Writing the Research Proposal
Writing the Research Proposal
Many fellowship applications require an essay setting forth a project or research proposal.
Every research project seeks an answer to a question or the solution to a problem. Before you can begin to do anything during your fellowship year, you must know what the question or problem is that you hope to resolve. That is why the first step in writing a convincing project proposal is to articulate your question clarity and precision.
Everything that follows in the proposal statement is a function of your question. You will get the award only if the selection committee is convinced that you have posed a question (or identified a problem) that they think ought to be explored. And yet, paradoxically, the question is always open to change. If you arrive at your destination and become convinced that you have gotten it wrong, you are free to modify it (within reason) and begin again.
Think of the question you put forward as the starting point for an agreement with the selection committee about the fellowship year. If they sponsor you, you will work hard within your chosen field. Your question indicates where you currently plan to focus your energies. Even if it should become necessary for you to alter your focus, you will still put in the promised effort, although the precise lines of your inquiry may change.
Getting the scope of the question right is a central part of the grant proposal. Your question should suggest ambition, not grandiosity. It should be big enough to warrant a fair amount of work, but it should not court the impossible. How do you know if you have made your question too large or too small?
First, a good question suggests a concrete plan of action. If a question is too big, it won’t be clear how you could go about solving it within the allotted time frame. If a question is too small, the answer will appear trivial or obvious.
Second, a good question promises that its resolution will shed light on other, larger questions. A good question never ends with itself, but begets more questions as the inquiry it initiates gathers force.
Stating a feasible question is important because it gives the selection committee confidence that you will actually get your project done. It shows that you understand the complexity of your field and that you honor your own limits as a researcher.
A feasible proposal need not be a diminished one. You can, for example, sell your project for the fellowship year as the first phase of a larger plan. If you hope to do a long-term ethnographic portrait of a Mexican village, tracing what happens to family ties there as the younger generations emigrate, your fellowship proposal can involve identifying families that will lend themselves to a prolonged study and making a preliminary inquiry into their existing structure.
Or again, your proposal may seek to offer clarity about one small piece of a larger puzzle. Suppose you are interested in the health care system in Germany and whether it can be used as a model for reform of the American system. You focus on a particular diabetes clinic in Bremen, and ask how its results-based compensation system affects the outcomes for patients between the ages of 55 and 70. You explain that your findings will be valuable in themselves, because results-based compensation may soon have its day in the U.S. You also point out that this one clinic will shed light on the entire German movement to bring economic rationality to the field of medicine.
You are plainly drawn to your question—for the reasons, more or less subjective, that you will have set down in your personal statement. But why should anyone else care about it? Let the selection committee know why they should care. By demonstrating how your question fits into a larger field of intellectual or practical endeavor, implicating bigger questions, touching on problems of greater import, you will prove that the project is significant not only to yourself, but to others—and merits, therefore, the committee’s support.
The significance of your question needs to be intelligible even to people outside your immediate field. Although there may be experts on the selection committee, you should strive to state the meaning of your endeavor in terms any educated person can grasp. This may require you to think outside the immediate boundaries of your discipline.
Suppose, for example, you were applying to study certain aspects of the tonal language of a long-isolated West African tribe. You believe that your findings may serve to refute elements of Chomsky’s thesis that there is a single, knowable grammar underlying the various languages of all human communities. For purposes of a fellowship application, you should explain what it would mean to the world if Chomsky’s proposition were (at least partly) disconfirmed. Would there be implications for language instruction? For artificial intelligence? For our understanding of how other species communicate? The more convincingly you can show how your narrow question touches other spheres, the more appealing it will be.
How do you propose to answer your question? What are you going to do from day to day during the fellowship year? This is the occasion for putting your practical, grounded side on display. You need to show both that you have a plan and that all the pieces are in place for you to carry it out. If you will need the support or sponsorship of particular individuals, you should know who they are and, optimally, have contacted them already.
Suppose you hope to consult the files concerning a famous dissident in the national archives of a Central European country. How many boxes await you? At what pace will you work through them? Do you know for sure that you can inspect them without restrictions? Or suppose that you want to make a documentary about how criminal trials are still run by village elders in rural India. What technology will you use to make your recordings? How will you keep the equipment powered up and in working order? Did the elders agree to let you capture everything on film?
Whatever the particulars of your project, the goal is to reassure the selection committee that you have thought things through. If there are foreseeable problems, show that you have addressed them. Establish, by implication, your capacity to face down new obstacles with determination and creativity.
To work on certain projects, you must be in one place rather than another. To study the migratory pattern of the spectacled bear, you must go to the Andes. To learn about the prospects of Flemish nationalism, you must go to Flanders. Once you have made clear what you propose to do, the question of why you must be at a certain location answers itself.
But many projects—notably in literary criticism, philosophy, mathematics, and other abstract disciplines—can plausibly be pursued anywhere. If you are proposing to travel for such a project, you must justify the displacement as well as the project itself. Why must you be at Oxford to study the influence of Catholicism in Shakespeare’s thought? Why go to Berlin to study the development of editing techniques in midcentury narrative cinema?
Preparation is everything here. You need to show that you have investigated all the different places where a person with your interest might go—and that the destination you are proposing is the best place to seek an answer to your particular question. Invoke the pertinent archives, research centers, exhibit spaces, and other features of the city or university you wish to visit. Show how the interests of a number of the professors or experts there coincide perfectly with your own research agenda. Ideally, you will be able to append a letter from one of these very experts, expressing enthusiasm for your proposal and a willingness to supervise you should you win the award.
What will you have to show when the fellowship is at an end? Will it be a research paper or the outline of a book, a photographic essay or the blueprint for a building, a statistical analysis or a complete policy report? Describe the actual end-product of your fellowship and explain how you hope to make use of it in succeeding years to propel your creative and professional growth.