TypeWhat type of data will I need to solve my problem? Will a purely literary study suffice, or will the study require an empirical component as well?Therefore, what type of study should I conduct? Therefore, will this study fall under practical theology, biblical studies, systematic theology, or another field?LogicHow will the logic of the study unfold? What are the steps you should follow in order to carry out the study? [These often correspond to the key questions.] In what order should they be carried out?Which model seems most appropriate for the study? Amongst the available research models/designs, which one seems most appropriate for your study?How do I need to customize it for my study? Will it fit your study perfectly ‘as is’, or will you need to customize it? If you need to customize it, explain how. If not, explain why.
Dialogical: simply dialoguing with different authors’ viewpoints.Comparative: comparing different views, analysing their similarities and differences.Complementary: harmonising different theories or views by moulding them into a single, logically coherent whole.Epistemological: critiquing the philosophical foundation on which a theory or an argument is based.Polemical: arguing for or against a particular viewpoint.Analytical: breaking down a theory or a concept into its logical components or constituents.Synthetic: putting together previously unrelated concepts or components to form a new entity (theory, model).
Textual criticism: reconstructing the original text.Historical criticism: reconstructing the history of the text or the history in the text.Lexical analysis: conducting word studies on key words.Syntax analysis: analysing the grammar of the passage.Discourse analysis: analysing the discourse features of a whole text.Source criticism: analysing the sources an author used.Redaction criticism: exploring the theological message of a text.Structural criticism: analysing the literary and semantic structure of a text.Rhetorical criticism: studying the literary artistry or rational argument of a text.
Questionnaire: a series of written questions a researcher supplies to subjects, requesting their response. Different kinds of questions solicit different types of data (e.g., open or closed questions, quantitative or qualitative questions).Interview: a series of questions a researcher addresses personally to respondents. The interview can be structured or unstructured. As with questionnaires, different questions solicit different kinds of data.Observation: in fieldwork, observation occurs when the researcher observes the subjects; in participant observation, a researcher systematically observes people while joining in their activities; in action research, a researcher observes without participating.Survey: a statistical study designed to provide a broad overview of a representative sample of a large population.Focus group: a group discussion to solicit views about a focus area.Case study: the collection and presentation of detailed information about a particular participant, looking intensely at an individual or small participant pool, drawing conclusions only about that participant or group and only in that specific context.
Out-dated works. The majority of entries should be from the last 10-15 years. The dates are among the first things I look at when I skim the bibliography in a research proposal. I do no want to see the majority of entries from the 1960s. Entries older than 25 years should be seminal works in the field.Popular works. A thesis is a piece of theological research. It needs to engage with academic literature, which is the product of research. Popular and devotional books (as opposed to academic sources) express the opinions and experiences of the author, but those views may not be well researched. The majority of works need to be academic resources.Irrelevant works. Students often fill up their bibliography by listing resources unrelated to the proposed research topic. If your thesis topic is ‘the work of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s gospel’, do not list Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in the bibliography. When I see this, I immediately suspect the student has been too lazy to do a proper job and is listing works for the sake of reaching 20 entries.General works. Try to include as many specialised books and articles as possible. Although one-volume commentaries, Bible dictionaries or systematic theology textbooks may prove helpful during the study, specialised works are more valuable. For a thesis proposal on Psalm 3, Kselman’s article on the structure of Psalm 3 is more helpful than The New Bible Commentary.
By Kevin G. Smith
The Research Proposal
Theological Research Seminar
What are the fundamentals of a quality research proposal?
• A research proposal “is a document that outlines how you
propose to undertake your research studies” (Mouton
• The research proposal outlines what you will research and
how you will research it. The ‘what’ part is called the
problem; the ‘how’ part we call the plan.
• Once approved, the research proposal serves as a kind of
contract between the student and the supervisor.
What is a research proposal?
• ‘The greatest value of the research proposal is that it keeps
the research project on course’ (114).
– It prevents time-consuming rabbit-trails.
– It dramatically reduces the amount of reading you will do.
– It protects you against gathering unnecessary data.
• ‘In short, prepare a good proposal and your research will flow;
prepare a poor one, and it will flop’ (115).
Why is the proposal important?
• Carelessness: students fail to edit their proposal with
care, so it contains many sloppy errors.
• Ignorance: inexperienced researchers fail to
understand the nature of a research proposal.
• Over-eagerness: in their haste to get on with the
real work, students slap together a poorly conceived
Why so many bad proposals?
What does a proposal contain?
• Main problem
• Key questions
• Delimitations of the study
• Definitions and presuppositions
• Preliminary literature review
• The theological value
• The practical valueValue
The ‘problem’ section
• Type of study
• Annotated reading listBibliography
The ‘plan’ section
Take care with the preparation of your research
proposal. Based on the proposal, your professor will
make a decision as to whether you are capable of
conducting serious research. Your proposal needs to
make a positive impression. Sloppiness in the
presentation of your proposal sends the wrong
message. No professor looks forward to working with a
lazy, careless student.
Preparing the proposal
• Do not make any errors on the title page.
• Check the grammar and spelling carefully.
• Ensure your proposal conforms to institutional
• Keep your language modest and precise.
Preparing the presentation
How does one develop a research idea into a research
5. Fleshing out
of the problem
tion of the key
1. Research idea
• The research idea must be something of interest to you; the
interest must be intrinsic, not just extrinsic.
• The research idea may emerge from a real-life problem. This is
common in practical theology.
• The research idea may come out of the current state of
research in a particular field.
• The research idea is not a research problem. It may have the
seed of a suitable research problem.
• A preliminary literature review scans academic writings
related to your topic to see what has been done and what
questions remain unanswered (or unasked).
• A preliminary literature review will alert you to current trends
in your field of interest.
• A preliminary literature review will help you to delimit your
study to ensure that it is doable.
• A preliminary literature review may alert you to the fact that
your research idea is not doable.
2. Literature review
You must read until you
• know all the key contributors and their contributions;
• understand the major schools of thought on your
topic, and what separates them (e.g. beliefs, methods);
• understand the research methods employed in your field;
• have a good sense of what has been done, and where
there are gaps in the current state of research; and
• reach saturation point: when you are no longer finding
anything new, it is a good indication that you have read
2. Literature Review
Insufficient or inadequate reading is one of the most
common causes of substandard research proposals.
Students often rush to compile a proposal within an
adequate reading programme. Some universities
require an extended reading programme before a
candidate may even commence work on the research
proposal. Moral of the story: read, read, and read some
• State the main research problem in a single sentence!
• The form may be as a statement, question, or objective.
• The statement must be simple and precise.
• The statement should have a subject and a complement.
• The problem should not permit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
• The question should not be a pretext for a crusade.
3. Main problem
3. Main problem
If you cannot state the main
problem in one sentence, it is
not yet sufficiently clear in
your own mind!
You must be able to state it in
one sentence that contains all
the key elements, and points
to the links between them.
Problem or pretext
You are looking for a research
problem. While you should be
interested in your topic, you
also need to be objective.
If you feel too strongly about
the topic or you already
“know” the answers, you
cannot research it!
4. Key questions
Since the main problem is too large to treat as a whole, it is
broken down into 2-6 key questions in such a way that the
sum of the key questions equals the main problem. That is, if
you answer all the key questions, you will have solved the
How should churches in Swaziland minister to
polygamous families which join the church?
practices related to
to the churches?
How do the
pastors bear in
mind as they
steps do churches
need to take to
• Question 1
• Question 2
• Question 3
• Chapter 2
• Chapter 3
• Chapter 4
4. Key questions
There is a direct correlation between the main problem and the thesis
title, and between the key questions and the chapters in the thesis body.
Typically, the each key question governs a major chapter.
• Uncommon technical
• Terms with diverse
• Nuanced terms in your
• Terms from other
disciplines (e.g., medical)
5. Flesh out proposal
5. Flesh out proposal
• What you will not study, that
is, what you will exclude.
• Make the study doable by
reducing its scope.
• They may be
canonical, geographical, historical
, cultural, ecclesiastical, or
• The ‘givens’ which under-gird
your thinking and approach
• Conclusions of previous research
on which you are building
• Biblical, theological, or
ecclesiastical biases which may
influence your objectivity
• Theoretical value: Describe how the proposed research
promises to contribute to the current state of theological
knowledge, and why its findings should be valuable.
• Practical value: Briefly describe the present realities and how
the proposed research may help to address them.
– Who should benefit?
– Why should they benefit?
– How should they benefit?
Fleshing out the proposal
The plan needs to be thorough, describing every step the
researcher intends to take in solving the problem. Many
research proposals fail dismally here. They set out the plan
in such vague, general terms that one really has no idea
exactly how the candidate intends to solve the problem.
The research plan should be presented in such detail and
with such clarity a different researcher, simply by studying
the proposal, could duplicate the study.
Weak area in proposals
• The research design is the general approach you will
use to solve your research problem.
• What kind of research must I undertake to solve the
problem, to achieve the objective?
• The type and existence of the data you need to solve
the problem determine the design.
• Is there an existing research model that would serve
my purposes well?
– What type of data will I need to solve my problem?
– Therefore, what type of study should I conduct?
– How will the logic of the study unfold?
– Which model seems most appropriate for the study?
– How do I need to customize it for my study?
– You need to assign due dates for each section.
– The due dates become a contract with your supervisor.
• Guidelines for timeframes
– Full-time: MTh = 1-1½ years; PhD = 2-3 years
– Part time: MTh = 2-3 years; PhD = 4-5 years
Research methodologies are
proven ways of solving
certain problems. They are
like tools in a toolbox. An
expert researcher has
mastered the art of knowing
when and how to employ
each tool to solve problems.
Your methodology is a
description of the steps you
will take to solve your
particular problem. Drawing
from your toolkit of
methodologies, you will
select and use appropriate
tools for each step.
Methodologies • Questionnaire
• Case Study
• Focus Group
• Participant Observation
used primarily in
Take each step in the
process and describe
exactly how you plan
to do it.
The Main Components
• Methods: What
methods will I use for
• Materials: What
materials will I use for
• We ask for an annotated bibliography at the end of the
• You should not simply list books; you should know what is in
them and why they are relevant.
• Only include scholarly sources which are directly relevant to
your research topic.
• How many? BTh: 10-15, MTh: 20-25, PhD: 30-40. It may vary
slightly according to topic.
The common mistakes with the bibliography
• out-dated works
• popular works
• irrelevant works
• general works
A word of advice—start compiling your thesis
bibliography from day one! Each time you consult a
book or an article, add it to your bibliography. Writing
the bibliography is frustrating at the best of times, but
if you leave it to the end of the process, it can be
almost impossible. We recommend that you open a file
on your computer called ‘Bibliography’ and update it
every time you find a new source.