The goal of a research proposal is to present and justify the need to study a research problem and to present the practical ways in which this research should be conducted. The design elements and procedures for conducting the research are governed by standards within the predominant discipline in which the problem resides, so guidelines for research proposals are more exacting and less formal than a general project proposal. Research proposals contain extensive literature reviews. They must provide persuasive evidence that a need exists for the proposed study. In addition to providing a rationale, a proposal describes detailed methodology for conducting the research consistent with requirements of the professional or academic field and a statement on anticipated outcomes and/or benefits derived from the study's completion.
Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.
Your professor may assign the task of writing a research proposal for the following reasons:
A proposal should contain all the key elements involved in designing a completed research study, with sufficient information that allows readers to assess the validity and usefulness of your proposed study. The only elements missing from a research proposal are the results of the study and your analysis of those results. Finally, an effective proposal is judged on the quality of your writing and, therefore, it is important that your writing is coherent, clear, and compelling.
Regardless of the research problem you are investigating and the methodology you choose, all research proposals must address the following questions:
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Procter, Margaret. The Academic Proposal. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Sanford, Keith. Information for Students: Writing a Research Proposal. Baylor University; Wong, Paul T. P. How to Write a Research Proposal. International Network on Personal Meaning. Trinity Western University; Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing a Research Proposal. University Library. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Beginning the Proposal Process
As with writing a traditional research paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty pages in length. However, before you begin, read the assignment carefully and, if anything seems unclear, ask your professor whether there are any specific requirements for organizing and writing the proposal.
A good place to begin is to ask yourself a series of questions:
In the end, your research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and highlight enthusiasm for conducting the study. Approach it with the intention of leaving your readers feeling like--"Wow, that's an exciting idea and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!"
In general your proposal should include the following sections:
In the real world of higher education, a research proposal is most often written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project or it's the first step in getting approval to write a doctoral dissertation. Even if this is just a course assignment, treat your introduction as the initial pitch of an idea. After reading the introduction, your readers should not only have an understanding of what you want to do, but they should also be able to sense your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes.
Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:
II. Background and Significance
This section can be melded into your introduction or you can create a separate section to help with the organization and flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your study proposal and outline why it's important. Approach writing this section with the thought that you can’t assume your readers will know as much about the research problem as you do. Note that this section is not an essay going over everything you have learned about the research problem; instead, you must choose what is relevant to help explain the goals for your study.
To that end, while there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to deal with some or all of the following:
III. Literature Review
Connected to the background and significance of your study is a more deliberate review and synthesis of prior studies related to the research problem under investigation. The purpose here is to place your project within the larger whole of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings. Assess what you believe is still missing, and state how previous research has failed to examine the issue that your study addresses.
Since a literature review is information dense, it is crucial that this section is intelligently structured to enable a reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study in relation to that of other researchers. A good strategy is to break the literature into "conceptual categories" [themes] rather than systematically describing groups of materials one at a time.
To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:
IV. Research Design and Methods
This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research. As a consequence, the reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. The objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the research problem. Your design and methods should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.
Describe the overall research design by building upon and drawing examples from your review of the literature. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to gather information, about the techniques you would use to analyze it, and about the tests of external validity to which you commit yourself [i.e., the trustworthiness by which you can generalize from your study to other people, places, or times].
When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover these issues:
V. Preliminary Suppositions and Implications
Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, this doesn't mean that you can skip talking about the analytical process and potential implications. The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you believe your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the subject area under investigation. Depending on the aims and objectives of your study, describe how the anticipated results of your study will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policy. Note that such discussions may have either substantive [a potential new policy], theoretical [a potential new understanding], or methodological [a potential new way of analyzing] significance.
When thinking about the potential implications of your study, ask the following questions:
The conclusion reiterates the importance or significance of your proposal and provides a brief summary of the entire study. This section should be only one or two paragraphs long, emphasizing why the research problem is worth investigating, why your research study is unique, and how it advances knowledge.
Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:
As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. In a standard research proposal, this section can take two forms, so consult with your professor about which one is preferred.
In either case, this section should testify to the fact that you did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate the efforts of other researchers. Start a new page and use the heading "References" or "Bibliography" centered at the top of the page. Cited works should always use a standard format that follows the writing style advised by the discipline of your course [i.e., education=APA; history=Chicago, etc]. This section normally does not count towards the total length of your proposal.
Develop a Research Proposal: Writing the Proposal. Office of Library Information Services. Baltimore County Public Schools; Heath, M. Teresa Pereira and Caroline Tynan. “Crafting a Research Proposal.” The Marketing Review 10 (Summer 2010): 147-168; Jones, Mark. “Writing a Research Proposal.” In MasterClass in Geography Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Graham Butt, editor. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), pp. 113-127; Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005; Procter, Margaret. The Academic Proposal. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Punch, Keith and Wayne McGowan. "Developing and Writing a Research Proposal." In From Postgraduate to Social Scientist: A Guide to Key Skills. Nigel Gilbert, ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 59-81; Sanford, Keith. Information for Students: Writing a Research Proposal. Baylor University; Wong, Paul T. P. How to Write a Research Proposal. International Network on Personal Meaning. Trinity Western University; Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing a Research Proposal. University Library. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.