Analysing the research proposal.

Over the past months I have been progressively exploring analytical tools for research supervisors to ascertain from student outputs their progress towards completing their research degree. The research proposal is often the main interim output on which a student’s progress is judged, and sometimes this is the basis on which their research program is confirmed or approved to move forward.

In essence, many of the previous analytical tools are useful in analysing different aspects of the research proposal and the research proposal itself represents a capstone report to demonstrate a research student’s command of understanding both of their topic and of research, in order to give the go ahead for their particular research project.

As with other written work, the research supervisor is often the reader or the initial reader of student’s writing and as such they need to provide feedback, not only to the student about the suitability of a research proposal document, but they may also be required to provide feedback to the faculty on the viability of a project based on evidence of the research proposal.

For the analytical tool in this blog I am referring to work I completed some years ago (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005), following the examination of my first PhD dissertation and teaching and examining groups of students undertaking a Master of Education research dissertation. For those students benefit, and in recognition of the pedagogy of making the assessment criteria explicit, I constructed a rubric which explored various elements of the final dissertation.

As a research proposal is not a complete dissertation I have drawn on a select sample of these criteria.

In sharing these I am more than suggesting criteria for assessing a research proposal. I am suggesting that the process of a research supervisor identifying what their assessment criteria are for a research proposal and discussing those criteria with a research student is a profound pedagogy of research supervision. Because these genres of writing lack specific assessment criteria, student’s often struggle with coming to terms with what is required of them at this stage of their candidature.

My definition of a research proposal is that it is an extended argument that addresses:

  • how the proposed topic can be understood in the context of available literature

…and given this understanding

  • how the particular topic can be investigated.

I have drawn three criteria from my previous work

  1. Framing the practice
  2. Arguing for the methodological approach
  3. Academic rigor in the report

   (Sankaran, Swepson, & Hill, 2005)

  1. There is a clearly framed issue or practice that is being investigated.

The issue or practice is framed both by the investigator’s practice experiences (experiential or practice-based epistemology) and by the identified discourses that impact on the practice. There may even be need for an argument regarding which discourses impact on the practice.

The assumption underpinning this requirement is that there are discourses that frame a practice. These discourses might include policy documents, procedural manuals, correspondence and observations. By using the broader term of “discourse” here, rather than “literature”, there is space to argue that, while a practice is evident in a range of discourses, it has notably not been articulated in literature. Also, by using the broader term “discourse” there is room to include the practitioner’s own story as a discourse.

In discussing the discourses it would be expected that the discussion would help a reader (examiner) understand:

  1. The debates surrounding the particular practice.
  2. The silences within and across the discourses.

For example, a practice might be discussed in the popular literature but is notably absent in the academic literature or a practice might be talked about in web-based literature but not in mainstream refereed journals. These constitute silences that inform the way in which the community understands the practice.

When this criteria is applied to a research proposal it is suggesting that the proposal demonstrates a command of knowledge about the topic being investigated evidenced by reference to the literature about that topic, and perhaps reference to the researcher’s own experiences with that practice.

2.There is a well argued approach to investigating the practice.

As the research proposal is making a suggestion about how to investigate a particular issue it cannot be assumed that the appropriateness of the investigative approach is clearly obvious. I believe the rigorous way is to clearly articulate the argument for the particular investigative approach. This would involve:

  1. Recognising the specific ways in which the practice is observed and articulated and has been observed and articulated in the investigation.
  2. Showing how the ways used to harness relevant data for the investigation are congruent with a stated epistemology and ontology.
  3. Showing how meaning-making about the data is congruent with the stated ontological position.

When this criteria is applied to a research proposal it is suggesting that there is an argument for the methodology and that this argument either works from first principles of the inquiry or research paradigm or it relies on precedent, and shows, with reference to published research, how the topic or a similar topic has been previously investigated.


  1. There is evidence of rigor throughout the report.
  1. First level rigor in spelling, grammar, style of citation and bibliography.
  2. Second level rigor in the way in which the argument itself is presented
    1. Conclusions reasonably arise from the analysis
    2. Discourses used to make sense of the data, and to frame the practice, are shown to be relevant and authentic for this particular practice and its data
    3. The investigator recognises that his/her perception of the practice is just that. A given situation might be understood in many different ways, and the investigator is not so much arguing for the sole truth of his/her interpretation as for a reasonable logical acceptance that his/her interpretation is a viable way to understand the practice. Alternatively, an investigator adopts a positivist stance and argues for single truth.


When this criteria is applied to a research proposal it is suggesting that that the document is acknowledged not only as a proposal but as evidence of the research student’s competence in academic writing.


  1. The potential contribution to knowledge

A fourth element of consideration in a research proposal involves whether the study is likely to make a contribution to knowledge. This is essential for a doctoral investigation. In my criteria (Sankaran, Swepson, and Hill, 2005) I referred to this particular criteria in terms of

There are many ways in which this could be achieved:

a. Contribution towards the knowledge about the issue or practice.

b. Contribution towards the knowledge about the particular investigation methodology chosen.

c. Contribution towards the field of practitioner investigation.

With a research proposal that criteria would be transformed to address potential to make a contribution and while this should be specifically a contribution in knowledge related to the issue or practice, some consideration could also be given to whether the methodology might also potentially be making a contribution to knowledge about investigative methodologies. This is particularly the case in methodologies which are still in their embryonic stage and any research utilising that methodology is potentially advancing the knowledge about that methodology.

Of all the research outputs and exercises undertaken by a research student in the first six months of their candidature, the research proposal requires detailed feedback, particularly if that feedback is given alongside reservations about the success or completability of the study.

Hopefully these criteria provide some source or substance for research supervisors to engage in discussion with their student about their progress based on the submission of this sort of milestone document

Sankaran, S., Swepson, P., & Hill, G. (2005). Do research thesis examiners need training? Practitioner stories. Qualitative Report, 10(4), 817-835.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
This entry was posted in Analytical tools for the early months of candidature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s