A guide to writing effective research proposals
This article explains how to write a research proposal, including the purpose of the proposal, what to include, the structure and common problems that are encountered by students as they research or write their proposal.
Purpose of the research proposal
A research proposal may have several purposes, including to receive permission to write a Master’s thesis or a PhD dissertation, to receive funding from an outside organization for a research project, to receive permission or funding to take a sabbatical, or time off to complete the research, or to gain permission from a professor or adviser to complete the research.
The research proposal is persuasive. Its goal is to convince the audience that the research project is feasible. The audience of the research proposal assesses the proposal to determine if the research project is well-planned, is suitable for their needs or for the assignment, and if it can be carried out as described.
Structure of the research proposal
It is important to read the criteria for the proposal, if you are given any. Research proposals written for a university or to obtain funding often have a pre-described format, a specific structure, or even use a particular style guide, such as the MLA style guide. Despite these differences, most research proposals have a few general components that are similar.
Every research proposal should have a title. The title should both identify the fact that the paper is a research proposal as well as describe the general research that the author of the proposal wishes to conduct. For example, a good title for a research proposal meant for a PhD dissertation might be:
“Examining the Effectiveness of Health Initiatives in the First Nations: A PhD Dissertation Proposal.”
The title requires thought. It should be descriptive but concise to avoid seeming pompous.
The research problem
The next major section should illustrate the research problem. Remember that not all of your readers may believe that the topic of the project is worth investigating. As a result, you will need to make a solid case demonstrating the necessity of the research. Describe the problem and give background to illustrate the fact that there is a problem. For example, if your research is about the recidivism of sex offenders in United States prisons, you might explain the problem in terms of statistics about recidivism and provide a thorough background of the problem. Then, you should describe the research question, or the question that will drive your research effort. For example, your research question might be “Does the use of rehabilitation programs, such as therapy, education programs, or work programs reduce the recidivism of convicted sex offenders after they leave United States prisons?”
Then, explain how you developed the research question. For example, did the question arise from personal experience, an academic debate, or a recent news item? Explain what sparked your interest.
Positioning the research
This positioning of the research usually is part of an extended literature review of several pages, although it can be a short section of approximately 900 words, or two single-spaced pages. The length depends on the purpose of the research proposal as well as the guidelines given to you.
The primary purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate that you understand the background of the topic and that you have conducted a thorough investigation of similar research. Focus on the most important, or most relevant studies and theories. Some students have problems with this section because they erroneously believe that there is not enough research about their topic to include in a literature review. However, no research project is an entirely new topic; rather, new research represents a new angle on a topic. For example, if your research is about the use of social media to make political arguments, while it is true that social media is a fairly recent phenomenon, there has been other research conducted about persuasion using social media, as well as other research involving political arguments. Explain how your research adds to the conversation. Build upon previous research to provide evidence for the need for your research. Tell the audience how your research will shed new light on the subject.
After the literature review, you should have a short but detailed section that describes the methodology of your research. The length of this section can span from 900 words to over 2000 words, depending on the guidelines you are working with as well as the complexity of the research question and the research design.
Before you begin, it is important to plan the research method. Find a methodology that fits what you are attempting to study. For example, if you are comparing English and German translations of a key text, including changes in meaning and format in the text, you might choose to use comparative analysis as a methodology. If this were the case, you would need to explain what comparative analysis is as well as provide references from other scholars who have used the methodology in a similar study.
In addition to explaining the methodology, you should explain how specifically you will carry out the study. For example, if you will be conducting a comparative analysis in which you look at the differences between two texts, you might outline the categories of differences you are looking for, such as translation changes, changes in meaning, and changes in format. Then, explain in detail how you plan to analyze the data. Go through your planned procedure step by step so the audience can understand precisely what you plan to do and how you plan to do it.
It is also helpful to provide a timeline for your research so the audience can determine if your study can be conducted within the allotted period of time. Begin the timeline with the date that the committee or audience will make a decision about the proposal. Then, continue with a detailed timeline that explains how long each step of the process will take, from the research to writing up and publishing or presenting the study.
Conclude the proposal with a request for the audience or the committee to approve your proposal and allow you to conduct the research. Provide contact information in case they have questions about the proposal. Finally, thank the audience or committee for their time and consideration.
After the proposal is finished, list all of your references. The reference section should be clearly labeled and it should begin on a new page. The length of the reference section depends on the number of references you cited within the paper. The typical length for a research proposal is one to three pages, double-spaced. Use the style guide specified in the assignment, or the one you used to cite sources throughout the paper. Check the references carefully to make sure that the citations are correct and that the references are formatted appropriately.
Despite its simplistic structure, writing a research proposal can be time-consuming and difficult. Many students and first-time research proposal writers experience problems as they research or write the proposal. The following are the most common problems writers experience:
- Failure to understand the needs of the audience. Make sure that the type of research you plan to carry out is approved or funded by this audience. For example, the United States National Institutes of Health funds medical research but not research about computer science. If you have questions, contact the head of the department or the contact person listed on the criteria sheet.
- Failing to frame the research question clearly and appropriately. Remember that all research answers a question. Make sure that yours is easily identified and easy to understand.
- Failure to make sure that the proposal is structured appropriately and meets the criteria outlined by the committee, if you were given any.
- Not designing a study that can reasonably completed within the allotted time or with the funds requested.
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