Whether you're a student aiming to meet course requirements or a researcher seeking funding, knowing how to write a research proposal is an important skill. If you have experience writing project proposals, you may think they are similar. However, they are not. The standards for research proposals are very strict and have different writing styles and formatting guidelines. Furthermore, those guidelines may change with each discipline or department.

This article from BEWS describes the steps taken to prepare a written proposal as attractively as possible to obtain approval and funding. It also discusses the key aspects that should be considered to help you convert your proposed study into a well-organized actual research work.

What is a research proposal?

For a research project, a research proposal is a funding request. Most proposals provide a clear overview of a major research question, a methodology and schedule, and an outline of current literature and developments in the field.

While "research proposals" are sent to universities - usually as part of the application process for postgraduate study - they can also be used to obtain funding from private, government or non-academic bodies. In addition, proposals may be submitted by individuals or organizations (such as non-profits).

Why is it essential to have a research proposal?

  • This is used to establish whether there is expertise to support your proposed area of research.
  • This is part of the assessment of your application.
  • The research proposal you submit as part of your application is only a starting point; your proposed research is likely to change as your ideas develop.

Research proposal structure

Because PhD proposals all have to do similar work, they mostly follow a similar structure. So, for example, yours would probably go something like this:

Title - Keep it simple and descriptive: Clever alliteration and quotes can come later when you're writing your thesis. For now, you want the person reading this to know exactly what your research is about and who to send it to potential supervisors.

Overview - Begin by defining your research question (what) and explain how it contributes to current work in your field (why). The literature review can wait until after you start your PhD, but it should demonstrate that you have some understanding of relevant academic research.

Methodology - Make sure the reader understands the practical and theoretical approach you will take in your research. For example, what data will you collect, how will you collect it, and how will you analyze it? Ideally, refer to appropriate research methods and models. It's also a good idea to provide some kind of roadmap for how you'll go about things. Don't worry; you can (and you will) change this later.

Outcomes and Impact - What will exist as a result of your research (besides just another PhD on the library shelf), and what will it make possible? You don't need to identify every specific outcome from your project (blue sky research is fine), but you should think about some possible outcomes.

Tips for writing a research proposal

Be Concise and Specific: 

The research proposal should be concrete in describing each part. Your research proposal should be short but provide all the details about what you intend to study. Write only the essential information comprehensively and avoid writing irrelevant and unnecessary explanations.

Use the future tense: 

A research proposal outlines the proposed research you will do in the future. Therefore, use the future tense for actions to be carried out in the research, e.g. A survey method will be used. A limited questionnaire will be used for the collection of data.

Use a formal style of writing: 

Avoid an informal style of writing, eg. I will use survey method in research. Instead, use a formal writing style, e.g. The research will be conducted using a survey method.

References/Bibliography: 

This is the last page. Again, list all references in alphabetical order without numbers or bullets. Sometimes, a department or an institution prefers to choose a specific style (either APA or MLA), so it is better to adopt that style for writing your references.

Proofreading: 

After writing your research proposal, read it several times to ensure everything is clear and correct.

Things to avoid

  • Avoid writing too long a proposal - remember there is a 1000-word limit! If your proposal is too long, you will be asked to shorten it before processing your application.
  • Avoid proposals that are too broad in scope and too vague - this will show that you haven't thought enough about the research you plan to do, how it fits into the existing literature or how you can achieve the research in the time available want to do
  • Avoid submitting a proposal for which there is no interest within the University - check our website for staff profiles and current research to ensure that your topic is compatible with current academic interests.

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