The challenge of the research proposal: (2) Rationale

Well, the REF submission is in, and I can pick up my blogging again – apologies for the interruption…  In my last post, I wrote about the first section of the research proposal, the background context.  Here I’m moving onto the next section, the rationale for the research being proposed.

Lots of people refer to this as the ‘literature review’ section.  I don’t think this name is helpful.  It creates a mindset which leads to students producing a kind of annotated bibliography.  ‘Rationale’, on the other hand, promotes a mindset that the student needs to make the case for their research – that is to say, they need to argue what their research is building on, where they position themselves in relation to the existing literature, and what significant original contribution their research is going to add to advance knowledge about their topic.

In educational research (my field), most of our research is applied.  So the rationale usually needs to start by looking at the existing empirical knowledge we have about the topic, particularly where this is contested.  So, for example, in a study concerned with how graduates find jobs after completing their degree, one could draw on both policy documents and some research which argue that there isn’t really a problem with graduate employment except some deficit of employability in graduates themselves – and then contrast this with some statistics and other research which show that maybe there just is a problem with the demand side of the labour market rather than with graduates themselves.  How the proposal presents these ‘facts’ should help the reader understand what stance the researcher takes towards them – probably by presenting what the researcher sees as the weaker position first, and then making an argument which starts e.g. ‘However, alternative evidence suggests a different perspective…’, and ends by making clear where they think the problem lies.  Here they are identifying an empirical ‘gap in knowledge’

However, we don’t want them to devote too many words to this, as there is another even more important element to the rationale.  In social science, ‘facts’ are of course always shaped by particular conceptualisations of the issue to which they relate.  In this hypothetical proposal about graduates seeking employment, let’s say that we are focusing on the graduates’ perspective, how they make decisions about what opportunities to pursue, and how these decisions work out.  So the second, and probably longer, section of the rationale needs to look at the different ways in which career decision-making processes have been conceptualised.  The key strands of debate about this process need to be identified, with the most important authors cited, and again, the student needs to position themselves in relation to these debates, so the reader knows what perspective they are going to begin by pursuing in the research (this might of course change as the research progresses).

This should then enable the student to go beyond the purely empirical gap in knowledge to identify the social scientific problem or puzzle that they are going to try to answer.  The phrase ‘gap in knowledge’ doesn’t always help students think about their contribution to knowledge in this way, so we need to be careful with it.  It can lead to a rather narrow view of what the study is trying to do, and obscure the importance of the theoretical element of the thesis.  I now find it much more helpful to get students think about this notion of a sociological puzzle that needs to be solved – and to see this as the way in which they are going to advance knowledge.  For example, in a previous project, I was working in a field dominated by notions of workplace learning as situated, as participation in a community of practice.  A lot of this theory I can go with.  But it tends to assume that newcomers enter an occupation, become expert and remain expert practitioners within it. I knew that there was high turnover in the workplaces I was looking at.  So my social scientific puzzle and contribution to knowledge was to expand our understanding of the dynamics of participation in a community of practice – and to deepen our knowledge of how it could be an outward dynamic rather than purely an inward one.

In my experience, it is essential to get doctoral students to grasp the need for this conceptual level of thinking as soon as possible at the proposal stage.  Our supervision does not serve them well if we don’t issue this challenge – and support them to meet it – very early on.  If a student is researching how nurses learn to care, for example, they need to show they understand debates about what care is – and these debates reflect very diverse concepts of care indeed.  I don’t allow my students to say they are going to research ‘identities’ (of teachers or of learners) without challenging them to tell me what they mean by ‘identity’, and how they conceive of it, including in relation to debates about agency and structure.  Unless they have a good background in sociology (which very few do), this comes as quite a surprise to them!  So they need to read around these quite a bit in the early stages to get beyond any ‘taken-for-granted’ notions.

The most frequent questions I then get asked by students are: how do I know how much to write about all this literature?  How many people should I cite?  How can I avoid getting into writing the ‘literature review’ chapter itself?  I answer these questions by reminding students that the proposal is a very special piece of writing.  It is, in many respects, a sales pitch.  In that sense, the job is very much one of summing up the key positions ‘in a nutshell’.  To go back to our graduates making career decisions, we could put it to our student like this: if you had a ride in a lift with someone, and had to explain one of the key theories of career decision making between the ground floor and the 6th floor, what would you say?  It is this ‘nutshell’ style – being very succinct but also very accurate – that students need to aim for.

So this leads us to think about how long the rationale should actually be.  A former boss of mine had a very good rule of thumb when reading proposals.  The rationale section should lead straight into the research questions/objectives – and he said if he hadn’t reached the research questions by the bottom of page 3 (we’re talking A4 single spaced here), he would switch off.  So the context section plus the rationale together should be about 1250 words – or two and two-thirds pages long.  That helps convey to students just how much of a tight, punchy summary they need to give.

The next post will be about the research questions – for me, the trickiest part of writing the proposal.

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