Describing your data collection methods
Some faculty advisors will be satisfied to have you submit your proposed study initially as a topic and a rationale, as illustrated in the cognitivedevelopment and social-stratification examples. But before giving final approval to your plan, they will usually wish to learn what methods you intend to use for collecting and analyzing your data. This means that you may wish to submit your proposal in two stages.
The first stage consists of describing your research question and supporting that choice with a rationale. Your intention at this juncture is to solicit your advisor’s opinion about the suitability of your topic before you go to the trouble of working out a data-gathering plan. Then, if your topic and its rationale are judged acceptable–either in their original state or in a revised version–you move ahead to specifying your methodology. At the first stage, your advisor may wish to suggest which methods will and which will not be suitable for answering your particular research questions. Subsequently, in the second phase of your submission on a later occasion, you describe your intended data-gathering techniques and perhaps the mode of interpretation you hope to employ.
However, at the time that you first submit your proposal, some advisors will want you to specify your methodology as well as your topic and supporting rationale. The following excerpt illustrates one way that might be done. In this example the author (a) begins by identifying a domain (high school vocational counseling), (b) then explains that his intended contribution consists of a theory generated out of other researchers’ work (cited in brackets) and that the project is designed to test hypotheses derived from that theory, and (c) finishes by describing the intended methods of data-gathering and interpretation. In this instance, the research question (Why do the effects of high school vocational counseling on students’ subsequent careers vary from one school to another”) is implied rather than stated outright.
Writers have often proposed that the influence of high schools’ vocational counseling procedures on students’ subsequent careers varies among schools, but none has offered a compelling theory for why such effects occur [ Lindsey, 1994; Hanks, Stuart, & Alpert, 1995; Risutto, 1995]. I use existing knowledge about counseling effects to develop hypotheses for between-school differences in counseling outcomes. Building on the work of Stevens [ 1987], I argue that the impact of vocational counseling varies according to the vocational opportunities in the community. I also consider claims that counseling produces different effects in public and private schools [ Galloway & Burton, 1987; Portia & Vandenberg, 1990]. I plan to test these hypotheses by applying methods of multi-level contextual analysis to data on vocational counseling and later job placement in a national sample of high schools.
A Final Comment
In order to cover a lot of ground and offer diverse examples within the space of a few pages, we have described research problems and their rationales in an unrealistically brief form. In actual theses and dissertation proposals, such descriptions are far more detailed. To show how a more true-to-life, extensive proposal looks, we have included in the appendix at the end of this volume the outline of a dissertation proposal by Robin Ganzert.