Expert Guide to Writing Research Proposals

The advice provided in this guide does not mean your research proposal is guaranteed to be a success! 
Rather, its aim is to help you understand how to prepare and write a good proposal. Essentially, it provides a structure and timeline, which you can use as a basis for your project.
If you are applying for a grant or scholarship to study or undertake some research project, you will be expected to submit a precise and detailed outline of the research project or study you are proposing to undertake. You should additionally provide relevant information about any previous projects or studies in the same field to help the examining committee come to a decision about the award. 

A research proposal serves the purpose of ensuring that:

  • Applicants have done a sufficient amount of preliminary research and/or reading in the relevant area. 
  • Applicants have given sufficient thought to any related issues and can offer more than a general overview of their intended area of research.

Although it is a type of blueprint, a research proposal is not set in stone. It is difficult to predict findings in advance or to blindly adhere to an argument. This is because extensive research will inevitably change the ideas and expectations one has at the outset. Research proposals are not based on any fixed pattern or formula.   

The writer’s challenge, however, is to persuade academic colleagues that they have:  

  • Identified a valid research question or problem.
  • A good understanding of the underlying theory and have devised a sound methodology for solving the problem.  
  • The capacity to complete the project at a reasonable cost and within an achievable timeframe.

You must be able to convince a selection committee that your research work will contribute something new to existing knowledge and scholarly discourse.

You should begin your proposal by consulting your course advisor on the format, length, layout (e.g., font type, margins, line spacing, and so on), page numbering, table of contents (ToC), chapter requirements, etc. It is a good idea to ensure your paper is well constructed and legible since members of an evaluation or awards committee are likely to have several proposals to read.   

Title or Cover Page

  • This should include some personal information, e.g., your name, contact details, position at university, student title, date of birth, place of birth, and a contact name at your institution.
  • Provide a working title for the research paper or dissertation you intend to write. You should choose a title carefully and consider any association(s) it may have. Your title should be sufficiently brief, descriptive, comprehensive and accurate so that it clearly indicates the subject you will be investigating.

You need to have a clear understanding of the nature of your research to create a comprehensive title! 
Try to keep your title to 10 words or no more than 60 typed characters. Use keywords that accurately reflect your research topic. 

  • Set an achievable timeframe for completing your project; Follow this with your course supervisor or supervisors’ names, the name of the department you intend to undertake the research in and, where appropriate, provide the names of anyone you intend to collaborate with.
  • Mention any similarly funded projects that have been successful as a way of helping the committee decide whether your proposed topic matches their organisation’s aims.  

Write a Summary Statement or Abstract about Your Proposed Project

Keep this summary or abstract to one page and focus on the topic in terms of any relevant, current and/or new aspects. Try to be clear. The greatest difficult may be narrowing your topic down.

Literature Review

This should be a brief and precise review of any currently available research material related to your project.

  • Refer to any significant contributions by other experts.
  • Talk about any existing theories or ideas that you will use to support your research.  
  • Show that you understand existing ideas and methodologies.
  • Discuss the problem that has motivated you to become involved in this particular project. Say clearly, why and how your work will add to existing knowledge.

Describe Your Preparation and History

Describe and sum-up any significant ways your work will impact the topic.  
Provide copies of any works you have published where these are relevant to your proposed project. 

Project Objectives

Provide a clear and concise overview of your objectives – whether these are academic or non-academic e.g. political or societal. Your research proposal should demonstrate the importance of your planned investigation and justify its necessity. This means outlining the practical and theoretical relevance of your topic. Justification can be either empirical or theoretical in nature. Most research work is usually part of a wider academic undertaking and each candidate should be capable of arguing the position and value of their individual effort.   

Project Outline

The outline is the central section or foundation of a research proposal.

  • Provide details of the procedures you will use within the time allowed.
  • Provide a list of the sources, evidence and analytical methods you intend to use, and set out your timetable. While much depends on your chosen topic, you will need to select suitable methods and strategies for collecting a sufficient quantity of appropriate empirical research data for a successful outcome.
  • List the methods you intend to use for collecting data, the project controls you will use, the statistical analysis methods you will use, the types of literature you will review, analyse, and so on.  

Think of your proposal and research project as a work-in-progress, so be flexible in your planning. For example:

  • Be prepared to review and revise your proposal when new information becomes available or new questions arise.
  • Continue to modify your hypothesis to accommodate new questions and information.
  • Continue your investigative work within the constraints of your topic.

Project Timelines

Create a timetable, preferably in table-style, to show the different phases and the timeframes you are likely to need to complete each stage. Remember that these will be no more than estimates at the beginning, but they show that you have an idea about how much time you will need for each activity. 

Create a Bibliography

This page should list any works referred to in your proposal and any other significant works to be used later for research purposes. 

Items You May Need to Attach
Provide a list of any documents appended to your research proposal, e.g., curricula vitae (CVs) resumes, cover letters, and so on.

Do not Forget to Edit

Remember to edit your paper carefully when you have completed it.

Presentation and Writing Style

  1. Check that your paper’s title, abstract, and content match one another. 
  2. Make sure your structure is clear and that your document is easy to navigate e.g. that it has clear headings and summary sections that allow readers to quickly find the different parts.
  3. Sum-up all significant points and, if possible, do not make assumptions.
  4. Keep your writing style clear and declarative. Use active verbs throughout.
  5. Use visuals and bullet point lists to break long narratives up. Use blank spaces to emphasise and draw attention to key sections.
  6. Check that your work is free of spelling, typographical and grammar errors.
  7. Ask a professional proofreader or fellow academician to check your work and to verify that it meets international standards as well as those of your academic institution.