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Tips for the ThM – Part 8 (writing proposals)

The research phase of your Th.M. begins with your research proposal. Since many of you will be writing research proposals later in life as well, I’d like to start by offering some thoughts on writing good proposals in general. In a later post, I’ll make some comments on the specific proposal process for our Th.M. program.

First, a good proposal should accomplish at least four things.

  • It should identify a clear and strong thesis statement. Your thesis statement will probably change as you begin actually researching and writing, but you need a clear thesis statement at the beginning because that will guide everything else.
  • It should lay out a clear argument. I strongly encourage writing full sentence outlines at this point. The top-level of the outline shows how each major section (or chapter) of the project relates to the thesis statement. Use full sentences so that it is very clear how the logic of the argument flows from one section/chapter to the other. And, I would drill down 2-3 additional levels in your outline (depending on whether this is for a thesis or paper) to show how you will develop each section/chapter. When you’re done, another person should be able to read through your outline and see exactly how you think the entire argument will go. It’s very unlikely that your outline will survive intact through the researching/writing process. But, you still want a clear outline at the beginning so that you know how everything relates. (More on this in a second.)
  • It should indicate why the research is important. If you can’t explain in your proposal why your research matters, don’t bother doing the research. At the very least it means that you’re not invested and you won’t really get what you need out of the project. And, you’ll never get a supervisor to sign off on a project if you can’t explain why it needs to be done.
  • It should identify all the key works that you’ll need to engage. I’m not as convinced as some that a proposal needs to be a nearly exhaustive list of resources on your subject. I think it’s more important that you’ve clearly identified all the works that you must engage for this project to work. That will help you see whether the project is feasible. Here you want to demonstrate both that there is enough material for you to perform adequate research and that there’s not so much material you couldn’t possibly cover it all.

Second, you need to realize that a good proposal makes your life easier. Trust me. A good proposal takes a long time to put together, but it saves you time in the long run. With a good proposal in hand, you know exactly how to approach your topic. You won’t waste as much time (wasting some time is unavoidable) chasing issues only to discover that they’re not necessary for your argument. You can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid making revisions to your project, but a good proposal will result in fewer revisions at the end. And, you won’t find yourself halfway through a project only to realize that you’re not actually sure what your thesis is.

Think of it like this. I built some bookcases for our family room a while back. It takes quite a bit of time to think through what you’re going to do, what pieces you need, what size they should be, and how you’ll assemble them. It’s much more satisfying just to jump right in and start cutting boards. And, I’ve done it that way before. It’s depressing how much time, energy, and money you can waste by not having a clear plan at the beginning.

You’ll spend far more time working on your research project than I did on building the bookcases. Make sure you’ve developed a good plan before you get started.