The following is an excerpt from http://www.eeb.yale.edu/stearns/advice.htm - if you are writing a proposal this year, you might find it helpful. I especially agree with #3. Sometimes I have great ideas in my head, but the act of articulating them in a document that will be read by others really helps me to refine my thinking. I would add this comment to #7 - in your early years of grad school, as you have to write class papers, make them “variations on a theme” that you hope to use for your thesis/dissertation. It gives you a head start on the work, and a grounding in the literature. Hope this is useful.
A research proposal serves many functions.
1. By summarizing your year’s thinking and reading, it ensures that you have gotten something out of it.
2. It makes it possible for you to defend your independence by providing a concrete demonstration that you used your time well.
3. It literally makes it possible for others to help you. What you have in mind is too complex to be communicated verbally - too subtle, and in too many parts. It must be put down in a well-organized, clearly and concisely written document that can be circulated to a few good minds. Only with a proposal before them can they give you constructive criticism.
4. You need practice writing. We all do.
5. Having located your problem and satisfied yourself that it is important, you will have to convince your colleagues that you are not totally demented and, in fact, deserve support. One way to organize a proposal to accomplish this goal is:
a. A brief statement of what you propose, couched as a question or hypothesis.
b. Why it is important scientifically, not why it is important to you personally, and how it fits into the broader scheme of ideas in your field.
c. A literature review that substantiates (b).
d. Describe your problem as a series of subproblems that can each be attacked in a series of small steps. Devise experiments, observations or analyses that will permit you to exclude alternatives at each stage. Line them up and start knocking them down. By transforming the big problem into a series of smaller ones, you always know what to do next, you lower the energy threshold to begin work, you identify the part that will take the longest or cause the most problems, and you have available a list of things to do when something doesn’t work out.
6. Write down a list of the major problems that could arise and ruin the whole project. Then write down a list of alternatives that you will do if things actually do go wrong.
7. It is not a bad idea to design two or three projects and start them in parallel to see which one has the best practical chance of succeeding. There could be two or three model systems that all seem to have equally good chances on paper of providing appropriate tests for your ideas, but in fact practical problems may exclude some of them. It is much more efficient to discover this at the start than to design and execute two or three projects in succession after the first fail for practical reasons.
8. Pick a date for the presentation of your thesis and work backwards in constructing a schedule of how you are going to use your time. You can expect a stab of terror at this point. Don’t worry - it goes on like this for awhile, then it gradually gets worse.
9. Spend two to three weeks writing the proposal after you’ve finished your reading, then give it to as many good critics as you can find. Hope that their comments are tough, and respond as constructively as you can.