Clarifying the murky mess of proposal writing

We have recently had a swimming pool built or put in, or whatever the correct verb is. Maintaining a swimming pool is hard work. There are all these different, fiddly things that have to be in alignment or balance to ensure that the water is clear, sparkling and appealing to swim in. There’s the pH, the alkalinity, the acidity, the amount of chlorine, and the amount of stabiliser. If even one is off, as I am finding out this week, the water will be murky and less appealing. Getting the balance back is frustrating, and involves trial and error, a few tantrums, and not a small amount of money spent on chemicals and advice.

Writing a good PhD proposal (or any research proposal, really) can be like maintaining a swimming pool: a balancing act that is achieved with no small amount of hard work. It needs to contain different sections and parts – literature review, research questions, theoryology, methodology, data, significance or contribution to knowledge, etc –  that mirror the structure of the final thesis, and they need to fit together to tell an appealing, clear, coherent story about the research you plan to do, and are proving you are able to do in the time allotted to you. The parts all have to be connected into a whole, rather than simply addressed as parts.

Proposal writing, as I have said before in this blog, is difficult because this is a tricky genre in which to write. Unlike a paper or thesis, you are not reporting on research you have done, and so have clearly set out before you to recount and tell your readers about. Your research is not yet a fait accompli. You are trying to show your readers/judges what you aim to do, what you think is important and viable research, what you hope you will find and be able to write about in the thesis. And, when you are starting a major research project like a PhD, sometimes these aims, thoughts and hopes are very murky things indeed. So, the question then becomes: how can I make what I plan to do as clear as possible, and appealing to read (and approve), without writing something facile, or impossible to achieve once I have to actually do the research?

One of the first problems proposal writers seem to encounter is writing a proposal that actually contains more than one research project within it, rather than just the one you are required to do. A PhD, in particular, just seems so huge compared to previous degrees that the proposal can feel like it has to be huge, complex and dazzling in order to do justice to the enormity of the task ahead of you. I apparently had 4 possible PhDs within the first few drafts of my proposal thinking. One of the things I found very helpful at this early stage was feedback: I sent my ideas to my supervisor, and asked her if she thought any or all of them were viable or made sense. The email she sent back had taken what I had written and delineated 4 possible projects I could do, with some overlapping, and she then asked me: which PhD do you want to do? Looking at my scribbles in that form made it easier for me to choose the project I felt most drawn to and passionate about. Your supervisor(s) should be able to offer this kind of help and guidance, but peers and mentors who have gone through this process of choosing and outlining one research project out of many possible ideas and questions should also be able to offer you some insight at this stage into where your scribbles and thinking might be taking you, so you can consider where exactly you want to go.

Another problem proposal writers encounter is getting the balance right. It can be tempting to write a lengthy literature review, including just about everything you have read thus far which might be quite a long list of papers and books to show your readers/examiners how competent you are. It can also be tempting to go into great detail about the theory you are using, engaging your reader in a lengthy account of what the theorists have said (usually quite abstractly). It can be more difficult to go into great detail about your methodology, and the kind of contribution your research will make to the field. I found this part of my own proposal difficult, as the actual generation and analysis of the data was not something I had done when I wrote the proposal,  but I could say a fair bit about my reading and theory. Getting the balance right in order to create a coherent picture of a whole research project that can be completed in the allotted time is important: if your methodology is too vague, the examiners of your proposal may wonder if you know what you are doing; if your theory and literature are not selected and discussed in direct relation to the research questions you are seeking to answer, they can come across as standing alone, and not integrated knowledgeably into the whole project.

Writing a coherent proposal is not just important as a step in the MA or PhD process; post-MA or PhD you may well need to continue writing different kinds of proposals to attract research or grant funding for new research projects, either on your own or with colleagues. Taking the time to seek feedback is valuable. Reading successful proposals in your field, and even seeking out their writers if you can to ask them for advice could also be helpful. Working to an exemplar of the genre you are trying to reproduce in your own writing can at least provide you with a basic map to follow, which can make the writing of your own proposal a little less anxious. Tricky though this task may be, writing a solid, clear, balanced proposal can provide you with a firmer foundation and more focused way forward for your full research project.

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.