How to write a research proposal for admissions

[box]When you are applying for a research degree, like the PhD, you willvery probably have to write a research proposal as a part of yourapplication file. A PhD is awarded mainly as the result of your makinga genuine contribution to the state of knowledge in a field of yourchoice. Even though this is not the Nobel Prize yet, getting the degreemeans you have added something to what has previously been known on thesubject you have researched. But first you have to prove you arecapable of making such a contribution, and therefore write a researchproposal that meets certain standards. The goal of a research proposal(RP) is to present and justify a research idea you have and to presentthe practical ways in which you think this research should beconducted.

When you are writing a RP, keep in mind that it will enter acompetition, being read in line with quite a few other RPs. You have tocome up with a document that has an impact upon the reader: writeclearly and well structured so that your message gets across easily.Basically, your RP has to answer three big questions: what researchproject will you undertake, why is important to know that thing and howwill you proceed to make that research.

In order to draw the researcher’s attention upon your paper, write anintroduction with impact, and that leads to the formulation of yourhypothesis. The research hypothesis has to be specific, concise (onephrase) and to lead to the advancement of the knowledge in the field insome way. Writing the hypothesis in a concise manner and, first, comingup with a good hypothesis is a difficult mission. This is actually thecore of your application: you’re going to a university to do this verypiece of research. Compared to this, the rest of the application isbackground scenery. Take your time to think of it. When you have anidea, be careful at the formulation. A well-written hypothesis issomething of an essay’s thesis: it provides a statement that can betested (argues ahead one of the possible answers to a problem), it isan idea, a concept, and not a mere fact, and is summed up in onephrase. In some cases, you will have no idea what the possible answerto a problem worth being researched is, but you will be able to thinkof a way to solve that problem, and find out the answer in themeantime. It’s ok in this case, to formulate a research question,rather than a hypothesis. Let those cases be rare, in any way.

Another piece of advice when writing your hypothesis, regarding thetrendy research fields: chances are great that they’re trendy becausesomebody has already made that exciting discovery, or wrote thatsplendid paper that awoke everybody’s interest in the first place. Ifyou’re in one of these fields, try to get a fresh point of view uponthe subject; make new connections, don’t be 100% mainstream. This willmake the project even more stimulating for the reader. Imagine that youare writing about the trendiest subject, with absolutely no change inthe point of view, and you are given the chance to make the research.Trends come and go, fast; what are the chances that, in four years’time, when your research is done and you are ready to publish yourresults, one of those well-known professors who dispose of hugeresearch grants has already said whatever you had to say?

Remember how, in a structured essay, right after the thesis you wouldpresent the organisation of your essay, by enumerating the mainarguments you were going to present? Same thing should happen in a RP.After stating your thesis, you should give a short account of youranswers to those three questions mention earlier. State, in a fewphrases, what will be learned from your research, that your projectwill make a difference, and why is that important to be known. You willhave to elaborate on both of these later in the paper.

The next step in writing your proposal is to prove that that particularpiece of research has not been done yet. This section is usually calledLiterature Review. Inside it, you have to enumerate and criticallyanalyze an impressive list of boring bibliography. The conclusion youshould – objectively! – reach is that your idea of research has notbeen undertaken yet. Even more, you use this opportunity to prove solidtheoretical knowledge in the field, and build the theoretical bases ofyour project. One tip: don’t review all the articles and books in thefields even if you mention them in the bibliography list; pay attentionin your analysis to those you will build on. Another one: avoid jargonwhen writing your RP. The chances are great that the person(s) who willread your and another 1000 research proposals are not specialists inthat very field – niche you are examining. If you are applying for agrant with or foundation or something similar, it might happen thatthose reading your paper are not even professors, but recruiters,donors, etc. And even if they actually are professors, one of thereasons busy people like them agree to undertake a huge, and sometimesvoluntary, work, is the desire to meet some diversity, some change fromtheir work – so maybe they’ll read applications for anotherspecialisation. The capacity to get your message across in clear,easy-to-grasp concepts and phrases is one of the winning papers’ mostimportant advantages.

So far, you have proven you have a research idea, that you are familiarwith the field, and that your idea is new. Now, why should your projectbe worth researching? Because it advances knowledge, ok. But is thisknowledge that anybody will need? Maybe nobody knows for sure how theshoelaces were being tied in the XIXth century, but who cares, beyondtwo lace-tying specialists? Find arguments to convince the reader thats/he should give you money for that research: practical use,accelerating the development of knowledge in your or other fields,opening new research possibilities, a better understanding of factsthat will allow a more appropriate course of action are possiblereasons. Be clear and specific. Don’t promise to save the world, itmight be too much to start with. Even James Bond succeeds that onlytowards the end of the movie.

We approach now one of the most difficult parts of writing a researchproposal: the methodology. In short, what actions are you going to takein order to answer the question? When will you know whether thehypothesis has been proven wrong, or has survived enough tests to beconsidered, for now, valid? Those tests and the way you are supposed tohandle them to give rigor to your research is what is understood undermethods. Methods divide in qualitative (interviews, questionnaires) andquantitative (statistics, stuff that deals intensively with numbers).For some projects qualitative methods are more appropriate, for somequantitative, while for most a mixture of the two is adequate. Youshould pick your methods and justify your choice. Research methodology,however, is too a complicated thing to be explained here. And this iswhy it’s so tough: not much attention is given to teaching it inEastern Europe. Try, before writing your RP, to read a bit more aboutmethodology – on the Internet you will find for sure some articles -and decide which methods suit your project best. Don’t forget: readingtheoretical pieces of your work and providing a critical analysis ofthose is also a kind of research. It’s fine to provide a rough scheduleof your research; some grant programs will also require a detailedbudget, even though for scholarships this is unlikely.

Conclusions: After working your way through the difficultmethodological part, you only have to write your conclusions. Shortlyrecap why your hypothesis is new, why it advances knowledge, why is itworth researching and how, from a practical point of view, are yougoing to do that. Overall, the capacity of your project to answer theresearch question should come out crystal clear from the body of thepaper, and especially from the conclusions. If this happens, it meansyou have a well-written RP, and you have just increased you chances forhaving a successful application.

One last word: how big should your RP be? In most cases, this isspecified in the application form. If it is not, we suggest that youkeep it at about 1500 words (that’s 3 pages, single-spaced, with 12size Times New Roman). In fewer words it can be really tough to write agood RP. With more you might bore your readers. Which we hope will nothappen.

Good luck![/box]


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