An academic proposal is the first step in producing a thesis or major project. Its intent is to convince a supervisor or academic committee that your topic and approach are sound, so that you gain approval to proceed with the actual research. As well as indicating your plan of action, an academic proposal should show your theoretical positioning and your relationship to past work in the area.
An academic proposal is expected to contain these elements:
- a rationale for the choice of topic, showing why it is important or useful within the concerns of the discipline or course. It is sensible also to indicate the limitations of your aims—don’t promise what you can’t possibly deliver.
- a review of existing published work (“the literature”) that relates to the topic. Here you need to tell how your proposed work will build on existing studies and yet explore new territory (see the file on The Literature Review).
- an outline of your intended approach or methodology (with comparisons to the existing published work), perhaps including costs, resources needed, and a timeline of when you hope to get things done.
Particular disciplines may have standard ways of organizing the proposal. Ask within your department about expectations in your field. In any case, in organizing your material, be sure to emphasize the specific focus of your work—your research question. Use headings, lists, and visuals to make reading and cross-reference easy. And employ a concrete and precise style to show that you have chosen a feasible idea and can put it into action. Here are some general tips:
- Start with why your idea is worth doing (its contribution to the field), then fill in how (technicalities about topic and method).
- Give enough detail to establish feasibility, but not so much as to bore the reader.
- Show your ability to deal with possible problems or changes in focus.
- Show confidence and eagerness (use I and active verbs, concise style, positive phrasing).
(For help with thesis and grant proposals in graduate schools, see also our online handout on Academic Proposals in Graduate School.)
What follows is a short proposal for a paper on the rapid growth of convenience store chains in America. Note how admirably the proposal takes advantage of the stylistic tips noted in the list on the previous page. Also note that because the proposal author took the initiative to go to a convenience store chain’s business office, she found out that the chain had an historian, who provided her with abundant and excellent data, such as that generated by exit polls, to supplement her library research. This proposal was submitted by an earth science student and received enthusiastic approval and concrete feedback from the professor.
Click here to open a sample proposal within this page.
"The Burgeoning of Convenience Stores Across the American Landscape"
by Janet Lerner
In a little over two decades we have witnessed the emergence of a new concept in retail buying for the American consumer—the convenience store. The United States government defines convenience stores as "food retailer(s) of limited lines in a freestanding sales area of 3,000 square feet, concentrating on selected fast-moving products" (Directory of Supermarkets, Grocery, and Convenience Store Chains, 1990). To this definition I would add that typically the products on the shelves of convenience stores are priced higher than those carried by their competitors.
RATIONALE FOR MY INVESTIGATION
While spreading across the country like politicians on a campaign trail, convenience stores appear to have maintained a fairly distinctive regional character. Uni-Mart and Sheetz are common names for these stores in central Pennsylvania, but in Iowa we find Casey’s, in Massachusetts Cumberland Farms, and hundreds of other names specific to a state or region. I am intrigued by the rapid growth of convenience stores, which, from my early research, seem to retain a local flavor for such a widespread national phenomenon.
Through my library research, I will examine the burgeoning of convenience stores by exploring the answers to questions such as the following:
—How does the rapid growth of convenience stores reflect demographic trends?
—What determines the location of convenience stores? (macro-geography?)
—How have the unrelated markets of food retail and gasoline sales evolved into a common store?
I also plan to interview several key executives at Uni-Mart, including Charles R. Markham, who is the executive vice-president.
Directory of Supermarkets, Grocery, and Convenience Store Chains. CGS, 1990. This is a comprehensive guide to all major and many minor stores and their data (number of stores, size, brief history, top personnel). It also includes maps that illustrate regional concentrations of stores, and provides an overview of the industry today.
Curtis, C.E. "Mobil Wants To Be Your Milkman." Forbes. February 13, 1984, pp. 44-45. This article provides a concise but informative discussion of the combining of the food retail and gas industries.