The goal of this blog post is to help guide the reader through the process of writing a proposal for an economics research project. This post can also be used as a guide on how to write and present your own economics project. I try to make sure some general rules are covered.
The first step of writing a proposal is to narrow down your topic. When brainstorming ideas, we recommend that you think about topics that interest you and the types of questions that interest you (e.g., what can we learn from field experiments? what are the reasons why people lack self-control?). Also, keep in mind the types of questions that economists try to answer (e.g., how do prices affect consumer behavior? how does education impact earnings?). Furthermore, pick a topic that has some connection to the existing literature on the subject (i.e., make sure it’s not something completely new and innovative). Once you have identified some potential areas of study, read up on recent research in those areas. If you find any results that pique your interest, try to come up with a question that builds upon the existing literature and remains open due to the lack of information available in previous studies.
For example, if we read about how box office revenues for films are related to the budget of each film it might suggest a relationship between a film’s budget and its revenue. This could be an area where one might want to do more research by asking what determines whether audiences like or dislike certain films.
In our list below, we have tried to provide some questions/topics that seem promising from the perspective of an economist (i.e., topics where economists can bring new insight):
- How do prices affect consumer behavior (e.g., demand, search, collusion)?
- How do taxes or social programs like the EITC affect labor supply and/or savings decisions?
- How do government subsidies impact production and consumption behavior?
- What are the effects of unions on worker wages and benefits?
- What determines whether individuals find a job (e.g., unemployment)?
- How does education impact earnings and employment outcomes?
- Does hunger lead to crime or other negative behaviors?
- What is the relationship between self-control problems (e.g., obesity, smoking) and poverty or lack of financial literacy?
Pick an idea from the list above or come up with your own idea. Don’t limit yourself to the ideas on this list, but make sure you have at least read about some of them before settling upon an idea.
At this point, we recommend that you write down the top 3-5 ideas for research topics that you would like to pursue. You can then narrow them down later on.
Once you have identified some potential areas of study, it is time to do a literature review (i.e., find and read all related papers) and make sure your proposed project maintains an open question due to the lack of knowledge available in previous studies. A good way to understand what has been done so far is by looking at recently published articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as working papers from university researchers or other relevant institutions.
While doing your literature review, it is important to understand what has been done so far in similar research projects, but also what hasn’t been studied yet, and why that might be the case. Perhaps certain questions haven’t been answered because they are very difficult to answer, or maybe there hasn’t been much interest in a particular topic within economics? We recommend you make note of these reasons on paper while working on your literature review because you will need an explanation for them when writing the conclusion section of your proposal.
When it comes time to write your proposal, you will need to provide an explanation as to why no one has answered the questions posed by your proposed project and what makes it different from previous research in this area. Once again, remember that the goal is not just to answer these questions but also to show how economists can bring new insights into them by using their tools (e.g., econometrics) and perspectives (e.g., people respond partly based on incentives).
Once you have finished with your first draft of the proposal (including all methodological details), start reading through each section again and take note of any additional questions that pop up as you progress through each part. Then go back to previous sections and explain why those questions do not need to be answered in this project.
Additionally, don’t forget to include the relevant economic theory that would help to answer these questions and why such theory is valuable for answering them!
Remember to use relevant examples from real-world events as well as explain the potential public policy implications of your research. You want your reader (i.e., committee members) to understand how valuable and useful your research will be once finished!