Writing a research proposal – first steps

Science takes a lot of hard work, which can occasionally be a little repetitive and even uninspiring. At other times, it is an incredibly creative process, which requires a lot of insight into seeing how pieces of information are connected and what the bigger picture might look like.

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about post-PhD options and trying to come up with ideas for a possible project proposal. Although reading has been immensely useful for seeing what has been done already in my subject of interest, it’s been a lot trickier to identify potential gaps in the literature. This kind of creative idea generation is difficult as it can’t really be forced and just takes time and perhaps some luck. I’m reminded of the early days of my PhD, when I was trying to decide on specific analyses I could do within my chosen topic.

So, how exactly are you supposed to come up with a brilliant proposal idea? Although I don’t really know the answer to that, here is my attempt at muddling through and having a go at it.

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The first step of idea generation is getting something, anything down on paper, i.e. doing some brainstorming. A reasonable way to begin could be by jotting down any random ideas that come to mind and trying to think about possible gaps (no matter how frivolous or vague) regarding the existing literature in a fairly narrow topic of interest. It might also be useful to draw some diagrams. It sounds simple enough, but the longer you stare at an empty white page, the clearer it becomes that starting from scratch is daunting. I began by writing a literature summary of any studies that were relevant to an interesting observation I’ve noticed. This was a good starting point but I felt like I spent hours staring at my computer screen, trying (and most days, failing) to think of an insightful or clever way of exploring this observation further.

Once you do have some vague ideas, it’s useful to share them with colleagues, supervisors or even family and friends (particularly if they are academically-inclined) to get some feedback and have a discussion. It’s really easy to feel like you are going around in circles thinking about an idea and so having a general chat with someone else can give you new insights. If they don’t understand the connections you are trying to make, this might suggest that you need to think of the issues in simpler terms or take a step or two back. The media and popular beliefs paint a picture of science being about grand discoveries and great leaps in knowledge. In reality, we know that science is a cumulative process, typically involving many much smaller steps towards increasing our knowledge and understanding.

After some initial brainstorming and informal chats, a possible helpful next step is to do a short presentation and have a longer discussion with several supervisors/colleagues. Although this may feel slightly daunting to begin with, in my experience the prospect of doing a presentation is good motivation for transforming random half-formed ideas and jotted-down thoughts into a more coherent whole. Within the first 3 months of starting my PhD, I had to give a couple of departmental talks (the first on a research paper relevant to my PhD topic for a journal club and a second talk introducing my topic and research plans). I spent the first few months of my PhD doing little other than reading papers and preparing these 2 talks. The talks gave me a target for finalising my aims and the feedback was really useful.

The feedback from my more recent talk about my fellowship proposal ideas has similarly helped to steer me in the right direction. I’m now at the no-less-difficult stage of formulating specific aims and hypotheses and trying to design a method to address them. I have a long way to go with my fellowship proposal and I am conscious that all this effort might not even result in any funding, as the schemes are all extremely competitive. Part of my thinking was always that I would just try my best with this and learn something from the process.