How To Write A Research Proposal

How To Write A Research Proposal


Content Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a Research Proposal?
  3. Components of a Research Proposal
  4. Tips for writing effective research proposals
  5. Summary


A research proposal is a document where a researcher provides all the details of a proposed research project. Research proposals are written for several different purposes such as: as a part of a grant application for a research project; for Masters/PhD degree related research; and, in response to calls for research proposals sent out by research institutions. While each institution/organization may have its own specific formats or requirements, generally research proposals describe the process and requirements to implement a specific research project, including budgets and timelines. 

What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal describes a research problem that is going to be investigated, the scope and rationale of this investigation, the methods used during the investigation, the implementation process and resources required to conduct the investigation.A research proposal outlines the entire purpose and implementation of a research project. Researchers write research proposals for all types of research projects – those carried out based on research into written sources; others may be on research conducted in the field, and still others on experiments carried out in laboratories.
A research proposal therefore serves the following functions:
  • To define and describe your research project to an external audience. 
  • To highlight the knowledge gap your project addresses. 
  • To develop a plan of action for implementing your research project. 
  • To demonstrate that a project has been conceptualized and planned in detail 
  • To define the resources (financial, human, material and technical) that would be required to accomplish the research project. 
  • To establish the researcher’s qualifications, expertise and credibility in the concerned area of research. 
  • Serves as the basis for requesting grant funding and seeking approval for academic research such as Masters and PhD theses.

Components of a Research Proposal

Although the format of a research proposal may vary by the institution/organization that you are submitting it to, this section describes the key components of a research proposal. However, ensure that you review and follow the guidelines prescribed by your institution/organization carefully, as not doing so can imply a rejection of your proposal.Also, note that different institutions may label components differently – for example, some people refer to the Introduction section as the Background section. Be aware of this as you review your institution’s guidelines, or read additional resources in books or on the internet. Some institutions also have fixed page number requirements – make sure you follow these.
  1. Title Page
    Personal details: Your name, your academic title or designation, date of submission, the name of your supervisor (if any), name of your university/institution (if any) and the name of the organization/entity to whom you are submitting the proposal.
    Title of the study: The title should be concise, relevant, and descriptive of the major focus of the study. By reading the title one should get a clear idea about what and who are studied. An effective title not only catches the reader's interest, but also predisposes him/her favorably towards the proposal. Since the title reflects the nature of your entire research project, sometimes it may be useful to finalize this only once you have completed writing the entire proposal.
  2. Abstract
    An abstract is an executive summary of your research proposal, and is usually written in 150-300 words. It should include a brief mention of the research question and objectives, hypothesis if any, and the methodology to be used. Descriptions of the methodology may include the design, the sample and research tools. Describe your project as clearly and concisely as you can – remember you have word restrictions!
  3. Table of Contents
    The Table of Contents is a listing of all the different sections of the proposal along with their page numbers. This may not be required for short proposals with two or three pages. 
  4. Introduction
    This section introduces the reader to the main area of your project. Therefore, it is important to use this section to catch your reader’s attention. Provide a brief overview of the theme/area of your research study and then describe what specific goal or question your study will address within this broad area. Research question is studied with the help of specific study objectives and hypotheses (in some cases) and they have to be clearly spelt out. This section should also provide the justifications or rationale for your study. Also, indicate why your study is significant, or what contributions it will make to the body of literature. This part will be of special interest to reviewers and funders alike, because they may want to know in what way your research is unique and also worth granting approval and/or funds.
    Since the Introduction lays out the key points of the full proposal, some people find it helpful to write this section last, because it helps to synchronize the information presented in the complete proposal.
  5. Literature review
    The literature review is an essential part of a proposal because it defines what information /research is available on a specific topic, and how your proposed study will address a gap in the available research. The purpose of this section is to review previous research conducted on your research topic. Remember to make note of research findings as well as research gaps. You must also explain your research question(s) and objectives within the context of these gaps as this will also help you explain how your study adds to the existing body of knowledge.
  6. Methods
    The methodology section is an important part of your proposal because it tells the readers and reviewers how you plan to study your research problem. It describes your work plan and the activities necessary for the completion of your project. While writing this section, maintain a focus on the research question(s), objectives and hypotheses and use the section to describe how you would go about collecting the data that is required to answer them. It is also important to make sure that the research questions, objectives and methods all link up to each other, and flow smoothly. The Methods section will undoubtedly be the one that will receive the closest attention from reviewers, so it is important to demonstrate here your skills in planning and organizing research related activities.
    As you describe your chosen methods, it is important to state the reasons why you feel that your approach is the most appropriate to address your research question. This will demonstrate to the reviewers and readers that you have given considerable thought to the choice of your methods. If you have conducted any preliminary research, then it would be a good idea to mention this in this section and also describe how that has influenced your choice of methods in your current project.
    Depending on whether you choose to use quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods, the contents of your methods section may vary

Tips for writing effective research proposal

Content tips
  • Provide an adequate context to your study by citing seminal works/landmark studies.
  • Present the work of other researchers accurately. 
  • Stay focused on your research question. 
  • Present clearly the boundaries and limitations of your research project. 
  • Make your arguments fact-based and persuasive. 
  • Define clearly and concisely the contributions made by your project. 
  • Make sure all the sections of your proposal flow smoothly and strengthen the case for your project. 
  • If you are required to include a budget, make sure all the given amounts total and tally correctly. 
  • Once you have completed a draft version, go over it in details and edit! Enlist the support of a friend to read it and provide feedback, as this can really help in improving the quality and clarity of your proposal. 
Writing/style tips
  • Don’t forget to add a cover page and a table of contents 
  • Don’t forget to include page numbers – research proposals tend to be long documents and your reviewers may need to print/photocopy multiple copies. Page numbers will ensure everything is in order! 
  • Check for spelling and grammar errors. 
  • If you are required to submit a bibliography, make sure you use the correct citation style as per the requirements. 
  • Do not plagiarize -- make sure you cite correctly in the text. 
  • Make sure your proposal is within the prescribed word limit. For example: if the specified limit is 5 pages or 2500 words, sending a proposal that is 8 pages long or that is about 3500 words could result in its rejection. 
  • Use a formal font such as Times New Roman or Ariel. 
  • Font sizes should be between 10 to 12.


  • A research proposal is a document describing all the key elements of a proposed research project. 
  • A research proposal helps in indicating what knowledge gaps your project addresses. It also defines the plan of action to implement it, indicates what resources are required, serves as the basis of a grant application and establishes the expertise of the researcher and research team. 
While the components of a research proposal may vary by institution, typical research proposals include the following fields:
  1. Title Page
  2. Abstract
  3. Table of Contents 
  4. Introduction 
  5. Literature Review 
  6. Methods 
  7. Timeline 
  8. Personnel 
  9. Budget 
  10. Bibliography 
The proposal is such a key document, it is important to make sure it is written as concisely, accurately and clearly as possible.


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