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How to Write a Research Proposal in Economics: The Only Manual You Are Going to Need

The majority of their time in university undergraduate students are limited to consuming the existing empirical research. However, eventually (usually during the senior year), most academic programs give them the task of producing their original work. Many students struggle with this transition, because until that moment they have been studying a different skillset than the one necessary for independent research. A research proposal performs the role of a gateway – it sums up the nature of proposed research, describes its context and details the existing knowledge on the subject. It is relatively short and does not take much time to write – therefore, students get the chance of analyzing the subject matter and their intended research before they commit to work on it. A research proposal prevents you from taking up an unpromising direction, because you will discover the associated difficulties early on, before you have time to get too deep into it. The fact that your research needs to be approved by a member of the college’s faculty means you will not waste time and resources.
The standards and requirements for research proposals are not set in stone – there is a lot of variety depending on the discipline, school, year of study, program and personal preferences of your supervisor. What we describe in this article refers to the typical structure and guidelines for research proposals in Economics – your college may have different requirements, so make sure you study them carefully. Nevertheless, here you will find the general information you can easily extrapolate.

Choosing a Topic for Your Economics Research Proposal – What You Should Know

1. Choose Something That Fascinates You

Choosing the topic of your first real research project is a very important step. In Economics, it often determines the general direction of your entire future career. This means that you have to be careful to select something you will be comfortable working on not just for the duration of this project, but for years to come. Even within the confines of an individual project, after you have to redraft it for the nth time, you will feel less enthusiasm than when you began. It is worth having more excitement to begin with.

2. Study the Literature

Choose a general direction you are interested in, and dive into all the literature on it you can find. It can take some time, but again, choosing a topic for a long-term research project isn’t something you should do in a hurry. Use academic databases and search engines, both multidisciplinary (Academic Search, BASE, CORE, etc.) end economics-focused (EconBiz, EconLit). Run searches using the keywords related to the general area of your area of interest, and you will find plenty of sources to work with. Study them for some time, and you will discover a gap in the knowledge or an understudied subject. Alternatively, many papers indicate subjects that require further research – check if somebody already did it, and if not, you can do it yourself.
lit review structure

3. Find Somebody to Bounce Your Ideas Off

It may be your supervisor or another person knowledgeable in the Economics. Suggest topics to him/her for consideration and gauge the reaction. If you choose this person well, he/she will help you find an optimal direction for research without imposing his/her point of view on you: by asking questions, pointing out flaws in your reasoning or suggesting what literature you should read.

4. Take an Issue Arising from Your Previous Work

If in your previous research work you stumbled on issues that looked promising and interesting but were too peripheral for the subject of your paper, now may be the time to look into them. For example, you have been studying the practices applied in the expansion of a particular business overseas, and encountered a culture-related difficulty this company had to deal with. You may want to return to it and study it on a deeper level.

5. Think on an Interdisciplinary Level

Many supervisors like the idea of expanding the research beyond the boundaries of a specific discipline. Try to think about your area of interest in relation to other academic disciplines. For example, you study the influence of immigration on the development of small businesses. You can try studying this issue in conjunction with education (how to deal with the need of hiring employees who studied in a different educational system or didn’t get organized schooling at all), ecology (how to make sure businesses hiring immigrants comply with environmental regulations), sociology (the role of small businesses in providing upward social mobility among the immigrants), etc.
Here are some examples of topics you can come up with this way:

  • Social Responsibility among Businesses and Its Effect on Profitability among Tech Startups;
  • The Influence of Climate Change on Real Estate Market in the United States;
  • Positive and Negative Effects of Flexible Work Hours and Work Autonomy on Work/Family Balance among Employees;
  • Comparing the Share of Women in the Tech Sector in India and the USA: Successful Strategies for Diversity;
  • The Role of Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurs in Multi-Ethnic Neighborhoods in New York.

Preparing a Research Proposal in Economics: General Principles

Although the specific requirements to your research proposal can be significantly different and depend on many different factors, some principles remain the same, no matter which school you attend.

1. It Should Answer 3 Questions

They are as follows:

  • What you are going to research;
  • Why you think this topic is worthy of research;
  • How you propose to perform the research.

2. It Should Be Straightforward

The goal of a proposal is to carry your message through. Therefore:

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
  • Don’t embellish your text, write in a simple and matter-of-fact manner;
  • Eliminate all unnecessary words and sentences;
  • Don’t waste time leading up to the subject of your research. Get down to business right away. You may spend a couple of sentences delineating the context, but then state directly what you are going to research, e.g., “This study will examine the share of women coders in British tech startups”;
  • Avoid ambiguities. Your goal is not to create a work of art, but to be understood. Don’t be afraid to use the same word multiple times if clarity calls for it. This means that if you are talking about an ethnic minority, keep calling the group this way throughout the text, don’t try to replace the term with “people of foreign descent” or something else.

3. It Should Be Carefully Organized

The exact structure may differ, but you should include all the sections your college’s guidelines suggest, accompanied with the necessary headings and subheadings.

4. It Should Point out the Innovativeness of Research

Your proposal should make it obvious which parts of what you say constitute the existing knowledge on the subject and the context of research and which are innovative.

5. It Should Follow the Guidelines

Whatever recommendations you find in this guide or elsewhere on the Internet, your college’s guidelines trump them. Even such a basic requirement as the word limit can differ wildly depending on the course. Even within a single university, it may range from 300 to 2000 words.

Writing a Research Proposal in Economics: A Typical Structure

1. Introduction

It is the “Why?” part of your proposal. Begin with clearly stating the central issue or question your research project will try to answer. Alternatively, you can express the primary claim or idea you intend to prove.

Explain why you have decided to research your subject and why you believe it to be important. Remember, however, that Economics is a practical and down-to-earth discipline. Try to avoid making your proposal fully descriptive – no matter how interesting and innovative your ideas are, you should try to look for practical implications and cause-and-effect explanations.
If the subject of your proposal is not fully innovative and has been broadly covered in literature, point out what makes your research different from the existing works on the topic. Prove that you are doing something new, not just rehash the research carried out by others.
You can optionally cover two other things in this section:

  • Project feasibility. Any research has associated costs and expenses. Prove why you believe the potential outcome to be worthy of the resources spent on it. It isn’t usually an issue, but you have to mention it if you have a reason to believe it to become a problem;
  • Project limitations. Try to maintain a reasonable balance between ambition and viability.

2. Current State of the Field

This section puts your research into context. Give a short and to the point description of the existing body of knowledge on the subject. You may want to:

  • Summarize what is known on the subject and what points most researchers agree upon;
  • Mention what important issues have already been studied by the scholars on the subject;
  • List the major points of contention between the experts on the subject. What schools of thought are dominant, why they disagree, what alternative viewpoints exist?
  • Point out methodological problems associated with the subject;
  • Provide criticism of the existing research or offer viable new venues of investigation;
  • Define what is not yet known and how you intend to build upon the existing works in the field.

3. Project Description

It is the “What?” part of the proposal.
Suggest a theory answering or explaining the issue you have stated in the beginning. At this point, you do not have to provide a detailed proof of why you believe it to be true – remember, you write a research proposal, not describe the research you have already carried out. If you can find enough information in high-authority information sources to justify your idea, it will be enough. You will have plenty of time over the course of the project to modify or even change the original theory based on your findings.
Also, establish the primary terminology you are going to use across your research. Try to stick to the terms commonly used in Economics and avoid ambiguity.

4. Research Design/Methodology

It is the “How?” part of the proposal.
Describe all the operations, tools and techniques (questionnaires, interviews, modeling, text analysis, etc.) you are going to use and explain why you believe them to be the best choice. List all the data and source material you intend to use and how you will gather and analyze them. Are there any practical considerations to consider (e.g., financial expenses, necessary resources, facilities, equipment)? Do you have the relevant skills and proficiencies to successfully use the methods you propose?

qualitative research

5. Conclusion

Provide a short summary of everything you have said up to this point. Refer to the original question, repeat your proposed solution or claim, suggest what the result of your project will be and what impact it will have on the field of study, the Economic studies and related disciplines.

6. Bibliography

Provide the list of all the information sources you intend to use as the context for your research with full citations. Try to make it comprehensive, including both recent and classic works on the subject. Also, don’t try to include all literature on the subject in general – if you discover new sources in the course of your research, you will be able to use them. Right now, your goal is to show that you are well-grounded in the existing research on the subject.

Why Proposals Get Rejected: Check if Yours Falls under These Criteria
Finally, you should analyze what you have written and be honest with yourself. Is it really the research you want to do? Is it good enough? Is it persuasive? Here are some of the most common reasons why research proposals get rejected, so that you can see if yours falls under these descriptions:

  1. The problem is insignificant. The issue you have chosen lacks importance, and the research is unlikely to produce new or useful results;
  2. Methods don’t correlate with the stated objective of the research;
  3. The researcher lacks sufficient expertise to do the research;
  4. The proposed approach is too vague and unclear to be properly evaluated;
  5. The researcher is not familiar with the relevant findings and research in the study field.

We hope that having this guide at hand will greatly improve your chances of successfully preparing your research proposal and getting it accepted.