Reflections on writing a research proposal

The following is part of a series of blog posts I wrote while taking an education PhD course on Epistemologies. A summary of all posts in the series is included in this paper: Developing an Appreciative Understanding of Epistemologies in Educational Research: One Blogger’s Journey

My thoughts on the research process have changed greatly over the last couple of weeks. As part of a scholarship application, I had to write a two-page research proposal. At first I thought it would not be too difficult, as I have already taken a course in qualitative methods and another on statistics, plus I wrote a paper on design-based research methodology. I understand how to “do” research, so I didn’t think a proposal would be that difficult. This isn’t the first time I’ve been required to write a research proposal, but the last time, for my Master’s project, was a long time ago (about six years). I was required to do an action research project, so the proposal was in a standard format, and the program staff provided a lot of support while you were writing. Writing this two-page proposal, turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated.

At this point in time, I must admit that I feel a little like a fool for describing the process that I followed, as it was clearly ill informed. Please, no laughing while you read this!

I began the proposal by describing a design-based research project that I wanted to do. I already had in my mind a course I wanted to build, and how it might be melded to fit a design-based research structure. I had a challenge coming up with a research question, as the formats for questions provided in Creswell (2009) did not adequately describe what I wanted to do.

I continued to struggle with finding the right form for the research question. Fortunately, I had an article on “Design-based research and doctoral students: Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal” (Herrington, McKenney, Reeves, & Oliver, 2007). In the article, the authors quote Edelson (2006) using the word “alternative” in the research question. With this, I realized that the verb “improve” was the one I wanted. I was able to come up with a research question in the form of “how can we improve upon …”

Proud of myself for having found a “good” question, and having done a thorough job describing exactly how the project would be built, I submitted what I thought was an excellent first draft to my supervisor. As an instructional designer and technical writer, the document was well-written and provided clear procedures as the how the project would be executed. Unfortunately, I was way off the mark as far as a research proposal was concerned. I had completely missed the justification of the project, and a two-page proposal needs at least half a page of literature review, which I had chosen to skip in favour of including detailed procedures.

My pride now hurt, I needed to take a step back and re-assess. I also need to develop a “thicker-skin” as I cannot afford to have my pride hurt every time I receive feedback. My proposal was missing the “why” and “so what” factors. I needed to use literature to describe why my research was a good idea. I had fallen into writing what I was comfortable with – procedures – rather than what was required. I had also tackled the problem with the eyes of a practitioner (instructional designer) rather than a researcher. As a researcher, I needed to focus on the research question, I had to justify why it was a worthy question, and only after I had done both of those could I determine the best methodology, and then describe it.

It occurs to me that I have two distinct and disjoint views of the project, one as a practitioner and one as a researcher. I need to be clear when I am acting in one role versus the other. Can I effectively be the practitioner and researchers on the same project?

The proposal had to go back to the drawing board: I had to define what the purpose of the research was. I reviewed some of the literature but stumbled. I got caught finding reasons why what I wanted to do wasn’t a good idea. I couldn’t move forward until I realized I was fixated on the wrong question (why not? rather than why?). There will always be reasons to justify why I shouldn’t do something; the focus needs to be on justifying why I should. With that change in mind-set, I was able to quickly identify relevant research and justify my research proposal.

Upon reflection, one of the reasons I kept having trouble with the research question, was my focus on “how” I was going to answer the question. I found myself only willing to ask questions where I thought that I already knew the answer or questions where I clearly understood how I would find the answer. I wasn’t allowing myself permission to ask the deeper burning questions; for fear that I would not know how to answer them. However, I now realize that the best research questions are the ones you don’t know the answers to. And part of the joy in research, is figuring out the methods that will be help you find that answer. I also understand Johnson & Onweugbuzie when they say: “What is most fundamental is the research question—research methods should follow research questions in a way that offers the best chance to obtain useful answers” (2004, pp.17-18).

Now that my scholarship application has been submitted, I am looking forward to getting back into the exploratory phase of the research process. I want to spend more time reading the literature and reflecting on my research question. I have now freed myself of methodological constraints. I am free to ask whatever burning question I want, I just need to figure out what that is!


Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publications Inc.

Edelson, D. C. (2006). Balancing innovation and assessing design research proposals. In J. van den Akker, K. Gravenmeijer, S. McKenney, & N. Nieveen (Eds.), Educational design research (pp. 100-106). Abingdon, UK: Routledge. doi:

Herrington, J., McKenney, S., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2007). Design-based research and doctoral students: Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal. Proceedings from World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Vancouver, Canada.

Johnson, R. B., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2004). Mixed methods research: A research paradigm whose time has come. Educational Researcher, 33(7), 14-26. doi:10.3102/0013189X033007014

3 responses

  1. Kathryn Donahue Avatar
    Kathryn Donahue

    Thank you! I am working on a design-based proposal for a Master’s project – I did action research for a previous Master’s and am pushing myself outside the box in preparation for a PhD program. Your reflections were very helpful, as I now see that I have been struggling with a practitioner vs. researcher mindset.

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