Independent research is one of the most rewarding, yet underutilized, experiences available to students today.
Research not only looks stellar on a resume, it allows you to delve into a topic you’re passionate about and use your classroom knowledge in the real world.
Here are the five key steps you need to get started on your first research proposal:
1. Read up.
If you’re trying to convince a review committee to invest in you, you better know your stuff. I’m not talking about getting your facts right (this should be an obvious one, incorrect facts are the quickest way to get a proposal rejected). You need to show the reviewers that you’re aware of the current state of research in your field.
Immerse yourself in the most recent literature so that you can not only speak intelligently about the subject, but also identify gaps in knowledge.
There’s no need to research something that’s already known. You should be perusing questions that still need answering. So do some digging, drink some coffee, and get busy.
2. Make Google your friend.
One of the hurdles stopping students from pursuing research opportunities is that they don’t know where to look. There are many grants available, especially for undergraduates.
Avoid generic search terms like “undergraduate grants” or “research opportunities.” Do you want to study American Art? Disease in Southeast Asia? Alternative energy options? Chances are there are grant opportunities specific to your topic.
Also think about your background as an investigator. There are awards specifically for women, minorities, student athletes … essentially any group you can imagine. Applying to a grant that targets a niche decreases your competition and allows the specifics of your proposal to shine through.
3. Know your strengths.
Design your research proposal around something you’re qualified to do. It’s easy to overestimate what you can accomplish with the time and resources available.
In your proposal, avoid including research techniques or programs that you don’t have experience with. Don’t assume you can jump in and learn a complicated lab method if you’ve never worked in a lab before. But if you’ve worked for your school paper, try a project that involves outreach through blogging and photography.
This will help you get the grant and ultimately increases your chance for success with the project as a whole.
4. Think it through.
A successful research proposal has two components: a thought-provoking question that contributes to current knowledge and specific details regarding how you’re going to answer said question.
Coming up with a great question isn’t enough — you need to tell reviewers the details. They aren’t going to invest in a student with a half-baked plan.
There are the basics, like how you’ll collect your information, how you’ll display your results and who you’ll collaborate with. But there are other important questions that need to be answered too, like how will you feed yourself? How will you travel from place to place? What measures will you take to stay safe?
By the time the reviewers finish your proposal, they should have a mental picture of every step of the project. Although there are certainly details you don’t know, include as many as possible to show reviewers that you’re responsible, organized and can be trusted to see this through.
5. Be confident.
At the end of the day, you’re selling yourself as a researcher. A committee might love an idea, but unless you can convince them that you’re the right person for the job, they’re going to send their money elsewhere.
Be sure to tell the committee a) why this proposed research is a necessary addition to the realm of current knowledge and b) why you’re qualified to carry it out.
Whether you’re in the lab, the field, or behind a computer conducting research, you’re bound to run into unexpected speed bumps. Show them you can handle it.
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