The purpose of the research proposal is to justify the need to conduct a research, to present practical ways to do this, and to show that you have enough knowledge and competence to do this. Before considering any tips about how to write a research proposal, let us look at the difference between thesis, dissertation and grant application proposals on the one hand, and “research proposal assignments” on the other hand:
Research Proposals vs Research Proposal Assignments
✅ Research proposals are written by scientists and students to receive a research grant or a degree. It has to convince the research committee or a research adviser that the research has great theoretical or practical value, is viable, and you have enough knowledge and expertise to carry it out.
Research Proposal Assignments are given to undergraduate students so that they practice this genre of academic writing and, thus, improve their understanding of academic style and discourse.
✅ Research proposals are often the results or many years of study of a particular topic or in a particular field and propose a considerable and original contribution to the available knowledge.
Research proposal assignments often take place after students discuss the topic with their professors and submit annotated bibliographies on the topic. They are the steps towards research papers that students will write as part of their college or university studies.
✅ Although there are some general recommendations about what should be included in research proposals, specific requirements may vary. Scientists and graduate students should see whether their institutions detail specific requirements before writing the paper.
Students should better not google tips on the content and structure of a research proposal, but read the instructions presented by their professors instead. Often, professors describe in detail how to write a research proposal, tell what should be included in each section and how long each section should be. Mind that following all of these specific demands greatly determines your success or failure in the assignment, graduation or application processes, so it is recommended to use professional editing or proofreading services to avoid possible issues due to the lack of attention to the requirements.
How to Write a Research Proposal
A research proposal should have a clear structure and have the following sections:
Any research proposal should have a title page formatted according to the preferred formatting style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) or according to specific institutional requirements. Omit the words “research proposal” or “the investigation of” in the title – just state the topic or the relationship between variables that you want to research.
While professors rarely require abstracts for research proposal assignments, formal research proposals usually have one. Abstracts are approximately 200-word long and appear on a separate page. In an abstract to a research proposal,
• shortly present a context,
• provide a rationale for the research,
• state the hypothesis (if any),
• indicate the method that will be used,
• comment on the relevance of the expected findings.
In the introduction to a research proposal,
• set the context of the topic,
• show what gap in the research exists or what issue needs to be tackled (rationale for your research),
• finish with a thesis statement telling that the research you propose will help to close this gap or solve this issue.
• give the definition of key terms (optional)
Sometimes, a literature review is incorporated into the Introduction, but it is preferable to devote a separate section to it. In this section,
• show what research has been done so far,
• summarize the existing empirical findings and theories, which can inform research,
• highlight controversies (if any),
• discuss the limitations of previous studies and/or their strengths
• finish with a clear indication of research questions and hypotheses. You may include them in the numbered list. If possible, include a respective hypothesis for each research question you have.
The literature review should be coherent and should be logically organized so that it leads to the proposed research questions and hypotheses. Longer literature review sections (3 pages and more) should have further subheading to add clarity to the review.
According to my observations, students often have hard times writing their literature review sections. Often, having a good annotated bibliography paper is a hindrance, not a help for them, as they are trying to highlight each and every source they have researched and end up having an overly long sections or a disorganized compilation of one-sentence summaries for all sources.
Writing a literature review, think of the principle that will allow you to structure your review of the sources and don’t be afraid not to highlight a full study, but just mention its results. For example, if you are writing a research proposal concerned with the impact of violent media on children, you don’t need to tell about each study in particular, you may just mention their results in just one sentence: Earlier studies have found the relationship between viewing of violent media and aggression (source1, source2), lower academic attainments (source3, source4, source1), poor social skills (source5, source6), etc.
The methods’ section in the research proposal should be very much detailed so that it allows to determine whether the chosen methodology is sound and whether the research may achieve the expected results.
If you write a thesis or a dissertation research proposal or apply for a research grant, be sure to highlight:
• a justification for the choice of the methodology,
• a study design,
• dependent and independent variables,
• control groups (if any), together with the justification of their use
• instruments that will be used (together with the justification of their reliability and validity)
• size of the sample and sampling procedures,
• processes that will be used for the analysis of the collected data (e.g. regression analysis)
• ethical considerations related to the study
• the timetable of the scheduled activities (if there is no separate Schedule section)
• indicate what conditions may put the research at risk
Research papers and, respectively, research proposals of undergraduate students do not have this level of complexity. Students’ research may consist in the analysis of quality sources on the topic, conducting interviews, doing a survey or observational research. Therefore, your Methods section should describe what you will do, what results you will have, and how the results will help you answer the research question.
The details you will have to provide will depend on the chosen method: if you are going to investigate sources – the section should contain the description of sources you will study and the reasons why they are valuable, if you are going to conduct an experiment, carry out a survey or conduct interviews – you should describe the sample and sampling procedure, indicate what questionnaire/tests you will use, if you plan to develop a questionnaire on your own, include examples of questions you will ask. Most importantly, do not invent and propose anything that you will not be able to accomplish!
Results/ Discussion/ Significance of Research
Of course, there are no results to present so far, as you only plan to carry out research. Still, it is important that you
• describe what results you are going to have,
• discuss the limitation of the study,
• tell how the results will contribute to the theoretical knowledge and/or how they will help to tackle a certain issue,
• indicate that the results might support or contradict earlier findings (refer to authors from your literature review section)
While the recommendations about the first sections usually coincide, regarding the subtitles of the last sections, they often differ. The section discussing the expected results and their relevance may have a subtitle “Results”, “Discussion”, “Significance of Research” or even a “Conclusion”. Some institutions recommend to have separate Results and Discussion sections, so mind the instructions!
Again, a schedule may not be required in a research proposal assignment, but it is usually included into thesis, dissertation and grant seeking research proposals. In this section, you need to list various stages of research along a timeline. You don’t need to detail on the activities or write in full sentences. A schedule looks like a chronological list with date ranges or deadlines for each activity and the activity itself (data collection, data analysis, writing, etc.).
Include a bibliography with all sources that appear in the research proposal. Double check that the sources appear both in the text and on the References/Works cited page. Remember that bibliography is not counted towards the word count.
Mind that presentation of the research proposal is not less important than its content, as it helps to assess the rigor and the accuracy, with which you will further carry out a study. Thus, pay due attention to the specific requirements and be consistent in the formatting of the paper (in-text citations and references, page numbers and headers, headings and subheadings, etc.).
Use professional editing, proofreading or grading services to eliminate the mistakes you might have overlooked. If you are not sure whether you need such services, contact me for one page of your paper to be edited or proofread for free, so that you see what difference it makes.