Research Proposal from the Land of Make Believe
September 28, 2014 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of putting together Ph.D. program applications and have run into a mental roadblock, namely being asked to put together a research proposal that I know is destined to be utterly meaningless.

I've been slowly working my way into the field of archaeology and out of IT for almost a decade now. I've had my ups and downs doing so, such as starting a Masters in 2008 right before the world economy tanked and also splitting up from my partner whose EU citizenship was the basis for my residency in the UK at the time.

That was two years ago. I've since moved back to the US and have been working in IT again in order to get out of debt. I've managed that now, and am going to be ready to get back into archaeology full time again at the end of 2015. My contacts in the CRM industry (archaeology units that do work for construction companies, mostly) tell me I won't have any problem finding a management level position with my experience and skill set. I'm also doing what I can to continue to develop relevant skills while I'm biding my time in IT. Currently that means I'm in a fairly intense online GIS program and working as a GIS intern for my state's heritage commission.

So, I don't have to get a Ph.D., but I'd really like the chance to. The big hole in my skill set is the craft of research, and that's what I see a Ph.D. program being about. It'd be a chance to make learning this craft my job. This includes reading up on all the relevant literature in my sub-field (whatever that ends up being), delving into theory and working on the necessary skills to be a PI.

Those are skills I see as necessary to create a research proposal worth creating. And they are skills I don't have. That's what a Ph.D. program is for. So, when I run into an application requirement to create a research proposal I feel sandbagged and demotivated. If I could write a useful research proposal now, I wouldn't be applying to grad school.

And in archaeology, this seems even more ridiculous. I suppose I could wish for a pie in the sky site to suddenly appear with the exact parameters that'd meet my research interests, but that's not going to happen. And any work I'd do as a Ph.D. student would be ultimately based on and and offshoot of where my advisor's doing work.

So, I see a request for writing up a research proposal as asking for me to write some Mary Sue research fanfic. Not only that, but I'm being set up for failure anyway. If I had the skills to write a decent research proposal, I wouldn't be applying to a Ph.D. program.

So, is there something I'm missing? I'd really like to see how this particular ask actually makes any sort of sense so I can get over myself and just put something together for this section. If you've been on a selection committee, how important is this portion of an application to you?

Oh, one last thing. I have applied to Ph.D. programs previously, but much more narrowly. I got accepted into a program last year, but without funding. I'm trying this year to really put the effort into my application work so that I can not just get an acceptance, but full funding. No funding, no grad school.
posted by ursus_comiter to Education (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I was in a similar position: at the time of applying for PhDs, I knew a reasonable amount about a specific subfield that I wanted to work in, but hadn't formulated a specific research question or plan. I think this is fairly common.

I spent a while being unsure how to proceed, then realised that the best thing to do was simply to email the researchers I was interested in being supervised by and explain my difficulty. One replied they had funding for a a student to do a specific project, and if I applied to do it I wouldn't need to write a proposal; another said that the precise details of the proposal were unimportant, and since my research plans would inevitably change anyway the real purpose was to show that I knew something about (and had some interest in) the field, and was able to communicate clearly in writing.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 1:01 PM on September 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

It depends on what your goal for the proposal is. Is the proposal actually binding? Probably not; it will change over time within some degrees of freedom, so perhaps think of where you want to be rather than where you start.

The GIS and IT skills will be most useful after completing the PhD.
posted by rr at 1:15 PM on September 28, 2014

I can't speak for archaeology programs, and I can't speak for the reviewing side of admissions to really elite departments. At the risk of being Captain Obvious, you should email people in archaeology (ie the folks you got an MA from) about this to get an idea of what they're specifically looking for and which departments you might reasonably apply to.

But in my experience, departments don't expect an applicant's research proposal or statement of purpose to be something that would lead to publishable output in a realistic timeframe. Instead, they're probably looking more for things like:

*Is the applicants giving off OH HELL NO signals, like saying how they model their life on Indiana Jones or something or how they put together a huge collection of potsherds from public lands?

*Are they proposing something that belongs in our discipline?

*Have they thought about this a little bit? Are they proposing something that is at least internally consistent and reasonably well thought out (at least for somebody who isn't One Of Us yet)? Can they propose something where they at least mention a couple of authors who are notionally relevant?

*Does the broad, general thrust of what they're proposing fit with what our department does? Or are you proposing to do pomo theory stuff at Rochester, where they Don't Do That? Are there people here who do the broad, general thing you claim to be interested in?

*Do they seem to have a clue about social science?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:22 PM on September 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm ambivalent about posting because I now know more about the application process and funding and research as it applies towards a PhD in the biological sciences, and I am not entirely sure as to how this carries into your prospective field. However, I suspect that some of these things should also apply to your field, so if this at all sounds relevant, I would then do more research into your desired grad schools and departments. So giant caveat/grain of sand here.

So most people that I knew had absolutely no idea as to their research interests prior to grad school, including people who worked in labs. However, I think that there are things that you can do to strengthen your research background and/or apply to work with PIs who have similar research interests.

If you have time in the upcoming year, you can try to do what many people undergrads and professionals in the community did: contact your local university and the faculty. Go to their research web pages and see the recent publications,etc. Does anything pique your interest? It sounds like you are a professional instead of an undergrad, and if this is the case, email these people and tell them about your interests. Basically, the goal would be to volunteer in their (lab?). But this was something that looked great when apply to grad schools (ie, having your name on posters, posters, papers, etc.) and being familiar with research techniques. I also wonder if via that internship you can do research and again, have your name on a research paper, even a small abstract/poster that you present at a conference.

Similar to James Scott, I happened to talk to faculty at a school that I was applying to and a PI had a grant with funding for a student to do research in X (and that was my funded way into the graduate program). However, if I could back in time: There were also funded slots where students did lab rotations (about 4 labs/year) and worked with different advisors/PIs. At the end of the year, the students (and PIs) selected the best match. I wish that I had applied to do that vs. being locked into subfield that was not as interesting to me. But if you can, see if your schools offer this and what it takes to get one of those slots (if this is what you want, of course).

Also, this is what led me to post. I have known other people who entered grad programs as professions and with a different skill set (also IT).What they did is that they found labs that complemented their skills. So for example, a PI who does genetics research might want to do more (ie, analysis with computers, whatever) and the candidate grad student had training in that particular field- so someone who has those skills would be an asset. I just did a google scholar search and there are publications in GIS and archaeology. I would consider looking at their research/contacting those faculty because I think that you would be a potential asset since you would enter with this training and ability to use this tool as part of your research. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 1:35 PM on September 28, 2014

Here's what I think you are missing.

I am a lecturer at a university in Australia. Our incoming grad students have to apply with a research proposal. Maybe 50% do one without talking to us first, and 90% of those are rubbish. These students usually do not get in.

The other 50% only apply after months of informal consultation with their prospective advisor. Their proposals are written in close collaboration with said advisor, and are based heavily on the advisor's research field. If you can't find an advisor who has time and interest to engage with you on this, likely that advisor won't be a good fit for you anyway, because that level of collaboration will be necessary once you are in the program. You don't have to, and shouldn't try to do this on your own.

YMMV if you are in a different country, of course.
posted by lollusc at 3:39 PM on September 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm (roughly) in your field, currently doing a funded PhD. I might have skimmed too quickly, but I didn't catch what your specific area of interest is. Apologies in advance for probably not being quite as helpful as I'd like to be.

Since you're already applying, I'm guessing you know where you want to be, and therefore who you want to work with and what you want to focus on, broadly. The next step* is to contact people you're interested in working with and say something along the lines of 'I'm interested in applying to do a PhD with you. My experience includes (blah) and I'm broadly interested in (blah). Do you think I'd be a good fit there/would you be interested in supervising me/do you have any projects in the pipeline that I might be a good match for?' or something like that. Even if you have no idea what specific project or research you want to do, you probably know what culture or region or point in time and space or technique or whatever that you're most interested in, right? What you want to know more about, or what techniques you want to apply, or what excites you?

I don't think anyone would expect you to have the skills or experience to be able to put something together on your own that looks like a grownup wrote it, but you should know something like 'I want to apply GIS to (site/s or area or whatever) in order to address questions of regional subsistence/mobility/land use patterns' or 'I'm interested in looking at how the environment changed in this region over this time period using these climate proxies and this modelling software and applying that information to interpreting cultural behaviours during this time' or even 'I want to apply and further develop this technique, and your work is really exciting and I want to work with you on it in some way' - and whoever you contact will give you an answer of some degree of welcoming helpfulness and guidance and may be willing to help you put together the research proposal.

My experience was that even as an undergraduate I knew what I was interested in (well. what 5ish things I was interested in.), and I knew the key players and where they were and what they did. I'd met them at conferences and spoken to them, I'd read their papers, I knew what the field looked like and what work was being done. I could identify interesting questions or gaps in our knowledge or issues with methods that should be addressed. And I still couldn't have written a decent research proposal cold. I could think of lots of ideas, but needed help putting together a proper proposal. I don't think you're expected to sprout something from your forehead fully formed and without some input from your prospective supervisor/advisor.

And in case you haven't already decided where you want to be/who you want to work with and you're still open to looking, you might find this postgraduate opportunities in archaeology blog useful. There are a decent number of off-the-rack PhDs advertised, and that might make things easier for you.

(on preview, what lollusc said.)

Sorry if this wasn't remotely helpful - happy to chat more specifically any time. Feel free to memail me.

*Disclaimer - I'm in the UK
posted by you must supply a verb at 4:05 PM on September 28, 2014

If I could write a useful research proposal now, I wouldn't be applying to grad school.

When I was accepted into my program I discovered that about 20% of my cohort had already written research proposals that had been funded. They did this BEFORE getting into school. Wow! I was amazed, and promptly started scribbling down ideas for proposals and busily applying for funding. And I managed to score a national fellowship within the year.

I don't work in your field, but I went through a Ph.D. ology program which required us to write not one, but many proposals for research that never went anywhere. This is the way I'd think about it: this opportunity to write a mock research proposal is part of developing the skillset you'll need in the future. This is part of why you want to be in graduate school.

For me, graduate school was at its core a period of time where I focused on honing specific skillsets. Right now, what they're asking you for is taking some time away from your other pursuits to write the first of many research proposals that may not go anywhere. But each will, one hopes, be better, and gradually build you the skills you'll need to be successful.

Don't think of this as a useless, pie in the sky project. Take this very seriously indeed...and start researching whether there are any fellowships you can apply for using it prior to being accepted to school. Then mention the fact that you've applied for the fellowships on your application, it is a huge leg up. Good luck.
posted by arnicae at 4:53 PM on September 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

So, I see a request for writing up a research proposal as asking for me to write some Mary Sue research fanfic. Not only that, but I'm being set up for failure anyway. If I had the skills to write a decent research proposal, I wouldn't be applying to a Ph.D. program.

The way I see it, you're getting in your own way.

The only way to learn to write research proposals is by writing research proposals. And every Ph.D. has to start somewhere. This is where you start.

You've already identified step one: look at the faculty in the department where you wish to apply and read their work - or at least the abstracts (go to a university library if you no longer have access to on-line databases). Find a faculty member who's work you find interesting. As others have suggested, get in touch with them and discuss a potential collaboration (although, frankly, that is less common in my field).

You've already figured out step two: read some relevant literature. Who does your favorite faculty cite? Go to the library. Hang out in the archeology journal section. Read the latest issues, or at least the abstracts of the articles. Figure out what scholars in the field are discussing. What are the debates? Do you have any strong opinions about them? Is there someone's work you really admire?

Lastly, since this is a research proposal, think about the site, case or data you want to study. Chances are, the faculty you choose and the debates that interests you are somehow related to the case in question. Outline a methodology. What would you do there?

Once you've done those three things - which involve you spending a day in the library - you will likely have a clearer idea about what you'd like to research. And then it will become easier to define a research question you would potentially like to investigate for your Ph.D, as well as a research plan on how you are going to answer your research question.

And yes, I have sat on a selection committee, only not for archeology. We expect our incoming students to be able to explain how our program can support them in their research goals. We expect them to be able to articulate a somewhat good research question/or hypothesis and be able to tell us its significance. We like it when students' proposed research is feasible: meaning, when they explain to us how they will carry out the research so that it will be done in 4 or 5 years. And then we choose from the pool of applicants the 12 which pull this off better. And no, none of them is ever perfect - so that shouldn't be your expectations for yourself.
posted by Milau at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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