I am applying to a master program. The application requires a pre-proposal for a project that is relevant to scholarships. Although I have a specific topic to write my pre-proposal about, I am not totally aware of the latest research in this very special sub-field. Is it acceptable for both the university I am applying to, and a professor working on this field, to ask for help and clarity on my chosen topic? First, should the pre-proposal be originally my own idea? Second, do professors think it is okay to give me hints on writing my pre-proposal? Of course, in the end, I will write the pre-proposal by my own.


I have some basic answers and responses to your post:

  1. Talk to potential advisors or other faculty about the application AND your research idea(s). Chatting with potential advisors or other faculty in relevant fields is a great way to approach this application. You're an undergraduate (I assume), so no one on the application committee will expect you to be "up to date" on the readings. However, researchers (like potential advisors) might be able to guide to people or papers that could help you learn the basics/necessities.
  2. Do #1 immediately! The sooner the better. As @Buffy suggests, collaboration, especially in the outlining/planning stages is key to developing successful proposals. You can't (well, you probably can but shouldn't) do science alone.
  3. You have nothing to lose (by doing #1)!
  4. It is likely that you will not be bound to your pre-proposal (but this is program-specific). If accepted, this project may devolve, evolve, or you may scrap it entirely and move in a different direction. Don't be afraid to play around with multiple ideas. Doing #2 will expedite this process.
  5. If you don't want to do #1, at a minimum, ask someone in your field to review your pre-proposal for content.
  • Thank you for your answer! Can you add more details on how should I do part one? – mathvc_ Dec 3 '18 at 7:50
  • Email/visit someone whose research keywords interest you. At this point in your academic career, this doesn't need to be specific. E.g., you like birds, prof A studies birds, you contact them. Most profs will be happy to point you in the right direction if they aren't accepting students. Cold-calling will be necessary. you don't have much to lose here. Feel free to email me if you're having trouble with this step, or any others. We are prob. not in the same fields but the fundamentals are the same. jburnett8@Unl.edu – Jessica Burnett Dec 3 '18 at 16:52

What you propose seems fine to me. Make sure, however, that the professor understands why you are asking and that his/her help doesn't become authorship. Academics work together, especially at the idea stage.

Some departments provide a coffee room with a table and whiteboard just to encourage this sort of collaboration.

Note that the answer might be different if you had no ideas at all about where to start. But the prof can, as a minimum point you to places to help you develop the proposal. I think that most professors would consider this to be fine, or would tell you (gently) if they didn't. Ask.

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