Writing an academic research proposal for a master's was not easy, and it did not end up as I expected it to. Now I’m reflecting on and sharing what happened for me. This is part 3 of 3. You can see part 1 here and part 2 here.
About a year and a half after exploring design that considers how everyday people feel while riding a bike and developing the Bicycle User Experience (BUX) concept, I started a master's program in the Netherlands. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to take my idea to a deeper level and research how BUX methods could be used in practice. However, I struggled to translate my ideas into a research proposal. Eventually, my thesis topic zoomed out to the process level and was no longer just about cycling but how urban planning projects are carried out in general.
After weeks of frustration, and with the deadline to submit a proposal coming closer, conceptual pieces started to come together. I began to grasp how a theoretical framework that my supervisor introduced to me could apply to my concept. Called the multi-level perspective by Frank Geels, this theory conceptualizes how transitions happen through three levels: the landscape, regimes, and niches. New ideas (“novelties”) start at the niche level, and if the conditions in the landscape and regime align, a novelty can rise up into a regime and potentially even alter the landscape. But that is not an easy task, and many good ideas die out.
To adapt this to the context of my research, the current way of working in a planning department exists at the regime level, while a way of working that leads to projects that better meet citizens’ needs while using less time and money is an idea that lies at the niche level.
Planning department and way of working in a multi-level perspective
(Source: Adapted from Geels, 2002, p. 1263)
In addition to grasping the theoretical framework, I turned my hunches about how projects in urban planning could improve into concrete indicators through a project management building block called the “iron triangle”. While defining project success varies widely depending on the context and who you ask, the iron triangle was a solid base to use for the research. I used it to arrive at three indicators: money, time and “better serving citizens” (which was substituted for “quality”, something very hard to measure in the context of an urban planning project).
Iron triangle of project management (Source: Ebbesen & Hope, 2013, p. 2)
All of a sudden, these conceptual building blocks started to fit together. The research would be about transitioning (from the theoretical framework) to a way of working that leads to successful projects (consisting of the three indicators just mentioned). That led to a clear research question:
How can planning departments transition to working on projects in a way that uses less money and time while better serving citizens?
From there, I used sub-questions to break my research down into actionable parts, selected methods to answer these questions, and began to detail a plan of action to execute the methods and move closer to answering the research question.
It was a lot of mental work thinking, sitting down at the computer, and expressing what was going through my head in writing. I was learning the academic research process at the same time as this so I often felt lost, like I had no idea what I was doing.
Now it’s an academic proposal and a hopefully a cohesive story and plan! While the research question doesn’t have “bicycle” or “user experience” in it, I’m getting at larger questions that relate back to BUX and I have learned a lot in the process. I hope to continue to learn during the research, and want to thank everyone that has supported me! :)