Tag Archives: writing research proposals

How to Write a Proposal Abstract

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.


The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.


Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. ”).


Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.


For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and get in touch with Karen at kelsky@uoregon.edu if you need some help.


(this post originally published by Karen on http://theprofessorisin.com.)


Karen’s Foolproof Research Proposal Template

Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oregon (see also at The Professor Is In, http://www.theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”


This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.  Complain, claim that it is “impossible,” and then get it down to two paragraphs.  Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.


It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE:  “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

“Yet, without such an understanding, we are left with an inadequate analysis that creates the condition for ill-informed policy decisions and a self-sustaining cycle of misunderstanding and resentment….”


“This study will remedy this gap in the literature by examining the class and racial politics of an immigrant Haitian community in New York City in order to more fully elucidate the heretofore unrecognized relationships between XXX and XXXX in one highly contested immigrant context. ”


Remember, YOU are the HERO who is going to save us from ourselves and our inadvertant but devastating ignorance about the true significance of XXX!


This is immediately followed by a CONCRETE AND UNMISTAKABLE STATEMENT OF YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT (One of the most common grant proposal mistakes is to never include a single and foregrounded, easily identified sentence encapsulating your research project) :

” This study will focus particularly on XXX.  Through a close and fine-grained analysis of XXX, I will show  that in contrast to previous assumptions, in fact immigrant communities are XXXXXX.”


The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence.  In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.

SPECIFICS:  This is one to two paragraphs of more specific information about the background, context, history, and limitations of the research.  This demonstrates that you’ve looked into the project thoroughly and are familiar with it from several angles.

LITERATURE REVIEW:  This builds on the very brief references in the first paragraph, and demonstrates that you have, in fact, read the major literature related to this topic.  All citations must be complete and correct.  Zero tolerance for misspellings or typos.  All sources MUST, without exception, be listed on the attached bibliography.

METHODOLOGY:  These are the specific methods that you will use to conduct the research.  These differ by discipline.

TIMELINE:  This is a month-by-month (or week-by-week) plan of research.  What will you do when?  Be specific!  Name dates!

BUDGET:  This is a general list of costs and any already committed funding sources.  Break down your legitimate research expenses, including lab supplies, field supplies, travel both large and small, books and materials, internet or computer access fees, etc.

All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION.  Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this:  “I expect this research to contribute to debates on XXXXX and play an important role in shaping debates on XXXX and XXXX in the coming years.”

This Conclusion demonstrates that you are a master of both the micro and the macro implications of your project.  You have an unassailable timeline and budget, but you also have your eye on the wider scholarly world and your role in it.

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful and fulfilling academic careers.