I’m not going to lie, even when I was applying for my PhD (and had successfully completed two degrees), I again looked up how to write a research proposal. And, to be honest, I didn’t find a tonne out there.
In this article, I’ll break down what a research proposal is and when you’ll need to write one. I’ll also discuss the elements of a great research proposal and give general tips for writing one.
What is a research proposal?
First of all, what the heck even is a research proposal? Basically, it’s a roadmap of your research project from start to finish.
It may be in outline or narrative form depending on the audience you’re writing for. For a PhD application, you’ll need to write everything out. However, if you’re submitting a proposal to your supervisor for a PhD chapter, an outline is probably sufficient.
I recommend writing at least an outline of one every time you embark on a new research project or study. Research proposals help you think through your whole project and allow you to spot any issues early on. It’s all well and good to have a rough idea of what you want to do, but writing a research proposal will bring up lots of different aspects of your project you might not have thought through otherwise.
When do you need a research proposal?
You’ll likely write your first academic research proposal during your undergraduate degree, whether for an individual research paper or for your dissertation. You’ll likely also have to do one during your master’s degree for your final dissertation (and, perhaps, as part of your application if you’re doing a research-based master’s degree).
You’ll also need a solid research proposal when applying for any PhD programme. Once you start your PhD, you’ll likely submit at least an outline of a research proposal for each ‘study’ or ‘chapter’ of your PhD, as well as for any side projects you work on with supervisors and colleagues.
Later in your academic career, you’ll need to submit them as part of grant proposals. Even if you choose to leave academia and go into industry, if you’re doing any sort of research position, you’ll need to submit a research proposal. Even if you’re not in a research-based job, many of the same principles are also relevant to submitting general project proposals, so the skills you gain during your degrees will also help you in this regard.
Finally, to combat scholars only publishing significant results, some journals require a detailed proposal of exactly how you plan to conduct your project. They accept or reject your paper based on the proposal. You agree to publish whatever results you get, whether they’re significant or not.
What Should You Include in a Research Proposal?
Now that it’s (hopefully!) clear that knowing how to write a good research proposal is important, how the heck should you get started?
The structure of a research proposal essentially mirrors that of a research paper. You should include some introductory info and context, your research question, an overview of the related literature, and your proposed methods. It should end with a general plan / schedule for your project.
Introduction and Context
Your introduction should provide an overview of your topic and contextualise the issue you’re discussing. Basically, this section should explain your ‘why’ for conducting this research, give a broad overview of what you hope to accomplish, and explain the overall impact of your project.
Impact is quite an important metric for UK universities these days and universities are given an impact score for their research. So, when applying to programmes or for grants, this should be an important focus.
You need to clearly define your research question in your proposal. What specifically are you hoping to answer through your research? It’s okay to have more than one research question as well. The most important thing is that your research question is clearly defined.
If you have a hypothesis at this stage, it’s a good idea to include it here as well.
Overview of the Literature
You need to show that you’ve ‘done your homework’ so to speak before submitting your proposal. To do this, you need to read others’ research on the topic you’ll be researching. If there’s no literature specifically on your topic because your research is so novel, broaden the scope of your search a bit.
Now, you don’t need to read ALL related work before you start, but you need to read enough to know what you’re talking about, situate your research, and make sure your research project is valid.
In addition to checking things like your university library’s database and Google Scholar, you should also check the reference lists for the articles you read in order to identify any seminal works in the field. Make sure to include these.
Methods, Data and Analysis
Depending on the purpose of your proposal (whether it’s for an application or for a journal, for example), the amount of detail in your methods section will vary. For a PhD proposal, you may be able to more broadly define your methods, data sources, and proposed analysis. However, if you’re planning a project you’re about to start, you’ll need to nail these things down better.
Including your proposed data sources is particularly important—if you’re planning on getting data from a company, for example, you’ll need to know well in advance as it can take quite a long time to get it.
The level of detail of your proposed analysis will also vary. If you’re conducting general statistical tests, for example, you won’t necessarily need to specifically define which tests you’re doing at this stage in a PhD proposal. However, if you’re submitting to a journal, you will need to be super explicit about your analytical methods.
You should also include a loose plan and schedule for how you will conduct your project.
For a PhD proposal, I’d plan things in 6 month to 1 year intervals. For a shorter project, you might plan in increments as small as one week.
This plan is obviously flexible and subject to change but will show your audience you’ve thought through your project and will actually be able to accomplish it in the allotted time.
This probably goes without saying, but you need to properly reference your proposal, whether it is in outline or narrative form. You’ll also need a list of references at the end.
I recommend starting to put everything in a reference manager like Zotero even at the proposal stage. I PROMISE it’ll make your life so much easier in the long run 🙂.
Once you have a research proposal, you should seek feedback from your supervisors and/or colleagues. The planning stage is the best time to identify any issues and also to incorporate any elements they might suggest. You don’t want to get too far into a project only to find out you’ve missed a seminal piece of work that invalidates your whole project!
You should also be prepared to change and adapt your proposal as you do more reading and get into the nitty gritty of conducting your research. In most cases, your research proposal is not a rigid document, but merely a starting point for your project.
Do you have an upcoming research proposal to write? Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions!
Want more research and grad school tips? Check out my other articles.