Writing a Research Proposal

The purpose of a research proposal is to provide an outline of a research project to prospective advisors or supervisors. As such, the outline should mirror the structure of a thesis. Your proposal should be approximately 3-4 paragraphs of 200 to 250 words each (800 - 1000 words in total), plus a bibliography of the prominent research in the field. The four paragraphs should cover: 

  1. Background (situation or literature review): Describe the focus (field or topic) of your proposed research by drawing on prominent literature to sketch the 'situation'. In other words, 'situate' your research in a field of inquiry by describing the problem area and what is already known about the topic and not particularly controversial. Author A said this, Author B suggests that... Provide a short historical account of the literature in your field of inquiry. 
  2. Complication: If your topic area is well known and there is nothing controversial about it, then to research the area would be futile (a waste of time). So, something has happened to raise your interest to research this topic (something has complicated the situation to raise its importance). Describe what has occurred that raises the importance for researching this topic (e.g., researching a new mouse trap is not particularly important, but researching the cause of a disease that has killed a lot of people over the last year is important). 
  3. Hypotheses formulation: To conduct research is to have a question that needs answering and a proposition (proposed solution) to the question. Your hypothesis should emerge logically from the literature and complication you have presented. 
    1. Example research question: To what degree does the environment impact X?
    2. Example proposition or hypothesis (an answer to the research question): Three environmental factors (list them) cause X. A proposition is claim about the problem (A causes B) that you will test (research). 
  4. Methodological approach: Research involves collecting data to test your hypothesis and seeing if your proposed solution (A causes B) is correct. Therefore you need to identify the means (method) by which you will collect data and any challenges that might be involved. For example, data can be collected via interview, from a survey, by case studies, from existing databases. Describe how you intend to collect data to test your hypothesis. Also, data collection can have a range of problems. For example, access to relevant subjects (people who will do the survey), time to collect the data (needs to be within the timeframe of the research project), bias (how do you avoid bias in the data you collect). 


See Also

  • PREP your paragraphs
  • Writing a structured paragraph



Minto, B (1987) The Pyramid Principle: logic in writing and thinking, Pitman Publishing: London.

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