The challenge of the research proposal: (1) Context

You’ve only just met.  You hardly know each other.  And your new doctoral student has to produce a really challenging piece of work – their research proposal – which will be the springboard for their entire project.  They may well have little idea what a good doctoral research proposal looks like – how would they? They have never had to figure out research questions that show potential to make a significant original contribution to knowledge in the field. They may wildly overestimate the scope of the project they can undertake, or have a very narrow idea just for evaluating their own practice in their own institution. And they have quite a short time to get this proposal written.  If you are anything like me, you’re nervous (though probably not half as nervous as the student is).  How can supervisors guide students through this unknown territory?

One of the most useful resources I’ve found to help with this is in one of my favourite general research methods handbooks – A Critical Introduction to Social Research by Henn, Weinstein and Foard – especially Chapter 10, which is about how to write a research proposal.  The authors take a section-by-section approach to the typical format of a proposal, using an example of one of their own grant applications to illustrate their points.  I’d highly recommend it as a guide to the task.  As well as that, I share examples of my own funded research proposals.

Once they have an idea of their research topic, there are a number of key issues that I find I often have to emphasise with students as they draft their proposals. First, of course, students need to read around their topic to get a sense of the landscape and the ‘gaps in knowledge’. Most importantly, this reading needs to focus on more than empirical findings.  Students need to pay attention to the different conceptual ways in which their topic is framed by different authors, how these relate to the methodological approaches adopted, and how both of these aspects shape each author’s findings.  This helps the student to identify the particular way in which they are going to contribute something new and significant to these debates, and to generate an over-arching research aim or question. But then the proposal needs constructing section by section, and my next few posts are going to focus on these in turn, beginning here with the context of the research.

The first section of the proposal is where the background context needs to be briefly sketched.  In my experience, many students often begin by drafting a paragraph or two which run like this: “I work in X doing Y with Z.  Over the years I have become very interested in how A and B function.  My interest in this has been sparked by incident C, which has made me wonder about D.”  They are setting out their personal context, the motivations that brought them to be interested in the topic.  Although this may well be good material for the introductory chapter of the thesis, it isn’t at all appropriate for the introductory section of the proposal. It does not spell out the situation that poses the problem to be researched, so it is more than likely to leave the proposal’s reader baffled.

I find it helps to get the student to think about their reader: who is going to be looking at this proposal and making judgements about it?  It will be a colleague from our broad field (in my case, Education) – but one who may not be familiar at all with this specific topic.  What this reader needs is an introduction to the context of the research topic itself – one which orients them to the situation being addressed and the problem which is being posed.  So it needs to read something more like this: “In X area of education, Y and Z happen.  A and B are being done about this, but there is a difficulty with C.  This is important because of D.  There is therefore a need for research to consider E and F.”  Now the reader has a good idea of what is going on in that specific area, and why some research needs doing.

I also try to get the student to think about the job the proposal has to do.  It’s not an essay or a chapter about the context, but more like a short and punchy ‘sales pitch’ which ends by delivering the key message about the over-arching research aim.  This means it is a special kind of writing, which needs to be especially succinct but also especially precise in the language it uses.  My rule of thumb is that the ‘Context’ section should not be more than half a page of A4.

The next post will focus on the section which argues the rationale for the research.  In the meantime, whether you are a supervisor or a student, please add your comments about how supervisors can best help students get to grips with writing the research proposal, in particular presenting the background context for it.  Any good references you find especially useful?  Any pedagogical approaches that have proved effective? I’d love to hear from you.  In my next post, I’m going to be looking at the next section of the proposal, the rationale for the research.

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