Research Proposal: How to choose and defend them

Q: Why must I defend a research proposal anyway?
A: The purpose of the research proposal is to demonstrate that you have the ability and maturity to conceive and execute a piece of original research; this ability is, we believe, the most important hallmark of one who holds the Ph.D. degree. Prior to World War II, it was common for Ph.D. candidates to conceive their own thesis project and to execute it with a minimum of guidance from faculty members. Today, with most research being funded by agencies outside the university, it is more common for a student to be given a problem by a faculty member who then guides the research along lines required by the funding agency. Such a relationship often places severe limitations upon the amount of originality and initiative the Ph.D. candidate is able to demonstrate. Hence the research proposal.

The research proposal experience can also provide some students with a valuable fringe benefit. When a student is being interviewed for an academic position where research opportunities are included, it makes an excellent impression to be able to discuss research which is original and not simply an obvious spin-off or continuation of the Ph.D. thesis.

Q: Where do I get ideas for research proposal?
A: Basically, you get ideas by exposing yourself to research others are doing. This exposure comes from following the journal literature, from attending graduate seminars, and, most of all, from making it a habit to think about things you can do with the knowledge and skills you possess and are acquiring. Some ideas may come to you while you are doing advanced course work, e.g., you may notice an important gap in the mechanism of a reaction, etc. If you expect to defend a proposal within the first three years (as required by the rules), don't wait until the last minute and expect to come up with good research ideas. Right now is the time to start developing the habits of reading at least some of the research literature, of listening critically at seminars, and of trying to go beyond the material in your course work. When an idea occurs to you, go to the library and see if the work has already been done. Often you will find it has -- all the more reason to begin your quest as early as possible.

A helpful suggestion is to begin reading journals early and keep a notebook of ideas. This will become a valuable reference tool.

Q: Does the research proposal have to be of Nobel Prize caliber?
A: While we certainly welcome Nobel Prize ideas from anyone and at any time, very little research can ever hope to be of such a level. All we ask is that the proposed research promises to produce new information of use to the chemistry profession. As a rough guideline, the proposed research should be of such scope that it appears to be doable in approximately one to two years. Many projects of this scope ordinarily would be acceptable as subjects of master's theses.

Q: How long should the original abstracts be?
A: If you cannot summarize the proposal adequately in 500 words or less, then you probably don't understand the problem well enough to risk defending it. The abstract should contain a clear statement of just what it is you intend to do and enough detail on how you propose to do it so that it is possible for the faculty to evaluate it fairly on an objective basis.

Q: How detailed should the final proposal be?
A:Details which a reasonably skilled chemist can be expected to know or look up should not be included, but the proposal should be detailed enough so that such a chemist could use it to design a viable research project. According to the requirements for the Ph.D. Degree, the detailed proposal is to consist of an abstract (150 words or less), a statement of the problem and its significance, historical background, theoretical justification, anticipated experimental results, conclusions, and alternate possibilities.

Q: What aspects of the proposal must I be prepared to defend, i.e., how will the faculty evaluate the defense of my proposal?
A: You must be able to demonstrate that you have a clear conception of the problem, its scope and significance, and be able to convince the faculty that you are capable of executing the required experimental work, analyzing the data, and reaching logical conclusions based on your observations. You are also expected to be able to anticipate possible difficulties and to know what to do it these occur. You should know what equipment facilities are needed, and you should know what the capabilities of the various equipment are, i.e., you must be able to show that the equipment and methods you choose are capable of producing the quality of information demanded by your specific problem.

Q: Why have students failed proposals in the past?
A: Perhaps the most common reason is that the student was overly ambitious in the choice of problem, not realizing fully just what complex subtleties it contained, some of which would baffle even a seasoned investigator. Of course, this means that the student didn't really understand the problem.

A few specific deficiencies of proposals are: failure to anticipate highly probable difficulties, ignorance of the capabilities of equipment vis-a-vis the requirements of the problem studied, and, perhaps above all, ignorance of some basic concepts of chemistry.

Q: Do the committee members do their best to fail as many proposals as possible?
A: The answer to this is a resounding NO! The members of your committee are unanimous in wishing the defender every success; after all, your success reflects favorably upon the department's ability to nurture scientific proficiency and creativity. There generally will be no explicit attempt to trap you with trick questions or to demand a level of performance beyond the reach of Ph.D. candidates. Assuming that you have prepared yourself thoroughly for the proposal defense, your best strategy is to relax and do the best job you can, keeping in mind that the faculty wants you to pass, too.

Q: What happens if I fail a proposal defense?
A:If you fail a proposal defense, your committee sets conditions for a second proposal defense. This may involve re-defense of the proposal, or defense of a new proposal. The latter may be the second proposal whose abstract was accepted originally, or it may be a completely new problem. However, if you fail a second time, you cannot be advanced to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Similarly, failure to defend a proposal successfully by the end of the third year of graduate work also leads to permanent denial of advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Because of the latter, it is unwise to delay preparation of proposals any longer than absolutely necessary. Try to submit the proposal abstract during your second year if at all possible.