7400.685-080 - Research Methods in FCS
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
Spring Semesters - Tuesday Evenings 5:20-7:55pm in 209 Schrank Hall South
Instructor: David D. Witt, Ph.D.

Guidelines for Writing a Research Proposal for the Master's Thesis or Project

See the Official Spring 2005 Graduate Student Handbook in three .pdf files

The document you are reading is intended to serve as a guide and only a guide. Graduate students should consult with their major professor (thesis/project faculty director) to further guide them.  FCS has several subdisciplines (we call them divisions, and rightly so) – each division will vary widely in terms of requirements for form and content of both the Proposal and the resulting, completed manuscript.  The most salient advice I can give you is to be prepared to revise - and revise often.  Graduate school and the thesis/project are evolutionary processes that work like developing "opinions".  A person can have an opinion that is informed and shaped by their past experiences, and one that will continue to develop as more information is gathered. At the end of the process, your opinion may or may not resemble itself in its earliest form. 
Graduate students need not write a proposal only to have to start all over for their final manuscript. If written with an eye towards the ultimate manuscript, the proposal can serve as the outline for the final manuscript. In other words, upon approval of your advisory committee, you should be able to add to the existing framework contained in your proposal.

1. Overview Of Proposed Project
From the Graduate Student Handbook - This introductory section should include information pertaining to the proposed agency or community setting in which the project would take place.  The primary objectives outlined for the experience should be clearly stated.  Supporting evidence indicating how the experience will fit into the student's total master's degree program and his/her total education experience should be included.  A discussion of what the total project experience is intended to contribute to the student's professional expertise should be indicated.  It might also include the strengths or experiences the student brings to the project.

Listed first but written last.  Graduate students, all researchers for that matter, are caught in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. A question can neither be asked nor answered until some experience in the library has taken place.
But students start with a general idea of a researchable problem, and are ready to modify their approach to asking and answering it, the problem and its potential solution will beccome more evident as more library research is done.
So for now, jot down the general idea and see where it takes you.

For the proposal this section ultimately needs to be no longer than a page and could actually exist as a single, well-formed paragraph. In its final version as part of the master's thesis or project manuscript, it will serve as a subheading entitled Statement of the Problem.  Personally, I like to see this statement at the end of the Introduction Chapter of the manuscript.

**note on manuscript construction.  When working on my own thesis, and later my dissertation, I used a large 3-ring binder with tabbed division pages for each chapter heading. ... Chapter 1 - Introduction,  Chapter 2 - Review of Literature Chapter 3 - Methodology, Chapter 4 - Results (or Findings), Chapter 5 - Discussion.  As the project progressed, I was able to modify, and add notes to, each chapter as these emerged from my experience. This organizational strategy allowed me to see the project evolve over time and allowed me to reorganize ideas without feeling that I was violating some structure or work ethic. 

2. Review Of The Literature
From the Graduate Student Handbook - The purpose of the review of literature is to enable the student to be well versed on topics important to the selected project.  The student should review literature pertaining to similar programs already in existence or projects completed at other sites.  Further, it should cover appropriate literature regarding the agency or agencies with which the student will be working.  Any other topics central to the project should be reviewed also.  The literature review must be documented in the appropriate format agreed upon by the student and the director.

Let me guess the first question you all will have - "How do I know what is relevant?"
The answer, grasshopper (perhaps none of you remember the 70s t.v. drama "Kung Fu"), is that you don't know until you read a bunch of it.    Grasshopper:  Master - The man to whom you spoke? Is he a confused one?
    Poe the Wise and Understanding KungFuMaster: What is your view?
Grasshopper: He is a beggar, like the rest. I can see he is greatly in need of food. But he does not eat.
    Poe: He seeks to satisfy a stronger hunger.
Grasshopper: He values what is worthless - Broken pieces of pottery.
    Poe: To you, to me, perhaps. Not worthless to him.
Grasshopper: Bits and pieces that cannot be put back together.
    Poe: Not to understand a man’s purpose does not make him confused.

One of the functions of the literature review is to place your developing research question into the context of well established scholarly inquiry.  Students will usually begin with a short discussion of the history of the research related to the problem of interest. This requires that the student "sees" the literature as a whole body of knowledge, rather than discreet, independent lines of thought.  This step grounds/sets the discussion in the proper context so that the reader (your advisor) can begin to see the potential for contribution to the discipline's body of knowledge. 

For the thesis/project, the review of literature may be the largest chapter in the final manuscript.  For the proposal, the student needs only to document enough of the literature to convince the proposal committee that the stated problem is worthy of study (and that the graduate student is worthy of studying it).  At the end of the proposal literature review, you will restate the problem as it has now evolved  in a final paragraph.

3. Project Design and Evaluation (also known as the Methodology section)
From the Graduate Student Handbook - The prospectus/proposal should include a detailed step-by-step procedure for carrying our the project.  It should also include precise details regarding the focus of the experience; the student's responsibilities in relation to the agency and/or to the families with whom he/she will be working; and the projects or programming to be undertaken.  Plans should be included for each stage in the design of any particular programs or material for which the student will be responsible.  Details should be given for the evaluation procedures, both for the program materials developed (if appropriate to the selected project) and the total project experience.  This material should be revised and appropriately discussed in the final report.

For a thesis project involving quantitative data analysis:
  • Operationalization - This is the section devoted to explaining how your thesis/project will solve the statement of the problem and will contain several subheadings.  The first subheading might be Operationalization. In this area, you should consider the concepts contained in the Statement of the Problem - Personally I like to see the Statement of the Problem restated in some researchable form, such as hypotheses or research questions. You may want to review the availability of existing data that contain measures of the concepts you've identified in your research, or construct some measures yourself.   It is important that you apply the logic of measurement to the concepts under study.
  • Sampling - detailing the process by which you will find subjects, respondents - including the degree of generalization you may be able to make of your findings to a larger population.
  • Data Collection or Observations - explain the proposed process for distributing questionnaires, coding behavior, or otherwise documenting your observations.
  • Data Analysis - explain how you will analyze the data you've collected - including statistical treatment, if appropriate.
  • Timetable and Costs - to the best of your ability, estimate the timeline you will try to adhere to as your project unfolds. Your committee will be helpful in modifying your timeline, given their wisdom and experience ... grasshopper!
  • Expected Results - briefly explain what your data should reveal.  Go back to your problem statement and see if you can write out your expectations.
4. Timetable For Completion Of Master's Project/Thesis
From the Graduate Student Handbook - Projected dates and amounts of time needed to conduct and evaluate each phase of the project experience and a brief description of work or objectives to be accomplished during each time period should be set forth.  Remember to be both realistic and flexible.  This should address each phase of the project (i.e., library research, material development, actual work in the agency, work with families or individuals served by the agency, time spent in evaluation of proposed materials, programs, and/or projects).  This material may be revised to form part of an appendix in the final report.

Sample Proposals that Worked:
Writing Academic/Scholarly Papers
If we have time and you feel you need the information, we might also want to discuss writing in general and writing specifically for academic purposes at the graduate level.  The requires a little more discipline than you may have had to use as undergraduates.  The typical undergraduate term paper, for example, is written under duress. You asked for it when you took a full schedule and had to write term papers for three or four classes in a semester. Most of the time, undergraduate students are assigned a topic area, make a choice, go to the library, copy a bunch of articles, then go home and summarize them one at a time in a rather rambling paper.  I felt sorry for myself back then, but as a college professor having to read 35 of these for each of my classes ... let's just say that after 22 years on the job, I feel I have read more than my share of papers on the topic of children's literacy, teen pregnancy or alcoholism and homelessness. What you just read in red text is ... rambling.

Graduate level writing can appear to be laborious, redundant, needlessly precise but it doesn't have to be that way.  Academicians are not fond of hyperbole, and they do require that language is defined precisely, but that just adds to the charm and mystery of the product.  One of the best ways to learn how to write is to relearn how to read (journal articles, that is).  Stephen Borgatti has some advice in his internet piece "how to read a journal article".  If you would read his advice before reading one more journal article on your own, you may find some insights.

Perhaps the largest single writing assignment of your academic career will be your thesis or project, both of which contain literature reviews. It should be during the process of writing your literature review that you will begin to break the undergraduate habit of economical writing.  This is where students have a morbid fear of writing a single word more than they absolutely need to write on any particular assignment. 

Prior to editing, literature reviews are typically three times longer than they will be after editing.  The process entails covering all the conceptual ground surrounding your topic, summarizing the body of knowledge from the historical past to the present and from general to specific, and organizing your review in a logical, flowing manner so that the reader is drawn to make the same conclusions from the review as you do.  Thus, a literature review is about coming to a conclusion. The reader should be able to follow your logic and at least see where they are being taken, whether nor not they agree with what you have said.

Reading good literature reviews is one of the best ways to learn how to write them.  If you find, for example, that you are running out of patience while reading one, the chances are good that the author has "buried the lead" and was unable to tell the reader what they were on about.

Compare these two writing examples for clarity.
Example 1: Today in America, there are many dangers. Election fraud, corporate scandal, war on foreign shores, economc hardship, crime and natural disaster.  For example, in 1996 tornado damage resulted in billions of dollars worth of damage to personal property.  Steps can be taken to insure oneself against such devastating events, but often the individual is simply unprepared to respond to emergencies in time to limit the resulting carnage.  One such danger - a danger that lurks within virtually every neighborhood of every town in the nation is that of home invasion. Coupled with the overwhelming instance of homelessness and unemployment, home invasion is increasing at an alarming rate.

Home invasion is no longer restricted to urban neighborhoods by any means. The story has been retold countless times. A homeless and hungry person, in search of food and a place to rest that is safe from the view of other predators find his or her way into the private residence of a family.  Hopefully the family is away from home, leaving the interloper free to explore their household, ransack their belongings, forage through the family larder and even sleep in their beds.  There have been reports of these incidents resulting in discovery by the homeowners, who have to try to shield the damage from their children, but often that is just not possible. The best preventive measures may not stop these criminals, which is why there needs to be a national discussion that will lead to the implementation of reliable and safe home security measures.

Example 2: This is a story about a girl and three bears. Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks.  She  went for a walk in the forest.  Pretty soon, she came upon a house.  She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.
At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed.So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl."This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.
... I think you get the picture.

For alternative ideas about Literature Reviews, please see: