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Writing a research proposal


Purpose of a proposal

The purpose of the proposal is to help you (as student) to focus and define your research plans. These plans are not binding, in that they may well change substantially as you progress in the research. However, they are an indication to your faculty of your direction and discipline as a researcher. They also help you to prepare your application to the Ethics Committee.

The proposal is expected to:

  • Show that you are engaging in genuine enquiry, finding out about something worthwhile in a particular context;
  • Link your proposed work with the work of others, while proving you are acquainted with major schools of thought relevant to the topic;
  • Establish a particular theoretical orientation;
  • Establish your methodological approach, and
  • Show you have thought about the ethical issues

Structure of a proposal

A proposal is likely to contain most of the elements listed in the table below, although your supervisor may require the inclusion or omission of parts. Check first with your supervisor.

Cover pageidentifies topic, writer, institution and degreeproposed thesis title (should be descriptive of focus, concise, eye-catching and preferably use key words from the international information retrieval systems)

writer's name and qualifications

department, university and degree proposal is for
Table of Contentslists sections of proposal and page referencesuse a hierarchy for titles and subtitles
Background: (and a more descriptive name)provides background information relating to the social / political / historical / educational (etc) context of the studymay include historical, cultural, political, social or organisational information about the context of the research

may include a theoretical starting point

may include personal motivation

may include policy
Need for the study. Usually this is combined with the previous sectionfollows from background to persuade the reader that the study will be useful / interestingthis may include reference to a 'gap' in the research literature, to the need to apply certain ideas in a new context, or to the significance of your particular topic

the ways in which the study may be significant for the educational community may also be discussed
Purpose and aims of the studyto state clearly and succinctly the purpose of the study

to outline the key research questions and aims
the purpose is expressed in terms of the broader context of the study

the research question(s) (usually What, How, Why, or What if) should be few, so that the focus is manageable

the aims will be related to the purpose and the questions
Review of the literatureto show your supervisor and department that you are aware of significant writers / researchers in the field, and to indicate which issues / topics you will focus on in your review (this may change later)

to show that you can be judicious in your selection of issues to focus on and take an approach of critical inquiry
this is not expected to be extensive for the proposal

you should have done an initial survey of the main theorists and a library information search (CD ROMs etc) to establish your directions and formulate a tentative list of readings

you should demonstrate critical analysis

your review should be shaped by your argument and should seek to establish your theoretical orientation
Research designdescribes the research plansincludes your understandings of the nature of knowledge and how this affects your choice of research approach

includes description of and rationale (brief) for selection of participants, methods of data collection and analysis, and procedures you will use to ensure ethical practice

includes a statement about the delimitations (boundaries) of the study
Timetable/plan (may be part of research design)depicts the tasks proposed and the stages/times for their completionthis may take the form of a chart, timeline or flowchart (or any other)
Proposed thesis structuredescribes the focus of each proposed chaptereach chapter's proposed contents is described in a few lines or a small paragraph, or

a proposed table of contents is presented
Significance / Expected Outcomes of the studypredicts the significance of the study and expected outcomes. These may relate closely to aimsthis is only a prediction, and may be excluded if the rationale for the study has been well developed earlier in the proposal
Glossary of termslists specialised terms or words and their meanings (eg, from another culture, acronyms, key concepts in a relatively new field)this is placed in a position which is easy to locate (eg, before or after the main text parts)
Appendicesto display documents which are relevant to main text, but whose presence in the text would disturb rather than enhance the flow of the argument or writingincludes documents, pilot study material, questions for interviews, survey instruments, explanatory statement to participants,etc.
Referenceslist of works that have been consulted thus far and appear to be usefuluse referencing conventions recommended by your supervisor