What is a research proposal?
Research proposals are documents that provide detailed information on a proposed programme of research. They are written, for example, for the purposes of applying for a research degree or requesting funds for a postgraduate research project. When writing a research proposal it is therefore important to consider the purpose of the proposal and the requirements of the application process, in addition to the contents and the structure of the proposal itself.
For simplicity, this page will address the organisation to whom you are applying as the “funder”, be that a university, grant-funding body etc.
The principles of a good research proposal
The exact requirements of research proposals will vary with funder, but the underlying principles of a good research proposal are as follows:
• Be aware of your subject area – you will need to demonstrate up-to-date knowledge of your area of interest.
• Check the funder’s guidelines very carefully and make sure you address all their requirements. A common reason for applications being rejected is the failure of the proposal to meet the funder’s specifications. I you are unclear about the guidelines don’t be afraid to contact the funder for clarification.
• If you are applying for a research degree you should try to identify prospective supervisors in advance. Don’t be afraid to discuss your ideas with them and seek their feedback – and be prepared to take their comments on board!
• Clarity in your writing is very important. If you are applying to an external funding agency, for example, reviewers may not be experts in your field of research.
Structure of a research proposal
The content of a good research proposal is of paramount importance, but the structure and presentation are important factors in making your proposal accessible to reviewers. You should carefully follow the funder’s suggested guidelines for structuring your proposal. If you are not given much structural guidance you should consider including the following sections in your proposal:
• Title and abstract.
• Introduction (background information) and literature review. Demonstrate that your research will make a worthy contribution to an existing body of literature, and that it has not been done before. Research proposals are often of limited length so only choose key research articles in your field. You should grab the reader’s attention by keeping your writing succinct and relevant.
• Statement of hypotheses and/or research questions. What key areas of research will your proposal test (hypotheses) or address (research questions)?
• Aim and objectives. These must be justified. Consider the requirements of your funding body – are you meeting these and not just addressing your own intellectual curiosity? The funder’s website usually provides the criteria against which your proposal will be judged.
• Methodology. You should justify the methodology you intend to use, and if space permits you could explain what alternatives you disregarded (this demonstrates that you have considered alternative approaches). You need to explain why the methodology you have chosen is the most appropriate means of addressing your research questions.
• Ethical considerations. Many funders will explicitly ask you to consider the ethical implications of your research; if not then you should still demonstrate that you have considered them (particularly if your research involves people or animals).
• Resources required. This section is particularly important if you have been asked to quantify any potential expenditure.
• Proposals for the dissemination of research findings and expected outputs (e.g. journal articles). Be aware of your funder’s requirements for how any research outputs should be disseminated.
• Summary. If appropriate (check the guidelines) a summary could be included – it is not unusual, for example, for a funder to ask for a summary of the proposal addressed to a lay audience.
Writing style in research proposals
A research proposal is a piece of academic writing, and as such you should follow the guidelines for academic writing style found elsewhere on this site. In particular you should:
• Be clear and objective in your writing style. Avoid ambiguity.
• Structure your text using headings and subheadings (if allowed – check the guidelines).
• Use smaller paragraphs and write in short sentences – avoid long blocks of text.
• Use images, tables etc. if appropriate, relevant, and if allowed by the funding body. This helps break up the text.