by Gary Michaels
Throughout my 25 years of professorship, I assigned, instructed, demonstrated, advised, supervised, and ultimately graded well over 5,000 project proposals created and submitted by my students. Even though I provided many examples of what an excellent project should look like, less than one percent of those submitted landed in the exceptional category. Was this trend the result of my insanely tough grading policy? Perhaps I insisted that every proposal be completed in one class period. Or worse yet, every single proposal had to be written in the language of the Swahili people of South Africa!
Obviously, none of these explanations rang true with any undergraduate class I taught or graduate student I supervised. Instead, I’ve come to believe that the whole idea of having to prepare a project proposal intimidates the daylights out of most students. Yes, creating a project proposal is a big job. Yes, it involves some deep thinking and dedicated work. And yes, it insists that the student commit to one basic idea. But, when approached in logical stages, creating a project proposal does not have to be a daunting task.
Understanding exactly what is expected in an assignment is the first, and often overlooked, step. In its simplest form, a project proposal is an outline of the research a student wants to conduct. More specifically, the project proposal is a unified document that, from top to bottom, convincingly persuades the reader that the desired research is significant enough to warrant rigorous study. In my experience, many students begin to write their proposal without firmly grasping the first step of completely understanding what they are writing. A project proposal is not an essay. It is not a review, critique, summary, or experiment write up. Instead, it is a type of contract initiated by the student. This contract is directed first, between the student and their supervisor/committee, and after initial approval, between the student, their supervisor/committee, and the learning institution to which they belong. After this contract is approved by all concerned parties, it allows the student to begin conducting their research exactly as set forth in the proposal.
Not completely understanding (or ignoring) this crucial first step most often sends students off on a tangent that may hold good intentions, but is ill fitted for the task at hand. It’s a little like showing up to a sandy beach on a sunny day with snow skis in tow. The idea of skiing surely fits well together with a sandy beach and a sunny day, but important parts of the scenario are omitted, misplaced, or completely wrong. Taking the time to learn to completely understand what is expected in every situation, like needing a motor boat, then water skis, in addition to the sandy beach and sunny day, makes the next step easier to complete.
Designing a contract begins with the exact wants of the designer. In the form of a project proposal, the student initiator must lay out exactly what they want to study in a clear and concise manner. This second step involves some deep thinking and a little research on the part of the student before their actual writing begins. Preliminary discussions with supervisors, committee members, other professors, and community experts help the student refine the focus of their future study. One of the most important aspects of choosing a topic lies in the readers’ perception of how important the student’s future study will be to their discipline. For example, being enamored with how the guillotine shaped punishment in the 21st Century or the development of Henry Ford’s assembly line system may not translate into valid topics for thesis or dissertation project proposals. Why? The guillotine example is too far reaching and probably nonsensical, while studying the many impacts the assembly line system has had on society have most likely been exhausted. However, proposing to study the emerging self-driving UBER car service or the developing impact of the 3-D printer are current topics that will undoubtedly break ground by developing new knowledge.
One of the most frequent and important pieces of advice I’ve repeatedly offered to my students is to choose a topic that is manageable. For some reason, this little nugget of wisdom was usually ignored. Instead, many students come to believe that their thesis or dissertation will only be seen as significant if it solves a major problem in their society, city, country, or even the world. For example, students of mine have proposed to solve the causes of gang formation, the irrigation of farms in desert areas, sleep apnea, and head injuries in professional football. While all of these topic areas show promise, trying to study the entire problem is entirely unrealistic. Gangs form for many, perhaps hundreds, of reasons. Trying to unearth, develop, solidify, understand, and confirm all of these reasons is impractical and probably impossible. The same holds true for farm irrigation, sleep apnea, and head injuries in professional football.
While the topic area may be valid, the scope of study is not. That’s why I have always advised my students to begin their thinking on a small scale. For instance, rather than thinking about gangs and how they are formed, I direct them to think about the type of gang that is of most interest. Street gangs? Motorcycle gangs? Prison gangs? Terrorist gangs? If the student selects street gangs, I ask them if they are interested in the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, MS-13, Skinheads, etc. since they are all formed differently. If the student selects the Bloods, for example, I suggest that they select an area of the country they most concerned with. The idea is, through discussion, to whittle an enormous topic area down to a project that is both manageable and still interesting. If the topic becomes too small, through discussion with a supervisor, it can easily be augmented to include more aspects. However, if the topic is studied on an excessively large scale, many significant aspects may be ignored.