Beginning the Proposal Process
As with writing a regular academic paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty-five 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:
- What do I want to study?
- Why is the topic important?
- How is it significant within the subject areas covered in my class?
- What problems will it help solve?
- How does it build upon [and hopefully go beyond] research already conducted on the topic?
- What exactly should I plan to do, and can I get it done in the time available?
In general, a compelling research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and demonstrate your 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 or a thorough examination of the significance of a research problem. 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 gain a sense of your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes. Note that most proposals do not include an abstract [summary] before the introduction.
Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:
- What is the central research problem?
- What is the topic of study related to that problem?
- What methods should be used to analyze the research problem?
- Why is this important research, what is its significance, and why should someone reading the proposal care about the outcomes of the proposed study?
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 narrative flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail 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 topic; 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 address some or all of the following key points:
- State the research problem and give a more detailed explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction. This is particularly important if the problem is complex or multifaceted.
- Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing. Answer the "So What? question [i.e., why should anyone care].
- Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Be sure to note how your proposed study builds on previous assumptions about the research problem.
- Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research. Clearly identify the key sources you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
- Set the boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what is excluded from the study.
- If necessary, provide definitions of key concepts or terms.
III. Literature Review
Connected to the background and significance of your study is a section of your proposal devoted to 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 and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses. For more information on writing literature reviews, GO HERE.
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. Note that conceptual categories generally reveal themselves after you have read most of the pertinent literature on your topic so adding new categories is an on-going process of discovery as you read more studies. How do you know you've covered the key conceptual categories underlying the research literature? Generally, you can have confidence that all of the significant conceptual categories have been identified if you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations that are being made.
To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:
- Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
- Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
- Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
- Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
- Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?
IV. Research Design and Methods
This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research, yet, your reader has to have confidence that it is worth pursuing. The reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. Thus, the objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the problem and that the methods will provide the means to effectively interpret the potential results. 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. Consider not only methods that other researchers have used but methods of data gathering that have not been used but perhaps could be. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to obtain information, the techniques you would use to analyze the data, and 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, events, and/or periods of time].
When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover the following:
- Specify the research operations you will undertake and the way you will interpret the results of these operations in relation to the research problem. Don't just describe what you intend to achieve from applying the methods you choose, but state how you will spend your time while applying these methods [e.g., coding text from interviews to find statements about the need to change school curriculum; running a regression to determine if there is a relationship between campaign advertising on social media sites and election outcomes in Europe].
- Keep in mind that a methodology is not just a list of tasks; it is an argument as to why these tasks add up to the best way to investigate the research problem. This is an important point because the mere listing of tasks to be performed does not demonstrate that, collectively, they effectively address the research problem. Be sure you explain this.
- Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers and pitfalls in carrying out your research design and explain how you plan to address them. No method is perfect so you need to describe where you believe challenges may exist in obtaining data or accessing information. It's always better to acknowledge this than to have it brought up by your reader.
V. Preliminary Suppositions and Implications
Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, it doesn't mean 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 will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policymaking. 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:
- What might the results mean in regards to the theoretical framework that underpins the study?
- What suggestions for subsequent research could arise from the potential outcomes of the study?
- What will the results mean to practitioners in the natural settings of their workplace?
- Will the results influence programs, methods, and/or forms of intervention?
- How might the results contribute to the solution of social, economic, or other types of problems?
- Will the results influence policy decisions?
- In what way do individuals or groups benefit should your study be pursued?
- What will be improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
- How will the results of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?
NOTE: This section should not delve into idle speculation, opinion, or be formulated on the basis of unclear evidence. The purpose is to reflect upon gaps or understudied areas of the current literature and describe how your proposed research contributes to a new understanding of the research problem should the study be implemented as designed.
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 should advance existing knowledge.
Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:
- Why the study should be done,
- The specific purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer,
- The decision to why the research design and methods used where chosen over other options,
- The potential implications emerging from your proposed study of the research problem, and
- A sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship about the research problem.
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.
- References -- lists only the literature that you actually used or cited in your proposal.
- Bibliography -- lists everything you used or cited in your proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.
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] or that is preferred by your professor. This section normally does not count towards the total page length of your research 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.
What is a Project or Research Proposal?
The main goal of a research proposal is to convince others that your proposed research study is important enough to warrant such an investigation. Therefore, it is extremely important that you attempt to write a first-class dissertation proposal. Before students write a formal dissertation, they must submit a research proposal, and it must be accepted by a committee of professors or lecturers. Once the document has been approved, students can commence the actual research.
If you want to achieve the highest grade possible for your research proposal or first-class project proposal, you must follow certain guidelines. Achieving a first-class distinction, this is normally 70 per cent or higher, should be your ultimate goal. This is very important as your proposal often determines the success of your actual research project.
Criteria for a First-Class Research Proposal
Each academic institution will have its own criteria and expectations for research proposals. The specific guidelines and regulations are normally available in a document published by the university or institution. In addition, the specific procedures, forms and level of detail required for your project proposal will vary depending on your particular field of study. Regardless of the various criteria, you need to create a well-researched and concise research proposal in order to achieve a first-class grade. This academic document enables students to explore variousproposal topics of interest they can later develop into projects or studies that incorporate the skills, theory and knowledge they have gained in lectures.
Consult with your Supervisors
To ensure you are on the right track, you should discuss your research proposal with your supervisors. These expert individuals should already possess the experience and knowledge for your particular subject area. Therefore, it is important to explain that you are seeking a first-class grade. Your supervisors will be able to provide you with helpful guidelines and criteria, as well as answer any questions or concerns you may have before you write your research proposal. Be sure to maintain regular contact with these individuals, as they will be the ones who end up awarding your final grade.
Recommended Structure of a First-Class Research Proposal
Report weaknesses and limitations
Your dissertation supervisors will advise you of the expected format and length of your research proposal or dissertation proposal – most documents average 1,500 to 2000 words, which is usually three to five pages. Regardless of the actual word count, you should ensure that the content of your project proposal is succinct and relevant. If you want to achieve a first-class grade, you should ensure you meet the specific structural guidelines established by your institution. You should also adhere to the following structural guidelines, which will be discussed in further detail:
1. Introduction- This initial section of your research proposal is very important, because it will introduce the specific problem you are attempting to address. You should also clearly state your specific objectives in the introduction of your proposal. A general background section is also provided to introduce the reader to your actual proposal.
2. Literature Review – The next part of your research or dissertation proposal involves conducting a thorough review of all relevant literature. If you want to achieve a first-class grade, this section should include empirical research and theoretical material, and it should also identify any principal gaps in the literature currently available.
3. Research Methodology- The third section of your research proposal is where you will present a general overview of your intended research methods. Your goal is to ensure each method meets your specific objectives, particularly if you want to earn a high final grade. You should also include your proposed timetable for the main activities, as well as any statistical tools you plan to utilise throughout your research. Last but not least, you should identify any relevant ethical issues in this section of your document.
4. References – Every research or project proposal should include a comprehensive list of the references you have used.
Preparing the introduction of your research proposal or project proposal can often be one of the hardest tasks to complete. However, it is essential that you prepare a concise introduction that “sets the scene” for your proposed topic, so to speak, if you want to achieve a first-class grade. The main goal of any research project is to creatively and intelligently solve a problem. Therefore, you should conduct some initial research into issues and topics that interest you in order to identify problems that are actually researchable.
If you are experiencing difficulty finding a topic for the introduction of your dissertation proposal, remember to look in as many different sources as possible for inspiration. These could include reading newspapers, journals or textbooks with a critical eye. Arranging a meeting with supervisors within your field of study is another effective method of discovering suggestions for additional research. If you have at your disposal unique data from which you can formulate specific questions, you may be able to ascertain are searchable topic for your research proposal. In order to discover are searchable topic, you should follow three steps:
• Formative Thinking
• Creating A Topics List
• Screen and Reflection
During the initial stages, you will most likely formulate a very broad dissertation topic for your research proposal. This is perfectly acceptable, as long as you can create a specific hypothesis or research questions that you can actually manage. Performing this important step enables you to identify any gaps in the material, limitations or contradictions in any prior research that has already been conducted. Choosing questions that are too difficult for you to answer will cost you valuable marks on your final grade. The introduction will also require you to display effective reading and writing skills if you want to write a first-class project proposal or research proposal. Writing enables you to learn via presentation and summarising, whilst reading provides the material necessary to reinforce your perception.
A first-class research proposal will also contain a critical review of any literature that relates to the proposed objectives and goals of the research. To achieve a high grade, you should endeavor to complete a comprehensive search using solid tertiary sources. This will help you to find relevant literature that will enable you to conduct the research you are proposing to undertake.
Your academic institution will most likely grant you access to a wide variety of electronic journals. You should enquire about accessing these types of databases by contacting the library or your tutors. Electronic journals enable you to review many different types of literature, including publications that have been peer reviewed, trade magazines, industry profiles as well as academic journals. In order to write a first-class research proposal or dissertation proposal, you should take full advantage of these academic journals. They are crucial to the literature review section of your document, as they present the most current developments in the area of your proposed research project.
To earn a first-class grade on the literature review section of your research proposal, you should contain both empirical and theoretical research that relates to the scope of your particular project. It should also reveal a critical perspective, as this is what the individuals who will be marking your paper will be looking for. If you want to achieve a first class grade, you should ensure your research meets the following points whilst you are completing your literature review:
• Contains a theoretical base
• Contributes to improved analysis/evidence
• Includes areas of professional development
• Is necessary and of interest to the principal stakeholders
It is also very important that you emphasise any major gaps in the literature. This will help you to justify your proposed research project and identify its potential.
You should use the Kipling Test in order to emphasise the usable methods such as the what, where, when, how, who and why. This enables you to justify your reasoning for choosing each particular research method. Given that certain limitations exist for each method of data collection, you should be able to incorporate a variety of different research strategies. This concept is referred to as “triangulation” because it incorporates a minimum of three different methods. Triangulation encourages a valid and reliable design, and enables you to compare your result to others, thus providing a method of obtaining accurate and unbiased results.
Therefore, you should include at least three different methods of research within this section of your document. Presenting a solid methodological basis for your research will greatly enhance your chances of achieving a first-class grade on your research proposal. If you choose to adopt qualitative methodology, you should also provide a theoretical framework for your analysis. On the other hand, if you utilise quantitative methodology, be sure you include the statistical tools you have used.
A first-class research proposal or dissertation proposal will also emphasise the principal milestones and their estimated completion dates throughout this section. You can include the data in table form; however, you will normally earn a higher mark if you present the material of key activities in the form of a “Gantt Chart”.
Don’t forget to discuss any possible ethical issues that may arise from your methodology whilst you are conducting your research. You will frequently encounter ethical issues when you are in the process of collecting your primary data; they often relate to privacy issues and the consent of any referred organisations or individuals. If you want to achieve a first-class grade on your project proposal, you should mention this ethical component of your proposed methodology.
A first-class research proposal will include a detailed list of any references you have used throughout your research. You should also include a bibliography at the end of your document. If you fail to do so, you will lose marks and your final grade will suffer.
The individuals who will be grading your research proposal will be looking for a comprehensive reference list that includes the names of authors, titles of documents and page numbers for any material you have referenced within your document. The bibliography of your project proposal should include this same information for any material you have consulted, but not referred to within your actual document. If your goal is to achieve a first-class distinction, be sure to consult with your institution regarding the proper referencing system. There are many different referencing styles, and you should use the system preferred by your university.
As a recap, remember to consult with your supervisors to ensure you are on the right track before you begin writing your research proposal. You also need to ensure your document follows all of the guidelines and structural requirements established by your particular institution if you want to earn a high grade. Make sure you address the problem you are attempting to solve and clearly state your goals and objectives in the introduction of your project proposal. Conduct a comprehensive literature review, and ensure you utilise at least three different research methods. Remember to mention any ethical issues that have arisen because of your chosen research methodology. The final section of your research proposal should include a detailed list and a bibliography of all the references you have consulted or mentioned in your document. Writing a first-class research proposal is certainly possible, if you follow the above guidelines.
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