How to Write a Research Proposal

Learn everything you need about how to write a research proposal!
Kelly Spancer
6
min read
Sep 10, 2021

Writing a research proposal is a key skill for higher education as well as for any kind of research work. A well-written proposal can be the difference between getting into the University of your dreams and doing a project that really fulfills you or spending months on something that you don't really want to do. A research proposal is very different from typical types of academic writing assignments. They have a strict structure and multiple mandatory sections. Don't worry though, this article will teach you everything you need to know about how to write a research proposal that will improve your chances of achieving your goal.         

What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is a paper that describes in detail all the key elements of the topic you want to research. This of course includes the topic of research, but also why the research is important or interesting, what kind of methodologies you will be using, what kind of budget you might need, and more. Let's start broad and then move on to each individual section in depth. 


In short, these are the main things your research proposal should aim to do.


  • Explain in detail the topic you want to study
  • Explain why the topic or the research question is important and adds to existing knowledge about the topic
  • Show the practical benefits that may come out of the research
  • Show through a literature review that you have a theoretical understanding of important concepts and similar past research
  • Outline your research methodology and explain why you chose that specific methodology
  • Give a timeline for key steps in the research project
  • Assess the costs of the project
  • Show that you have the credentials and expertise to conduct the research


A well-written research proposal Isn't just important to get approval, it also guides the actual research and makes it easier. A proposal is a vital part of any research project. It helps visualize the many stages and gives an opportunity to refine things beforehand rather than at crucial times in the future. 


A good research proposal shows that you understand a topic well, you have the critical thinking abilities to analyze and interpret data, and the skills to communicate information effectively. It should have all the elements of the actual research study just without the actual findings of the proposed research. It may not require an in-depth literature review, but you must show that you understand the subject area of the research topic well.    


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7 Steps to Writing a Research Proposal

Before you jump into the actual writing there are a few things you have to figure out. Ask yourself these questions when trying to find a topic you want to research. 


  • What topics within the field of study do you find interesting
  • Why is a topic that you may be interested in important?
  • Is there a gap in knowledge that can be fulfilled with an interesting research question?
  • How would you design a research project that would answer those gaps in knowledge?
  • Do you have the expertise to do said project?
  • Is what you are envisioning achievable within a realistic budget and time frame?


A couple of things to keep in mind. Make sure that you are truly and genuinely interested in the research question you want to explore. It will make the literature review, designing, and essentially everything, not just more enjoyable, but will affect the writing style of the final paper. Secondly, make sure you choose a topic that is not too broad. Even if you are really excited about an idea, think about the time and resources you have on hand.  


How long should a research proposal be? Anywhere from 800 to over 4000 words, but usually around 2500. Make sure you check the requirements of the proposal and try to be as close to the word count as possible. A proposal with a word count of 800 is most likely interested in the importance of the research question and your qualifications as a researcher. On the other hand, a proposal of over 2500 words most likely cares more about the theoretical framework and the proposed research methodology.  


How to write a research proposal outline and why is that an important step? An outline is a great way of fleshing out the overall research proposal structure. It helps categorize information that you come across as well as visualize the eventual look and flow of the paper. Here's a general example of a research proposal outline. 


  • Title of the paper
  • A short abstract
  • Introduction paragraph
  • An overview of the main research questions and goals
  • A literature review
  • Details of the research study (Methodology)
  • Timeline and budget
  • The significance of the outcomes (Conclusion)
  • Bibliography 


Don't worry if you don't know how to write an abstract for a research proposal. It's exactly the same as an abstract for anything else, just a short summary of the goals of the research along with why the question is important and how the results may be significant. Abstracts are not always a requirement when writing a research proposal example, so make sure to check any guidelines or ask your professor.


Okay, now with all the prep work done, let's go over the specific sections of writing a research proposal! 

Step 1. The introduction

Remember, one of the goals is to convince the reader that your research project is worth devoting resources to. So start your introduction with a catchy hook that instantly engages the reader and makes them curious to find out more. Make sure you clearly state your research question and give some background information about it in the first few lines of your introduction. Next, briefly explain why your research is significant, how it would expand on pre-existing knowledge, explore something more in-depth, address a gap in existing knowledge, or open up avenues for further research. End your introductory section with a clear thesis statement so that readers know what to expect from the rest of the paper. 


By the end of your introductory section, readers should have a clear idea of what your main research question is and why it is important. They should also be curious to discover how you are going to answer the question. This is why the introduction is so important. Make sure you spend time writing it and try to infuse your enthusiasm about the project into the writing style.   

Step 2. The research aims and questions

Depending on how many research questions you have or the goals of the research you may have to include a specific research aims and question section. You should have briefly gone over the research aims and questions in the introduction, but this is an opportunity to elaborate on them and include all the minor aims and questions. This section is especially important if the word count for your research proposal is relatively low. It is an opportunity to convince readers that your research study is interesting and important, that it addresses an important question, or that it addresses several questions. 


Having a clear and concise main research question is vitally important when writing a proposal for a research paper. The main research question should be well defined and not too broad. There should be a clear connection between it and the topic being studied. It also needs to be original, not just a repetition of questions that have been answered in the past. 


Any secondary research questions should derive from the main research question itself. If you have secondary questions that are drastically different from the main question then the scope of your research is probably too broad. Think about how realistic it is to answer all the questions in just one study and consider how much time it will take.

Step 3. The literature review

A good literature review shows the reader that you have a deep understanding of the important theories and past research about your topic. This doesn't mean that you should include everything you find though. Identify and state the main theories that directly relate to the subject you are studying. Too much information in the literature review can give the reader the impression that you do not understand your research question properly, or that you have failed to do in-depth research. 


Include landmark research about the topic and explain why they were important and how they expanded knowledge about the topic. A good rule of thumb to follow is to start with giving general background about the topic overall, and then move on to specific theories and past research. 


Look at a ‘how to write a research proposal’ example, especially their literature review section to get an idea of how to structure yours. You can structure a literature review by grouping studies with similar themes or structure it by tracing the development of information chronologically. Think about the best way to clearly present information in a way that relates to your research questions.


Since a research proposal is usually either written for higher education purposes or for grants, the literature review sources must be of high quality. Stick to books, journals, databases, and published research. A good tip to find sources is to go over previous research on similar topics and get inspiration from their literature review and bibliographies. 

Step 4. The study design

In this part, you will learn how to write a methods section for a research proposal. Even though you will not be conducting the research, by the end of this section the reader should have a clear idea of how you are going to conduct your research. This includes what kind of literature sources you will be analyzing as well as the framework for any studies you may want to conduct. 


Clearly state the sources that you will be using, how you're going to use the information in those sources, and what methods you're going to use to analyze the sources. Make sure you don't just list sources and methodologies, rather explain why you have chosen the specific sources and methodologies. A good place to start is to go over previous research proposal examples and research papers and analyze what kind of sources they used, how they analyzed them,  and what kind of studies they ran. 


If you are going to conduct a study, focus group, or interviews, come up with a list of questions or a specific research methodology. Consider your target group and how to get a representative sample. This is also an opportunity to consider any potential shortcomings in your research design and explain how you plan to overcome them or why they do not matter in your particular case.

 

End this section by clearly explaining why you believe that the methodology you chose is the best way of answering the research question. Be sure to go over other possible ways the research question could have been answered and highlight the pros and cons of each one. This shows that you have deeply considered why you chose the methodology you did.

Step 5. The planning 

The purpose of a timeline is to show the readers that you have clearly thought out every step of the research project. Every main step of the project needs to have a specific deadline, with the key deliverables clearly mentioned. Make sure that the deadlines you set yourself are realistic considering the amount of work you need to do. It may seem impressive if you have a sped-up timeline, but it can give readers the impression that you have not properly considered the amount of time each step may require. 


If your research proposal is accepted, you will most likely have to stick to your timeline as closely as possible, as well as provide updates regularly.  Keep in mind though that timetables aren't completely set in stone. As you do your research, if you have a good explanation for why a deadline should be pushed back, you can always make a case for it. 


This is also the section where you state your budgetary requirements. If the research proposal is for University or depends mainly on literary analysis then you may not require a budget. If you are going to conduct longer-term studies then you will have to present a budget. Your budget should consist of the cost of materials, the cost of hiring people, any costs you may incur based on the amount of time you spend, travel costs if applicable, the cost for renting a venue to run studies or interviews, etc. By the end of the section, you should have a specific number that you believe the entire project will cost, as well as an explanation justifying each expenditure. 


Depending on the kind of research you want to do you may have to include a section on how you comply with ethical principles. You must make sure that you respect people's intellectual property and correctly cite all the references you have used. You must also ensure that any participants in interviews or studies are well taken care of. And you must ensure that you do not purposefully manipulate data to suit your own needs. 

Step 6. The expected outcomes & impact

In a research paper, this is where you analyze and draw conclusions from the results and data from your research. In a research proposal, you only suggest research methodologies, so this section is about what the possible outcomes of the study may be. It is understood that you may not be able to answer this completely accurately, so based on your literature review,  state what some of the likely outcomes are and what each outcome may mean. 


This section is important because it shows the readers what practical benefits may come out of your research, which is very important when they consider whether to accept it or not. Ask yourself and answer the following questions. 


  • What are the expected outcomes based on current understanding of the topic?
  • Is the outcome you expect in line with current research?
  • If so, why is your research important and how does it deepen understanding in the field?
  • Are the outcomes you expect different than what current research would imply?
  • If so, then why do you expect unique results?
  • What gaps in knowledge are you identifying and filling?
  • What avenues for further research can your study open up?
  • What are the real-world implications of your study?
  • Will it impact the day-to-day working of people?
  • Will it affect a theoretical framework?
  • Will it affect safety measures or the way life-saving procedures are practiced?
  • Will it affect the policies of either business, government, or other organizations?
  • How will the outcome affect the population at large?
  • Do the outcomes address a problem in society?
  • Will the results impact important technology? 


This section doubles as your conclusion as well since it goes over the main research question,  restates the thesis and asks questions about why the research is important. The last paragraph of this section, and therefore the last paragraph of your paper overall can include reasons why you are particularly well suited to conduct research on the topic or why it may be personally important to you. This is your chance to show your enthusiasm for the project and give it a personal touch. 

Step 7. The bibliography

The citation style you use depends on the field of study as well as guidelines from either your University or your professor. In general MLA (Modern Language Association) is used for subjects in the humanities, APA (American Psychological Association) is used for the social sciences and education, and Chicago style is used for business, history, and art. Make sure that you know exactly which citation style you need to use by asking your professor or advisor. This not only affects in-text citations but can also impact the overall format of the research proposal. 


The bibliography of a research proposal is essentially the same as any literature review or research project. It can be called work cited, references, or bibliography based on the conventions in your fields or professors’ preferences. Make sure that you cite every piece of information that you use in the paper to avoid plagiarism. 

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Conclusion

No paper is complete without a thorough review of your work. After spending hours on a project losing a few grades because of silly mistakes is both painful and easy to avoid. Make sure that you go through your paper checking for spelling mistakes, improper grammar usage, punctuation, and formatting. The goal of a research proposal is to convince the readers that your proposed research topic is worth investigating, you have given it proper consideration, your proposed research methodology is sound, and that you are the right person to do it. 


This is your chance to make sure of the following:


Each section to make sure that everything is clear and concise. 
Confirm that the paper answers the main and secondary research questions. 
That the literature review is not too broad but gives enough background information for the topic to be understood as well as identifies theories and previous research that is directly relevant to your specific area of interest. 
The methodology section should clearly answer the main research question and you have defended why you chose that methodology.
That your timeline and budgets are reasonable.
That your expected outcomes highlight the potential benefits of your study.
The overall research proposal has a good flow with each paragraph leading to the next. 


You should now know how to write a proposal for a research paper! Writing a research proposal can seem like a challenge, but if you think of it as an easier version of a research paper and follow the steps outlined in this article and you will end up with a research proposal that will get you a good grade, can potentially get you into the program of your dreams, or get you funding for a research project that you will love. If you need any help with a research proposal,  the experts at Studyfy can give you a hand. In fact, check out their website for all kinds of academic help! 


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