Down on one knee

Is it always this difficult to propose?

The third milestone1 in the PhD process here at Imperial College is to submit a research plan. Similarly, once a supervisor has been agreed, the funding body supporting my PhD studies requires that a proposal be submitted.

The plan for College does not have to be terribly long (four pages); there will be substantial overlap between the plan I write for college and the proposal sent to the funding body. A number of people has assured me that it is likely that my plans will change during the PhD, such that the planned work in the proposal is not that which I end up submitting.

I am extending some work which formed part of my MSc, and as such, my supervisor and I have talked at reasonable length about what work I will do over the next three years. We have met with my second supervisor and talked about applications of the methods we will develop.

Then why is actually getting the plan down on paper so hard?

According to my student handbook, the research plan “should demonstrate a sound understanding of the research to be undertaken”.

So then for me, the difficulty arises when I attempt to explain with some degree of fluency the background to my study. I am new to the field of statistical genetics, or at least, the statistics part. When it comes to the concepts relating to genetics, I feel at home; however, and I am not a statistician. Trying to express with some degree of fluency the statistical concepts which do not (yet) trip off my own tongue feels laborious.

I was advised to write a lot of waffle keep the proposal general and non-technical. With my biologist’s mind, I interpreted this as “do not put any maths in”. However, if my PhD studies are going to cover statistics, I can see that learning how to waffle using mathematics express basic concepts clearly and succinctly is going to be a necessary skill, as it is likely that I will have to write the background to my study many times.

The current draft of the proposal reads like a hotch-potch of other people’s descriptions of what I am going to do, where I have taken a line from the introduction to a paper here, a series of equations presented in a textbook there. My handling of statistcal concepts feels clumsy, and I plead with my supervisor to proof-read my work carefully because the errors might not be obvious to me.

At the minute, putting together a coherent proposal feels extremely challenging. At different stages of an academic career, I imagine that the that the difficulties are different. As one gets more familiar with the field that one is proposing, do the challenges change?

fn1. The first being register with college, the second being register for an MPhil.

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10 Responses to Down on one knee

  1. Anna Vilborg says:

    Oh, statistics, good luck! Anyway, don’t overdo it, since your research is likely to stray a lot from that plan.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Don’t worry – keep the stats part vague. if it’s going to be viewed by biologists, they don’t understand it either. You’ve got 3 years to become competent in the area.
    And yes, what you actually do will probably look nothing like the proposal. If it does, you’re either incredibly unlucky, or your supervisor has been using you as a technician.

  3. Heather Etchevers says:

    Agreed with the above. Also, keep in mind that this is part of your training. If you see the writing process as a learning process, you might find that the pain is more tolerable…

  4. Erika Cule says:

    @Anna, thanks!
    @Bob, do you mean

    incredibly lucky ?

    @Heather, that is an excellent tip – thank you 🙂

  5. Alejandro Correa says:

    Erika: You know the statistic is simple in the sense that it should be applied the most simple for the test of hypothesis, the most difficult is the interpretation. But you must always be guided by patterns manageable.

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    I suspect Bob meant what he wrote. When you go back to your proposal in a few years, you want to have moved on from it, thanks to developments in your field made by yourself and others. It should look a little quaint in retrospect. Occasionally you’ll also see an idea you forgot to follow up on, and think, “I’m not so stupid after all!” This is why these proposals aren’t a bad exercise at all, if unpleasant at the time. (I’ve got one on the burner this week, so I know that thereof I write.)

  7. Bob O'Hara says:

    Heather understood what I meant. Quite simply, if you follow the plan, it means you haven’t learned anything.

  8. Ian Brooks says:

    It gets easier to bullshit waffle, but other challenges come along. The journey is such that you won’t know you’ve passed a milestone until you realise you’re looking back it with rose-tinted safety specs…

  9. Erika Cule says:

    bq. Quite simply, if you follow the plan, it means you haven’t learned anything.
    Even with the plan as it stands, the amount of things I need to “learn” seems daunting.
    I think I understand what you mean, though. What I need to “learn” now is the existing understanding of this field – the background that I am finding so hard to explain in my proposal.
    If the research that has been completed by the end of my thesis exactly mirrors that outlined in my proposal (which I finished today, hurrah!) this does suggest that the research has not been as exploratory as it might be.
    Specifically, it suggests that I have not asked my own questions, as those suggested in the proposal were for the most part the result of discussions with my supervisor during the MSc project.

  10. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Nothing technical? I did a PhD on mRNA expression in energy balance stress. It was very, very biological. So, what the heck was Appendix 1 doing with 10 pages of BASIC listing for the software I had to write to capture rat ass temerature measurements because the boss was too tight to spring for a chart recorder, even after I spent 2 weeks cleaning actual pig crap off a Grass Polygraph just to prove it would not work? Gosh. 15 years and I am still bitter. Anyway. Software code in a bioscience thesis. FTW.

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