Preparing the Topic Proposal for Departmental Topic Review

Preparing the Topic Proposal for Departmental Topic Review

These guidelines were prepared for doctoral students in the Department of Music and Performing Arts in the School of Education. They are intended as a supplement to the general handbook for doctoral students issued by the School.

General Introduction to the Topic Review Process

The purpose of the Topic Review is to approve the topic, the significance or need for the study, and to examine the doctoral candidate's preliminary grasp of pertinent issues articulated in the literature. A brief statement of method will be sufficient to enable the reviewers to assess the background and skills of the doctoral student in context of the proposed topic. The entire document is limited to ten pages, excluding bibliography, title page and curriculum vitae.

It is important that you adopt a style manual for scholarly writing and incorporate all aspects pertaining to your document. Don't put this off as something you will add later. It doesn't take long to become accustom to elements of scholarly style and the integration of it into your writing can strengthen your work.

In general as you write your Topic Proposal you should include or address the following points:

  1. a title for your topic, a brief statement of the topic,
  2. need for the study (why the proposed topic is important and significant for your field),
  3. a discussion of the literature which supports your proposed topic,
  4. a brief statement about the research design that will be employed and specific methods which may be of importance to your study.
  5. a curriculum vitae which outlines your educational and professsional background, including specific courses taken which will have import on your topic or possible method
  6. Your Topic Proposal should make a convincing case concerning the contribution of your research or inquiry to your field.

The Topic Review is conducted as part of the Doctoral Collegium. The Topic Outline is reviewed by those faculty and students who attend the collegium or participate online. This gives you an opportunity to present your proposed research topic to your colleagues and receive feedback on your developing research project.

Preparing for the Topic Review provides an opportunity for you to immerse yourself in an area of interest and to examine the viability of linking your interests to a suitable and significant topic for researching and writing your dissertation. As you develop information surrounding your general areas of interest you should try to discuss your ideas with faculty members, with other students, and with various colleagues and authorities who may shield valuable insight as you attempt to focus on a specific topic.

Developing a Topic Suitable for Doctoral Research: Engaging the Literature

Your introductory research course introduces you to issues and research designs common to your field. You will examine Aesthetic Inquiry, Descriptive Research such as Field Research and Survey, Historical Research, Experimental Research, Philosophical Inquiry, and look at the implications of quantitative and qualitative methods in relationship to these research designs. You should explore these designs and their applications in your field of inquiry, especially by investigating pertinent dissertation research.

You also should adopt and begin to follow a style guide such as MLA or APA (others are also acceptable). You should be aware of what style guides are important to your field. While APA has become the standard for fields such as psychology and professional journals in therapies and medical research, it is primarily intended to guide you through the preparation of articles for journals. You will have to make decisions about the dissertation that may not be covered by APA. Many other style guides are concerned with dissertation research and may be more helpful. However, the most important feature of a style guide is learning how to handle the reporting of information and sources on a consistent basis. Don't select a style guide just on the basis of how "footnotes" are handled. Footnotes for certain types of studies are important and add to the text. After all, footnotes are just an older form of "hypertext."

With the array of computer word processing programs available, footnotes are no longer the logistical problem they once were. Selecting a word processing program along with a bibliographic tool which interfaces with your word processing program such as EndNotes, etc., is probably as important as selecting a style guide. All of the major word processing programs are able to handle requirements for dissertations with comsiderable ease and efficiency.

Don't put off choosing a style guide by thinking you will do the research and then put things in the right format. It does not take long to become familiar with a style, and it will save you an enormous amount of time to apply scholarly form to your work right from the start. At first you will find yourself looking up everything you do in making a bibliographic entry, but you will begin to recognize the patterns and the logic of the style and will find you can work relatively quickly within the style. Besides, most style guides also provide useful information on developing topics and researching materials and databases. Presumably you will have had a bibliography course in your master degree study which has already established much of this information and background. If not, you should consider taking such a course which is distinctly different from a course in research and research design.

Ultimately, once you have secured a Chair and dissertation committee, you will reach a consensus about which style guide will be best for you to follow as you move to the next stage of preparing the full research proposal.

A topic should come out of your background, education, expertise, and passionate interest of some special facet of your field. It is important to carefully review these factors in your background and begin to relate these to systematic reading of the literature that defines and articulates your special interests. The most important literature to engage initially is the dissertation literature of your field. In addition, you should be thoroughly faniliar with the important journals in your field and the important articles and critical reviews of literature within these publications. of course, you will also include the important and seminal books that a critical to your field.

Investigation of your literature usually serves as a catalyst for generating ideas for research topics. For the Doctor of Philosophy you are concerned with identifying a theoretical grounding for your work and in contributing to the development and extension of theory or new knowledge. For the Doctor of Education, you are concerned with applying theory to a specific problem, often in field research or in the development of educational materials. The Doctor of Arts Degree in Music Therapy is concerned with clinical applicaion and research, and as such, must be grounded solidly in theory. Because doctoral research in music therapy is relatively new, research is often involved with the development and extension of theory for music therapy.

Therefore, developing a topic goes far beyond the process of generating a bibliography. It is important for you to be concerned with the content of the literature and to target those publications which are relevant and important. You are in the process of becoming a scholar with regard to a specific domain in your field. It is important for you to know who the important researchers, scholars, and practitioners in your field, especially as related to your general topic. As you engage the literature, you will become aware that there is a dialectic activity in which scholars are responding to and building upon the work of other scholars. Thus there is activity of agreeing with past research or being highly critical of past efforts and posing alternative views and findings. You are in the process of participating in that dialectic process of exchange of ideas and the development of knowledge fo your field.

With dissertations, you should begin with dissertation abstracts. However for some of the documents closely related to your area of inquiry, reading the abstract usually is only the starting point. You will need to read the dissertation. These may be obtained through inter-library loan or by purchasing a copy from Ann? Arbor. Speak to the librarian. Personnel in libraries are there to assist you in your research. The library also provides numerous bulletins concerning procedures and the holdings of the library which can be useful to you. Next in importance will be the artticles in significant journals related to your area of interest. These journals often include reviews of books, articles, and sometimes dissertations, as well as present important articles in your field. Of course it is also important to know the important books in your field.

As you start to become aware of what other scholars have addressed within your field, your own critical process will help you identify the shortcomings. What issues or information hasn?t been addressed? Has some of the research missed critical information or, in your own informed opinion, drawn wrong or incomplete conclusions? Reading the literature means that you apply critical thinking to the materials. Does the research you are examining stand up to critical scrutiny? Does the research and writing in your field point to the need for further inquiry?

Technology is making it possible to search through the holdings of major libraries in the world from just about any computer on the internet. You can inquire with the library about how to secure permission to seek through different databases in libraries. It often involves securing status of a ?guest? which may require a special password. Because of the internet, access to major resources of information is becoming easier everyday. Become familiar with the World-Wide Web, because many libraries are permitting access to their libraries through WWW and even provide instructions as to how to access their materials. You should also search WWW for information about your topic use the many search engines now available. You may be surprised to learn that there are specialized sites in your field. Many of these sites serve to link scholars with scholars, but it is also true that you must sort your way through an ever increasing array of commercial sites. Some students are actually conducting their research through the Web, a practice which may be of increasing worth in certain fields. It is also becoming increasingly important to examine other media such as video and CDROM for information supporting your topic.

Factors to Consider in Generating a Topic:

As you start to narrow to a specific area of interest from which you can articulate a specific topic, you should examine the viability of the topic from several perspectives:

  1. your interests, expertise, and background
  2. significance and importance
  3. specificity and scope
  4. availability of information and sources for information
  5. suitability for your degree program and possible research designs and methods
  6. format
Your Interests, Expertise and Background

You should evaluate your interests, your abilities, your range of knowledge, and your background as you begin to search for your topic. What has interested you in the past? It may be your involvement with a particular genre, a composer or choreographer, a playwright, or a particular time in the history of your field. It might be a particular theory or practice that has meaning for you and has signficance for your field, but not much has actually been done to apply it to your field.

It is this personal involvement in an area of passionate interest that will likely fuel your research and keep you motivated and focused. However, within the framework of your inetnse pursuit of information and knowledge, you will need to create distance that lends perspective to your inquiry. This often develops as you engage the literature of your field, especially the literature that has important implications for your own topic.

Too often, students track down the important books in their respective fields, and ignore the dissertations, monographs and articles in journals that have important bearing on their research and inquiry. As you widen your net, you often come across things that are very promising on the surface. But you need to have a critical stance as you pursue and read the material. Be skeptical. Question the material you examine. Look for inconsistencies, contradictions, arguments, and so forth. Many times you may be able to narrow and focus your topic because of the flaws or gaps in the existing literature.

Be careful not to create a mismatch between your interests and abilities. You might have an absorbing interest in "black holes" in the universe but lack the background, expertise, and training, to pursue that interest as serious research. You might have a compelling interest in medieval songs, but lack the background and skills to do serious research. You might have a passionate interest in the arts of the East, but lack the language skills, background, and expertise to conduct a serious inquiry. Perhaps you have an interest in semiotics as it pertains to art theory, but you have no training in semiotics. In your self evaluation, you may decide that your interest is so compelling and far reaching that you are willing to acquire the language or the skills that you need to conduct the inquiry.

The point is that you should develop a topic that is of importance and significance for you personally as well as for your professional field, for you are making a choice to devote a great deal of energy, time, and resources to pursuing that interest as a scholarly activity.

Significance and Importance

You may find a topic personally interesting, but what is the value of this topic to your field? How would your study increase knowledge in the field, develop theory, or meet perceived needs in your discipline? Much of this can be inferred from the literature, and that is why you should not try to write a topic proposal without thoroughly engaging the professional literature, both published (books, journals, etc.) and unpublished (dissertations and theses). Without a deep knowledge of the information already established in your field, it will be difficult to demonstrate how your study can contribute to that knowledge.

At times it may be useful to solicit support for your topic by contacting authorities and scholars in your field and asking their opinion of your proposed study. In cases where your study may require access to specific populoations, facilities, or archives, it is important to establish contact to solicit support as well as obtain permission to use such resources. The viability of many studies often depends on adhering to this protocol.

In your topic proposal try to let the literature make the case for your study. What may have been a general interest may have grown into specific ideas and opinions that need to be underscored and confirmed by published sources and by scholars and authorities. Be sure to follow and attend proceedings of conferences and symposia in your field. Often you will come in contact with presentations that support the significance and need for your study. Keep careful notes concerning dates, times, and people so that you can refer to these in helping to make the case for the importance of your study. If you speak to scholars and other researchers on the telephone ask permission to use the information and take note of the time and adte so that you can refer to this interview. This is also true of in person interviews.

You are in a preliminary stage of research. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines for human subject participation in research. You can obtain useful information about obtaining releases and various protocols expected of such research. You will be required at the proposal stage to formally file your research proposal with the University's Human Subjects Review Panel for exemption or approval. This applies to any contact with human beings for the purpose of obtaining information from them.

Try to be specific about what is actually contribution to your discipline. Who is the audience and how will this audience benefit from reading your study?

Specificity and Scope

As you move from general interest in a field to a deeper awareness of need for certain knowledge in your discipline, try to focus your attention in such a way that your topic becomes more and more specific. The more specific you can be at this point, the closer you will be to identifying a research problem, but it is not the intent of the Topic Proposal to definie the research problem specifically. The Topic Proposal establishes a specific area of inquiry which will be refined and developed as you move to the proposal stage.

In becoming specific, you have to consider the element of scope for the proposed topic. Is the scope sufficient? The magnitude of the research and the amount of information to be gathered are elements of scope. Often people come up with interesting ideas, but the scope of the project is more like a term paper than a dissertation. Scope is entirely relative and cannot be defined in any rigid terms. Sometimes the difficulty of tracking down the information increases the scope of the research because actually finding lost documents or sources becomes part of the research problem itself. There was a student many years ago who proposed a comprehensive study of the Italian composer Rutini. This student went to Italy and photographed materials in several archives. Upon returning to the United States, the student discovered that six sonatas noted as missing in Alfred Einstein's catalogue of Rutini's complete works were actually in the materials copied from a particular archive. The focus of the study shifted to these six sonatas with additional attention turned to updating and correcting the catalogue of works.

Often scope is taken into account at the proposal stage when the researcher makes decisions to analyze a certain number of artworks. One consideration of scope is adequate coverage. It is similar to the problem of "sampling" well known to quantitative studies. In qualitative studies we need to be aware of the nature of our sources and what we may extrapolating in order to make observations and draw conclusions. In dealing with works of art or specific processes connected to the arts, establishing adequacy of coverage often requires a great deal of preliminary work in developing knowledge of the artworks and processes and whether there are detectable patterns that will help the researcher to select from certain groupings of works.

Availabilty of Information and Sources for Information

Earlier, it was suggested that you need to identify the sources for information for your topic and to determine what would be needed to gain access to those sources. The wide variety of sources for information has already been discussed. But at the topic approval stage, you should establish as well as you can whether or not you will have sufficient access to information. This might mean securing a written approval or commitment from an archive, a publisher, a museum, or a school where you wish to carry on your research. It might mean the acquiring of specific skills such as a language, or statistics, specific analytic skills, or techniques in historical research and writing. A thorough knowledge of the literature will help you in identifying such resource and skill needs as you read disseretations who review methods, sources, and means of extracting information.

It is good to have this prelinary approval at the topic stage. You will not be expected to provide detail in the Topic Proposal, but if you have established the availability of resources, your work for the proposal will be greatly enhanced. In the proposal, researchers are often required to give evidence of availability and access as well as examples of release forms and questions to be used in an interview or questionnaire.

Suitability and Method

One reason for including a curriculum vitae at the end of the Topic Proposal is to give the faculty a chance to examine the viability of the study in the context of your background and expertise. This is one aspect of suitability. Other dimensions of suitability of the study are concerned with faculty expertise and interests. One reason for the title page to be signed by your Program Director or a Supprting Faculty Member is to give you preliminary feedback concerning the suitability of your study. Yet, another facet of suitability is the relationship of your proposed study to your program. Does your topic fit Program requirements and expectations?

The Topic Proposal does not include a lengthy statement on Method. This is reserved for the Rsearch Proposal which will not only fully describe and explicate the method but will include a sample analysis or pilot study so that faculty may draw conclusions about the ability of the candidate to implement the method. At the Topic Proposal stage, recommendations may be made concerning the acquiring of certain skills or background in order to adequately conduct the research. Remember, there is a distinction to be made with methodology which is the study of method per se, and method which refers to a specific technique or set of techniques for gathering, assessing, categorizing and analyzing information. In many ways, the early stage of research is at a level where appropriate methods may have not yet been identified.

You will be expected to include at least a paragraph or two about method and what your preliminary thinking is with regard to what would be appropriate for your study. You may be questioned further at the Topic Review, but that is for purposes of clarifying for the faculty the direction you might pursue for method as you develop your full Research Proposal.

Format for the Topic Proposal

There is no specific format for the Topic Proposal. It is important to address the areas which have been delineated in this discussion, but it is up to you to decide what will best make your case as long as you have covered the essentials of what has been expected. You can make a decision as to whether or not you will use subheadings. The general expectation is a narrative of six to ten pages. This number does not include the title page, the bibliography, or your curriculum vitae. There is NO table of contents.

Your topic proposal will be published on the web and the review will be included in the proceedings of the Research Collegium for the Performing Arts which currently meets on the first Friday of each month during the academic year from 6-8 p.m. Topic Proposals must be approved by the Program Director and a Chair for the Dissertation (optional) before they are posted and reviewed.