Productivity,  Research

How to make the most of your ‘proposal stage’

The proposal stage is arguably the most difficult part of a research journey. It takes many people outside their comfort zones and can be an incredibly stressful time, especially if you are not sure what topic you want to pursue. But the purpose of the proposal stage is designed to help you gain clarity as you move towards the research stage. Despite this, many students want to avoid the discomfort of the proposal stage. Based on my experience as a student and supervisor, this post provides 4 suggestions for students wrestling through their proposals or those who are anticipating to do so at some stage in the future.

This is a time to think!

I once read that “thinking is writing”. When you read someone else’s work, it becomes clear how much thinking has gone into producing a document. At the proposal stage, and often for the remainder of the degree, students get stuck on the latter outcome: producing a document or writing. As a result, there is very little time and space to read and reflect on the work of others, which is a prerequisite for producing your own good product.

Many students get obsessed with daily word count targets due understandably to tight deadlines. The design of our degrees and related pressures such as funding and work also contribute to needing to put the proverbial pen to paper. But sometimes, we do need time to think.

The proposal stage is the stage at which you really think through your project and make sure it is well conceptualised. How will it work (practically)? How long do you think it will take? How much money (if any) do you need for your proposed methodology? What types of equipment do you need? If these questions are not answered before you start with your formal research project, you may find yourself with a topic that is not feasible or one that takes far longer than you anticipated. Of course, this could have serious financial and emotional consequences.

What can you do instead?

Take some time to read. When I feel like I am all over the place with a particular project, I always try to read more. However, in order to know what to read, you must have a broad understanding of where in the literature you want to locate your project.

For instance, know that you want to study racial inequality in South Africa or want to study an aspect of the mental health of police officers in Malawi.

If you have a broad idea, which most people tend to have, then you can be purposeful when you read. While you do so, aim to answer the following question:

What is interesting, missing, or problematic in the existing literature?

Doing a comprehensive literature review will not mean that you read every word of every single article you come across, you will do this only for articles you think will be critical for your project. Such as papers where you want to copy their methodology, papers you want to specifically critique or perhaps even papers that provide useful guidance in the form of a framework or something similar you can make use of in your own project. This is what abstracts are useful for – read them!

It is okay to take some extra time to read here because it will likely save you time in the long run and the writing stage will go much faster.

If you feel like you have read enough, but just need to think about your own project more, step away from the computer. Do things to clear your mind, like going for a run, taking a walk in the gardens, or go see a play or art exhibition. Forcing the topic out is not going to work and inspiration tends to strike at the most unexpected times. Immersing yourself in the world around you can be a really useful strategy, especially for social scientists.

You are drawing a road map

The proposal should be thought of as a roadmap. Thus, the clearer and more detailed it is, the faster you will get to your destination. If you are travelling in a two-door hatchback, it seems obvious that you will not be able to draw a straight line from Johannesburg to Harare on a map and follow that line in your car. You would either need a different mode of transportation, such as a plane or alternatively draw the line along existing roads.

This makes logical sense, yet many students draw a straight line with their proposals (research questions) thinking they will make it to their destinations in a car (methodology).

There are also good reasons why proposals have elements such as timelines and budgets. This gives you an opportunity to reflect on whether the ideas you have in your head are reasonable and feasible.

If you have proposed in your methodology section that you will collect survey data and collecting the data will cost R50 000, this is something that needs to be reflected in the budget section. In addition, if you have not indicated where you will get the R50 000 from, your project becomes potentially unfeasible. Where will the money come from? What if you don’t manage to secure it? An inability to do so will mean that you either never get your project done, or you need to think of an alternative methodology that allows you to answer your proposed research question.

Similarly, the proposal gives you an opportunity to think about timelines. How much time will it take you to get ethics approval, collect your data, analyse it and write up your document? Think about all of this in relation to your other responsibilities, such as work, family and so forth. Be honest with yourself. Can you really submit within the next 4 months if you haven’t yet had your proposal approved?

What can you do instead?

The proposal stage is the most opportune time to think of these things. Leaving it till after you have had your proposal approved and applied for ethics is too late and way too risky. Look at proposals written by other students who are doing similar methodologies or who undertook research in a similar area. Ask them for their proposals and their anticipated expectations versus what happened in reality.

Talking to others and gathering information is part of your job as a researcher!

Try not to rush through it

As a result of the monetary and personal challenges mentioned earlier, many students want to rush through the proposal. I also find that often students will not have a clear idea of what they want to ask as their research question and then become eager to get to the data collection stage where they hope the data will give them something worth reporting.

Not only can this potentially be considered as data mining, but is actually working backwards. Although there are some methodologies that allow for a degree of working backwards, these are usually undertaken by more experienced researchers, who are not on strict deadlines and have funding to undertake larger scale and longer-term projects.

Rushing through the proposal could also result in leaving critical questions too late. Sometimes supervisors might ask certain conceptual questions about the project which are not addressed. If the proposal is approved with those questions unanswered, you risk having an ethics committee send your work back and forth (if it has a bearing on ethics) or worse, having an examiner comment that a critical aspect of the study is flawed.

What can you do instead?

As mentioned earlier, do not rush through your proposal. Even if you spend more time at the proposal stage, you will likely make up for it by working through your actual project with clearly defined ideas and consequently save time in the research stage. Do make sure though that time spent at the proposal stage is quality time and that you use it productively.

Avoid writing backwards from the methodology

Often students get so caught up with the idea of doing data collection or wanting to avoid doing anything that involves numbers that they purposely design a project to suit their preferred methodology. This often leads to research questions that are poorly conceptualised. Stating your research question and then deciding on the best methodology to answer that question is a brave thing to do and also the right thing to do.

Sometimes we miss the purpose of doing a research degree and that is to train to become a researcher. That means that you should make use of the opportunity to allow yourself to acquire new skills on your journey. If you avoid doing things you don’t know how to do, you are missing the point of embarking on your journey in the first place and quite possibly deprive yourself of an exciting learning opportunity.

What can you do instead?

Open yourself up to the possibility of learning a new skill and look out for training courses or modules offered by your university on that skill which you might want to attend. But, do think about the time it will take to do so, and factor this into your timeline. If you do this beforehand, you won’t be too stressed about adding additional time to your degree to learn that skill.

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