Writing a research proposal

A guide to writing an effective proposal that effectively outlines the research you will undertake at a higher level of study.

What's it for?

A research proposal explains the nature and extent of your planned or future research. It is written for an academic reader e.g. for your supervisor or an academic with a similar disciplinary background. By thinking through your entire research project from beginning to end, it may also highlight core issues with the feasibility of the project.

What's in it?

There are some disciplinary differences regarding exactly what is included in the proposal. For example, disciplines such as Psychology may include a prominent hypothesis statement, others in the Social Sciences including Education, may expect a set of research questions that the study will answer. However, all research proposals should cover the four basic elements below.

  1. The research topic addresses a significant problem and, therefore, advances the state of knowledge in that field.
  2. Identification of an appropriate methodology and underlying theory to address the problem, including data collection methods and equipment (if required).
  3. Details of how the collected data will be analysed in such a way that useful conclusions can be drawn.
  4. An organised plan for any proposed work, including a timeframe.

Possible macro-structures

The structure of your research proposal will vary depending on the requirements of your discipline. Nevertheless, certain structural elements will be expected by your reader and these may be presented in the following order. Check with the Research Coordinator in your area for specific requirements.

  • Title or Cover

    Identifies the title of the project, your full name, the institution, department, and supervisor details. The title should be brief and descriptive and may use a colon (:) to separate the topic from the focus (i.e. Stormwater Harvesting: Managing the hazards of surface water pollution by run-off).

  • Table of Contents

    Lists the sections of the Research Proposal (headings and indented sub-headings) and corresponding page numbers.

  • Abstract

    Outlines the essence of the research project. It describes the purpose and motivation for the study, the problem, the data collection methodology and analysis, significant results and implications of the research.

  • Introduction

    Provides background information for the research (i.e. the problem being addressed) and is typically structured from general information to narrow or focused ideas with your research question/s or hypotheses at the narrow end.

    The Introduction should be about 10% of your proposal.

    Imagine you are writing for a general reader rather than an expert audience. The Introduction includes a brief review of relevant literature or knowledge in the field, so that you are able to present a gap in existing knowledge and, therefore, the significance and originality of your research.

    Finally, articulate the scope of your research (or what you will not be doing) to limit your task. Your research question/s should encapsulate the primary question/s you aim to solve.

  • Literature Review

    Synthesises the literature in your field. Some disciplines will expect to see this in the Introduction but others will want it placed in this ‘stand-alone’ section (especially in more Humanities-based fields). Again, it could be structured from broad to narrow, so literature on the more general aspects of your topic could come first, narrowing down to published work on your particular area of interest. You might end this section by including a short summary of the main themes you have identified from the literature.

  • Research Design or Methodology

    Includes a description and rationale for the methods of data collection and analysis, and the materials you will use in your research. Use subheadings if possible (i.e. Data Collection, Data Analysis, Ethical Considerations etc.) and write with a future aspect, (i.e. The research will initially examine water treatment processes in...)

  • Preliminary Results

    Details any results that you may already have resulting from previous Honours or Masters’ research work, or perhaps from a pilot study. It is important to relate these results to the critical framework of your intended new research project.

  • Timetable / Plan

    Lists the stages of the research project in timeline, spreadsheet or tabular format, and the deadlines for completion of these stages or tasks. You should include any anticipated challenges to completion.

  • Thesis Outline or Structure

    Outlines the proposed chapters of the thesis and the content of each chapter in several lines or a paragraph, including a Table of Contents.

  • Significance and Implications of the Study

    Relates the expected outcomes of your research to the aims expressed in the Introduction so that the need for the study and the contribution to knowledge is clear.

  • Reference List

    Provides all the resources cited in your resource proposal using a referencing format favoured by your faculty or discipline. Do not list resources that are not directly referred to in your Proposal.

Writing the Research Proposal

How much should I write?

A research proposal is usually quite a bit longer than other written academic genres. In the Humanities, it could be around 10,000 words or even longer (excluding the Reference List); whereas those from more Science-oriented disciplines may be shorter.

What should I begin with?

Similar to other academic genres, writing the research proposal is a process. If you are proposing a ‘recycled’ topic that builds on previous assignments already written on the same topic, you might spend some time re-reading these. However, if you are starting a ‘fresh’ project you might consider two key questions:

  1. What am I really interested in finding out about my research topic?
  2. How am I going to do this in practice? Brainstorm responses to these questions under a strict time limit – say 30 minutes.

Then leave this ‘free-writing’ for at least 24 hours before reviewing it for a possible more polished second draft.

How should I approach the literature?

Reviewing the academic literature on your topic is one of the most critical stages of your research proposal. This section goes beyond a simple summary of everything written on a subject. Instead, it is a critical synthesis of materials that illuminates selected academic literature on your topic. Your coverage of the literature should reflect the argument or perspective that you have set out in your research question/s.

Try the following techniques for dealing with the literature:

  • Develop a theme or series of themes from your broad reading, referencing the work of relevant authors who support your position or who provide counter-arguments against your point/s.
  • Limit excessive quoting. Too many direct quotations will dilute your authority over the topic.
  • Avoid beginning paragraphs with “Jones argues …”; “Smith states …” This approach risks losing a sense of your writer’s authority to the work of others. Instead, provide an overview of the paragraph in a topic sentence written in your own writer’s voice.

Adapted from Rudestam and Newton (2015) as cited in Paltridge and Starfield (2020). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for students and their advisers. Routledge.

Tips for writing

  • Avoid language that is overly hesitant or tentative (i.e. ‘It seems that…’, ‘It is hoped that …’). Instead, use confident language when you feel able to (i.e. ‘It is clear that…’, ‘I assert that …’).
  • Break up large blocks of text into smaller sections using sub-headings and bullet-points.
  • Anticipate possible problems with, or limitations of, your research. Address these issues directly for your own benefit as well as to improve the entire proposal.
  • Make your proposal is easy for readers to skim read. Never assume your readers will read your work in a ‘logical’ order. Use sub-headings and restate key ideas to guide the reader through your writing.
  • Find copies of other Research Proposals in your field and study the way they:
  1. devise titles.
  2. structure their proposal.
  3. use discipline-specific language.
  • Take a note of anything else you notice. You might ask your potential supervisor/s for models of previously submitted proposals or search for relevant examples online (look for examples from reputable .edu or .org. web addresses)

Final tips

Remember, your research proposal should demonstrate:

  • the feasibility and logical foundations of your project
  • a well-focussed research question, set of research objectives, or hypothesis
  • the width and depth of the academic literature on your topic
  • understanding of current issues or debates on your topic
  • justification of your project through the literature
  • a match between the methodology and / or methods and your research question/s

Adapted from Cadman (2002) as cited in Paltridge, B. and Starfield, S. (2020). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for students and their advisers. Routledge.

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