Writing a Research Proposal

I get a fair few questions sent to me every year about how to write a research proposal and how I structured mine when I applied for my DPhil. I thought I would make this post to help anyone going through the process. So, here’s my take on research proposals – I hope it helps some of you!

Whenever I think about a research proposal I think about a few main questions:

  1. What are my central questions?
  2. What has already been said? What is my original contribution to the field?
  3. How am I going to go about investigating my research questions?
  4. What do I hope to find out from my research – am I expecting a certain answer? What do I think the results will show?

Every institution’s research proposal process will be slightly different, but this was the proposal I submitted for Oxford:

Now, it is worth saying from the start that my research has changed a lot since I wrote this proposal – as you go about researching your topic new things will always come up influencing your argument, structure, and overall plan. You need to keep this in mind. The research proposal is a sketch of what you would like to investigate and how you think you may go about it. It will give you a starting point but you are not beholden to every single sentence once you’ve set it down! Here’s a breakdown of my proposal though for anyone who would like to go into things in a bit more detail and get an idea of how you might structure or write one.

Quick Proposal Breakdown:

You can see that I started my proposal by trying to establish an overall sense of the field. I looked at what had been said by other scholars and what I might want to challenge. This enables you to show that you have an awareness of what has already been said and allows you to highlight what will be your original contribution to the field.

The questions highlighted in bold were my main research questions. You should try to make these really clear. You want the person reading your proposal to understand what you want to find out and what questions will drive your research. There should be enough scope within your questions to fuel the years of doctoral study and the writing of a doctoral thesis. However, make sure not to make your questions too wide or vague. Your questions are also a chance to show that you have an understanding of the topic, that you’ve read around it, and you know where and how you can make an original contribution.

The next section of my proposal was focused on breaking down how I might investigate the questions I had posed. In short, this section focused on methodology. Again, remember that this will likely change as you conduct your research. After a few months of research I was able to produce a much more detailed (and helpful) chapter-by-chapter plan. At this point though the main thing is to make sure you give the reader the sense that you have a general idea of how you might look into your topic and address the central questions of your thesis. I tried to make it clear what I thought I’d try to investigate in each section of my thesis. I also tried to express a sense of coherency and demonstrate how the thesis would ‘build’. If you have specific texts that will be important to your argument or overall research then it is good to mention them. This will show an engagement with primary material and that you’ve taken steps towards discovering and thinking in-depth about the topic you’ve proposed.

Finally, I finished my proposal with a short, snappy sentence. I tried to maintain the proposal’s focus on the questions and methodology, but I always like to end on a note which summarises what I’m trying to achieve, leaves an impression on the reader, and outlines exactly what my research could achieve.

I did also include footnotes and a short bibliography to demonstrate good scholarly practice. Many institutions ask for a relatively short research proposal though. If that is relevant to you then try not to make the bibliography and footnotes overly long – cite what is relevant to what you have written and enough that you show that you’ve read around the subject. Be aware of just how much space you have though. The focus is on your ideas and your research. The focus is on your contribution to the field. The reader wants to know what you’re bringing to the table.

As I’ve said before, every university’s research proposal process is different. However, I hope this gives a general sense of how to write an effective proposal. If you have any more questions please feel free to DM me on Twitter (@MicahMackay) or pop me an email!

Getting through grief: studying and the process of grieving

When I opened up Microsoft Word on my laptop this morning, I was expecting to write something on carols and performance. Instead, this came out: a reflection on working and studying through grief. I debated sharing it. I am definitely not an ‘authority’ on grief nor am I an expert on the ways to work through it. Everyone grieves in different ways. But if what I have to say can help someone in some way though then this post will have done its job. 

In early 2019 I lost one of my close friends, Becca. Becca was the first friend I made at Oxford. We pretty much talked every day and seemed to just click. Our friendship became this happy constant. Unfortunately, in Hilary term (spring) Becca passed following post-operative complications of heart transplant surgery. I remember the moment I received the news very clearly. I had just walked into chapel for choir and was slightly early. I checked my phone and saw a message from Becca’s mum. For a while after opening that message I just couldn’t talk. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t do anything. I just sat down in the side chapel. I think I may have tried messaging Becca. I was lucky that one of my other close friends happened to be in chapel at the same time. He just sat next to me and waited. To be honest that was what I needed. It was the greatest comfort just to have someone there, someone who wouldn’t force me to talk or react in any certain way but would just sit and wait with me. I can’t describe how grateful I am for that and how much that simple act of friendship meant and continues to mean to me. 

The last picture Becca sent to me before her surgery

The days following Becca’s death were just a whirlwind of emails and stress. Our class had deadlines the following week for two Master’s essays. No one was are of the process to apply for an extension and our colleges didn’t respond quickly to our emails. We were all trying to deal with the death of our friend and classmate but it felt like we were almost expected to carry on as normal. I stayed up working through the night trying to get my essays done ahead of the deadline. There was no time to grieve or process. 

There are a few things I’ve learnt along the way from my experience. These mainly revolve around how to manage grief whilst studying but can probably be applied to other situations. I thought I’d write down a few of these things here and I really do hope that they help those of you who might be going through a similar situation. 

Grief has no timeline 

This was something I learnt the hard way. I expected myself to grieve for a few months and then be ok. It’s not like that. Grief takes time. My first reaction was just to feel numb — a form of self-preservation and one which enabled me to get through the stress of the following weeks. The reality of it all only truly hit me a year later, on the anniversary of Becca’s death. However, I couldn’t seem to voice to anyone what I was feeling. All I knew was that I missed my friend and all the events from the year before seemed to be coming back very vividly. I pushed people away, I lashed out at people I loved. I could hardly recognise myself at points. Grief does very strange things. You may feel fine for a while, you may feel like everything’s ok. At some point though it catches up to you and when it does it can feel incredibly overwhelming. But that’s ok. You’re allowed to feel. You’re not expected to ‘get over it’ in a few weeks or a few months. Don’t feel guilty. Grief can hit you at the most unexpected time. 

Take time

When you’ve suffered a loss it’s ok to take time out, whether this means asking for an extension or deferring work. You may not want to do this or feel like it’s necessary. It’s better though to just have some time to think and acknowledge what you’ve been through. It will help you in the long run and does not make you weak.

Trust people

It can be really hard to trust people with your emotions, especially when you’re grieving. Sometimes we instinctively push people away because we’re afraid of any further hurt. Sometimes grief can make you say things you regret or react in ways you normally wouldn’t. There are good people out there though, ones who genuinely want to help and want to listen and won’t judge you for anything you say or do. When these people reach out, try not to push them away. It’s ok to tell them that you need space and it’s ok to take some time for yourself. Try to communicate this to them though. They will understand and they won’t get angry or leave. When you’re ready to talk they’ll be there. It may be really difficult, but you can trust them. The people who help you and are there for you during this time will probably end up being some of the most important people in your life. 

Try not to put pressure on yourself

This one can be really hard. Sometimes we feel like we need to just get through everything and manage everything perfectly. Sometimes that’s not possible, especially if you’re trying to work through grief whilst studying or working. Some things can wait though. Don’t feel like you have to keep everything going. People will understand if you don’t manage to finish that essay. Tutors are also people and most of them will understand what you’re going through. Sometimes the greatest achievement is just being able to get out of bed in the morning. 

Find ways of remembering

It was setting up the Pilgrimage Challenge in memory of Becca that really helped me to process things and to start to feel better. I felt like I was doing something productive and worthwhile. Being outside away from all social media and all the chaos of ‘normal life’ helped me to think through things. By walking and raising money for charity I felt like I was ‘doing something’ and keeping Becca’s memory alive in some way. Little things like lighting a candle every day can really help and can provide a few moments of peace and reflection every day. 

A photo from the Pilgrimage Challenge – St Edward’s Way