to start writing your proposal, keep me updated on your progress and let me know below how these tips have helped you in the process. If you get stuck, you can always get my help under the freelance writer tab at the top of my page. For all of my experienced proposal writers, drop your tips in the comments below.
If you're still stuck, hang tight! Next week I'll be going over my best cheat sheet for proposal writing.
And as always, happy writing!
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