It is most important that students feel motivated by the subject chosen, since they will spend a substantial amount of time and effort exploring it. This can be a rewarding challenge when the subject interests them and a very difficult, tedious or stressful task otherwise. They should also consider whether the subject chosen may (or may not) attract the interest of a potential supervisor and should allow themselves some flexibility to make adjustments after discussing the proposal with him/her. Lee with Lings (2008) draw attention to the importance of this aspect, noting that however busy the supervisors may be, they will be more likely to engage with a topic that interests them. Additionally, students should expect that supervisors will be in a better position to offer informed and topical advice in a field that they have previously researched. Consultation of the research publications from a potential supervisor offers some insights into how well informed they are in the area (Lindgreen, Palmer, Vanhamme and Beverland 2002).
Furthermore, in selecting the topic of research, students should consider both the potential for a novel contribution of a thesis developed around that topic and the feasibility of conducting that research. The former means that researching an existing topic, in the same way and employing similar methodologies as previous studies will not be sufficient to constitute a novel study. On the other hand, engaging in the research of a novel topic with new methodology might be overly demanding, if not impossible. It is important for students not to put off their topic selection during the taught part of their degrees (when this applies) but rather that they should keep notes on dissertation possibilities throughout their course (Gordon 2003). This awareness will help them to build on different ideas, develop confidence in their work and reduce the stress of composing a research proposal.
Hart (1998) draws attention to the differences between reading for the purpose of reviewing and reading for pleasure. While reading for the purpose of undertaking a literature review, the researcher aims to produce a product, which is an analytical evaluation of the research on a topic (ibid). Hence, this should not be passive reading but extracting the crucial issues (e.g. standpoints, evidence, concepts) from the text (Hart 1998) and undertaking a critical reflection (see e.g. Catterall, Maclaran and Stevens 1999) upon it. Researchers writing proposals should also learn to use time efficiently (Gabbott 2004).
They should not rush to read the whole text of a book or a journal article in one go, at least not before ensuring that it is relevant. When reading a book, they should begin by reading the title and the writeup on the cover, before glancing at the contents list and preface, and then looking at the introduction (Hart 1998) for more detail; in the case of a journal article, they should begin by reading the abstract to decide how closely the sources match their own research questions (see Baker 2000b). While reading, it is important to be systematic about keeping referenced notes (electronically or hand-written) of anything for inclusion in the final document (Baker 2000b; Gabbott 2004; Baker and Foy 2008).
These notes should be concise and focused on relevant issues avoiding the unproductive temptation to write long summaries of articles which are time-consuming to produce and ineffective when seeking to track specific issues for the review. Having gathered the information, it is then time to organise the relevant material (Baker 2000b), to produce a cohesive review with a clear line of argument (see Gabbott 2004). The decision to take a break from reading and write the review is often difficult for students who may feel more comfortable continuing to read, while postponing the moment when they will need to start producing a document. While undertaking the process of organising the notes and writing a review document, researchers will need to analyse and synthesise the information (Baker 2000b, Hart 1998)
Students should be aware that methodological decisions should be matched to their research purposes (see e.g. Reichardt and Cook 1979; Silverman 2004) and this should be clear in the proposal. Indeed a list of research methods and tasks is not enough to define a methodology; an argument must be given as to why those methods are the best feasible approach (Przeworski and Salomon 1995) in light of the defined objectives (Saunders et al. 2003). At this stage, students are expected to decide whether they are going to follow a quantitative or qualitative research strategy (sometimes both can be usefully combined). As the name indicates, a quantitative piece of research emphasises quantification in the collection and analysis of data (Bryman 2004). Hence, quantitative methods, such as surveys, structured observation, or experiments tend to be preferred for collecting data within the quantitative paradigm (see e.g. Reichardt and Cook 1979; Deshpande 1983; Bryman 2004). Additionally, this paradigm often entails a deductive approach to the relationship between theory and research (Bryman 2004). It is often considered to incorporate a positivist orientation and a view of reality as an external and objective reality (e.g. Bryman 2004), which should be apprehended taking an “outsider’s” perspective, distant from the data (Deshpande 1983, p. 103). On the other hand, a qualitative study emphasises words rather than quantification (Bryman 2004) and, accordingly, tends to prefer qualitative methods (Deshpande 1983), such as in-depth interviewing, focus group and ethnography (see e.g. Bryman 2004). Qualitative research follows a predominantly inductive, and discoveryoriented, approach (Bryman 2004; Deshpande 1983), embodying a view of social reality as a constantly changing property of individuals’ perceptions (Bryman 2004), and aiming to get an “insider’s” perspective (Deshpande 1983, p. 103) of the phenomena under study