A research proposal is a relatively short (although its length wildly varies depending on the type of research, educational institution and requirements of the assessment committee) summary of a research project you intend to carry out. It should not just describe what and how you are going to do, but also prove and persuade that your project can lead to potentially valuable outcomes, fill in the gaps in the existing knowledge in the field of study and benefit the progress of science in general.
Deciding upon and narrowing down your topic is just as important as writing a persuasive research proposal for it. Remember that it will define how you will spend your time for months if not years ahead, so make sure you choose wisely.
Ideally, you should choose a topic that genuinely fascinates you. After months of constant delving into the information on the subject, your initial enthusiasm will gradually diminish, so it helps if there is a lot of it to begin with.
Try to choose a field of study you are already relatively familiar with – you will have to study a lot of literature anyway, and it pays to have a certain headway. Besides, this way you won’t suddenly realize you don’t want to work with this topic after all.
Once you’ve created a broad outline of what you want to research, you can start reading up on it. Soon you will identify the main players in this field, the most important theories and discussions. With any luck, you will also notice some gaps in the existing knowledge – investigate them and see if there is any less-known research covering them. If you find an understudied topic, use it as the basis for your topic idea.
Most likely, the topic you have zeroed in on is still relatively broad. Try focusing it. For example, you are interested in the role of cortisol and testosterone in determining the risk-taking behavior. You can narrow it down:
As you read the literature, single out the keywords that are most often used to talk about your topic. Use them when looking for additional sources of information in academic search engines and databases.
Determine the question you want to answer and build your project title around it. For example:
The structure of a research proposal, the overall length, the number, titles and optimal word count of each section, formatting conventions and other characteristics differ wildly depending on all kinds of factors: from the discipline you study to the regulations accepted in your college to the personal preferences of your supervisor. You should always strictly follow the structure described in the guidelines you have received from your college. It may lack some sections mentioned below, have them named differently or set in a different order.
The title should be self-evident, short and definite, clearly delineating the field of study and the research question. Check your guidelines – some colleges prefer titles formatted in a specific way or even have an entire title page template you should strictly follow. If you are not sure how to formulate your title, a good universal variant is “Research Topic: Longer Explanation”, e.g., “Phage Therapy: Bacteriophages as an Alternative to Antibiotics in Treatment of Antibiotic-Resistant Mycobacterial Infections”.
Usually up to 200 words. A very short and to the point summary of your proposed research. Try to express its most important aspects in as few words as possible, avoiding any superfluous details, sentence structures and expressions. Keep to the point and avoid providing unnecessary background. The reader should be able to understand the general nature of your research without reading the rest of the proposal.
If your research proposal is large enough and contains numerous sections and subsections, it may be worth including a table of contents. Keep in mind that this does not refer to the actual research project you propose (there is a dedicated section for that purpose), but to the proposal itself. Include numbers of pages, sections and subsections (e.g., 6.1, 6.2, etc.).
Up to 400 words. The beginning of the main part of your proposal – just like any other introduction, it should attract the reader’s attention, quickly move on to state the research problem and explain why it is important and worth further investigation.
Depending on what kind of research you do (e.g., library-based or experiment-based), the size of this section can be anything from 400 to 1500 words and beyond.
The success of your proposal probably depends on this section more than on anything else, and you should treat it accordingly. This section proves that you are sufficiently familiar with your field of study to offer a meaningful contribution to it, because no research exists in isolation. Before you can suggest an innovative study of your own, you should demonstrate that it is firmly grounded in the existing knowledge on the subject, that you know the main authorities on the subject, what are the key theories in it, and what is the current discussion on the topic.
So make sure you do plenty of preliminary research before you deal with this section. Go to a few libraries and consult their assistants about information sources that may be useful for you. Use academic search engines and databases like Biological Abstracts, BioOne (biology-centered), JSTOR, Microsoft Academic (multidisciplinary) and others. Carefully check the existing research to be sure nobody did the same or similar project before.
You don’t have to cover all the literature on the subject, but make it enough to provide a detailed outline. If there is a lot of literature to cover, you can add structure to your review by applying a chronological (tell how the field of study developed over time) or thematic (outline the major themes that are relevant for this field) approach.
Identify the gaps in the knowledge that make your research possible.
Word count depends on your research, but usually it should be about the same size as the literature review. This is your sales pitch, the section where you try to persuade the reader that your research is innovative, original, feasible and will complement the field of study.
It can be a part of the previous section or an independent part of the proposal, but its nature remains the same: you express the main objectives or assertions of your research, one item at a time. Usually it takes the form of a list, with single sentence expressing each assertion.
Depending on the situation, it can take anything from 100 to 1000 words and more.
Here you give an account of how you are going to check your theory or resolve the research question. The details will be wildly different depending on your general approach to your study. If you are going to rely on documents, books and other publications, tell where you intend to find the texts necessary for your work. Will you be able to carry out the research without leaving the campus or you will have to visit specific locations? Will you have to do fieldwork? If so, where and for how long? Will your research involve lab experiments? What equipment will you need? How you intend to collect data? Will you use quantitative or qualitative approaches?
In this section, you have to prove that your suggested methodology is relevant for the type of research you propose and that it will bring the necessary results. In addition, you have to persuade the reader that not only your methods are sound, but that you also have the necessary skills and expertise to carry out your plans. If you lack certain skills, point out how you are going to obtain them in time to do the research (your university can help you learn the necessary skills if you need them for research purposes).
Usually up to 300-350 words. Similar to research methodology, but dedicated to the subsequent analysis of the collected data. How will you process it? What approaches will you use?
This is the approximate plan of the paper that will result from your research: list all its sections and subsections while providing short (no more than a sentence each) descriptions of what they will contain. You don’t have to be very specific at this point – after all, you haven’t even started your research. However, you can make a positive impression on your assessor if you show that you already have a clear idea of how you intend to present your work.
Up to 250 words. Here you point out the boundaries of your research and show what you will not be able to do within the scope of your project. This section exists to show the reader that you understand where your project ends so that you can keep it doable.
This section provides an approximate estimate of how long a project will take, with more detailed information about each particular stage.
The list of all the literature and other information sources you have used to prepare the research proposal. Usually, it has to be done according to one of the commonly accepted citation styles (APA, MLA, Turabian, etc.). If your guidelines don’t tell you which one to use, contact your supervisor before you start – it may sound like a small thing, but mistakes in formatting can decrease your chances of having your proposal accepted.
Firstly, no matter how much time you spend writing your proposal, it is unlikely to be accepted the first time you submit it. Be prepared to thoroughly discuss it with your supervisor and revise it a few times according to his/her suggestions before the final draft is finally ready. However, you can decrease the number of iterations and make it less likely to be rejected outright if you do a bit of your own polishing.
Quite often, the authors of research proposals make the mistake of overcomplicating their language in the false belief that it will make them sound more impressive and properly academic. In truth, you are much more likely to impress your audience by showing that your subject is worthy of serious research, at the same time using clearly comprehensible and simple language. Therefore, eliminate jargon, break up longer sentences, and choose shorter and simpler synonyms to complex words. At the same time, keep your tone formal and academic.
Study the guidelines you have to follow or the style guide according to which you were instructed to write, and see if you followed them throughout your proposal.
Your language should be flawless not just from the point of view of style. Any mistakes immediately decrease the value of your proposition in the eye of assessors.
Reread the guidelines once more. Perhaps you forgot to mention something or went into too much detail where it is not necessary?
After all the time you have spent writing your proposal, it is very easy to grow too used to it to notice certain flaws. Hire a professional proofreader or ask a friend well-versed in the subject matter to take a look at it for you.
Writing a research proposal is a hard and grueling task, despite its relatively small size. We hope that with the help of this guide you will be able to do it much faster and more efficiently!