(an early draft, edited on 2 July 2008)

PREAMBLE

Writing a Thesis (Research) Proposal is an ongoing discussion. It varies from department to department, programme to programme and even between institutions. What follows here are just some initial thoughts, aimed at the Master of Theology (or MTh/MPhil) level and not the Doctoral level, though certainly some overlap is possible. Also this is a humanities oriented help and probably does not apply to the sciences. This document is motivated by my need to explain to my class what is expected in a Thesis Proposal, but also because such initiatives can help move people to catch an idea they had not thought of before. It is not meant to be exclusive, but supplementary. Plus, because this is a work in progress, this document is an early draft.

INTRODUCTION

There are three main aspects of a Research Proposal. Firstly, a thesis statement. Secondly, a Literary Review. And thirdly, methodological clarity. Of course in a fourth aspect is the Proposed outline and Bibliography, but that’s more obvious and not covered here.

A. FIRST: THESIS STATEMENT

1. Find a good subject/topic.

This is harder than it looks. It should be relevant to your context/concerns, it should be related to your interest AND there should be enough material to interact with. Too many students start a topic with great enthusiasm that is stymied because of lack of resources. In the MTh (MPhil) level you are not expected to do groundbreaking research, so make sure your topic has enough primary and secondary research material.

2. Problematise your topic

Assuming that problems need to be solved (problems need solutions), in research a problem is the an issue/question you want to address/answer. The problem usually emerges from asking WHY something is the way it is. It is more important than finding your topic is finding a problem in your chosen subject, and must directly relate to your chosen field of study.

They key point is that a research problem needs research solutions. We cannot solve the problems of the world (like poverty for instance) by writing a research paper or disseration. What we can do is challenge this misconceptions of a particular ideology/worldview/political position, through the dissertaion that may hopefully give a new/better perspective for people to better address the poverty issue.

Theologically, if you want to study the materialism in Christianity, the research problem is not that your church has a wrong view of wealth, but rather your research problem would  emerge from asking WHY your Church has the wrong view of wealth. The answer could perhaps lie in the wrong teaching of the past and/or current teachers, or it could also be a mystery that needs to be solved etc. So your research problem could either be i) why is my Church having a materialistic faith? or ii) what are the current/past teachings in church that lead to the present view of materialism in this (my) particular Church.

It is natural that the methodology to answer/address the problem flows with a clear identification of the problem.

It is best, in long or short dissertations, to address one significant problem (that may have certain nuances). Two/three problems means two/three different/divergent solutions and thus two/three divergent thesis.

3 Thesis/Title

A Thesis in academic circles often refers to a long research document, a final paper for degree requirements etc. However, more particularly, it is derived from the word thesis, which is more commonly a proposal, an argument put forth for debate, discussion etc. Thus, for any ‘thesis proposal’, it is important identify the thesis. A thesis is your contribution, both the starting point of your investigation and its proposed destination. Thus it is possibly better to think of doing a research proposal that contains a thesis.

A decent example of a thesis is to say that “In view of the large numbers of cricket enthusiasts in Asia, the most talented cricketers in the world are Asians.” The issue is debatable, but can be proved or disproved academically.

This statement is of course different from saying that an Asian team is going to win the Cricket World Cup 2007 (update: which incidentally was a disaster for both India and Pakistan). That is possibly an implication of your study, an implication of the thesis, but it is more like a possibility/prediction. Not a thesis.

Similarly, the title of such a project would not be “Asian cricket,” (too general) neither would it be “Asian cricketers are the best” (too dramatic/emotional/not academic) but rather something like, “A comparative study of Asian Cricketers with cricketers of the Rest of the World in World Cricket to show that Asian Cricketers are more talented with implications of Cricket World Cup 2007”

This above title, it shows your thesis and how you hope to get there. It’s not the best, but it’s a start.

B. TWO: LITERARY REVIEW

1. Survey of Literature on your specific topic

This is the most important part of a research proposal; to actually do research. A student must have read most/all of these sources before making a proposal. Any proposal without reading will be weak and difficult to defend.

Here you would find at least 5-10 sources that DISAGREE with your position with your position, even as you must find 5-10 sources that AGREE. An overemphasis on one may skew your research.

You must also have a historical awareness of your subject, understanding how the ideas you are discussing developed through the ages (through the history of Christianity perhaps)

Usually this survey of literature must be ‘critical’. Meaning, it should not be with the intention of repeating what the scholars are saying, but engaging with them. One classic way of engaging with scholars in a field is to group them according to methodological similarities; ie. These scholars are non-rationalist, the others are realist, and the others are critical realist, so on and so forth.

C. THREE: METHODOLOGY

1. Identify/state your methodology

During/after your literary survey, you will clearly see that there is an methodological diversity in your field of study. Identify and use/defend one methodology or opt to use/defend a combination of methodologies.

The difference between method and methodology can be understood by seeing methodology as ideological approaches scholars have used to grapple with ideas in your field. Method is the procedure scholars have used to investigate and propose.

Within this methodological section, you can also state your own presuppositions, biases that can hinder your study, and show how your perspective will help aid your discussion and how you will avoid biases.

D. FOUR: MISCELLANEOUS

1. Make your proposed Outline

This is the chapter division of your paper and the proposed way you will go. Don’t just give headings, but give a brief one-short-para explanation to go along with each heading. Don’t be too detailed also (with too many sub-headings etc). The purpose of the outline is to reveal what you are thinking and how you plan to present your views. Aim for not more than 6, not less than 4, chapters.

2. Select Bibliography

Here you must have the key players/scholars in your field, and must have at least 25-30 sources (articles/books).

E. ACTUALLY WRITING THE THESIS PROPOSAL

As said earlier, the way a Thesis proposal is written may vary from person to person, however, if the three essentials aspects are well-done (thesis statement, literary review, methodology) then there should be no problem constructing a defendable Proposal.

Below is just one suggestion for possible outline for Thesis Proposal.

Elements of Thesis Proposal

Title
Your title should be self-explanatory. It must have a clear indication of your subject/topic, but it should not be purely descriptive. It should have some indication of methodology, but more importantly point to your desired proposal/thesis.

Thesis (Problem) Statement
In one sentence state clearly what you intend to argue and conclude through this paper.

Detail of Thesis-Problem Statement
It’s necessity (both cultural and academic context) — importance/rationale
It’s unique perspective
It’s logical conclusion

Method/Methodology/Approaches
Survey of various methods in the field (Literary review)
Where do you as researcher situate yourself
Important Definitions, that help define/support your methodology
Limitations/Scope of paper
Proceedure/Method of research
What forms of research will you employ (empirical etc), and why/why not?

Outline
Chapter Divisions that show flow of argument.

Select Bibliography
At least 20-30 sources (an even spread of articles and books).
There should be at least 5-10 significant sources that disagree with your position.

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About the author: NAyK is currently doing his doctoral studies in the Theology of Religion. He has successfully defended his doctoral dissertation proposal but has “miles to go before he sleeps.”

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