Writing a research proposal


This tutorial is designed for graduate students who are required to submit a research proposal as a condition of their candidature or who wish to write one for their own purposes.

The purpose of this tutorial is to help you develop an approach for writing a clear and focused research proposal. We will begin by looking at the broad purpose and requirements of proposals. We will then break down the research proposal into its core components and examine them individually

What is the purpose of a research proposal?

The purpose of a research proposal can be summarised as follows:

  • To propose a research project that will result in a significant contribution to knowledge.
  • To formulate a detailed plan of the project including methodological approach and theoretical framework.
  • To ensure that the proposed research is achievable within the required time and with the available resources.
  • To demonstrate that you have adequate expertise and experience to undertake the project.

Even if the completion of a research proposal is not a requirement of your candidature, it is a good idea to write one. Writing a research proposal will encourage you to clarify your objectives and key ideas. It will enable you to think about each stage of the research process so that you can develop a clear and detailed plan. It will also help you to foresee problems that you may encounter during your candidature and prompt you to think about how you will manage them when they arise.

Which skills are required for a research proposal?

Writing a research proposal engages a number of skills. These skills can be grouped into three clusters:

Subject knowledge and research skills

The proposal gives you an opportunity to exhibit your mastery of subject knowledge and familiarity with current research trends.

Critical thinking skills

A good research proposal displays evidence of advanced analysis, evaluation and synthesis skills, as well as creativity and the ability to combine vertical and lateral thinking.

Communication skills

The proposal displays your ability to express yourself in precise and concise language.

It is necessary to keep these skills in mind as you work on your proposal as your readers will be looking for evidence of them in your writing.


Content and structure

The required content and structure of a research proposal varies from one field of study to another. You should therefore consult closely with your supervisor so that you are made aware of any particular requirements in your field of study. In general, however, a research proposal consists of the following elements:

  • Background to the topic, significance and research problem
  • Research aims and questions
  • Review of literature
  • Study/project design
  • Timeline
  • Expected outcomes/impact

In this tutorial you will find suggested approaches for successfully completing each component.

a diagram of research proposal components starting from Introduction to Research aims and questions, Review of literature, Study/project design, Timeline, Expected outcomes/impact

Zeroing in on the target

It is useful to think of a research proposal as an exercise in zeroing in from the big picture (the broad academic field) to a specific target (your project).

First, the proposal needs to identify a specific research area in the broader landscape of the discipline, and establish why it is significant and worth exploring.

Second, the proposal needs to identify an existing or newly identified gap in knowledge that can be developed into a significant research problem.   

Third, the proposal needs to build a convincing case for your project as a viable way of approaching the research problem. This aspect is often the most exciting and creative part of the proposal. It allows you to showcase how your project design brings a new approach to an existing or newly identified problem.   

Finally, the proposal needs to demonstrate that your approach to the problem is achievable within the period of your candidature.  

We will now individually examine the core components of a research proposal.


Miner, J.T., & Miner, L.E. (2005). Models of Proposal Planning and Writing (pp. 139). Praegar, Westport: CT.