Study Advice: 5 Tips for Research Questions and Proposals


The horror of any student: the research question and/or proposal. Oh, the hours I have spent struggling with this deceptively simple task… It seems so easy. All you need to do is come up with a question you want to answer and explain how you plan to go about it. How difficult can it be? Very, as it turns out.

By popular demand, I have put together a list of 5 very basic tips to help you distill your disconnected thoughts (“something about Christopher Isherwood”) into a coherent concept (“how the architecture of the main character’s house reflects his struggle as a gay man living in 1950′s America in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, how the interpretation in Tom Ford’s film adaptation differs, and why this matters”).

(Note: these tips are specific to students of literature, but the basic principles apply to other fields as well, especially within the humanities.)

1. Focus.

You can’t cover the entire Romantic period or every children’s book ever written in one semester (or however long you’ve got), so narrow your focus. Ambition is very admirable, of course, but for the sake of your own sanity, decide on just one aspect of the greater whole. Instead of focussing on an entire period, focus on one writer. Instead of focussing on one writer, focus on just one work. Instead of focussing on all of Bleak House, pick one character. Be aware of what you can realistically achieve within the limitations of the word count and time constraints, then adjust accordingly. On a related note…

2. Be precise.

Vague descriptions scream incompetence, so call things by their proper name. Name specific texts you are going to study, critics you want to enter into a debate with. Explain exactly how you are going to approach this project and from what perspective. This shows your professor that you have really thought this through and you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t, really, but you can worry about that later).

3. Be concise.

I cannot stress this enough: clarity is your friend. It’s great that you can weave elaborate sentences together, but if you can’t explain your idea in a one-paragraph abstract, it is probably convoluted and far-fetched. As a test, try to explain your proposal to a friend or relative (preferably someone who knows very little about your field). If you find yourself rambling on and on as their eyes glaze over, your idea needs work.

4. Add something to the discussion.

Your research is not worth doing if you are just going to rehash what a thousand other critics have already said before you. How is your project different? What is new about it? Why is your perspective valuable? What will it add to the ongoing debate? This is a bit more difficult when you’re just starting out at university, of course, but still, professors appreciate attempts at originality.

5. Explain the implications.

The question you always need to ask yourself is: so what? How does this change things? Why should people care? Does it affect other fields in any way? Does your project leave us with more questions that need to be answered? It’s not enough to point at something, go “isn’t that interesting?”, and leave it at that.


Good luck!

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3 thoughts on “Study Advice: 5 Tips for Research Questions and Proposals

  • December 14, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Number 1 and 2 are the hardest for me, I need to work on those. I’m bookmarking this post, its great! Thank you.


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