It’s important that your research proposal be organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these guiding questions try to write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with other research. These questions must serve to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Your research questions should clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study. Don’t be carried away at this point and make your questions too narrow. You must start with broad relational questions.
A good question:
Do adult learners in a rural adult education setting have characteristics that are similar to adult learners in general ?
A poor question:
What are the characteristics of rural adult learners in an adult education program? (too narrow)
A poor question:
How can the XYZ Agency better serve rural adult learners? (not generalizable)
Now here are a few more ideas regarding the defining of your research project through your proposal.
Make sure that you will be benefitting those who are participating in the research. Don’t only see the subjects as sources of data for you to analyze. Make sure you treat them as participants in the research. They have the right to understand what you are doing and you have a responsibility to share the findings with them for their reaction. Your research should not only empower you with new understandings but it should also empower those who are participating with you.
Choose your methodology wisely. Don’t be too quick in running away from using a quantitative methodology because you fear the use of statistics. A qualitative approach to research can yield new and exciting understandings, but it should not be undertaken because of a fear of quantitative research. A well designed quantitative research study can often be accomplished in very clear and direct ways. A similar study of a qualitative nature usually requires considerably more time and a tremendous burden to create new paths for analysis where previously no path had existed. Choose your methodology wisely!
Sometimes a combined methodology makes the most sense. You can combine a qualitative preliminary study (to define your population more clearly, to develop your instrumentation more specifically or to establish hypotheses for investigation) with a quantitative main study to yield a research project that works well.
Deciding on where you will conduct the research is a major decision. If you are from another area of the country or a different country there is often an expectation that you will return to your “home” to conduct the research. This may yield more meaningful results, but it will also most likely create a situation whereby you are expected to fulfill other obligations while you are home. For many students the opportunity to conduct a research project away from home is an important one since they are able to better control many of the intervening variables that they can not control at home. Think carefully regarding your own situation before you make your decision.
What if you have the opportunity for conducting your research in conjunction with another agency or project that is working in related areas. Should you do it? Sometimes this works well, but most often the dissertation researcher gives up valuable freedom to conduct the research project in conjunction with something else. Make sure the trade-offs are in your favor. It can be very disastrous to have the other project suddenly get off schedule and to find your own research project temporarily delayed. Or, you had tripled the size of your sample since the agency was willing to pay the cost of postage. They paid for the postage for the pre-questionnaire. Now they are unable to assist with postage for the post-questionnaire. What happens to your research? I usually find that the cost of conducting dissertation research is not prohibitive and the trade-offs to work in conjunction with another agency are not in favor of the researcher. Think twice before altering your project to accommodate someone else. Enjoy the power and the freedom to make your own decisions (and mistakes!) — this is the way we learn!
Selecting and preparing your advisory committee to respond to your proposal should not be taken lightly. If you do your “homework” well your advisory committee can be most helpful to you. Try these ideas:
If you are given the opportunity to select your dissertation committee do it wisely. Don’t only focus on content experts. Make sure you have selected faculty for your committee who are supportive of you and are willing to assist you in successfully completing your research. You want a committee that you can ask for help and know that they will provide it for you. Don’t forget, you can always access content experts who are not on your committee at any time during your research project.
Your major professor/adviser/chairperson is your ally. When you go to the committee for reactions to your proposal make sure your major professor is fully supportive of you. Spend time with him/her before the meeting so that your plans are clear and you know you have full support. The proposal meeting should be seen as an opportunity for you and your major professor to seek the advice of the committee. Don’t ever go into the proposal meeting with the feeling that it is you against them!
Provide the committee members with a well-written proposal well in advance of the meeting. Make sure they have ample time to read the proposal.
Plan the proposal meeting well. If graphic presentations are necessary to help the committee with understandings make sure you prepare them so they look good. A well planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are prepared to move forward with well planned research. Your presentation style at the meeting should not belittle your committee members (make it sound like you know they have read your proposal) but you should not assume too much (go through each of the details with an assumption that maybe one of the members skipped over that section).