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.

Moving from your proposal to chapter the first

You have written a proposal that has been approved, possibly revised a few times, and now you have been given the green light to get going and do the doctorate. This is an exciting moment in a doctoral candidate’s life, and one that brings both relief and feelings of ‘uh oh, now what?’ with it. What now, indeed? Once the proposal is approved, what next? What to write, or read, first, second and so on? Do you forget the proposal exists and start your thesis, or have you, in fact, already started it?

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My proposal was a fairly lengthy 20 pages, which is pretty standard in the social sciences and humanities, certainly in South Africa (as far as I can make out). It contains within it all of the parts that would need to be in the final thesis – literature review, methodology, theoryology, details about the data and the proposed analysis of it, and of course, the research questions and objectives. I was told by one of the supervisors in our programme, in my first year of the PhD while I was working on my proposal, that about 1/4 of your thinking needs to be apparent in the proposal. In other words, the proposal is not separate from the thesis – it is a fairly significant first step towards the thesis that indicates your ability to do research at this level, and your ability to complete this one viable, valuable research project.

After my proposal was approved I felt, simultaneously, elated and freaked out. The proposal was a difficult genre to write, and I felt a bit at sea, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing, exactly. It can be argued that it is not terribly difficult to show your proposal readers what you have read thus far, where the gaps are and what your research questions therefore are. It is not even terribly difficult to explain, quite abstractly, the theory that will help you to answer these questions. But the methodology? The data and how you will build a ‘translation device’ or analytical framework to interpret the data and answer those research questions? Yikes. I really had no idea what I was doing in this part of the proposal. I mean, I could tell you it would be case studies, and qualitative data generation and analysis, and I could tell you I would generate data from documents, participant interviews and observations of teaching. But as to how I would organise all of that, or analyse it, I was pretty clueless. That was over a year away! I had no idea what I would even find, and while I had a grip on the theory, it was a fairly shaky one, and I was still making sense of how the theory, data and method pieces would fit together.

The struggles in writing significant parts of the proposal meant that coming out of that phase of the doctorate into actually beginning the thesis, and doing the actual research, was quite stressful, and I felt quite lost, initially. I started with more reading, but the more I read, the more I confused myself (at least initially), and I kept losing my research questions and my basic plot, which was alarming. I thought, for a while, that all this meant I was a fraud, and that the committee at my university had approved my research plans in error. It took me a while to realise that I was mainly freaking myself out because I had forgotten the comment from one of the supervisors in our group: that about 25-30% of your thinking is within your proposal, which is your blueprint for the doctorate. I had already started my PhD – I wasn’t just starting now.

Along with this realisation, which was comforting, what helped me past this was my own supervisor’s advice to begin the writing of the thesis by copying and pasting a chunk from my proposal – from the theory or literature review – into a new file and to start writing around it, modifying, adapting and obviously adding and extending it. This advice helped me to physically see that I had made a start on the writing, and I had a basis to build on. Very few of the actual words from my proposal are in the final version of my thesis – much of my thinking and expression of that thinking changed over the course of doing the research – but the parts of the proposal I copied into new files gave me ‘holding texts’ to work with towards creating chapter the first, and then the second, before I was up and running and could leave the proposal behind.

While a PhD or MA proposal is often seen as a hurdle to be vaulted in progressing from candidate to graduate, and while some supervisors may even advise their students to leave the proposal behind so as not to be limited by it, I think it might be helpful to see a proposal as some of the supervisors on my doctoral programme do: as a significant, although early, step towards the PhD thesis, and as more than just a ‘test’ to be passed. The proposal, ideally, should be your PhD’s holding text – not the final thing, of course, but a document that gives readers a fairly clear idea of what the final thesis could or may well be. As with all blueprints, there is and must be room for change, modification, improvement – but the research you actually do and write about shouldn’t be wildly different from the research you proposed to do.

A good place to start your thesis, therefore, is your proposal: your thinking – at least part of it – is already in there, and proposal approval indicates that it is solid and useful thinking thus far. So, begin with what you have already written and write and think from that base, building upwards and outwards as you modify, adapt and hone your research going forward.