Common Problems with Proposals for the Exit Project or Thesis in Planning

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In January I explored what kind of exit paper or project students of planning should prepare, why they should write such papers, and when. This month I turn to the proposal, examining key issues any proposal writer needs to consider. As I outline below, the parts of the proposal are fairly standard. However, three areas typically trip up students working on exit projects: identifying the audience(s), framing the question, and reviewing the literature.

Proposal Parts: A proposal typically has several sections. In it you will:

  • Introduce the broad topic and the specific research question or focus.
  • Review literature and practice in the area to identify what research and/or professional activity has gone on before, typical methods used, and where more work is needed.
  • Outline your methods or approach-interviews, design charettes, demographic analysis, etc. A timeline that includes specific steps is important and a budget is sometimes included. Sources of information are also listed. If there could be a question in terms of how you might gain access to information, those logistics are included as well.
  • Provide a draft table of contents or an outline or key sections.
  • Provide a list of references--works referred to in the proposal. Some proposals include an alternative format--the bibliography--that lists references as well as other potential background sources.

Audience and Questions: At its simplest the audience for an exit project or thesis is one's academic committee. They will ultimately give you your grade. To avoid difficult conflicts committee members will typically defer to the committee chair. This makes the chair's role very important so try to select someone who is on your wavelength. Try also to have at least one committee member who you like as a person. They'll work with you to define a researchable question (and the Craft of Research [Chicago 2003] has a number of terrific tips). However, remember that most people make do with imperfect committees and do just fine.

Many exit projects also have a secondary audience-a municipality, citizen group, or even more general readers. At the proposal stage it is important to identify these audiences and ask yourself some tough questions about their expectations and needs.

  • People may be paying you or investing a great amount of time in helping you and want a specific problem solved. They may have strong opinions about how to frame that problem. Will this narrow your focus too much or can you negotiate a more general perspective?
  • Some potential audiences may have to be convinced to see your thesis or project as interesting at all-how will you convince them that your work is important? How can you frame your central questions to have wider appeal?
  • If you are using your thesis or project to help inform a public debate or serve a community group how can it have the greatest effect? Who do you really want to influence? Is this the same set of people as those you are serving?

In these cases the literature review becomes an opportunity to frame your question to answer questions of some general importance for an audience that has influence.

Literature Review: There is, however, more confusion than there needs to be about what constitutes a literature review in a proposal. The following points reflect common questions asked by planning students. However, the Craft of Research has many excellent additional tips.

  • Primarily, a literature review describes, categorizes, and evaluates relevant literature in relation to your research question A literature review does not merely list sources. Even annotating a list is not enough-that kind of list is an annotated bibliography, not a literature review.
  • As such is it a major step in your research or project and part of an iterative process where you develop a topic, review the literature to see how it is treated, refine your topic, and review again. In the end you will have a clear sense of where your study fits and what its contribution or importance is.
  • It is also selective. With the exception of some very narrow or very new areas, these days literature reviews focus on important and relevant literature, rather than all literature. This means that literature reviews involve judgments about what is important and are thus trickier than in the old days when there were fewer studies and projects to review. The selection process should also examine multiple views, if only to show their limitations. Unsure what this means? First ask your advisors. Other published reviews of the literature can help guide you to the important work in the field. Authors, studies, and plans cited frequently are judged by many others as important (which does not mean they are correct or good, just important).
  • The literature review should deal with both methods and substance. The review does this in two ways. First, a review should display consciousness of the methods used in various articles and papers, judging their quality and whether they present adequate evidence. This is a very important and challenging issue. As important, however, is reading studies in order to understand how they have been done so you can replicate or modify their methods.
  • This holds for professional projects as well as research papers and theses. Excellent practitioners have a very good grasp of what other practitioners have done and you can demonstrate this through the literature review. In this case literature is seen widely-reviewing not only academic papers but also more popular or professional accounts of practice, in addition to actual practice reports and plans.

In the final paper or project the literature review might take a somewhat different form-it might be part of the introduction, an appendix, or it might be referred to in passing in various sections. However, it is important to be systematic in the proposal.

The proposal is only a first step, of course. More on organizing the work in upcoming months.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.

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