Empirical Economics Research Proposal

Nathan D. Grawe, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Most of the traditional undergraduate curriculum engages students as consumers of empirical research. But in the senior year, many programs invite students to become producers of novel work. Many students find this transition difficult because the skill set required to be a critical reader are insufficient for being an effective researcher. In particular, as researchers students must learn how to generate interesting questions with clear connections to theory; where to find relevant data to answer the posed question; how to shrewdly revise the research question in light of data availability; and how to situate the original work within an existing literature. This assignment gives sophomores and juniors a chance to practice these skills in the context of a 5-page research proposal.

Learning Goals

In completing this assignment, each student should:
  • generate an interesting research question with a clear connection to economic theory
  • find and evaluate sources of data relevant to the proposed question
  • place an original research idea in the context of an existing literature

Context for Use

This assignment is designed for a field course taught after introductory economics, but before the intermediate theory sequence. The assignment presented here is designed for industrial organization, but I have taught the same assignment in Labor economics and it could easily be recast for other courses.

I have used it in classes of 25 students, though it could easily work in larger classes.

Description and Teaching Materials

I hand out the attached assignment at the beginning of a 10-week term. In the first two weeks, we meet with a reference librarian to talk about finding articles in the primary literature and common datasets. In the third week, I ask students to see me to discuss their topic to ensure they are heading in a reasonable direction. The assignment is due on the last day of the term.

Examples of the material discussed with the reference librarian can be found here:
Assignment handout (Microsoft Word 35kB Mar31 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Students have a hard time generating questions that have connections to theory. For instance, they may propose "price discrimination" as their research "question." They need help coming up with an hypothesis that could be accepted or rejected. Ultimately, I sometimes give students a question related to the area of their interest. The degree of hand-holding can be reflecting in grading under "creativity of the proposed question."
  • Based on past paper-writing experience, students often think they can whip together a 5-page paper in a day or two. By requiring that they hand in draft work early on in the term, you can avoid the inevitable mess that results when students realize that it takes a good bit of time to generate a research topic and identify relevant data sources.
  • The genre of a research proposal is novel to most students. It takes many iterations to convince them that I really don't want them to actually do any analysis—just clearly plan and lay out the work.
  • Students tend to think of the primary literature as a canon rather than as a discussion between colleagues. A few minutes discussing this when the assignment is given out can help situate students' thinking.
  • Note that the assignment limits the extent of the literature review to 5 primary literature papers. This is important to making the assignment feasible. While the literature is invariably much larger and no senior should start their thesis without a comprehensive understanding of what has come before, 5 papers is sufficient to give students a feel for how to place their work in the context of prior understanding.


Ultimately, I grade holistically. But to help me provide students with feedback and to guide my grading, I give "plus, check, minus" scores to each of eight categories:

The economics
  • How well does the student motivate the topic? (I encourage them to use a few well-chosen numbers to place the proposed topic in context or to frame the importance of the question. This use of quantitative reasoning may not always be relevant, however.)
  • How well does the student situate the proposal in the context of existing work?
  • Does the proposed question connect clearly from theory? Is it really true that theory speaks to the proposed analysis?
  • How insightful/creative is the proposed question?
  • Will the identified data allow the student to answer the proposed question? Is the sample size reasonably large? Is the dataset truly accessible?
The writing
  • Is the paper well organized? Does it include clear transition sentences? Did I ever get "lost"?
  • Is the paper clear of surface error?
  • Intangibles: Is the paper well-written and easy to read?

References and Resources