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.

Get your ‘gaze’ then get your data

As promised, a post on something a little less personal and a little more ‘academic’. The topic for this week’s post is theoretical frameworks, and why it’s a very good idea to have one fairly clearly in place before you start collecting and analysing your data.

Right. When I started my PhD in 2010, I spent the whole of that year reading about academic literacies and writing centres, thinking that I wanted to do my PhD on a topic related to the role writing centres play in developing students’ academic literacies in the disciplines. I just couldn’t get into it, though. I had a whole lot of substantive theory, but nothing that looked or felt like a framework for a study that would guide my data gathering or my analysis. After a long and helpful meeting with my supervisor at the end of that year, I found my way to Basil Bernstein’s work and from there to Pierre Bourdieu’s and to Legitimation Code Theory. I had, much to my joy, found my framework.  I had the beginnings of a ‘gaze’ to use Bernstein’s term, or a set of specific lenses with which to scratch at my ‘conceptual itch’ to use Lis Lange’s term (well, it was her I first heard it from) – the thing that I really needed to find out or the question I really wanted an answer to. I could now rethink my topic, and begin to form this gaze so that I would know what data I needed to collect and what I should do with it to get at the answers and scratch the itch.

So, I spent a lot of time in 2011 and 2012 writing and rewriting what I suppose some might call a literature review, but which my supervisor and I called a conceptual or theoretical framework. I had to lay very firm foundations for this study because the theory I was reading and the concepts I used were so new to me, and I really was starting from scratch in many ways in this field. I often felt frustrated at how much time I was spending on this one chapter out of six that had to be written, and I felt lost a great deal of the time in the mess of reading and thinking and connecting of dots. It was a hard couple of years, but in that time I got my proposal through and wrote a pretty good draft of chapter two. I found myself, at the end of 2012, very nervous about leaving Theoryland, as I thought of it, up on its pretty, fluffy clouds. I felt safe there, because I had pretty much worked out what Bernstein called the ‘internal language of description’ for my study. In other words, I could tell you how the different parts of the theory and concepts I chose to use cohered, and why they fitted together like that and what sense to make of them in the context of my study. But that was all I could do at this point. So I had to move on.

I was encouraged (read shoved) off my clouds and into the mires and muck of field work and data gathering. And this is where things started to get really exciting for me (and then boring later and then exciting again). I observed lecturers teaching and read their course documents, as well as conducted in-depth interviews. In the first week of lectures, I found I could see and hear the theory – that internal language – being spoken in the teaching and coming to life in front of me. It was so exciting and also so affirming. This was the right data to be gathering and my study was moving in the right direction, given my focus and my questions. I do not think that this would have happened quite so clearly had I tried to shortcut the first stage of laying those foundations and working out, as carefully and fully as I could, that internal language of description. I needed to have my gaze in place, as nebulous and fuzzy as it felt, before I gathered by data and started to think about what to do with it in analysis.

I won’t be glib and say that the data gathering was easy – it was often really tedious and the semester felt so long; recording detailed fieldnotes in 8 lectures per week of an hour long each for the better part of 14 weeks was tough going for me. But at no point did I really doubt that I was gathering the right data for my study, and even when things got very fuzzy and I couldn’t hear the theory so clearly or see my way, I could count on the fact that my gaze was there and that it would deepen and develop as I really started to get into my data more systematically. It was very reassuring on the whole, and while it didn’t make the field work stage a breeze, it did take some of the anxiety and doubt away, and kept me moving towards the next step.

I would, based on my experience, argue that even if you feel frustrated and feel like you are taking way too long working out your own internal language of description, it is worth doing as well as you can. The firmer the foundation going forward, the less the likelihood (I think) of having to rush back and get different or more data because you don’t have enough or the right kinds of data. It reduces the stress and anxiety that inevitably come with gathering data and starting to think about analysing it, because having your gaze in place can assure you that you are moving in the right kind of direction. However, a word of caution: it can be really lovely and safe and warm up in Theoryland, but staying there will never get your PhD finished. You will need to find the bridge down to the Data Swamps so that you can move between the two as you scratch your own itch and answer the questions that drive you onwards.