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
Although each institution will almost certainly have its own pro-forma or headings for a research proposal, essentially students will be expected to 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 - see the next section.
Fleshing out the research proposal
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.
Major constraints tend to concern ethical 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 can do the work, you must introduce all of the following that may be relevant and any others that you can think of: your interests, background, qualifications, experience, resources, and freedom of access.
Presenting 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. It may help to look at other research proposals which have previously been accepted.
However 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.
Remember that supervisors* are busy people. They will help, but will expect you to do your own groundwork.