Preparing a Research Prospectus or Proposal
What is a proposal?
A prospectus or proposal is a systematically organized plan for a research
project. Prospecti are an important part of dissertation or thesis
preparation, but are also characteristic of applications for grants and
other developmental support, submissions for attendance at important academic
conferences, and for book length publications. They are also invaluable
when you simply want to establish a focus for your ideas on a research
A proposal serves two basic purposes: it forces the researcher
to organize his/her thinking prior to writing the paper, and it enables
others to evaluate the project and make helpful suggestions at a relatively
early stage of development.
What does a proposal include?
There is no standard format for a proposal; the structure will vary depending
on the character of the research question, the outlet for the project,
and even the preferences of those asking for the proposal. In general,
the proposal will contain the following elements in some sort of structure:
Statement and defense of the research problem. You should
formulate a succinct statement of the purpose of the research and justify
the importance of the inquiry. A good research problem section gives
your reader the sense that you have focused your work well and that your
work is important.
Motivation for the current study within an ongoing research tradition
of the field. You must place your work into the context of the
work of others. Often referred to as the "review of the literature"
this section will describe the general line of research within which you
are working and the state of that line of research as you begin your work.
A good motivational section gives your reader the faith that you know the
previous research that informs your own work and that your study will fit
into the flow of that broader work.
Description and defense of the method for the research. You
should provide a detailed description of the assumptions and procedures
guiding your research, and justify the selection of method. You may
also need to provide a description of the current literature pertaining
to the method. Generally, projects involve two kinds of method:
(1) the method that will be employed in gathering data; and (2) the method
that will be employed in analyzing and interpreting data. A good
methods section gives your reader the faith that you have thought through
your project all the way to its conclusion; that you have considered carefully
the way you will proceed.
Precis of Content. You should present a projection of sections
in the written report on the project complete with proposed titles and
summaries of content.
Selecting a topic for the current project
First of all, select a target outlet for your work. You may wish
to begin thinking tentatively about a dissertation project. (It doesn't
matter if you wind up doing the dissertation on something else; the exercise
is the point here.) Or you may wish to think in terms of some conference
or special volume that you might want to propose an essay for. Any
motivation is fine with me. (Your choice can even be some research
project that you are doing for another class that you are currently taking.)
Then select a topic and specify a research question that you will do
to pursue this opportunity. Notice that to a large degree your choice
of outlet will determine the scope of your topic selection. A proposal
for a book or a dissertatation may propose more scope than a proposal for
a paper to be presented at a conference. Getting the right scope
is an important consideration and we will work on it.
There are two lead-up assignments that will take you to the final rewrite.
These preliminary assignments will be graded "OK"/"R".
After preparing these two parts you will rewrite them into a finished proposal.
Two additional elements will be added in the rewrite:
Locating and justifying the project. Write a section that
includes: (1) an introduction to the research project, (2) a specification
of the research question, and (3) the justification or motivation for the
inquiry and (4) the account of the literature that contextualizes the research.
This section should be somewhere between 1000-2500 words. There is
a wide variation here because topics can touch differing volumes of research.
Methods. Write a section that: (1) identifies the choices
that define the procedure that you will use in gathering the data you will
work with in your research, (2) identifies the choices defining the procedures
for analysis that you will use to work from your gathered data to conclusions
about your research problem, (3) justifies the choices of both types.
Your section should show your awareness of the assumptions that go into
your analysis. This section should be 1000-1500 words.
The final project after revision should be 2000-4000 words.
A Precis. A description of the parts of the final report on
An annotated bibliography. A list of important sources that
contextualize the work and its methods.
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