Guide to Writing Research Proposals

First, we cannot guarantee that the recommendations provided here will ensure your research application is successful!

Rather, the aim is to help you to conceptualize your proposal and prepare it. Our advice is designed to give structure to the process and to provide a timetable that will give you space to develop and perfect your skills. Additionally, we wish you the best of luck in your endeavors!

When submitting an application for a grant or scholarship for, say, a research project or some type of study, you will be expected to submit a precise and detailed description of this project or program. Furthermore, this should be sufficiently relevant to enable a decision to be made as to whether to award the grant or scholarship or not. 

A research proposal serves the following purposes:

  • To ensure that candidates have undertaken an adequate amount of preliminary research and reading in the field their proposal relates to.
    To ensure candidates have properly considered the different issues related to their proposed project and are capable of providing more than just a wide-ranging description  of the topic they intend to study or research. 

A research proposal is not a blueprint that is set in stone. It is impossible to predict in advance, what one might discover or to adhere to a particular plan because the course of the research will very likely alter and/or completely unseat the expectations the researcher had at the outset. Still, the challenge for you is to persuade peers and members of your academic institution that:

  • A problem of a scientific nature has come to your attention
  • You have the theoretical knowledge and background as well as the methodical capability to investigate and find a solution to this problem
  • You can complete the project in a realistic amount of time and at a reasonable cost. 

The research you do will contribute to and give a new dimension to the current scientific discussion in this field.

The first thing you need to do is to check the required length of your proposal, the format, the page numbering style, the table of content, and the general layout (i.e. the font type, line spacing requirements, etc.). Your course advisor will provide this information. It is likely the evaluation committee members will have large volumes of proposals to read so it will be of great advantage to you if your proposal is legible and well constructed.

Title or Cover Page:

  • Include information about yourself, e.g., your name, academic or course title, your position at university, your date of birth, nationality, personal contact details (e.g., phone number and email address), and institution contact details.
  • A working or interim title for the research paper or dissertation you are planning to write. Choose the words for your paper’s title with care and you should also give careful consideration to how these words associate with each other. Although your paper’s title should be short, it needs to be descriptive, accurate, easy to understand, and it should clearly indicate the nature of the subject or topic under investigation.

To be able to devise a clear and comprehensive title for your paper, you also need to be clear in your mind about the nature and focus of your proposed research! 

Try to create a title that is around ten words in length or sixty characters. Try to include keywords that clearly indicate the nature of your research topic and its classification. 

  • Set a realistic timeline for completing your proposed project. Follow this with the name or names of your course supervisors, the university faculty or department where you intend to conduct the research and, where applicable, details of any other scholars you expect to be working with.
  • Look at other similarly sponsored projects that have been successful to see if your particular topic matches the awarding organization’s goals and mission and to enable you to imitate their preferences in terms of proposal titles, structure, and so on.  

Abstract and/or Summary Statement for Your Research Project

This summary should be around a page long and it should focus on the topic with regards to its current, new, and most relevant features. Try to make everything clear – in fact, your greatest challenge may be narrowing down your topic.  

Literature Review

This is a relatively short and concise overview describing where your proposed project currently stands in terms of existing knowledge and what research has already been done in this field.

  • Draw attention to the most significant and relevant work of other experts.
  • Discuss any existing ideas or theories that you will use to support your research.
  • Show you are knowledgeable in the concepts and ideas you are working with and that you understand the implications of the methodologies involved.
  • Describe the problem that will become the focus of your research work. Say in clear terms how your work will add to existing knowledge in this field.  

Your Own History and Preparation

Where applicable, provide a summary of how your work is likely to impact the topic.
Include copies of any works you have published where these may be relevant or have an influence on the research you are proposing. 

Outline Your Project’s Objective(s)

Provide a clear and concise outline of the objectives (academic and non-academic i.e. the political or social objectives) you hope your work will achieve. You need to show in your proposal why the research you intend to do is very important and is worth the effort you will be putting into it. This means outlining the relevance and/or significance (practical or theoretical) of your chosen topic.  Your justification can be of the empirical type (i.e. where your aim is to extend or add to existing knowledge) or of the theoretical type (i.e. where your aim is to discuss various contentious aspects of existing knowledge and/or provide fresh insight into what is already known).
Every piece of research belongs to a larger academic enterprise and a researcher needs to be capable of arguing the position and value of their particular contribution.  

Create a Project Outline

An outline is the key or central component of a research project.

  • Provide details of the procedure(s) you will use for your research within the time allowed.
  • List the sources and evidence you intend to consult, say what method of analysis you will use, and indicate what your proposed timetable is. 
    You will need to define appropriate strategies for your research work according to the topic you have chosen to ensure you can collect an adequate and sufficient amount of empirical data for a successful outcome.  
  • Explain the methods you intend to use for collecting data, as well as the statistical analysis methods you will use, the controls you will use, the nature of the documentary or literature analysis you will use, and so on. 

As you draft your proposal, consider it a work in progress and give yourself flexibility for planning:

  • Be prepared to revise and amend your proposal as new questions arise and as you gain fresh insights. This includes modifying your working or temporary hypothesis as you continue to acquire knowledge.
  • When you have a credible thesis or hypothesis, focus on progressing your project according to the scope and/or limitations of the topic.

Project Timeline

A realistic timetable will need to be developed (preferably in the form of a table), which will set out the different phases and sequences for the research work and a rough estimate of the time each individual phase is likely to take. At this point, this will be no more than an estimate, but do show that you have some idea of the amount of time each step will take. 

Create a Bibliography for Your Research

List each academic work you reference or mention in your proposal paper as well as those you will consult over the course of researching your topic.

Documents to Attach

List every document enclosed with your research proposal.
CV, letters of references, and so on.

Edit Your Work

Once the conceptual aspect of your proposal is complete, you will need to carefully edit it.

Writing and Presentation Style

  1. It is important to check that your proposal’s title, abstract section, and content match one another.
  2. The structure you use throughout should be clear. Generally, the recommended style is one that is easy and intuitive to navigate with appropriate headings and strategically placed summaries that enable readers to easily find their bearings, particularly if they want to comment on any aspect in the future. (Get another person to verify the clarity of your document by reading it.)
  3. Sum-up all important issues and, if possible, do not make assumptions.
  4. Keep your style of writing throughout clear, reasonable, and declarative (use active verbs!).
  5. Use bullet point lists, visual aids, and so on to break up your narrative. Show you understand relationships, abstract concepts, etc. Draw attention to key sections by using white space.
  6. Make sure there is no spelling, grammar or typographical errors in your research proposal. If needs be, use the services of a professional proofreader;
  7. Ask an experienced researcher or other academic expert to proofread your work to verify its compliance with both international standards and those of your academic institution.