How is writing a proposal different from writing a paper for class? (B. Zakarin 2011)

Contributor: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships,
Posted: 2011

A research proposal differs in important respects from other forms of writing with which students are more familiar, such as an academic essay or a research paper.  Instead of trying to reach a minimum length (e.g., 7 pages or 2000 words), you must achieve discrete goals within a specified space constraint (e.g., 2 pages or 750 words).  Many students find this shift challenging, but the process of writing a proposal is essential for organizing your exciting ideas and prioritizing your next steps.

Defining your questions

While an essay or a research paper requires an overall argument and provides evidence to support it, a research proposal is organized around questions to which the author does not yet have answers.  A good research proposal does make an argument of a particular sort: its purpose is to convince readers that the questions are worth trying to answer and that the author has a concrete plan for doing so.

A good proposal and, by extension, a solid research agenda are organized around a central interpretive problem broken down into a series of smaller, more specific questions.  Even if you begin with a topic that just seems fascinating, you will find that you have lots of different kinds of questions about its historiography and history.  As you work toward a proposal, try to isolate and prioritize those questions:  Which questions do you most want to find the answers to?  Which questions can you realistically answer?  If they are not the same, how might you reconcile what youwant to find out with what you can find out through independent research?

So what?

As you work on a central question for your thesis, you also need to consider how you can explain to others why it is meaningful.  This is the universal “so what?”:  How will answers to your particular questions contribute to our collective knowledge?  How will your research help us better understand the subject?  While there are many ways of establishing the significance of a project, never assume that an uninitiated reader will find your topic inherently interesting.  You must hint at the broader implications of your research in order to win over a reader who does not necessarily know (or care) anything about your thesis topic.  The examples in “Learning from Model Proposals” exhibit various means of achieving this end.