Writing a Good Research Proposal

All good proposals, no matter where they come from, answer five basic questions.

1. What’s the problem?

The problem is either a gap or error in our knowledge, or a practical problem that demands to be solved. You have to describe your topic in these terms, which is not the same thing as simply describing the topic per se. Ideally, your description can be encapsulated in the form of a precise and answerable research question. We cannot encourage you strongly enough to work with a faculty member on formulating and refining your research question.

2. Hasn’t this been addressed already?

The world of knowledge is a big place. People may well have said quite a bit about your topic already. Rehearse some of this discussion, but only focus on major statements and/or major points of view that you think are problematic. Ideally, provide a few footnotes to reassure us that you have done your homework. Rehearse only what is necessary for you to establish a case that your research is needed either to fill a gap, or to provide a corrective to some faulty or incomplete perspective.

3. How will you address this problem?

Describe your research method, which is not the same thing as your itinerary. Your research method is a form of activity that you think can best produce an answer to your research question. It might be archival research. It might be personal interviews or surveys. It might be on-site analysis in order to take precise measurements. Whatever it is, describe your general method as a method, and tell us why this method is a good (and perhaps best) way of answering your research question. This all might seem obvious to you, but the evaluation committee may be composed of, say, quantitative political scientists who have never studied fine art or architecture. Assume a group of readers who are quite smart, but not in your discipline.

4. Who cares?

Suppose everything goes perfectly and you produce a compelling answer to your research question. So what? Who will care? Explain the significance of your research by discussing the types of people will be likely to be interested in it. Also, address this question by describing the sorts of ongoing discussions or debates that your research can usefully inform.

5. How much will it cost?

What is your precise plan/itinerary? Why do you need to go to Europe to do this? Give us your best estimates of various costs in the form of an itemized budget.

As far as prose is concerned, remember one mantra: “fit over flourish.” That is, no amount of rhetorical flourish will be enough to persuade us to fund your research if there are serious problems with how it fits our criteria, embodied in the five questions above. Show that your research fits these criteria, and do it concisely. Length is actually not an advantage.

Now, to be realistic, not everyone is going to hit on a research question with a sure-fire probability of resulting in a new contribution to human knowledge. Sometimes a good proposal is one that simply establishes a good case for having the opportunity to explore a research topic in depth, in the best way, with a view toward increasing one’s level of knowledge in a field. If you are writing a senior thesis or a capstone essay, and conducting research abroad will demonstrably and significantly increase its quality, we are interested in hearing about it. Proposals from students who have serious intellectual and practical aspirations are always a pleasure to read and support.