The Research Proposal: Reflections from a Master's Student

January 10, 2020

A well-crafted research proposal demonstrates one’s intellectual maturity and suitability for graduate study. And yet, for many applicants, the prospect of writing this can be a daunting one. 

As such, it may be helpful to think about the proposal as less of an assessment and more as an opportunity. It is your chance to express your passion for what interests you and to justify to the faculty why a particular issue or question is worthy of academic attention. To help you, here are a few guidelines which can help point you in the right direction. 

Define the scope … and know your limits

It can be tempting to propose an ambitious project with a vast chronological or geographical scope. However, ambition should always be tempered with realism. First, consider the expected word count for your dissertation. For most departments, this is between 15,000 and 20,000 words. In general, as hand-in time approaches, students find themselves reducing rather than expanding their dissertations. What was originally a brief sentence suddenly requires a full paragraph. In some cases, what was initially intended as a chapter may become the whole dissertation!

This shouldn’t discourage you from exploring the possibility of an ambitious, macro-scale project. Research proposals are not entirely set in stone. During your time at CEU, you will take a wide range of courses which will inevitably stretch beyond your immediate interests. CEU prides itself on interdisciplinary research and students are actively encouraged to foray into unfamiliar territory. You can expect to develop completely new interests and to be introduced to different perspective and methodologies which may prove applicable to your research. 

Bring something new

One of the first questions your application assessor will ask is: “How will this add to the existing state of knowledge in the field?” To this end, it may be helpful to start your proposal with a brief outline of the current debate. Pick out a few of the most important publications and briefly summarize the questions addressed and arguments presented. You should aim to identify a “gap in the market”. What have these publications missed? Has new evidence emerged which either supports or refutes previous research? Is there a demand for revision? Can the methodology be applied to other areas of research? Pay particular attention to the conclusions; a scholar will often conclude with questions and may offer suggestions for further research. 

It might transpire that there is little existing debate with which to engage. Here you will want to highlight that this is unchartered territory and that your research will pave the way for future scholars. Even in these cases, there will be thematically similar research. Perhaps the same question has been addressed with reference to another region, period or demographic? If you are researching an abstruse primary source, consider research on sources of a similar genre or context. Even completely unrelated studies may contain helpful intellectual frameworks which can be extrapolated to your own research.

Having reviewed the existing research (or lack thereof), you should then explain how you propose to contribute to the debate. This will constitute the bulk of the proposal and may include an explanation of the types of evidence you will examine (e.g. primary sources, interviews, statistical data etc.), the methodology you intend to use, and the questions you expect to answer. In some cases, you may already know what you intend to argue, or you may have a hypothesis which you will test. You might also mention practical considerations: Will you have to learn a source language? Will you undertake field work? Are there any libraries or repositories you expect to visit?

Make a good impression 

Your proposal should be both presentable and professional. It should be written in clear and coherent academic prose and read fluidly. You should aspire towards the style of a publication in a respected journal within your field. My academic writing instructor told me to “copy the greats” (taking care to not plagiarize, of course!). Is there a particular scholar whose writing you admire? If so, ask yourself what it is about their writing that makes it eloquent and refined? How are their sentences structured? What kind of vocabulary do they use? 

Repeated grammatical and typographical errors flags a lack of attention to detail and detracts from your credibility. Thus, it might be helpful to ask a colleague to review your final draft.

The above advice is generic and is tailored to no particular discipline, however, you can always contact your program coordinators or potential supervisor with more specific queries. Best of luck with your application!

Glenn Mills, Alumni Scholarship recipient in the Department of Medieval Studies