Writing a Research Proposal: a How-To Guide for You and for Me
Author: Leika Keys
Editor: Eva Li
My Research Proposal
My name is Leika Keys and I am a fourth-year political science major at UCLA and the outreach coordinator here at Aleph. As the sun sets on my senior year, my long-waited and planned existential crisis can finally emerge out of its nest. In response, I have frantically been searching for a grad program to throw myself in. Somewhere along the way, I found myself writing research proposals to universities in the U.K. and Japan, hoping to continue my educational career. Maybe, you find yourself in the same position as me—desperately trying to figure out your next step before you (in my case, virtually) walk across the graduation stage. If so, let me offer you some insights and hopefully ease your panic.
Key words: research, existential crises, graduate school, Japan, U.K., politics
I would like to acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky and privileged to even consider graduate school. The last thing I want to insinuate is that I am an aimless 21-year-old that throws money at new ventures and hopes something will stick. While there is a lot of anxiety and dread surrounding this process and decision, I acknowledge that my economic status allows me to dip my feet into a postgraduate degree, something that I am aware that not everyone can engage with.
In a research proposal, you are trying to answer these questions: what your research topic is, why it is a valuable pursuit, and how it can be accomplished. Try to answer these expansive questions as concisely as possible—if you can, then you’re golden. I know that sounds way easier than it actually is. My proposal ponders the idea of a link between online American and Japanese right-wing politics and will explain how it will continue to affect the political landscape of both countries. To achieve this, my methodology proposes to analyze the rhetoric of extreme right-wing posts made by American and Japanese users of social media sites (i.e. 5channel and Twitter). Japanese scholars have conducted some research on this topic, but I believe my angle has not been investigated– yet.
However strongly I am attached to this project, I would like to emphasize that this research topic may not come to fruition. I want to place the biggest asterisk here and say that everything—and I mean everything—is subject to change.
French philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that the greatest form of self-care is to know oneself. I’d like to extend this advice to writing your proposal. It actually took me years to discover my work habits and they’ve never remained constant. Through trial and error, I learned (and am still learning) how my brain works. Personally, I finish other responsibilities the day before starting on my research proposal. Then, I block out an entire day to focus on the proposal. This method, however, I would like to stress is what works for me.
Maybe, you like to work on your research proposal for an hour or two everyday. Or, maybe you need the pressure of an impending deadline that propels you to work harder and faster towards the due date. By now, you probably already know your most effective studying strategies—do not ignore them. You can watch as many videos on YouTube on “how to be productive” as you can but keep Foucault’s words in mind. Don’t try to use someone else’s methods in an effort to be more productive if you can’t follow them.
My biggest struggle has been to learn a whole new sector of information to draft my proposal. I knew almost nothing about Japanese politics before I formulated my proposal’s objective. My only research experience is a paper I wrote on highway development in Phoenix, Arizona of all things. As you already know, my graduate proposal is quite different from my research experience – I am comparing and contrasting the right-wing politics of the United States and Japan. Many other students can relate to the fluctuations of my research interests. So many of us have too many passions and have really struggled to narrow in not only on our research desires but what career we want to pursue after our undergraduate years. I found myself constantly muttering, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” And no matter how true this may feel, the good news is that it isn’t 100% factual.
After more than a decade of formal education, we have developed instincts to figure out the hallmarks of a sound project. As daunting as it sounds, trying to ingest new knowledge is manageable. First, I started reading contemporary news articles pertinent to my interests and pinpointed the authors of the research cited. From there, I determined the leading experts in my field and read their research. Then, I spoke to professors both from UCLA and other institutions to gauge their thoughts on my ideas.
Therefore, I recommend reaching out to anyone and everyone. Cold emailing is one of the most stressful forms of communication – at times, you may feel like an attention-seeking child begging for a sense of validation. However, the painful truth is that you cannot conduct your potentially groundbreaking research on your own. You must learn how to advocate for yourself and force people to listen to your ideas. As someone who is innately quite shy, this has been ridiculously and laughably hard for me. However, I encourage you to swallow this annoying pill regularly and do what needs to be done.
While my research interests are not necessarily uncommon, many people are not scrambling to study Japanese right-wing politics. However, my fascination for this topic runs deep. Since high school and the 2016 election, I’ve been fascinated with the right-wing political ecosystem in the United States. Even though the U.S. is a young country, there is much history within the world of conservative politics. The right-wing movement consists of so many different kinds of people and factions that even I struggle to keep up with them. On top of that, my half-Japanese identity motivated me to research this topic. Thus, my own personal history encouraged me to study the history and current politics of both countries. While there are a plethora of other topics within political science I would also love to study like healthcare policy and leftist organizing, I’m ultimately happy with my choice. That is all I can ask for.
The biggest question I had to weigh was whether or not I should go to grad school. Though I have decided to apply to these programs, it does not mean I want to go. I love political science – I love learning how different people within and across borders attempt to develop ways to coexist; I love researching an enthralling topic and the feeling of not wanting to stop, to keep digging. But going into research after your undergraduate degree seems absolutely frightening, to say the least. Every faculty member and grad student I’ve talked to expected undergraduates to define the parameters of their research interests and never waver from them. Again, you need to carve out a space for yourself and dig your heels in. I’ve learned confidence will apparently get you far in academia. I may not have developed this sense of confidence yet, but I have enough faith in myself to make my own nest in this world and continue working on this proposal.
Whether you decide to attend graduate school or not, I trust you can find your own place and peace within (or without) the education system. It will require work on your part but the process and these stressful thoughts won’t last forever and I guarantee that you will work it out for yourself.
Keep in mind that this is just a proposal. You will not be asked to live and die by these pages of paper in your postgraduate career or in your life for that matter. Plans deviate, ideas change, and the world moves on. As stressful as this new chapter is, academia has not killed you yet and your proposal will not be the final nail on the coffin that is your academic and professional career.
“Do I need to even be that accurate in my citations?” Yes, you do. Don’t even bother getting around this one. Just cut to the chase and stop cutting corners.
Foucault, Michel, Paul Rabinow, Robert Hurley, and James D. Faubion. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. London, UK: Penguin, 2000.