The research proposal is a critical endeavour of the graduate career, whether it be a master's or PhD program. Typically undertaken after a year of preliminary experiments and background reading, it may be simply a necessity of your program or, in my case, provide the materials around which you will be tested for candidacy. In either case it may represent the first time you, as a student, are asked to think creatively and critically, independent of your supervisor, proposing a hypothesis and the experiments suitable to test it.
I began my own efforts on my proposal at the end of last summer, throwing a blank poster board up on the wall of my living room, and brain storming a concept map around the data I had collected so far. From that map I tried to arrive at a clear hypothesis, and a set of three major research aims.
From September to December, I wrote, scrapped it, and rewrote my draft a number of times. Without deadlines enforced by anyone other than myself, I struggled to prioritize this project over numerous others that sprung up with harder deadlines (applying for funding, submitting abstracts for meetings etc). And that is nothing to say for balancing effective reading and writing with the experiments necessary to move the project along.
Then came the rounds of edits from my supervisor, the flip-flopping back and forth between styles of presenting my aims, and going through things with a fine tooth comb (I am a notoriously bad speller, and incredibly fond of typos). The finished product, 20 full single spaced pages of text, 9 additional figures and some 60 or so references....oh and literal blood sweat and tears put into the effort. (Who ever said there's no crying in science?)
Along the way, here are some things I've learned that would make it go smoother next time around (only there had better not be a next time).
- When you read papers, take notes! Detailed notes that you can write from. And organize, organize, organize. You'll want to be able to find the reference easily when your train of writing needs it.
- When you get fed up with writing, take a break. Burning yourself out on one go will only make it harder to get back to it later.
- Practice writing and reading often. The major pitfall of many proposals is that unclear writing leads to mis-communications leading your committee wondering what you are trying to say (or if you know what you're talking about). Reading other peoples proposals, papers etc. will help you develop your own writing skills. In particular, if you can read bad examples, you'll learn in a hurry what to avoid. If you're are ESL, take advantage of a friend to read through and give comments on the writing.
- Say exactly what you mean. Avoid unnecessarily flowery text, or ambiguous statements. This is your proposal, so be confident enough to make clear statements, and be ready and willing to defend them.
- Remember it's just a proposal, you may never do half of what is in it. Science is often a study of opportunity, a novel or unexpected result may take your project in a directly you could have never predicted. So avoid the sense of anxiety that if you can't complete everything you propose you've somehow failed. Take this as an opportunity to write you ideal project proposal based on what you know now.
- At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to leave good enough alone. Remember this is a document that only a handful of people will ever read, and is intended more as an exercise in developing the knowledge and skills you will need to apply for grants and run your own group one day. So maybe after that 5th or 6th round of revisions, just call it done.
- That being said, take it seriously, the skills you have the potential to develop, through preparing an excellent document, will help you enormously through the rest of your career.