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Research Proposal Guidelines

I wrote the following document for the undergraduate concentration in Comparative Literature at Harvard University a few years ago. I was glad to hear recently that students and faculty at University College London also found it useful. An updated and versioned copy of the document can be found here. Please feel free to reuse with appropriate acknowledgements, linking to this post or its sources.

How to Write a Good Research Proposal

Many research proposals I read begin with a set of propositions or a thesis. But don’t you find it strange to offer conclusions before the actual work of collecting, organizing, and synthesizing the material? To my mind, it makes more sense to think about a thesis proposal as a plan for research---a document that poses questions, rather than answering them. To these ends, I suggest your proposal contain a concise treatment of all or some of the following questions:

  • What has prompted your interest in the topic?

The purpose of the first paragraph is to ease your audience into the field of your research. A small case-study, a quotation, or an anecdote can be used to create a reader-friendly "point-of-departure," which introduces the reader to the range of questions that motivate your work.

  • What kinds of questions will you be asking?

What is your problematic? What philosophical, literary, social, ideological, or historical problems will your work engage? What kinds of questions do not interest you? What categories of thought and critical assumptions are involved?

  • How do your questions fit into the broader intellectual tradition?

What is the tradition of answering these types of questions? Where do you expect to continue or break with that tradition?

  • How will you answer your questions?

What are your methods? Close reading? Distant reading? Interviews? Archival research? Text analysis? Be practical and specific here.

  • Where will you look for your answers?

Create a sense of your archive. What kind of materials will you be looking for (literary, legal, scientific)? What period? What language? What medium? What genre? Where is it located? How will you get to it and when? This could be as simple as "Ulysses, by James Joyce,” the graphic novel collection at Butler Library, or as complicated as "Comparative traditions of Medieval Slavonic hagiography." What are the biases implicit in your archive or dataset? What kind of things are included or excluded?

  • What kind of answers do you anticipate?

What do you expect this material to tell you? What possible problems (theoretical, practical, or otherwise) could stand in the way of your analysis?

  • How might you structure your writing?

What form do you expect your thesis to take? What sections or subsections will be helpful in organizing your materials and your argument? Do you need to include some cultural or historical context? Make a diagram on a whiteboard, take a picture, and include it in your proposal. Write a section-by-section outline.

  • A plan of action.

Identify any gaps you have. Describe work completed (if any). Come up with a reasonable schedule. Suggest per-week, per-month, per-semester goals and milestones.