Writing assignment series
How to write a research proposal*
These recommendations do not guarantee a successful research application!
They are intended to help you conceptualize and prepare a research proposal,
giving the process structure and a timetable for you to develop. Good luck!
When applying for a research grant or a study scholarship, you are expected to
hand in a "detailed and precise description of study or research proposal as well as information on any previous study or research projects of particular relevance to a decision of award."
The purpose of the proposal is to ensure that
- the candidates have done sufficient preliminary reading/research
in the area of their interest
- that they have thought about the issues involved and are able to provide more than a broad description of the topic which they are planning to research.
The proposal is not a fixed blueprint. One cannot predict one's findings beforehand or mechanically stick to an argument since the research will inevitably alter or even unseat one's initial expectations. There is no fixed formula for writing a proposal.
However, your challenge is to convince members of the scientific community that you
- have identified a scientific problem
- have a theoretical background and a methodical approach to solve the problem
- within a realistic time frame and at reasonable expenses.
With your research you will add a new aspect to the scientific discourse.
First, consult your advisor on length, layout (typeface, line spacing, font, etc.), format, as well as a table of contents and page numbers. Members of the selection committee may have to read a large number of research proposals so good construction and legibility of your proposal is to your advantage.
- Personal data (name, academic title, your position at your own university, date of
birth, nationality, your contact information, institutional contact.
- (Working) Title of your planned dissertation or research report.
words in the title should be chosen with great care, and their association with one another must be carefully considered. While the title should be brief, it should be accurate, descriptive and comprehensive, clearly indicating the subject of the investigation.
In order to develop a clear title, you must also be clear about the focus of your research!
Strive for the title to be ten words or 60 characters: focus on or incorporate keywords that reference the classification of the research subject
- Indicate a realistic time frame toward project completion,
followed by the name(s) of your supervisor(s), the university department where you hope to do your research and, if applicable, information about other academics with whom you plan to collaborate.
- Refer to successfully funded projects to determine whether your topic fits with the granting organization's mission and to mimic their title/proposal structure
Abstract/summary statement of the research project:
This one page summary focuses on the research topic, its new, current and relevant aspects. Strive for clarity; your greatest challenge might be narrowing the topic
Review of research literature
A short and precise overview about the current state of research that is immediately
connected with your research project.
- Reference the most important contributions of other scientists.
- Discuss the theoretical scope or the framework of ideas that will be used to back the research.
- Demonstrate that you are fully conversant with the ideas you are dealing with and that you
grasp their methodological implications.
- Indicate the open problem which then will be the motive for your project. State clearly how your research will contribute to the existing research.
Summarize the most important impact of your own work on the topic (if applicable).
Attach copies of your own publications that might be seen in relation to your research project.
Objective of the research project
Give a concise and clear outline of the academic (possibly also non-academic, e.g. social and political) objectives that you want to achieve through your project. Your proposal
needs to show why the intended research is important and justifies the search effort. Here you outline the significance (theoretical or practical) or relevance
of the topic.
Such justification may either be of an empirical nature (you hope to add to, or extend
an existing body of knowledge) or of a theoretical nature (you hope to elucidate contentious
areas in a body of knowledge or to provide new conceptual insights into such
knowledge). All research is part of a larger scholarly enterprise and candidates should
be able to argue for the value and positioning of their work.
Outline the project
This is the central part of your research outline.
- Detail your research procedure within the given time.
- List sources and quality of evidence you will consult, the analytical technique you will employ, and the timetable you will follow.
Depending on the topic, suitable research strategies should be defined to ensure
that enough and adequate empirical data will be gathered for a successful research project.
- Describe the intended methods of data gathering, the controls you will introduce, the statistical methods to be used, the type of literature or documentary analysis to be followed, etc.
Consider your work to be a Work-in-Progress and allow yourself a flexible planning:
Stay ready to revise the proposal according to new insights and newly aroused questions
and keep on modifying the working hypothesis according to new insights while
formulating the proposal and the working hypothesis. Once you have a useful
working hypothesis, concentrate on pursuing the project within the limits of the topic.
Develop a time table (if possible in table form), indicating the sequence of research phases and the time that you will probably need for each phase. Take into account that at this stage, it can only be estimated, but make clear that you have an idea about the time span that will be needed for each step.
Selective research bibliography
List academic works mentioned in your research outline as well as other important works to which you will refer during your research
List other documents attached to your proposal.
References, CV, etc.
Once you have finished the conceptual work on your proposal, go through a careful
- Verify that the title, the abstract and the content of your proposal clearly correspond to each other!
- Maintain a clear structure,
an intuitive navigational style throughout the document with headings and summaries, enabling the reader to quickly reference where they are for future commenting;
(Have a reader skim your document to verify)
- Summarize significant issues and make no assumptions where possible.
- Keep a reasonable, clear, declarative writing style (active verbs!) throughout the document;
- Breakup the narrative with bulleted lists, visuals, etc. demonstrating a command of abstract concepts and relationships
Use white space to highlight and emphasize important sections
- Make sure your proposal does not contain any grammatical/spelling mistakes or typos; engage a proofreader;
- Request an experienced academic to proofread your proposal in order to ensure the proposal conforms to institutional and international academic standards.
Olk, Dr. Harald. (October 2009). How to Write a Research Proposal. In Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Dienst (DAAD). Retrieved January 28, 2011
Common rejection reasons *
The National Institute of Health (NIH) analyzed the reasons why over 700 research proposal applications were denied. Their findings as to the cause of rejection are worth reviewing:
- Nature of the Problem (18%)
- It is doubtful that new or useful information
will result from the project (14%).
- The basic hypothesis is unsound (3.5%).
- The proposed research is scientifically premature due to the present inadequacy of supporting knowledge (0.6%).
- It is doubtful that new or useful information
- Approach to the Problem (38.9%)
- The research plan is nebulous, diffuse
and not presented in concrete detail (8.6%).
- The planned research is not adequately controlled (3.7%).
- Greater care in planning is needed (25.2%).
1. The research plan has not been carefully designed (11.8%).
2. The proposed methods will not yield accurate results (8.8%).
3. The procedures to be used should be spelled out
in more detail (4.6%).
- A more thorough statistical treatment is needed (0.7%).
- The proposed tests require more individual subjects
than the number given (0.7%).
- The research plan is nebulous, diffuse
- Competence of the Investigators (38.2%)
- The applicants need to acquire greater familiarity with the
pertinent literature (7.2%).
- The problems to be investigated are more complex than the
applicants realize (10.5%).
- The applicants propose to enter an area of research for which
they are not adequately trained (12.8%).
- The principal investigator intends to give actual responsibility
for the direction of a complex project to an inexperienced
- The reviewers do not have sufficient confidence in the applicants
to approve the present application, largely based on the past
efforts of the applicants (6.8%).
- The applicants need to acquire greater familiarity with the
- Conditions of the Research Environment (4.8%)
- The investigators will be required to devote too much time to
teaching or other non-research duties (0.9%).
- Better liaison is needed with colleagues in collateral disciplines (0.4%).
- Requested expansion on continuation of a currently supported research project would result in failure to achieve the main goal of the work (3.5%).
- The investigators will be required to devote too much time to
Based on the above analysis,
a carefully designed, well reasoned proposal will overcome these common pitfalls. It also represents and important credibility statement about the investigator.
The Bureau of Occupational and Vocational Education comparable study.
Based on a sample of 353 research grant applications:
-- 18% forgot to number the pages.
-- 73% forgot to include a table of contents.
-- 81% had no abstract.
-- 92% failed to provide resumes of proposed consultants.
-- 25% had no resume for the principal investigator.
-- 66% included no plan for project evaluation.
-- 17% forgot to identify the project director by name.
-- 20% failed to list the objectives of the project.
Following the scientific method | Studying text books in science |
Writing lab reports and scientific papers | How to write a research proposal |
Writing white papers | Lab safety
Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |* Shapek, Dr. Raymond, (July 1995), Proposal Writing: Stages and Strategies with Examples. in Georgia Perimeter College from http://facstaff.gpc.edu/~ebrown/infobr3.htm#shapek, retrieved January 31, 2011.
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers | Research proposals
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych.
Research Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology
Trinity Western University
Langley, BC, Canada
Most students and beginning researchers do not fully understand what a research proposal means, nor do they understand its importance. To put it bluntly, one's research is only as a good as one's proposal. An ill-conceived proposal dooms the project even if it somehow gets through the Thesis Supervisory Committee. A high quality proposal, on the other hand, not only promises success for the project, but also impresses your Thesis Committee about your potential as a researcher.
A research proposal is intended to convince others that you have a worthwhile research project and that you have the competence and the work-plan to complete it. Generally, a research proposal should contain all the key elements involved in the research process and include sufficient information for the readers to evaluate the proposed study.
Regardless of your research area and the methodology you choose, all research proposals must address the following questions: What you plan to accomplish, why you want to do it and how you are going to do it.
The proposal should have sufficient information to convince your readers that you have an important research idea, that you have a good grasp of the relevant literature and the major issues, and that your methodology is sound.
The quality of your research proposal depends not only on the quality of your proposed project, but also on the quality of your proposal writing. A good research project may run the risk of rejection simply because the proposal is poorly written. Therefore, it pays if your writing is coherent, clear and compelling.
This paper focuses on proposal writing rather than on the development of research ideas.
It should be concise and descriptive. For example, the phrase, "An investigation of . . ." could be omitted. Often titles are stated in terms of a functional relationship, because such titles clearly indicate the independent and dependent variables. However, if possible, think of an informative but catchy title. An effective title not only pricks the reader's interest, but also predisposes him/her favourably towards the proposal.
It is a brief summary of approximately 300 words. It should include the research question, the rationale for the study, the hypothesis (if any), the method and the main findings. Descriptions of the method may include the design, procedures, the sample and any instruments that will be used.
The main purpose of the introduction is to provide the necessary background or context for your research problem. How to frame the research problem is perhaps the biggest problem in proposal writing.
If the research problem is framed in the context of a general, rambling literature review, then the research question may appear trivial and uninteresting. However, if the same question is placed in the context of a very focused and current research area, its significance will become evident.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on how to frame your research question just as there is no prescription on how to write an interesting and informative opening paragraph. A lot depends on your creativity, your ability to think clearly and the depth of your understanding of problem areas.
However, try to place your research question in the context of either a current "hot" area, or an older area that remains viable. Secondly, you need to provide a brief but appropriate historical backdrop. Thirdly, provide the contemporary context in which your proposed research question occupies the central stage. Finally, identify "key players" and refer to the most relevant and representative publications. In short, try to paint your research question in broad brushes and at the same time bring out its significance.
The introduction typically begins with a general statement of the problem area, with a focus on a specific research problem, to be followed by the rational or justification for the proposed study. The introduction generally covers the following elements:
- State the research problem, which is often referred to as the purpose of the study.
- Provide the context and set the stage for your research question in such a way as to show its necessity and importance.
- Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing.
- Briefly describe the major issues and sub-problems to be addressed by your research.
- Identify the key independent and dependent variables of your experiment. Alternatively, specify the phenomenon you want to study.
- State your hypothesis or theory, if any. For exploratory or phenomenological research, you may not have any hypotheses. (Please do not confuse the hypothesis with the statistical null hypothesis.)
- Set the delimitation or boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus.
- Provide definitions of key concepts. (This is optional.)
Sometimes the literature review is incorporated into the introduction section. However, most professors prefer a separate section, which allows a more thorough review of the literature.
The literature review serves several important functions:
- Ensures that you are not "reinventing the wheel".
- Gives credits to those who have laid the groundwork for your research.
- Demonstrates your knowledge of the research problem.
- Demonstrates your understanding of the theoretical and research issues related to your research question.
- Shows your ability to critically evaluate relevant literature information.
- Indicates your ability to integrate and synthesize the existing literature.
- Provides new theoretical insights or develops a new model as the conceptual framework for your research.
- Convinces your reader that your proposed research will make a significant and substantial contribution to the literature (i.e., resolving an important theoretical issue or filling a major gap in the literature).
Most students' literature reviews suffer from the following problems:
- Lacking organization and structure
- Lacking focus, unity and coherence
- Being repetitive and verbose
- Failing to cite influential papers
- Failing to keep up with recent developments
- Failing to critically evaluate cited papers
- Citing irrelevant or trivial references
- Depending too much on secondary sources
Your scholarship and research competence will be questioned if any of the above applies to your proposal.
There are different ways to organize your literature review. Make use of subheadings to bring order and coherence to your review. For example, having established the importance of your research area and its current state of development, you may devote several subsections on related issues as: theoretical models, measuring instruments, cross-cultural and gender differences, etc.
It is also helpful to keep in mind that you are telling a story to an audience. Try to tell it in a stimulating and engaging manner. Do not bore them, because it may lead to rejection of your worthy proposal. (Remember: Professors and scientists are human beings too.)
The Method section is very important because it tells your Research Committee how you plan to tackle your research problem. It will provide your work plan and describe the activities necessary for the completion of your project.
The guiding principle for writing the Method section is that it should contain sufficient information for the reader to determine whether methodology is sound. Some even argue that a good proposal should contain sufficient details for another qualified researcher to implement the study.
You need to demonstrate your knowledge of alternative methods and make the case that your approach is the most appropriate and most valid way to address your research question.
Please note that your research question may be best answered by qualitative research. However, since most mainstream psychologists are still biased against qualitative research, especially the phenomenological variety, you may need to justify your qualitative method.
Furthermore, since there are no well-established and widely accepted canons in qualitative analysis, your method section needs to be more elaborate than what is required for traditional quantitative research. More importantly, the data collection process in qualitative research has a far greater impact on the results as compared to quantitative research. That is another reason for greater care in describing how you will collect and analyze your data. (How to write the Method section for qualitative research is a topic for another paper.)
For quantitative studies, the method section typically consists of the following sections:
- Design -Is it a questionnaire study or a laboratory experiment? What kind of design do you choose?
- Subjects or participants - Who will take part in your study ? What kind of sampling procedure do you use?
- Instruments - What kind of measuring instruments or questionnaires do you use? Why do you choose them? Are they valid and reliable?
- Procedure - How do you plan to carry out your study? What activities are involved? How long does it take?
Obviously you do not have results at the proposal stage. However, you need to have some idea about what kind of data you will be collecting, and what statistical procedures will be used in order to answer your research question or test you hypothesis.
It is important to convince your reader of the potential impact of your proposed research. You need to communicate a sense of enthusiasm and confidence without exaggerating the merits of your proposal. That is why you also need to mention the limitations and weaknesses of the proposed research, which may be justified by time and financial constraints as well as by the early developmental stage of your research area.
Common Mistakes in Proposal Writing
- Failure to provide the proper context to frame the research question.
- Failure to delimit the boundary conditions for your research.
- Failure to cite landmark studies.
- Failure to accurately present the theoretical and empirical contributions by other researchers.
- Failure to stay focused on the research question.
- Failure to develop a coherent and persuasive argument for the proposed research.
- Too much detail on minor issues, but not enough detail on major issues.
- Too much rambling -- going "all over the map" without a clear sense of direction. (The best proposals move forward with ease and grace like a seamless river.)
- Too many citation lapses and incorrect references.
- Too long or too short.
- Failing to follow the APA style.
- Slopping writing.