What is a Thesis?
In Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies, a Thesis generally reports on an empirical study involving primary research; that is, it involves the collection and analysis of primary data such as interviews, questionnaires, observational field-notes, and language samples. Theses are generally structured like empirical research articles, although they are much longer. They are worth 2.0 credits and are subject to a formal oral defence.
What is a Research Essay?
Research Essays typically only involve secondary research; that is, they provide an original synthesis of published research literature. Therefore, the methodology in Research Essays typically only entails a review of the literature, whereas for Theses, it involves the design and completion of an empirical study. However, Research Essays can also include one chapter reporting on a small primary research component (e.g., a pilot study, a self-study, a small scale discourse analysis, a theory-informed reflection on professional practice). Other options, such as a limited-length empirical study, are possible in consultation with a supervisor.
Compared to Theses, Research Essays are shorter and smaller in scope and are generally structured like literature reviews (by themes and sub-themes or by sub-areas of research relevant to a given issue), although, as mentioned above, there can be some variation depending on the type of the project. They are worth 1.0 credit and are typically 50 to 60 pages in length (excluding appendices and the reference list).
Implications for writing effective proposals
This difference in nature and scope between Research Essays and Theses has important implications for how you choose to write your proposal.
For example, a proposal for a thesis is often motivated by the need to address a gap in the research literature. However, if your plan for a Research Essay is to do a literature review of 50 pages on a given topic, it would be ill advised in your proposal to argue that the rationale for a Research Essay is a dearth of research on the topic: You cannot write a literature review of 50 pages on a topic for which there is little research available! Quite the contrary, it will be important for the assessors of your proposal to know, based on the preliminary literature review you present in your proposal and your proposed strategies for secondary research, how likely you are to find the information you need.
As with the Thesis proposal, the rationale for a Research Essay can be justified with reference to a practical, real-world problem (e.g., a practical issue related to teaching or professional work) as well as an academic problem (e.g., a significant gap in the literature related to the topic). However, because you are not expected to contribute new empirical research, one way you might be able to claim originality is by proposing an original synthesis of the literature, for example, by bringing together bodies of research that, to the best of your knowledge, have developed independently of each other. In other words, an academic problem that might be worth solving is to shed new light on a phenomenon by bringing to bear different perspectives on it in a novel way. Alternatively or additionally, one main goal of a Research Essay might be to address a real-world issue (e.g., how to improve teaching, assessment, communication, or professional practice in a given context) by means of an original synthesis of research literature and analysis of documentary data.
Also important, in terms of methodology for a Research Essay, is how you plan to organize your literature review. Therefore, while proposals for Theses should provide a clear indication of how primary data will be collected and analyzed (along with proposed timeline for data collection and data analysis), proposals for Research Essays (at least those whose aim is to provide an original synthesis of the literature) should sketch a logical outline for your Research Essay:
- What will be the main organizing thread or principle?
- How do you propose to break down the review into sections?
- What will these main sections be and how will they interconnect? In other words, what is the proposed logical progression of the review?
Granted, much of the content and organization of the Research Essay will be discovered as you work on the project, but nevertheless, you need to include a credible preliminary perspective on this aspect of the Research Essay.