Research proposals

This resource will describe what a research proposal is, its purpose and what a basic structure of a research proposal looks like.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is a written outline of your proposed research project. It defines a clear question that you intend to answer, highlights your work’s significance, explains how it adds to existing literature and persuades potential supervisors or funders why your research is needed. In your proposal you are expected to:

  • Show engagement in genuine and worthwhile enquiry
  • Show an in-depth knowledge of existing literature and schools of thought
  • Establish a methodological approach and theoretical orientation
  • Show an understanding of possible ethical, technical and financial issues of your intended research

Why write a research proposal?

A research proposal is intended to be read by potential supervisors and academic committees to understand the scope, originality and quality of your intended research. A supervisor uses a proposal to assess your knowledge of existing literature and how you intend to add or enhance that particular field of enquiry. Although your proposal should include a clear outline, the main priority of your proposal is to convince potential supervisors of the ‘gap’ that your research intends to fill. In some disciplines, however, you may not be required to fill this ‘gap’ but to extend or challenge existing positions on knowledge.

Structure of a research proposal

Whether you need all of the sections listed below will depend on the scope of your research and/or your particular discipline. It is also possible that the order or some sections will change so it is important to consult with your school or faculty about their required guidelines.

  1. Proposed thesis title. A good thesis title is descriptive, concise and contains key words that can be easily identified.
  2. Table of contents. The table of contents lists all the sections of the proposal with their relevant page numbers. It will usually have a hierarchy of titles and subtitles.
  3. Background. In the background section of your proposal, you should provide a brief political, social or historical context, which orientates your reader to your topic.
  4. Research question. Clearly state the question(s) you intend to answer through your research.
  5. Purpose & aims. State clearly the purpose of the study and outline your aims.
  6. Significance. This section of the proposal explains the significance of your project, following on from the background. You should demonstrate why your research is useful and relevant.
  7. Literature review. Show awareness and good understanding of what has been written before you on your topic. This section does not need to be extensive in a proposal but should highlight the main ideas, concepts and theories.
  8. Research design (theoretical and methodological approaches). In this section you should provide an outline of the theoretical and methodological approach you will take when researching and why these are necessary. You must also demonstrate your understanding and awareness of any ethical issues.
  9. Timeline or plan. Provide a timeline or plan of how you will complete your research within the time available, including deadlines for completion of essential items. This component is not required in every discipline but may be useful for you to complete anyway.
  10. Expected outcomes. In this section, you should include a brief prediction of the outcomes of your study. You should also demonstrate that you have anticipated potential problems in data collection and/or in the ultimate outcomes.
  11. References. List the works that have been consulted thus far.

Planning a research proposal

 The three main points you should cover in a research proposal are as follows:

  1. Problem. What am I trying to find? (Research question)
  2. Contribution. Why is it worth doing?
  3. Design. How am I going to find it?

Additional resources