Sunday, November 9, 2014

Undergraduate Research Proposal Writing

By Madison Chapman

American University is working towards becoming a stronger research university by tapping into its undergraduate population. Even before figuring out a major, students often express an interest in contributing to a professor’s research project or starting their own research initiative for experience. Such opportunities allow students to explore the world of academia while gaining valuable experience which can look impressive on resumes, graduate school applications, and applications for competitive graduate school scholarships (e.g. Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright Awards). Currently, few students know of an annual competitive opportunity through the Vice Provost Office which enables undergraduate students to head up their own research endeavors. The AU Summer Scholars & Artists Fellowship Award is offered to eight students across the university who submit exemplary proposals for research projects to be conducted over an eight week period during the summer. The $4000 award can be put towards any related expenses, and the project does not have to be conducted on/near AU’s campus as long as the student is in regular contact with their sponsoring faculty mentor.
So how exactly do you write a research proposal if you have never done research before? As one of this past year’s Summer Scholar Award winners, I want to share a few tips for crafting an effective proposal.

·       Think ahead! The strongest research projects (regardless of discipline) stem from projects started in advanced classes within your major. Talk to your professors about how you could expand or extend work on a topic that interests you.

·       Start early! Once you know what you want to do, work with your designated mentor, academic advisor or even another professor to perfect your draft proposal. The experts in your field will know the proper phrasing and keywords necessary for research proposals.

·       Ask yourself why this topic is important! Make sure your research project is tackling a subject which interests you while also addressing something significant and timely to your discipline.

·       Know the scholarly conversation! You are entering an academic dialogue when you begin a research endeavor. Work with professors to discover the literature in your field most relevant to your subject. Before you start original research, you should gain a thorough understanding of how your work fits into the field as a whole. 

·       Have a methodology! Whether you have a scientific project requiring specific technology or you are conducting a humanities project, you need to know exactly how you are going to try to answer your research question(s). Your proposal is not just to articulate what you want to research and why, but also serves to validate that you are capable of carrying out the project successfully.

·       Be mindful of scope! The selection panel will reward ambition only within limits. As scholars-in-the-making, you should be aware of how specific your topic needs to be in order to be manageable. While many people (such as myself) expand their summer projects into independent studies and/or capstones, you need to know what you can accomplish just within those eight weeks.

·       Stay positive! Although I have mentioned a lot of qualifications for your proposal, try to sound confident and passionate. Remember, you are only competing with other undergraduate students. No one can claim to have vast research experience so don’t try to sound like an expert yet. At this point in your academic career, you are only responsible for having genuine interest and motivation. Good luck!


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