Writing Research Proposals
The majority of students and many new researchers are not entirely sure what is meant by a research proposal, so they find it difficult to understand how important this document is. To state the situation clearly, a student’s research can only be as good as their proposal. A badly written proposal can spell doom for an entire project even if it is somehow approved by an examinations committee. By contrast, a well-written proposal does two things – it goes a long way towards ensuring the project is a success and it will impress upon the examinations committee that the student has a lot of potential.
The aim of virtually every research proposal is to convince other people that the writer is planning to undertake some valuable research work and that they are sufficiently competent to do so. In most cases, all the elements that a research project entails should be included in your proposal. Essentially, it should have enough information to allow readers to understand what the proposed study is about and what it will achieve.
No matter what your field of research or your chosen methodology, there are some questions every research proposal should address:
- What it is you intend to accomplish;
- Why do you want to undertake this study?
- What means or methods do you intend to use to accomplish it?
It is important that a research proposal has enough information to persuade readers that your idea is important, that you understand the key issues and any literature relevant to them, and that you have decided on a sound methodology.
How good or successful a research proposal is depends on both the quality of the project being proposed and the quality of what is written. A worthwhile project may be rejected just because of a poorly written proposal. Hence, a compelling, coherent and clearly written proposal is worth the effort.
This article is focused on writing the proposal and not on developing ideas for a research project.
Choose a Title for Your Proposal
Your title should be descriptive and concise. For instance, you should avoid phrases like, "A thorough investigation of . . ." Titles are often written to indicate functional relationships because these clearly suggest variables of both the independent and the dependent variety. If possible, however, devise a catchy yet informative title. Not only does a good title get the attention of the reader, but it also causes them to take a favorable approach to the work.
An Abstract Section
An abstract is a short summary-type chapter of up to 300 or so words. The research question should be included in this section, as well as a rationale for the work, a hypothesis (possibly), the methodology, and the key findings. Methods could well include the intended design, processes, samples, and any equipment to be used.
The Introductory Section
The primary purpose of an introductory paragraph or section is to put the research problem into context and provide any background information that is necessary. The biggest challenge when writing a proposal is figuring out how to present the research question or problem.
If you present the problem you intend to address as a long-winded literature review, you may be in danger of trivializing it or making it sound uninteresting. If, however, you present that problem as a highly-focused and worthy issue, its importance should soon become clear.
There are, unfortunately, no stringent rules on how to present a research problem or question in much the same way as there is no prescribed format for writing an informative and interesting introductory paragraph. Much depends on how creative the writer is, how well they understand all the issues, and how clearly they are able to think.
Nevertheless, you should try to frame your question in either the context of a contemporary “hot topic,” or as an older topic that is still of considerable interest. Your second task is to describe in short but suitable terms the history of the problem. Next, you need to say why the problem is of significance in the modern context. Last but not least, you need to mention anyone or any work that will play a key role, which usually means referring to various related and relevant publications. Put simply, you should try and portray your research problem or question in broad terms while simultaneously showing why it is significant.
An introductory section usually begins with one or more general statements regarding the research area, while staying focused on the specific problem in hand. You should next provide a justification or rationale for the study you are proposing. An introduction is comprised of these elements:
- A statement regarding the research question or problem, commonly known as the reason for the project;
- An outline of the context and the presentation of the research problem or question to show why it is important and necessary;
- A presentation of the rationale for undertaking the proposed work with a clear indication of why it is valuable and worth pursuing.
- A brief description of the primary (and secondary) issues the research will address;
- A clear identification of the independent and the dependent variables of the study or experiment. Or, a specification regarding the phenomenon to be studied;
- A statement setting out the theory or hypothesis, where applicable. For research of a phenomenological or exploratory variety, a hypothesis may not be necessary (NB: a research hypothesis and the statistical “null” variety should not be confused).
- A statement regarding the boundaries or delimitation of the proposed work (as a way of providing coherent focus);
- An (optional) definition of the key terms and concepts.
Review of Literature
The literature review section is sometimes combined with or incorporated into the proposal’s introduction paragraph or section. The majority of professors, however, prefer the literature review in its own section because this allows it to be more thorough. In any case, this review has a number of essential functions, such as:
- Ensures that work is not being repeated;
- Acknowledges people who have contributed to or created the foundation for your proposed research;
- Showcases your understanding and/or knowledge of a given problem;
- Demonstrates how well you are able to evaluate related literature in a critical manner;
- Shows how well you are able to synthesize and integrate existing materials and literature;
- Generates fresh theories and insights for your work and/or develops a new conceptual method, model or framework for completing it;
- Shows readers that your proposed work will make a substantial and important contribution in the literary sense i.e. by finding the solution to a significant theoretical problem or filling in an important gap in existing literature;
The following are some of the common problems that affect many literature reviews:
- A lack of structure and organization
- A lack of coherence, unity and focus
- Too wordy and too much repetition
- A failure to cite important materials/literature/publications
- A failure to reference the latest developments
- A failure to critically analyze/evaluate cited materials
- The citing of unimportant and irrelevant materials
- An over-dependence on secondary-type sources.
If your proposal has any of these errors, your competence and ability are likely to be brought into question.
A literature review can be organized in one of a variety of ways. Use sub-headings to give it order and coherence. Say, for instance, you have already established how important your research is and where its development is currently at, you could create a number of sub-sections to discuss related issues such as gender and cultural differences, measuring equipment, theoretical examples or models, and so on.
It also helps to remember you are telling your readers a story. So try and make your work engaging and interesting. Try not to make it boring because this may cause your readers to reject an otherwise worthwhile proposal. Do not forget that professors and science experts are also human!
The Methodology Section
A methodologies section is crucial because it shows an examining committee how you intend to approach the research question. It sets out your plan of work and describes all the activities that will be necessary to complete the project.
The principle that should guide you when writing a methodologies section is to remember you should provide enough information to allow readers to determine the soundness of your proposed method(s). Some people even suggest that an effective proposal should have enough information to enable another experienced researcher to carry out the work.
It is important to show you understand alternative methodologies and you should build a case to show your approach is the most valid and suitable one to address this particular problem.
Bear in mind that the best way to address your research problem may be through qualitative-style research. However, because many experts remain biased towards this type of research, it may be necessary for you to offer justification for qualitative methods.
Moreover, because no accepted or well-established canons exist in the field of qualitative research, you may need to write a more elaborate methodology section than you would for conventional quantitative-style research. Equally importantly, the process for collecting qualitative data can affect the results far more significantly than is the case with quantitative-style research. This is also a reason for being cautious when describing how you intend to gather and analyze data.
A methodology section for quantitative research usually contains:
- The design - will you be using lab experiment or questionnaires?
- Who are the participants or subjects? Will sampling be used and, if so, what type?
- What instruments or media (e.g. questionnaires) will you use for measuring? What is the basis of your decision and how reliable and/or valid is your choice?
- How do you intend to conduct your study, i.e. what are your procedures? What is involved and how much time will be needed?
The Results/Findings Section
Clearly, results will not be available when writing a proposal. Still, you should have an idea about what type of data you intend to collect and what type of statistical analysis or procedures you will be using to address your hypothesis or research question.
The Discussion Section
Convincing readers about the possible positive impacts of the research you are proposing is essential. Therefore, your proposal should convey a feeling of confidence and enthusiasm without overstating its merits. It is for this reason you need to reference any possible weaknesses or limitations, which may concern time or budget constraints or even how things progress in the early stages.
Common Errors in Research Proposals
- Failing to present the research problem or question in the correct context;
- Not identifying the limitations or boundaries of the project;
- Not citing related and important studies;
- Not accurately acknowledging the empirical and theoretical contributions of previous research experts;
- Not remaining focused on the problem or question;
- Not developing a persuasive and cohesive argument for the research being proposed;
- Describing unimportant issues in excessive detail and important issues in too little detail;
- Excessive rambling without a coherent direction (the most successful proposals flow easily and gracefully);
- Sloppy writing;
- Inaccurate references and excessive lapses in citations;
- Not following the correct writing/formatting style.