Writing a research proposal

research proposalIf you are applying to be part of an established research project, you may not be asked to write a research proposal. Such projects with a research topic chosen and led by individuals are still the most usual route to a doctorate in some of the sciences. However, predominantly in the social sciences, arts, and humanities disciplines you will be required to write a research proposal as part of the application procedure. Guidelines for the proposal should exist in the institution and/or graduate school where you wish to study. But here are some general guidelines for writing a proposal. .

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal sets out:

  • the broad topic you wish to research (substance)
  • the reasons for the research (rationale)
  • what the research hopes to achieve (aims and objectives)
  • how you are going to conduct the research (methodology)
  • how you plan to undertake the research within the time available (outline plan)
  • the expected results in relation to knowledge and understanding in the subject (potential outcomes and hypothesis)

How to write a proposal?

Look at the context of your ideas; read widely and relevantly to make sure that your proposal has originality, will add knowledge to the field and builds on existing sources.

Then clearly and concisely outline the:

  • aim(s) and objectives: write down what you are seeking to achieve,
  • research questions: Explain the questions you want your research to address, this may be a  hypotheses you want to test or more open-ended questions
  • literature: summaries current literature in your proposed area of research to determine  the relevance and value of your research
  • methodology: given your research questions and aims, consider your research approach (theoretical framework) and the  most appropriate research methods for achieving them - reading, reviewing, designing experiments or questionnaires, collecting data, analysis and interpretation.
  • plan: Work out how you will go about your research and the writing up in the time you have available (usually 36-48 months)
  • outcomes: Describe what you hope to discover at the end of your research and what new areas it might open up. This can prove difficult as you cannot know the research findings prior to completion, but there needs to be a range of possible outcomes e.g. a new interpretation, a new discovery or a problem solved.

If you are applying to a sponsor, it is a good idea to look at their current priorities and, where appropriate, tailor your proposal accordingly.

Where to get advice?

  • If you are a researcher at the university to which you are applying for a doctorate or student currently at university, then seek advice from academic staff in the subject area you wish to apply. They will know what a successful proposal looks like and you can discuss your ideas with them.
  • You may find the most helpful person is your potential supervisor. They can advise on relevant sources and methodology for your doctorate.
  • Talk to your peers; use them as sounding boards for your proposal.
  • Talk with postgraduate researchers in your field.
  • Ask an impartial person to comment and proof-read your proposal.

What else should be considered?

You need to be sure that the subject is something you really want to focus on for the next three to four years of your life. It will be at the centre of your learning; you will need to be self-motivated and committed to it. Above all, it will have to be something you will enjoy exploring. After all, the route and the destination will be largely determined by you.

Books with sound guidance include:

  • Cryer, P. (200) The Research Student's Guide to Success , Buckingham: Open University Press
  • Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D. (2002) How to Get a PhD , Buckingham: Open University Press
  • Wisker, G. (2001) The Postgraduate Research Handbook: Succeed with your MA, MPhil, EdD and PhD.  Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave