Features of a research proposal
The structure of a research proposal includes various elements. The elements outlined below are applicable to proposals for studies situated in the humanities and those situated in STEM fields but there may be different expectations about the ordering or naming of particular sections. It is best to check any specific discipline or unit/ faculty requirements and preferences.
The title of your proposal should clearly summarise what the research is about – it must be descriptive. Use key terms and be direct. Avoid lengthy titles with too much information.
The examples below are from research proposals. They incorporate key terms, and are direct and descriptive.
Introduce the topic that is the focus of this proposal. Continue the introduction by providing a summary overview of what the reader will find in the full research proposal. Include a brief reference to the aims of the research, what will frame the research (this could be the literature that you will review and/or the theory that you will use to guide your study and the methodology and/or methods you will use to gather data. While you might write a draft of this section at the outset, it is often written last to capture the essence of the research project.
Read the example from an IT research proposal. Click to find out more about the contents of a research proposal introduction.
You’ll need to provide the meaning of key terms that you refer to in your proposal, if this is relevant. Do not assume your readers are familiar with your topic; so write the proposal as if an unfamiliar but knowledgeable person is reading it. These terms may be integrated in your introduction or clarified in the literature review section. Some research proposals include a glossary of key terms and abbreviations in the Appendix section.
Definitions should be clear and concise, and may include subject-specific vocabulary. Definitions may be descriptive and contain a brief illustrative example.
The literature review provides the scholarly context that positions your research. In academic research, it is always important to acknowledge previous work that has been done that is relevant to work that will be undertaken. It shows what has already been done in the field, the gaps in research, and the relationship between previous research and your proposed research. The synthesis of previous research literature informs the aims, questions and/or hypothesis of your research proposal.
Read the example from a medical research proposal. Click to find out more about the contents of a research proposal literature review.
Disciplinary traditions will determine whether a research proposal will identify research questions or a hypothesis. Both provide the focus of the intended research project. The research proposal in its entirety is a justification of an effective approach to answer the research questions or to test the hypothesis.
In this section of the proposal, explicitly state the question(s) that the research will address. They need to be in the form of questions and they need to be specific and answerable through the method that you have proposed in your proposal. They should relate directly to the overall topic you have discussed and incorporate any concepts of variables that you have discussed earlier in the proposal.
The hypothesis that you wish to test should be a statement beginning with “That …”.
In this section, you provide an overview of how you will gather the evidence on which the research you propose will be based. This section may be called the research methodology and it would include the research ‘theory’ you will use to guide the data collection (for example, “I am using grounded theory to frame the primary data gathering in this research”) and then the specific methods you will use to gather the data (for example, “I am using interviews”). The methods should include how you will collect data (and secure it) and how you will interpret and analyse it.
In a research proposal, this section is written in the future tense as you’re describing what you plan to do. Modal verbs like will, may and could are useful to writing up this section.
The paragraph below is from an IT research project about artificial intelligence. The researcher describes their methods in four numbered and subtitled paragraph sections. This is the first paragraph of the sequence.
- The use of future tense throughout the paragraph – “will” is italicised.
- The researcher describes how they will undertake this part of the research and the theoretical frameworks they’ll draw on. There is appropriate and accurate application of subject-specific vocabulary evident – this is bolded.
The paragraph below is from a research proposal about policing social welfare initiatives. Note the naming of the methodological framework (ethnography), identification of participants and the step-by-step outline of what will be done. The researcher has included in-text citations to justify their research and align it with previous research. This is written in future tense.
- Key terms are bolded and future tense is italicised.
In this section, you give an overview of any ethical issues inherent in the research project. Outline how informed consent will be obtained from participants, any animal participant ethics, and how you’ll mitigate any potential ethical issues. Importantly, how you’ll describe how you’ll ensure privacy and secure the data. Additionally, you might state the benefits to the participants.
In many cases, the university will have ethics compliance forms for you to complete, including explanation and consent forms for participants and, in this section, you will acknowledge your completion of these.
In this section, outline any foreseeable problems or limitations, and how you might address these or how they might impact on the research.
Why is your study worth doing? In this section, justify your research. You can justify the study on the basis of knowledge gaps, doing the research in a different context than those explored previously, the methodological approach, or the theoretical contributions. This is your chance to pitch your research idea and state its potential contribution.
In this section, you list what resources you require to do the project. Do you need lab access? Do you require access to archives? Do you need to establish a budget? How will you procure the required resources?
Provide a working plan for the stages of carrying out and completing your research project. This may be a general overview or it may be date-specific. There are many different electronic work-flow programs to help you plan a timetable. The best planning trick is to start at your end date and work backwards by listing what you have to do.
You can present your proposed timeline in visual format.
You could include references. Most research proposals and grant or scholarship applications require these. Depending on the purpose of your research proposal, you may also need to identify referees who can vouch for you and your skills to undertake the research.
Appendices can be useful if they provide support material to endorse your proposal. These can be terminologies, sample research instruments, etc.
There are three broad sections in a research proposal: introduction, literature review and methodology.
- The introduction is written in the present tense.
- The literature review is written in the past tense.
- The methodology is written in the future tense.
Cohesive ties are linguistic devices that link words, phrases and clauses into fluent sentences and paragraphs. These are important in a research proposal as they help you signpost and order your material. They are especially useful in the methodology section to ensure that your process is clearly and logically set out.
|Indicate time||In the interim, thereafter||Indicate result||Consequently, thereby|
|Indicate place||First/second/third, adjacent to||Indicate purpose||In response to, with this object|
|Indicate frequency||A percentage, throughout||Indicate coincidence||Incidentally, equally important|
|Indicate subtraction||However, although||Indicate sequence||Simultaneously, previously|
|Provide example||A case in point, by way of demonstration||Indicate comparison||Alike, whereas|
|Indicate contrast||On the contrary, a variation is||Indicate additional idea||Furthermore, also|
|Indicate opposite idea||An alternative is, despite||Indicate emphasis||According to, primarily|
|Indicate conclusion or summary||On the whole, ultimately|
|In accordance with||A capacity for||In common with|
|In conformity with||In consideration of||In contrast with|
|In default of||To a great extent||In keeping with|
|The opposite of||For the purpose of||With reference/regard to|
|In that regard||Without regard for||Resistance to|
|In respect of||In view of||With a view to|
The cohesive ties are bolded in this introductory paragraph.