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Research development workshop: writing a proposal

These are some of the notes I made during the presentation on preparing a proposal, but include some points that relate to the general process of conducting research

There are 3 things a proposal should try to address:

  • What? – What contribution will this research make? What is it about? What do you want to study?
  • Why? – Why should be bother? Why is it significant? Why do you want to study this?
  • How? – How are you going to study this? What tools and techniques will you use? Who else will be involved? How long is it going to take?

There is no “one way” to write a proposal, rather conform to the norms of your department. How do you find your “voice”, and what is the voice of your department? Bear in mind that the proposal voice is more tentative and uncertain than the thesis voice, which has defiinite ideas to convey

Research = Inquiry

PhD research = Making a contribution to a field, linking it to what already exists

Your research question should be real i.e. the answer is not readily available

Hypothesis = “a bold guess” → I think the answer could be…

Research journey

  1. Ask a question
  2. Begin reading (the “river of words” – who else has asked this question, where do they live, what did they find i.e. what is already out there, what already exists
  3. Could lead to the question changing → you find your question has been answered but there are other, related questions that need answering
  4. Interact with others who are looking at similar questions
  5. Research design is central, may include a redesign following a pilot
  6. Be aware of gatekeepers and how to get around them
  7. Know when to stop gathering data, and when to start analysing it (if this is addressed in part in the proposal, it can give guidance to this process)
  8. Following the analysis, you may have to adapt or even to discard some ideas if the data doesn’t support it
  9. Be careful of despair when your ideas aren’t supported
  10. Following analysis comes synthesis (this is the hardest part where many candidates drop out) → putting the thesis together / linking all the ideas
  11. During the writing / rewriting process, you may have to return to the “river of words” to review significant contributions
  12. What is the contribution of the editor and supervisor of the final document?
  13. What do you have to say when all is said and done i.e. what is your contribution to the current understanding and knowledge base of your field?
  14. Be wary of those who presume to “know it all”. How will you defend the unique nature of your research?

Synthesis involves structuring data (following analysis) and linking it to literature. Analysis follows a formula, whereas synthesis is the creative component that leads to your unique contribution

How do you persuade your reader that your data is valid? Without valid data, you can’t build an argument on it

Is your methodology sound enough to convince your reader that your results are trustworthy?

Differing interpretations of the same data can be a result of using different theoretical frameworks that underly the analysis

The proposal should lay out what the researcher wants to do, but should also include limitations i.e. significance (what it will include and why that’s important) vs. limitations (what will be excluded and why)

Negotiate with the supervisors as to what wasn’t done and write it up i.e. explain to examiners and readers what was left out of the study

The literature review is being written and rewritten throughout the process, because you’re reading throughout the journey

Make sure the research question is clear and concise. What is the background to the question? Why is it relevant now and didn’t arise 10 years ago? What makes “now” a good time to try and answer the question?

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.