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How to Write a Dissertation Research Proposal

What is a Research Proposal?

The overall objective of a research proposal is to convince your dissertation supervisor, a busy academic, to take on this research project with you and thus to dedicate their time and resources into developing your writing. The proposal thus needs to be persuasive; it is making an argument. The first issue, then, is to have a clear focus. You have to test out the feasibility of the proposed study, exhibiting an appropriate level of academic sophistication and professional relevance. Getting that balance right is crucial. It is important from the outset that you avoid being too general. You must begin to clarify and to identify the very clear issues that are of most significance and are most likely to produce useful and relevant outcomes. While you will necessarily be working within one overall generic topic, identifying a specific sub-topic is essential.

Make life easy on yourself by selecting a manageable project. A crucial component of persuading the supervisor of your capability is correctly gaging the scope and complexity of the proposed idea. This in itself exhibits good judgement and forethought (and is an element of critical thinking). A proposal which suggests research in an entirely new area is risky, because there are fewer (or no) precedents to refer to and build upon. It will be far harder (though perhaps not impossible) to convince the supervisor to sign-off on some order of research project that has never been done before. Even where a few precursor studies do exist, you may potentially face scepticism. Hence you will need to think of all the potential risks and have a course of action mapped out, clearly outlining how you will proceed. Your proposal must communicate this strategic planning in such a way that convincingly argues that you can take this new piece of work and create something out of it. Always remember, you are making an argument, and this means marshalling evidence to win the reader to your point of view.

A good research proposal will be original in some way, either in the topics it addresses or the way it intends to approach those topics. If the research is distinctive it has more potential to make an impact and this is what will make your proposal persuasive: because the purpose of the research has been clearly stated. A good way of highlighting impact, in this sense, is to outline how your work will add to the critical dialogue. Your proposal thus needs to talk (briefly) about the contribution your work will have, for theory and practice. Academic contributions are theoretical in nature. Fellow researchers in your area should benefit in some way from the work that you are doing. It might also have some kind of practical contribution, aiding practitioners. In either case, you should emphasise these benefits.

Your proposal should also include some degree of conceptualisation. By conceptualisation, we really mean exploring the ideas which surround your research project. This will start with a Literature Review. A Literature Review in a research proposal does not have to be extensive, but it should highlight the key scholarly works in your area. So, you want to seek out seminal papers, papers that receive a lot of citations. Also, you will want to include any facts and theories which appear to be of key relevance (those which commonly recur in the scholarly literature).

The reader will expect some coverage of the theoretical underpinnings of your study. What theory are you using to refine and develop your thinking in your topic area? Theory is extremely important. It helps us explain how variables are expected to relate to each other. Without theory underpinning why we expect things to happen we do not really know if any results that we have are random.

The next section of writing a research proposal would be the Methodology. We should think about this as “proposed methodology”, because, at this stage, we are not certain as to the exact methods we will use. Rather, we would talk about the data that we would like to collect to enable us to address our research questions. However, we do not necessarily know if this is the final type of data we will be interested in. Because we have not yet conducted the research, we do not know exactly what methodology will be best suited the results in the field. So, at this stage, the “proposed methodology” would address questions about how to collect relevant data for the research and how we plan to analyse that data. A good tip, here, is to read books on academic methods, citing where appropriate to back-up the suitability of your chosen approach. Referencing is paramount in when it comes to writing a research proposal. Make sure that you understand the nature of Referencing. If you are making truth-claims in your proposal you should be referencing those statements with other academic works. This builds evidence into your position.

A research proposal should not be overly long. You should be able to describe your research area and your research question in a page or two. It is good practice to learn to communicate your ideas to people in a short amount of writing. Also, do not consider your proposal to be final; it will change during the research process. Do not worry about your proposal being perfect; it just has to demonstrate enough competence to persuade your supervisor. The supervisor will be looking to see whether you have the competencies, experience and knowledge-base to see the project through.

 

Struggling with a Dissertation Proposal? 

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