Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CRA-W Grad Cohort: Research Proposals

What exactly is a research proposal and how do you prepare a good one? The following advice, given at the 2011 CRA-W Grad Cohort, is mainly intended for your PhD thesis proposal, but can apply to other research proposals as well.

What is a PhD Proposal?
  • Not the end product but rather the brainstorming and planning part of the process
  • A succinct write-up of your proposed research goals, strategies, justifications, and contributions
  • Allows you to get feedback from your committee
  • Helps you focus
General Process
  • Use your abstract to recruit your committee members
  • Write the proposal and iterate with your supervisor (length will depend on department)
  • Give the proposal to the committee after your supervisor agrees it's ready
  • Prepare a lot, reduce nervousness
  • Present the proposal to committee
  • Expect hard questions to follow
Makeup of the Committee
  • Supervisor
  • Faculty in topic area
  • Faculty outside topic area (great for high level feedback)
  • External member (possibly in your area - good chance for networking)
Role of the Committee
  • Gives you guidance, feedback, and eventually reference letters
  • They make sure you know your stuff at the defence, that you have thought about the issues, that the work will be novel and important enough for a PhD, and that your techniques are sound
Goals of Proposal: Be Sure You Clearly Answer These Questions
  • What problem are you studying?
  • Why is it important?
  • What results have you achieved so far and why do they matter?
  • How substantially different is your approach from prior work?
  • How will you systematically evaluate your results?
  • What do you need to complete the work?
Before You Start Writing
  • Figure out what you want to accomplish
  • Write a succinct thesis statement or hypothesis
  • Discuss your ideas with others
  • Present parts of thesis at seminars, conferences, etc
  • Think about 3-4 major contributions or papers
  • Formulate your contributions in writing
  • Think about your audience (they are not aware of the prior work, your skills, etc), and provide the appropriate background, terminology, and so on
  • Figure out how the state of the art relates to your problem
Presentation Tips
  • Attend other proposal/thesis defences
  • Thank the committee
  • Introduce yourself and your background
  • Practice!!
  • Be polite about interruptions for questions
  • Ask someone to take note of the questions asked
  • Remember that it's ok to not have an answer to a question, and to ask for help and direction
 Anyone have any more specific tips, especially for the big day of the defence?


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