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

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.

5 minute read

February 29, 2008, 12:46 PM PST

By Ann Forsyth

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
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

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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

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