Learning from writing research proposals

Now that I’m done with my PhD micro midterm and two proposals, I finally have some time to write down what I’ve learned in the past few weeks. The learning curve was pretty steep, and there were moments when I felt more torture than excitement. Many thanks to JG for help and support along the way.

I encountered major difficulties when I was writing my proposal for the public finance class. My topic was on the wage gap between rural migrants and urban local workers in China, and I found it difficult to 1) state a clearly framed question and 2) find the right conceptual framework/economic model to address it.

Stating a clearly question is not always easy. It was only by talking with my professor and fellow PhD students that I discovered I didn’t know what exactly my question was. A well framed question might be “How does policy A affect outcome B in region C?”, or “What is the level of substitution between product A and product B in market C?”, or something slightly more general than these. I found that as beginners, it’s very easy to make one of the following two mistakes (or both):

1. Thinking too much in descriptive terms but not being able to write down a clear question. This will become obvious when you are explaining your research to a colleague or even a friend who is not in the economics profession.

2. Getting too ambitious and hoping to address too many (complex) questions in one paper. This might lead to failure in finding a suitable framework/model to address all your questions. I was heading towards this direction until an upper year PhD student kindly pointed it out in our conversation.

Solutions for these problems? Sorry, I don’t really know any since I’m also struggling through this process. But the following two practices should in general be helpful:

1. Explain your research to others. Sometimes we tend to avoid talking about research with others, but then we are less likely to be aware of any lack of clarity in our research questions or any invalid assumptions we are making. It is better to “lose face” in front of a friend than to lose track of where you exactly are with your research.

2. Start simple. Find the central question you are trying to address, and write/use a model for that goal. If the question you are asking is too complex, break it down into pieces or find a simple example to illustrate. When I was writing my model, it felt like banging my head against the wall. In retrospect, however, it was because I was trying to feed too many things into a model and it confused myself.

When we are writing proposals, we should also develop a positive and proactive attitude. It can be frustrating, especially for beginners (like me!), but with challenges comes fast progress and eventually we become better. I think an open mindset and positive attitude are really important for doing a PhD in general.

A story to share at the end of this post: I ran into a third-year PhD student the other day. He asked:”How has your first year been?” I was struggling to come up with a model for my demand estimation class, so I looked at him with weary eyes and said:”Tired, it’s pretty challenging.” He asked further:”Are you bored?” “No! No way!”I shaked my head. “Well, that’s good.” He smiled. I am starting to understand the importance of maintaining the passion for doing research in doing a PhD and becoming a good researcher.


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