How should I propose?

I was skimming through my PhD proposal towards the end of last year, trying to see how close or far my final argument and question was from what I proposed it would be in 2011. It got me thinking about the proposal itself and the art of writing a proposal that is both vague enough to give the researcher wiggle room and specific enough to convince the faculty committee that you know enough to be getting on to the next step.

I went though several drafts of mine, and spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with individual words and sentences to get it just right. There was a lot I did not know – my methodology especially was terribly vague  – but I had to sound convincing and convinced of my own knowledge and ability. I think that an important part of proposal writing and presentation does have to do with being convinced yourself of your own ability to actually do the PhD you are proposing before convincing others.

I think proposal writing is an art as well as a bit of a science. It is an art because you have to be persuasive, using your words to show how your ideas, reading, and thinking are connected into the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework that will enable you to carry forward your study and answer your research questions. It has to be polished. It has to say that you are indeed, while just starting the process, a competent and capable student-researcher. It’s also a little bit of a science because there are technical issues to get right as well: there are word and page limits, so you need to choose very carefully what to include; there are specific referencing styles and there are also certain sections that need to be included and probably in a particular order too. There is no one format for a proposal, so understanding what your faculty wants and why and how to achieve that is, for me, both an art and a science – an exercise in both rhetorical and technical proficiency.

Proposals can be difficult to write because they are not flippant pieces of writing. It is true, I think, that it is not crime to change your focus slightly as your research starts in earnest and you find that your question is being rephrased and honed, or changed a little to something more appropriate or answerable or interesting. Changes are almost certainly going to be made and I think supervisors and higher degrees committees do understand this. Changes like adding certain substantive theory later as data requests it which you could not have foreseen in the proposal stage, or shifting focus a little, or further refining your frameworks to cut out some of the earlier thoughts are par for the course. But, while you can make small changes, you cannot really make major changes, like throwing out a big chunk of or your whole framework and starting again without re-proposing your research or at least going through some kind of formal process.  If you have to change big things, then perhaps (might reason a committee) you were not really ready to move onto the research proper in the first place. Thus, proposals have to be thought about carefully, and written as if they are indeed a road map for your research and your eventual thesis.

I was told by another supervisor in our group that about 30% of your overall thinking goes into PhD proposal – and that it acts as a pretty clear road map for the thesis you will write. It tells your readers what your study is about and why it should be done, and it outlines (in differing amounts of detail depending on your field) your frameworks for the study – theoretical and methodological. It also contains mandatory bits, like a statement about the ethics of your research, your initial research questions and a bibliography of what you have read thus far. So, to get to proposal stage you have to do a good deal of reading and thinking. You need to have what is, in brief form, the first draft of a literature review which lays out the pertinent debates/conversations you are joining, and indicates where you fit into them with your research. Why are your questions timely and important? What gap are you trying to fill? Why should it be filled and how? These are all questions the proposal needs to consider.

I am not sure that all proposals can be very clear on the methodology and the anticipated findings. Mine wasn’t, and I know several others who have battled with this. I could say that I was doing interviews and observations and that the research was qualitative and would use case studies. I could say that I would behave ethically and get consent and all that, and I could say that parts of the theoretical framework would be adapted to create a more practical analytical framework for working with the data and give a small indication of how. But that was about it. I really only worked out how this actually all worked when I got there and was actually gathering data and looking at it.

So what I took away from this process was a sense that I did not have to have it all worked out – that would be the thesis, wouldn’t it? What I did need, though, was a proposal that showed that I had done sufficient reading and thinking to allow me to move on to the next step, which was doing the actual research. Things will always change and shift – this is an essential part of the process of research. But if you spend enough time writing a clear and defined proposal/map you may well find at the end that you pretty much did what you set out to do, with a few changes here and there. And that is quite a satisfying feeling.

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