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How to develop and write a research proposal

A 'research proposal' may also be known as a 'dissertation proposal' or a 'research statement'. The advice below is sufficiently comprehensive for a PhD proposal, but it can readily be adapted and simplified for shorter research projects, including those for dissertations at undergraduate level.

The advice assumes that you already know the general area of your anticipated research project. If not, stop to read the page on choosing a research topic and then return here.

Essential criteria for a successful research proposal

A sound research proposal should show that the proposed research:

  • is worth researching

  • can realistically be researched

  • is sufficiently challenging for the level of award concerned

  • can be completed within the allotted time

  • can be adequately resourced

  • is not likely to be subjected to any serious constraints

  • is suitable for the student concerned.

These points may seem deceptively simple, but each one can subsume a multitude of others - as explained below.

How to add detail to the research proposal

General information

To show that the work is worth researching, you will need to set it into a context of other work that has and has not been done in the general area. This requires a review of the literature, and you may like to think of a few keywords to encompass your topic as they can save time when locating suitable literature.

The extent to which you have to justify that the work is worth researching depends on your topic and the level of the award concerned. It may be self-evident or almost so, but if not, the page on originality should help.

To show that the work can realistically be researched, issues of research questions, problems or hypotheses; research paradigms and research methodology and research methods must guide your thinking and find a place in the proposal.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on on the research proposal

The requirement to write one’s own research proposal

How the research proposal helps everyone concerned

The limitations of a research proposal

Essential elements of a research proposal

Fleshing out the research proposal

Putting boundaries on the research proposal

The writing style of the research proposal

Issues of time when preparing a research proposal

Adapting the proposal to apply for a small grant or other funds

Major constraints tend to concern ethical considerations, resource considerations and access to places, equipment and people. Ethical considerations usually depend on how research affects living beings, and there will probably be a committee that oversees research proposals with ethical implications.

To show why you are the right person to do the work, all of the following are probably relevant:

- your interests

- your background,

- your qualifications

- your experience

- the resources available

- freedom of access, and

- anything else significant.

How to present the research proposal according to the requirements of the department or institution

The research proposal will almost certainly have to fit onto a pro-forma or under headings provided by the department or institution, as listed in its student handbook or website. So rough out how all the above fit onto this pro-forma or under these headings. At this stage, you will have done the bulk of the work, as editing your notes onto the pro-forma or under the headings should be straightforward.

The detail and emphasis for your particular research proposal must depend on your topic, the depart­ment, school or faculty in which you are registered (particularly if your work is multidisciplinary) and the rigour required by your institution, which will be the final arbiter for accepting the proposal. It may help to look at other research proposals which have previously been accepted - but not until your own ideas are straight.

Remember that supervisors* are busy people. They will help, but will expect you to do your own groundwork.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.