Faculty of Education
Guidelines for PhD provisional year full research proposal
The doctorate is an internal degree that links the student, the Faculty of Education, and the University to the international scholarship in their field of study.
It is an activity that is intellectually demanding, time-consuming, and sometimes a little threatening in that there are risks associated with developing and seeing the project through to completion, and gaining final acceptance. However, experience has shown that many of these risks can be substantially reduced by the development of a full research proposal. A proposal is not a "good idea for research" but should provide details of why the idea is a good one (how it fits with previous research, how it will contribute to knowledge) and how you will explore your good idea (your research approach and the kinds of analysis you will use).
The transition from an idea for a thesis to a well-defined proposal is frequently the most difficult task of the research project. This may take several months or more. This is the time when you are exploring your field of interest, reading around the area, selecting possible topics, and tentatively formulating the question for study. This is independent study that may not require strong or direct supervision. However, once you have identified a question that you want to explore, you need to write a research proposal, and for this you should work closely with your supervisor.
Of necessity, all PhD research topics must be related to one or more specialist areas of literature and methodologies. However, since the proposal must receive the approval of the Faculty of Education it should contain enough detail to be understood by members of staff whose expertise may not be in the literature(s) and methodology(ies) you have selected.
It is also important to note that a full research proposal is a University requirement and output of a doctoral student’s provisional year. Within the Faculty of Education, this proposal is due 9 months after the date of registration. After the proposal is submitted, it is made available for review for a 3-week period to all staff. Staff who are interested in reviewing the proposal can request a copy from the Doctoral Adviser. In addition, the proposal is given to a senior staff member for review and assessment.
A full research proposal should contain about 20-30 pages (approximately 10,000 words) and include key references. The proposal should have a structure which attends to the following components.
a) Summary or abstract
This is a paragraph or two which summarises what you will do in the research project, and how you will do it.
b) Problem, question, or hypothesis
This states what the research project will deal with. If hypotheses are appropriate they should be stated, along with the rationale, If the problem is not one in which a hypothesis is appropriate, then the problem or question should be clearly stated and amplified.
c) Importance of the research topic
A requirement of a PhD thesis is that it make an original contribution to knowledge. Thus, you need to show how the proposed research is sufficiently important to justify your efforts (and the efforts of those you involve in your research). This should include a statement of how the solution to the problem, or answer to the question, can influence educational theory or practice.
d) Significant prior research
This should be comprehensive enough to demonstrate that you are aware of the major relevant sources of information. Most research projects arise out of considerable prior research, which should be summarised. You need to show the relationship between your question or problem (in b above) and this prior research.
e) Research methodology
This section describes how you intend to answer your question and it should be as explicit as possible. The notion of methodology incorporates a wide range of possible approaches to the collection and analysis of information, from the experimental method in psychological research to the development of an argument of the analysis of concepts in philosophical research. The choice of method should be justified in terms of the question being asked. For example, a correlational method would be justified with reference to a question about the relationship between two or more phenomena. An experimental method would be justified in terms of a question about the possible causal relationship between variables. A case study method is appropriate when the question involves the description and analysis of a complex phenomenon in its natural setting.
Within each of these methods particular techniques of data collection and analysis should be described as explicitly as possible. Such description does not preclude later changes in method, but it is desirable that you demonstrate at this early stage that you have given considerable thought to the practicalities of the conduct of your research. Certain methods lend themselves to far more advance specification than others. For example, if a sample of people or documents is to be drawn, procedures for choosing the sample should be described and justified. If a questionnaire or interview is to be used it should be explained and possible examples of the major types of questions to be asked should be described. If an experimental situation is to be used to collect data, there should be a description of the types of subjects (e.g., age, school level, number to be selected, the method of selection to be adopted), types of materials to be used (e.g., describe measures of achievement, self concept, attitudes, beliefs, etc), types of data collection (e.g., self report, observation, clinical diagnosis, etc), etc. If there are major questions yet to be decided these should be noted. This is perhaps the most important section of your proposal because it demonstrates your understanding of the steps and skills necessary to undertake the research.
f) Ethical considerations
All university research is expected to conform to acceptable ethical standards and proposals for research which involve human participants must be approved before the research commences, by The University of Auckland Human Subjects Ethics Committee.
Ethical concerns arise in both the ways research is conducted and the ways the research findings may later be used. Areas of responsibility towards research subjects - for example, the securing of informed consent, confidentiality, preservation of anonymity, avoidance of deception or adverse effects, etc - must be taken into account at the planning stage of the research and the strategies for addressing them included in the methodology.
A proposal for research involving Māori and minority groups/communities should demonstrate that the researcher has had adequate background preparation for working in that area. It should also indicate the extent to which members of that group/community will be involved or consulted in the overall supervision of the project and the dissemination of the research findings.
g) Analysis of information
This section, along with the previous section, is vital in the assessment of the research proposal. In this section you should describe how you determine from the information you have gathered the answer(s) to your question. In other words, "How will you figure out what it all means?" For example, if you plan to collect evidence by a questionnaire and subsequent statistical analysis, you should describe the likely method of analysis and possible outcomes. Be explicit. For example, "The analysis of variance procedure will be used to determine whether the total score on the questionnaire is greater for experienced teachers, as expected than, for teachers in training. If, however, teachers in training are found to have a higher score this would mean that…". If you plan to use a case study approach, describe how you plan to identify the key themes and patterns in your data and the procedures you will use to check the validity of your analysis.
h) Limitations and key assumptions
This section of a paragraph or two defines the limits of your research. It is common for students to try to do too much. This section is useful in defining how much you will undertake, and the key assumptions that you will follow in building your argument, or your model, or in conducting your experiment. Again be specific. Make statements such as. "This argument assumes that…", and "This research will not…".
i) References or bibliography
Major readings cited in the proposal or which serve to indicate the context of the proposed research should be listed at the end.
The Proposal is More than a Plan
The proposal is a plan for the student to follow. But it also provides the supervisor and subsequently the staff of the Faculty of Education, with the information on which they can approve and/or suggest modifications to the research project. If the proposal is highly explicit, approval of the research project by the Faculty of Education implies that, providing the research is properly conducted and clearly documented, there is a high probability of the final thesis being accepted.
Students should be aware that the first proposal is often not the final one. A process of refining usually occurs in which reviews, critical comments and suggestions made by supervisors and others are incorporated into revised drafts which are further reviewed before submission to the Faculty of Education.
In developing a proposal it is useful to remind yourself of what the examiners will be looking for in the final thesis when you have completed it. In a good thesis the following elements can be traced back to the proposal.
- a distinct contribution to knowledge
- evidence of the discovery of new knowledge or the exercise of independent judgement
- literary presentation
- original work of merit worth of publication
- evidence of competence in independent research
- understanding of concepts, issues, techniques and methodology
- critical use of published work and source materials.