A well-reviewed research proposal is typically built around one specific research question. Crafting this pivotal detail can be challenging, and we offer a number of suggestions to students at this formative stage in the proposal-writing process.
A good question should be built directly upon a foundation of existing scholarship in your discipline, and should advance the literature in a concrete and specific way. Therefore, a deep familiarity with the body of published scholarly literature with which your project engages is essential. While many graduate students spend the first few years of graduate school reading and getting up-to-speed on current debates and issues in the literature, your external funding application may be due in only a few months or less.
Therefore, you will want to work closely with your faculty advisor (and other relevant faculty or committee members), who have already spent years reading and engaging with the body or bodies of literature in that specific area of your discipline. Set aside a time to discuss your general topics of interest, and ask your advisor whether or how these topics coincide with ongoing debates or important conversations that are happening in your field to help you narrow or revise your focus. Remember that as an academic, it can be easy to be distracted by the many different lines of inquiry being pursued in your field, but as a graduate student you will need to choose only one or two from which to build the rationale for your thesis or dissertation project.
Next, beginning from your newly-honed topic of interest, ask your advisor to help you identify 3-5 citations from which to begin your investigation of the literature, focusing on review articles and recent publications. As you read these articles, highlight a few citations that seem to be the most relevant or interesting, and seek out these references as a way to build your bibliography and knowledge of the field. You might also ask your advisor, other faculty, senior graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows with similar research topics and interests for lists of citations, but keep in mind that you don’t need to read everything on those lists to identify a preliminary research question and argument/hypothesis on which to base your funding proposal.
Once you have a general sense of what’s new and interesting in your topic from the perspective of your discipline, begin to brainstorm a few research questions that are pointed to by the literature, but have not yet been answered. Each question you identify should be able to be supported by at least 3-5 recent citations in a clear and direct way. Spend some time making the questions as specific and answerable as possible: For example, “how does climate change impact agricultural practices?” might require multiple careers in various disciplines to fully answer, but “how did corn farmers in the American Southwest modify irrigation practices to increase productivity during periods of drought in the 1930s?” might be well established in the scope of a single dissertation (if it hasn’t been answered already, which I expect it has- you get the idea, though!).
Email your faculty advisor with your 2-3 favorite specific research questions, and ask to set up a time to discuss these research questions and their feasibility in the context of your degree program. Plan to explain to your advisor during the meeting exactly how and why the existing literature suggests that each questions is timely and relevant. However, go into the meeting with an open mind, since each question may point to a need for a different set of financial resources, advising expertise, methodological approaches, and other practical considerations that cause your advisor to point you in a different direction. Keep in mind that the research question you pursue for your thesis or dissertation is likely to be only the beginning of a much longer and more diverse scholarly career that may go in many directions!