Developing a research proposal is often an arduous task for a research student. This may be their first exposure to academic writing and they may have some difficulty in addressing this particular aspect of a research degree. In the beginning weeks of a research degree, a research student may still be overwhelmed with general research, let alone the specifics as to how they will apply general research knowledge to their particular research project.
To ease this initiation into research for my own supervision of research students, I developed a scaffolded process to help them develop a research proposal (Hill, 2008). The process operates around our regular supervision meetings as well as a series of writing tasks that accumulate to produce a research proposal. Although this is a good example of research supervision as pedagogy, in the light of the literature about Research Supervision being project management, I also see this process as a project plan for the first six months of candidature with an outcome of a research proposal.
The process is a series of cycles. Each cycle begins with a conversation; the student writes up ideas that have emerged from the conversation; I read this written work and provide feedback; we meet again to discuss the comments I have made and to progress the writing.
As the first meeting will not have any established writing to discuss, we focus on what the student already knows about research and what they propose to investigate. We learn about each other and identify the prior knowledge a student has about research practice as well as the particular topic or issue that they are investigating.
Our conversation operates around three questions:
- In two or three sentences tell me what your investigation is about.
- What do you currently know about your topic?
- Have you had any thoughts about the way in which you intend to investigate the topic?
The writing assignment following this meeting is to address the following questions:
- What do you intend to investigate?
- What is the context of the investigation? And
- What role do you play in the context?
- Why is it important to investigate this issue?
- How will you investigate it?
…in no more than two pages. This writing assignment is a device to transfer knowledge that the student has already articulated in the discussion, into a written document.
In reading this first two pages I am working on several agendas I have with regard to teaching academic writing and illuminating the assessment criteria an examiner would use in assessing this research proposal or the subsequent research dissertation. I specifically look for phrases or concepts in the student’s writing that resonate with established concepts in research practice – for example the research descriptors of quantitative and qualitative. This is a way to help them develop the language of research. I am also looking for opportunities to alert them to genre requirements for the research proposal.
In our second meeting we discuss some of the feedback I have provided on the student’s writing sample. As we talk about what they intend to investigate I listen for them identifying some of the sources of their knowledge. I also point out where their conversation comments can be transferred to the written document to help to elaborate some of the points they have already made, and to help them grow their initial two pages into four pages.
The writing assignment that follows this meeting is to expand their initial two pages to become four pages. In doing this I encourage them to include some of the references that they have referred to in our conversation and to begin using end note, such that, as they add references to their document they are also beginning to build up their end note data base.
In reading these four pages, one of the agendas I am alert to is the accuracy of referencing so that I can begin to advise them on some of the genre requirements related to citation.
The third meeting is focussed on the knowledge related to their proposed topic. As research is intended to make a contribution to knowledge, they need to be clear what they know about their topic, what is known (in the literature) about their topic and where they are likely to make a contribution in this terrain of knowledge. As the knowledge in the literature is often presented within the context of one or other debates within the field of that topic, I encourage them to position what they know in the context of these broader debates. This discussion introduces them to the notion of epistemology – one of the key philosophical concepts in research.
The metaphor of a terrain or a map of literature is a useful device to introduce the notion that one piece of literature points to or is a tributary of other literature. This provides some suggestions as to how to increase their review of literature. They are situating what they know about their topic within a wider terrain of what is considered to be known about that topic.
The writing assignment that follows the meeting is to expand their four pages up to eight. They can do this by elaborating some of the earlier comments about what is known about their topic and positioning this within the broader debates.
When the student has become familiar with some of the literature related to their topic it is timely to return to ideas generated in the first meeting about how their topic might be investigated. By this time, their additional reading of literature may have changed some of their ideas and discussing these ideas introduces them to the notion of methodology.
Following this meeting the student is encouraged to write their argument about why a particular investigative approach is a viable one to pursue for their topic. This will build out their writing to sixteen pages. It is likely that these additions will incorporate reference to some additional literature which speaks to the methodology rather than positioning the knowledge about the topic.
As I am reading this written work I am alert to the way in which the argument is developed. From the positioning of the topic within literature, to articulating the issue that the student intends to investigate, to arguing how that investigation might unfold and what in the investigation will count as knowledge. There is an opportunity in this writing to start to introduce some of the philosophical discussions that underpin research – issues such as ontology and epistemology. Now that there is some established text it is also viable to be alert for issues in grammar in the text.
By the fifth meeting the document we are discussing is a well developed one. At sixteen pages we are looking at overall how the argument holds together and whether problems in the later part of the argument need to be addressed in the earlier parts of the argument by defining terms and explaining how the overall document and argument works.
We talk about the genre of a research proposal and what this sort of document contains. We also talk about the timetable that they are proposing to finish this investigation in the time provided by the university.
The writing task is now to ensure that their overall document addresses the sort of criteria common in a research proposal
- A research question.
- The question’s context within relevant literature
- A bibliography of relevant literature
- The importance of the question
- How the investigation will be undertaken.
- progress made to date
- a timetable for completing the research.
This document may also be used as an ethics clearance document and will have additional genre requirements.
By our final meeting we are now working with a thirty two page document and this usually is the required length for a research proposal. This process has also brought the student to the first of the major milestones in presenting a research proposal and hopefully has expanded their knowledge about their topic such that they are in a position to consider the doability of their particular research. Given that research degrees have specific deadlines, it is important that what they are proposing to do can be done in the allocated time.
A word of warning…
Although I talk about a project plan I am not intending that this is a hard and fast process, and the reality of uniqueness of individual students means that the plan will and may have to be altered to accommodate individual needs. It is easier to accommodate a plan rather than not have one, and having a plan is a first step to helping a student realise the importance of meeting specific deadline milestones.
The more detailed your supervision plan the more you have expectations about what is likely to be happening for the student and you are better prepared to reflect on their project plan. Research the milestone of the research proposal also helps the research student to understand that a plan of action can help to achieve this by breaking down the complicated task into smaller, achievable tasks.
Hill, G. (2008) Supervising Practice Based Research. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 5 (4) pp 78-87