HOW TO: Write a Graduate Research Proposal or Question

Posted by Christiaan on November 12, 2013


Graduate application deadlines are approaching and there is one key thing you still need to hack out: your research proposal or question – the most important aspect of your application.

In reviewing your application, the committee will scan for clear answers to these (three) questions:

  1. What new knowledge will be generated for the discipline?
  2. Why is it valuable?
  3. How can the committee be assured the conclusions will be valid? How will you present your findings?

I’ve outlined some important aspects of the application process you might want to consider while ‘answering’ the above-mentioned questions. There are other things you can or might want to include (your personal touch), but here are some items I think are crucial:

Set yourself apart (obvi)

You want to make sure that the reviewer will be left with something to remember: a message that will remain after reading many other proposals. Make sure your proposal is clear and has a strong opening paragraph that will grab the reviewer’s attention. Your statement should tell a compelling story.

Keep the language simple – no jibberish

Always keep in mind that reviewers may not be experts in your particular research area. Phrase your proposal in language and a narrative that will be accessible to an intelligent but non-specialized reviewer – don’t use jibberish. Eliminate any theoretical discourse. Remember KISS?

Keep the spotlight on ideas

Start with a subject that interests you – a research proposal or a question – and develop a good proposal around it. Don’t worry if your proposed research project isn’t the ‘hot topic’ in the field right now – a ‘queer’ project may stand out among all the other applications.

Emphasize independence + research

Show the reviewer that you are ready to take on the challenge of independent research – that you have not only a strong foundation for research as evidenced by a knowledge of the core scholarly publications in your discipline, but also that you possess the creativity, passion and drive that will take you from more passive learning to active invention and hypothesis. Be clear about how you will undertake the research and how you will analyze the results. Argue why you think this is the best approach to the problem.

The way you formulate your questions and describe how you will address them will reveal a lot to the review committee about your thought processes. The important thing is to show that you’ll be capable of carrying out research in the discipline area proposed given the resources available to you.

Proof your work

Make sure that there are no typographical or grammatical errors and follow the guidelines carefully. Your statements reflect on the level of professionalism you will bring to your research. When the competition is extreme, reviewers look for clues that differentiate one application from another. Typographical errors, grammatical errors, and inattention to guidelines will create suspicion over your attention to detail and will probably result in your application being passed over.

Methods course

If you haven’t done so, I highly suggest a methodologies seminar in your fourth year of university – or a seminar that requires a research proposal and a presentation of it. I am currently taking one at York University: SXST 4601 Queer Methods & Sex Research. I am not going to lie, this is THE MOST interesting course I have taken, and I already have one undergraduate degree under my belt. I highly recommend it for prospective graduate school applicants – and to anyone who wants to further develop critical thinking skills. A methods course will spark interest in the graduate committee and will alert them that you have taken on independent research and you have present on your findings. Graduate advisors don’t have time to ‘teach’ grad school students and look for those who will need little to no supervision.

What I leave you with is this point that was raised by Talent Egg from the University of Alberta’s English department:

Pay close attention to the statement of program: although every element of the application is important, it is in this part that you really show yourself to the committee. Be sure to explain what you want to do (what you’re interested in) and why (or how you got there); explain why this university is an appropriate place for you to undertake your studies (do some research related to faculty, departmental strengths, course offerings, cross- and inter-disciplinary factors, library holdings).”

… but the best way to determine exactly what a department is looking for is to contact that program’s graduate advisor.


This is the space where you can come and decide your future with no pressure(s). I like funny things, like watching people get scared. Hilarious.

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  • Megan

    What a great post Christiaan! This is something that is right around the corner for me so I’ll definitely be looking back on your post as a resource 🙂