Your proposal needs to answer three key questions: what is your research about? Why is it important to focus on the specific problem or issue identified? And how do you intend to carry out the research? The amount of detail included in answering these questions will depend on the degree in which you are enrolled, the nature of your research, the stage you are at in your degree and disciplinary requirements, if any. The following considerations can guide your proposal's focus. 

What is your field of research or topic of investigation?

The answer to this question tells the reader what you are intending to investigate, what you want to look at or focus on. This could take the form of identifying the field of research in which you are interested, the general topic area, or laying out a specific topic. These distinctions are indicated below by way of an example from Linguistics, which you can adapt to your own situation.

Field of research: Second language acquisition

General topic area: Forms of address in different cultures

Specific topic: Intercultural problems in teaching forms of address to Thai learners of English as a second language.

What is the primary research objective or central research question?

You may be required to narrow your research focus further by articulating a specific research question or aim. Your goal is to formulate a clear and sufficiently focused question - what is it that you want to find out and why? Develop a question that is both broad enough to offer enough scope for research but at the same time narrow enough to allow you to develop a focused argument within the word limit of the project.

It's important to note that the way in which you construct and word your question (and sub-questions) have implications for how you go about answering it. That is, your question determines the theoretical framework and/or methodology you employ - the overall direction your research takes.

In the Linguistics example, a research aim or question could be formulated as follows:

Stating the primary research aim or objective

My aim is to determine the range and nature of the intercultural problems in teaching Thai learners of English as a second language, and the reasons for these. 

Setting up the central research question

What are the types and causes of intercultural problems in teaching Thai learners of English as a second language? 

You may also be testing a hypothesis (even more than one), or you may be expected to outline a problem in some detail.

Having clarified your major aim or central question, you might want to break this down into a set of subsidiary aims or questions, like so:

Central question:

How are social identities being constructed by highlands migrants living in the urban areas of X [country named]? 

Subsidiary questions

  • What conceptions are held by Y migrants about the village and the people who remain there?
  • What concepts are held about ethnic 'others' who are the neighbours of Y migrants in the urban settlements? How do these conceptions influence multi-ethnic social interactions?
  • What appeals are made to broader ethnic, class or even national identities and what are these appeals based on (e.g. as highlanders, the poor, as people of X country)?
  • What do these examples of the practice of identity suggest about processes of nation-making in X?

If yours is an early proposal, there is unlikely to be such clarity about the questions driving your research, so just do your best.

What makes a good research question?

Your question must be situated in a discipline and must be focused appropriately for the discipline and the scale of the project. A good question therefore includes the following.

  • Is clearly defined in terms of what your study is about (scope) as well as not about (the delimitations).
  • Addresses a gap in knowledge and therefore is of significance to your field or discipline.
  • Engages with an important debate in the discipline.
  • Has not been satisfactorily answered or cannot be easily answered but is answerable.
  • Is open not closed (i.e. can't be answered with a yes or no or a statistic) - try How, Why, In what ways questions rather than Do or What questions.
  • Allows you to analyse something and not just describe something.
  • Allows you to apply a new theory or approach to an existing problem or an established theory to a new problem.
  • Is not based on assumptions that lead scholars to particular conclusions before the data is even collected.
  • Is narrow and focused so that it can be addressed adequately with the time and resources available.

Research questions can develop over time, become more focused or change emphasis based on further research. Topics are sometimes changed or the focus shifts, along with other aspects of the study, during the first phase of a research degree. Do take care though, as a radical change of topic might mean that an appropriate supervisor cannot be found, or that your designated supervisor no longer feels able to supervise your project, or that, if this occurs too far into the degree, time-to-completion becomes compromised. Also think carefully about whether the data/material you need to answer this type of question is available to you in the timeframe.

Why is it important to conduct research on your topic or answer your question?

Answering this question allows you to convey the nature of your contribution and say why you think it is important to conduct the research. The significance of your research project can be conveyed through discussion of the existing literature-its strengths and weaknesses and how your research fits in, the issues, problems, etc. that you will be addressing. The inclusion of a substantial literature review is only likely if you are six months or more into your degree. In an advanced proposal the literature review may constitute an entire chapter.

Either way, provide relevant background information (the broad context of your study - the BIG PICTURE), enough to contextualise your research and justify the foci and interests of the research you are proposing. In outlining the current state knowledge (what is known about your topic) you can then hone in on where there are gaps in knowledge (what is not known) and therefore, where your study will make a contribution.

Having done some reading on your research topic then, ask yourself the questions below.

  • What background information on my topic am I able to provide? What do I know and what research has already been done?
  • How does what I want to do fit in with research already done in the field?

It is vital to communicate which aspects of the research field you want to consider and its value if you are doing a PhD and perhaps a Masters by Research, but not necessarily for a shorter thesis. A PhD requires an original contribution to the research field. Apart from providing information on the contribution you expect to make to research, it may also be important for you to mention practical or professional value attaching to your proposed research, e.g. industry application, commercial uses, reform recommendations, etc.

How will you go about carrying out the research?

Tell readers how you intend to go about your research, what activities you will need to carry out and in what order. It might be appropriate, for example, to provide information about general plans for fieldwork if this applies (e.g. locations, populations targeted, data-gathering instruments, etc.), to discuss experimental or test plans, or to identify primary sources to be accessed (e.g. archival materials). It may also be appropriate to discuss your choice of statistical methods for analysing data, issues relating to selecting a sample population for study, the research instruments or measurement devices you will use, experimental procedures, or the different methodologies-their strengths and weaknesses-available for comparative research along with your preference.

In a more comprehensive proposal, all these matters might be covered in a methodology chapter, justifying and validating your approach. The idea is to give a general overview of what you think needs to be done to complete your research. Include as much information as you can so that a reader can determine any likely problems, unforeseen by you, in carrying out the research (e.g. difficulty accessing and using materials or equipment, locating suitable source materials, undertaking fieldwork or anything else). Mention any potential problems you anticipate so as to get feedback.

Do you need ethics clearance for your research?

Ethics clearance is needed for various types of research using animals and humans, including, at times, conducting interviews and doing surveys on human populations. This will not concern you at the point of applying for candidature, but discuss the matter with your supervisor before writing a proposal when you are on course.

Are you likely to need special training to undertake your research?

It is usual in a research degree to undergo training of various types. But if you are likely to need special training that could impact on time to completion (e.g. learning a new language), then mention this.

Should you include a timetable for completion of your research?

Probably yes, if you are at the end or beyond the first year of research. Probably no, if it is a proposal accompanying an application for entry.



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