The Evolution of the Research Proposal

I’m Super Organized Girl. Maybe it’s my father’s diluted OCD in my genes, recombined with that of my maternal grandmother. Maybe it’s the decade I spent as a professional writer, coordinating projects and people and schedules and 600 page documents and all their changes for the year or so it took to build them. Maybe it’s just me.

I make lists. I make schedules, then I synchronize them between my computer, my phone, my email account. I know what I’m doing next Tuesday at 3:13, and the Tuesday after that, and the Tuesday after that.

So when I embarked on this PhD project, I wrote out a plan for myself. Half the time, I think the planning is the most fun part of any project. It’s when you’re still full of hope that you can actually get the monstrous thing done. It’s when you can break it down into detailed pieces, finding places to celebrate for crossing milestones, accomplishments you can reward yourself for. It’s the post-planning that sucks, when you realize you’ve missed all your deadlines, you’ll never get it done, everyone knows it, and thinks you’re a right nob.

Anyway, via all the funding applications I’ve been helping other PhDs in the department with, I’ve had a lot of discussions about that nebulous being, the research proposal. Six months ago, I was writing a novel and thinking about game aspects of narrative. I was incorporating some Welsh mythology. I might have been thinking to include hypertext.

Today, I’m writing a series of short stories, based in different world mythologies, with a common thread, and adapting them to full digital format. I’m exploring the process of that adaptation, with a dissertation intended to bring some illumination to other authors and even publishers on how we can keep working to make digital fiction a mainstream genre, and to reach mass audiences.

It may not sound like a big change, but it is. The details have also morphed quite a bit, from thoughts on ghosts in Anglesey, to heroes’ journeys across the world. It’s exciting, but I know it will evolve even more before it is done.

Because that’s just what happens. So many of the new PhDs think they’re tied, word-for-word, to whatever proposal they include in their admission or funding application essay. That would just be impossible, and even the funding bodies know that. I keep having postgrads not even consider certain avenues for funding because they wouldn’t think of spinning their research to show how its applicable to certain funding organizations’ mission statements. They hope someone will see the value in their research and throw money at them, rather than being willing to present themselves as flexible, in the best light possible.

I have about five different versions of my CV, each oriented to a certain theme: academic, teaching, research, professional, etc. I submit a targeted CV depending on the job and the industry. The information doesn’t change; just the material I choose to highlight for its applicability to the situation. It’s an important skill for everyone looking for money, IMHO.

I think I’ve gotten off-track here. Oh well. Back to research proposals…

I like being open to change in my ideas. I like considering different aspects. Targeting my research proposal for certain funding, or adjusting it according to my schedule, has given me more ideas, not fewer. I’m more excited about my work than I was four months ago, because I can see it really taking shape. It’s like the metaphor of the sculptor I use for my creative writing students – the marble doesn’t come pre-formed. The sculptor chooses a good shape for his idea, or maybe the marble’s shape itself inspires him. He hacks at it in great swipes for a general shape, and then his tools get finer and finer as the sculpture approaches his ideal.

I’m still hammering away at that vague shape of my research. In another year, I might have the outline of a form. In another, a face may emerge (keep in mind I’m studying part-time, unless I magically get funding). I’m eager to see what it winds up looking like.

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