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PhD thesis proposal
Research proposal

Writing a PhD proposal

A PhD dissertation is a genre of academic writing in which the doctoral candidate demonstrates that he/she is capable of reviewing past scholarship, designing and carrying out new problem-oriented research, and presenting the results in a scholarly manner.

PhD thesis proposal

A PhD thesis proposal is a short document that describes the proposed research that will form the basis of the dissertation. It is not the outline of the dissertation itself. Your application essay should make a convincing case that your project is worth doing and that you understand its context in current scholarship. You need to demonstrate that you have appropriate source materials, a methodological approach, and a theme or subject to explore.

A Medieval Studies Department application essay has several parts: An introduction to the general topic; a statement of your topic within the general picture; the background to scholarship on the topic, your specific research goal formulated as a research statement or question; a brief summary of your source materials; a discussion of methodology you will use for the analysis; the anticipated results; how you plan to establish the validity of your results; a statement of the relevance or implications of your research; a concluding summary that points out the value to the field (here it is helpful to point out potential interdisciplinary aspects of the research); and a specific research proposal (a one- to two-page discussion of the feasibility of your study).

The three- to five-page essay section answers the academic questions:
1. What will this project tell us that we did not know before?
2. Why is it worth knowing?

The essay consists of the following:
The topic: First decide on a general topic. Some examples are: the history of mendicant orders, the archaeology of castles, Nestorian philosophy, the tradition of manuscript apocrypha, or female testamentary bequests. These are all descriptive phrases that cover a great deal of information, but which situate a topic in a general area of medieval studies: Textual analysis, art history, philosophy, history, archaeology, and so on. The statement of your topic area should take no more than two sentences. The topic is only the context for your research, not the research itself.

Background to the research question: Here you discuss the topic area of your proposed research question. You might summarize the prevailing ideas in the scholarship, or discuss the principal problems with particular source materials, or point out the absence of research on some topic. This discussion provides a transition to your specific research question.

The research question: Here you present your research statement or question. A research question or problem statement is a controlling idea to help you decide exactly what should and should not be included in the research. For workable research you need to have a point of view. You will not just summarize what other people have said or done, nor will you merely describe new material, but you will construct new knowledge. To do that you need to assemble data to answer your research question with a new or different answer that somehow extends and builds on what you have learned from the sources and other research. A workable research question, however interesting, must relate to source(s) of some sort(s). An interesting question for which no sources are available will not be suitable for dissertation research.

When preparing your guiding questions or statements try to write them so that they frame your own research and put it into perspective with other research. These questions should have one main idea and must serve to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Your research questions should clearly show the relationship of your research to the medieval studies’ context. Don't get carried away at this point and make your questions too narrow. You should start with broad relational questions. A strong proposal shows that two ideas are related.

Good research statements:
Urban development in Kievan Rus’ was a result of the interaction of trade and immigration. (This statement posits a relationship between three variables: Urban development, trade and immigration. Each of these can now be defined and their relationships explored.)

Medieval images of dress communicate information about social status and evaluations of their positive and negative impacts on society. (This statement suggests a relationship between images, their makers, and various messages they conveyed to a medieval audience.)

Did female monasteries have scriptoria? (You don’t have to know the answer yet, although you probably have some expectations of what it might be. Formulating the research question gives you guidance on developing the idea further and looking for relevant connections and sources.)

Too broad:
History is full of interesting events. (This is a generality.)

What was the role of Germans in the Hussite movement? (It would take a lifetime to research this topic.)

No source material:
How/What did Hungarian peasants in the twelfth century feel about their identity? (This is a fascinating question, but there is no source material for investigating it.)

Too narrow:
Scribe XX and his influence on the chancellery of king YY. (This is a topic for a short study but not for a whole PhD dissertation. Scribes may have been influential, but they usually represent too short of a period of time and too specific an environment.)

Source Material: Here you briefly describe what your source material will be. This is where you show your familiarity with the specific research context. This is not a literature review in the strictest sense, but you need to demonstrate that you have identified appropriate source material for your topic. This material can be texts, images, objects of material culture, or a combination of these. You should indicate the quantity and quality of primary source material (as well as you can at this stage) and the quantity of secondary source material. A short bibliography of essential sources can be added to the paper.

Analytical Approach: Here you describe and discuss how you plan to analyze your source materials. The answer to this section lies in determining what it will take to answer the research question you have posed above. Will you compare and contrast different styles of something? Will you trace the chronological occurrence of some phenomenon as a basis for discussing the history of something (an idea, for instance)? Will you collect the frequencies of something (items in testaments, for instance)? What will these frequencies indicate? Will you prepare a catalog as a basis? After you have a catalog what will you do with it? If you plan to follow a particular theoretical scheme, semiotics, for instance, you should convince the reader that you know enough to apply the method. It is not enough to say, “I will compare the texts.” You must be more specific. Will you create a catalog or a database or do something else with these texts? How you organize your data will influence the kinds of conclusions that you can draw. This is also the section where you discuss how the validity of your conclusions can be judged.

In your research statement you propose a relationship between variables, a relationship such as cause and effect (there are other kinds, too). Validity means that you discuss how your analysis demonstrates that the link between variables is as you predicted in your research statement. Thus, if you arrange a series of events chronologically and argue that each one caused the next, you must discuss how you established the difference between causation and mere chronology. In this section you need only make a mention of validity, but you should show that you have considered it.

Anticipated Results and Their Significance: Here you suggest what you might find out in your research, although, of course, you cannot present the results of a study you have not done yet. It is acceptable here to suggest several possible answers to your research question(s), since you have not actually done the research yet.

The Implications or Relevance of the Proposed Research: Here you discuss the new knowledge that your research will produce. How will your project affect the field of medieval studies? Will you elucidate a body of previously unpublished documents or archaeological objects? Will you provide a new viewpoint on an established topic or issue?

Conclusions: Here you summarize the topic area of your proposed research, the sources you plan to use, the question you plan to ask, the means by which you will try to answer it, and the possible range of answers and their potential significance for medieval studies.

Research proposal

The (maximum five-page) research proposal consists of the following:

This proposal covers the research project that will lead to and support the dissertation itself. This is a feasibility study to show that what you want to do is in fact possible. It is a discussion of what you will do, specifically, to achieve your research goals. It is also the place to establish that CEU is the proper place for this research. Who will supervise your work? What resources are available in the department and in Budapest libraries and archives?

What source material information will you collect? Do you already have some preliminary experience with the material or have you already worked with part of it? How much of it has been edited, published, or inventoried? Is your research topic already part of a larger study or research project, for instance, a series of regional investigations by different scholars? How do you plan to interact with this larger project? By sharing databases? By using the larger project’s methodology? By using other project data for comparative cases?

Where is your source material? Which archive, how many archives hold items of interest for you? What do you know about accessibility—is the material some other scholar’s intellectual property? How many study centers would you need to visit to see all your sources? If your sources are in the Vatican collections will you be able to get access?

How will you collect your data (note-taking, photocopying, recording of objects or scanning, for instance)? How much time do you anticipate it will take?

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