Staying in academia involves writing up research proposals. For some, it starts as early as during their Bachelor’s studies where they have to provide one-page experiment proposal for their supervisors. Then, after several discussions with the supervisor, they may begin their very first research experiment. Later in time, other coursework comes in – where in order to pass the subject – one must carry out an experiment that makes sense. For many students, the last time (or sometimes the first and only time) they wrote something similar to a research proposal is, when they begin their Master’s thesis. At this level, a good outline of the research is unavoidable and usually mounts up to 3-5 pages. Of course, it is possible to slip-through the system without approaching the thesis-writing preparation seriously, but usually such approach ends up in much more negative feelings than simply outlining the strategy and planning for the research.
Meeting the formal requirements
The first question to answer is why we should write a research proposal. During undergraduate studies, it might be a simple exercise for one of the courses or a formal request from a supervisor to provide a proposal before beginning any research. As one advances to the graduate or Master’s level, research proposals are usually treated more seriously, and most supervisors will require a coherent and actionable proposal before they take a student aboard. The importance of a well-written research proposal increases when one receives the graduate degree – MA or MSc – and applies for the terminate – PhD, M.D. or MBA – research degree studies. Of course, not all programs require students to come up with their own proposal, but if they do not expect a full-blown document, they try to gauge if the applicant has some ideas about her own research. Surprisingly too many, the importance of writing the research proposals increase along moving up in academic career. To win a place in the lab, as a post-doc; get funding from governmental agency as junior lecturers, it takes not only a brilliant track of record of publications and academic achievements, but also providing a carefully planned research proposal.
Through my various conversations with senior lecturers, most of them acknowledge the fact that the time they spend on writing research proposals for funding agencies has increased dramatically in comparison with when they were junior academic staff. In their case, the proposal may run for tens or hundreds of pages – taking months to prepare – and often involving several collaborators and, complicated preparations just to submit the application. The European Union, national agencies or even universities will not cede their limited resources to an idea that is not well and meticulously planned. In order to show the importance of careful planning and strategy – through research proposal – I will share first-hand, behind-the-scenes experiences which I underwent during the past few years.
Writing and not procrastinating!
In the past years, I read or skimmed-through a few self-help books – which cited psychological research – on how to write. Or better said: how to start writing. The part of self-motivating oneself to begin writing always starts with urging to outline what one wants to write about. Such outline, or research proposal fulfills many needs of the writer, by (a) providing a clearer structure to one’s thoughts and ideas; (b) helping to see the “bigger picture”; (c) facilitating the writing process (e.g. “filling-in-gaps” techniques, which shall be discussed later); (d) dividing the task into smaller, more manageable chunks; and (e) allowing feedbacks and comments from peers. Additionally, many people find it very discouraging that they must deliver 30 –, 60 – , 90 – pages manuscript within a year or two and are overwhelmed with the feelings of enormousness of the task in hand. However, most do not have trouble with writing up a draft outline, of a few pages, about the paper they are going to write. Therefore, a research proposal not only helps cognitively facilitate the process but it also has some added value for our affective-motivational system.
How to Write Research Proposal?
Independently of either the extrinsic – meeting the requirements – or the intrinsic motivation – clarifying one’s ideas – there is a structure to the research proposals. First, it is a formal document. Therefore it must contain (a) author’s identification data (e.g. first and last name, affiliation, student ID, email address); (b) date and place; (c) page numbering and headings. Additionally it should also include the name of the (potential) supervisor and the place one is applying for.
For me, the easiest way is to start with a template, which has the following structure:
- Cover page
- Abstract / Executive Summary
- Theoretical Introduction
- Research Question(s)
- Methodology: Studies
- Time Plan
I usually start working on either loosely defining what I want to investigate (i.e. point no.4) or creating subheading for the theoretical rationale of the experiments (point no.3). The cover page (point no.1) should provide clear personal, spatial and temporal information, i.e. at least your name, and where and when it was written. The summary (point no.2) is a short and concise “outline of the outline,” and it is advised to write it last. The main body of the document starts with presenting previous research (point no.3). This section, along with the methodology (point no.5) is the biggest part of the proposal. The literature outlined here must naturally lead to your hypothesis – answering research questions – asked later (4). For any proposal, the hypothesis creation (point no.4) and experiments design (point no.5) are the hardest parts to write, as often is a pure guesswork – after three years the studies you carried out, they can have little to do with your original proposal !. In this part, wild deductive (top-down) research reasoning takes part, hopefully, after a year or so leading to significant results. Your hypothesis should ideally not only be novel but also logical, measureable and temporally feasible. The reference list (point no.6) is an obvious point and must be properly formatted according to the chosen style. However, often times, students skip a very important part: (7). Time planning is very important, because it helps one to realize how much can be achieved within a determined period. Carefully outlining the deadlines for meeting the milestones of the proposed research – theoretical reviews, pilot studies, experiments, analysis of the results, 1st draft, final paper, submissions, revision, publication – makes one realize what she can propose to test out e.g. within one year. This is a point when many people realize that their plans are too ambitious for the little time they have. Additionally, sometimes, here comes another constraint – the available funding (point no.8). Many researchers find it hard to estimate and quantify the necessary expenses – in terms of money and people’s time – to carry out their research. However, it is an important part, because it will not always be feasible to test our ideas with €1000 per participant using an fMRI machine.
For a research proposal that you prepare as part of a coursework, one or two pages should be enough. It is possible to skip the abstract, time plan and budget parts. For a Master’s thesis, four to five pages will be sufficient, as there is perhaps no need for proposing many experiments and planning the budget. For postgraduate studies such as a PhD program, anything between eight to twelve pages is deemed appropriate. Here, all sections of the research proposal should be present, with an extensive elaboration on each of them. Additionally as I mentioned earlier, research proposals that are written much later in the career may run for tens of pages, involving multiple collaborators to contribute to the proposal. Nevertheless, in each of these stages, the little things count too. Going the extra mile can mean getting an “A” instead of “B” – being accepted for a PhD fellowship or receiving governmental funding.
The extra mile
The little details differentiate between research proposals, and exceptional research proposals. Therefore, always double check everything you are going to send out. This is because, whatever you have sent, it is impossible to edit it anymore. For example, provide appropriately- named files. If the document is called “mythesisvs8.doc,” this is not a very informative title. Remember that people reviewing your work must keep track of multiple files. Make it easy for them by naming your file , like this:PhDproposal_university_lastnamesupervisor_yourlastname_month_year.pdf
Additionally, pay attention to the format of file you should send. The .doc file is for editing and the Adobe Reader .pdf file is for publishing. Which one do you think is more appropriate to send? An easily modifiable file or a published manuscript? In addition, the pdf files can be open on almost every device and the same cannot be said about the .doc files.
Another important aspect is looking for feedbacks. It took me two weeks of full-time work to write and rewrite my PhD proposal over the span of one month when I was waiting for the feedback from my prospective supervisor. I ended up with seven versions, incorporating into each one the new comments. It helps to go the extra mile and persevere.
We live in the 21st century, but technology can still trick us. Pay attention to the size of the file. Many applications are still submitted through emails, directly to professors or administrative staff. Their email addresses have limits on the size (and numbers) of the attachment, they can receive. Always, after the application through email or an electronic form, send a confirmation email to the intended receiver or call them, to confirm that they have received your document. Be a little paranoid, as it helps in this case. Additionally, to account for any possible technical failure, submit the application at least one day before the deadline. It might save you from trouble, if something does not work out (e.g. your computer crashes, etc.) but it will also give an impression of someone who is dedicated , prepared before-time and does not resort to last-minute effort.
After Writing the Research Proposal
Assuming that you have submitted the research proposal and it gained you whatever you were aiming for, then it is time to celebrate. Rewarding oneself for having accomplished your goal, I think, is essential to keep one motivated. However, there is one more thing to realize. If your Master’s thesis should be around 60 pages, and your proposal was 6 pages long, you have already done 10% of the work and have a superb material to start with. Here comes the “filling-in-gaps” method where you arrive at your final paper by “simply” writing down under the sections of your initial proposal. The proposal provides the structure; the only thing that is needed is more content. What I have shared here are lessons I have learned from my personal experience and from a “Writing in Science” workshop with J. A. Russell (one of the most cited psychologists alive) which I was lucky enough to attend for two days. If you need help with revising your proposal, feel free drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Lewinski is Marie Curie Research Fellow in The Consumer COmpetence Research Training (CONCORT) and a PhD candidate (2012-2015) in Persuasive Communication at Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) – University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He studies facial expressions and advertisements. For more details see his university webpage, here.