Helping the research student to write a research proposal

Writing the research proposal is an integral part of a research student’s candidature. It often occupies the first phase of candidature and as such is seen as an important milestone. Many research students would attest the belief that the research proposal occupies the bulk of their thinking time when they embark on a research degree.
It would appear from personal experience and talking with numerous students that the strategies most research supervisors use to help students develop the milestone of a research proposal involve encouraging them to write and rewrite, with the promise that repetitive writing will eventually lead to a worthy document. Many supervisors experienced this trial and error process in their own candidature. You eventually get ‘it’ without necessarily being sure what ‘it’ is. Such was the nature of the halcyon days of long candidature.
In the contemporary three and a half year candidature culture, the need to meet milestones by predetermined markers should have evolved into specific strategies to enable students to develop the necessary writing skills in this tighter time frame. If ever there was a call for specifics in the pedagogy of research supervision, it applies to this particular challenge.
Across my now three research degrees in three different disciplines– a MSc in Social Ecology, a professional doctorate in Education and now a PhD in Business – I had developed a view of what I conceived to be the research proposal. Elsewhere in this blog I have clarified that view by describing the dissertation as an extended argument which argues for:

  • How a given issue or topic can be understood
  • How, given that understanding, the given issue or topic can be investigated.
  • How to make sense of the data collected in the pursuit of the investigation
  • What the data contributes to an understanding of the original issue or topic

Such a description of the dissertation would suggest that the research proposal is also an argument which proposes how a topic can be understood and how it can be investigated.
In the ensuing time, the bar appears to have been lifted. While the overall aim of the research proposal could still be classed as framing a topic and proposing how that topic could be investigated, my experiences as a PhD student have taught me that the writing style, rather than being representative of an apprentice learning a craft, is often more at the standard of top tier journals. This shift in performance criteria may be intentional. It can result from academics spending more time reading and writing journal articles and this overexposure to one genre has dulled their view of what a research proposal should be. Again, if ever there was a time to develop specific research supervision pedagogy, it is in the context of writing the research proposal be it an old fashioned style or a new top tier journal style.
Scaffolding is the first pedagogical descriptor that addresses strategies for helping a research student develop their research proposal. I am in print elsewhere recommending a process for developing the research proposal that starts with a two page skeleton and slowly develops with regular feedback from the supervisor or other readers. This idea of building up to a finished document sits within writing development in all levels of education, but at higher degree research level requires the supervisor to have some idea of how the end document can be deconstructed, such that strategies for building parts can be identified and offered.
A second pedagogy is substantive conversations. These are discussions with your student about the development of their ideas associated with their topic. In the early stages of candidature they can focus on what the student has been reading that helps them to position their topic within broader literature about that topic in the discipline. One of the premises of doctoral research is that it makes a contribution to knowledge. In order to make this claim, a student needs to know what is known about their topic.
In the early stages of candidature substantive conversations can focus on what the student has been reading and what these readings point to:

  • The key names in the literature
  • The ways in which the nominated topic is positioned in the literature.
  • Phrases that appear in the literature that can help the student to position their own study of the topic. One example of a phrase that I found in the literature when I was investigating my topic of reflective practice was the suggestion that reflective practice had been ‘historically constituted’. This phrase replaced several sentences which I had used to explain how the meaning of the term changed over time.

Later in the candidature these conversations might shift from individual readings to a general positioning of the study of the topic within the literature and the associated traditions that come with this positioning. A common positioning links to the ways in which the topic has previously been investigated which may reflect a scientific model, and this contrasts with the student’s desire to investigate the topic from a different paradigm of investigation. In a research proposal this sort of delineation may help to distinguish between using quantitative or qualitative data.
Throughout these conversations there is a need for parallel feedback on the student’s writing. The research proposal and eventually the dissertation are written documents and feedback on writing is an important way in which a student can develop their writing skills. Elsewhere in this blog I have talked about

  • Correcting errors.
  • Alerting students to genre requirements.
  • Raising critical reflection

And to these I would add

  • Recognising the various debates with which the positioning of the topic invites engagement.I know in the writing of my current work just the use of the word ‘professional’ signalled that in order to understand and position my topic I needed to read this well established debate about what constitutes professionalism.

These are all important elements of the feedback for a research proposal. There is considerable discussion about when to focus on correcting spelling and grammar errors. Presentation is so much of the way in which the content can be read and while it might be useful to delay focusing on what might appear to be trivialities of writing, these trivialities get in the way of the ideas being understood and thus the overall argument being followed.

Such feedback may require more than notes about their writing. It may require dialogue and discussion to work out where they are at and where they need to get to. This can result in ever changing articulation of the question(s) their study is(are) addressing.
A final pedagogy involves helping the student understand the criteria by which this milestone will be assessed. This pedagogy has been adopted in many other levels of education and recently in higher education undergraduate courses we have seen the introduction of rubrics which elaborate the details of assessment. Traditionally research degrees have lacked this clarity of assessment. I remember in my EdD about ‘Doing a doctorate’ one of the collaborators described the writing process as ‘playing pin the tail on the donkey, but no-one could tell you where the donkey was’. This sort of statement reiterates an earlier comment that many currently supervising have learnt the necessary writing craft through trial and error to eventually hit on what is required without ever knowing the specifics of the assessment. In the context of tighter time frames for completion making the assessment criteria specific is a ll viable strategy and helps to ground some of the comments being made in writing feedback?

There is also a pedagogy is about time management. Recognising that all of these strategies take time both to implement and learn but the introduction of these focussed forms of writing development can also be seen as an investment that produces a faster product or saves time alter on.


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.
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