Research proposal structure
There are three key messages to communicate when writing a research proposal:
- what you are doing
- why it is important
- that you are competent to do it
You may be asked to write a proposal that includes all of these sections. Particularly at undergraduate level, your proposal may focus on three or four of the following sections. This is the general order that proposals follow, however you should refer to any specific guidelines on structure from your lecturer or supervisor.
Your title should answer the question: What is your research about? It should be a short, concise phrase.
An abstract for a proposal should include the topic, aims of your study, who will be involved in the research, the methods and the timeframe. It is usually concluded with a statement that explains the relevance of the research (why it is needed). Abstracts for proposals are generally in the future tense (you outline what you intend to do). For more information on writing abstracts see abstract.
In some proposals, the introduction and background are separate; in others they serve the same purpose and are combined. Both an introduction and background section outlines why you chose your topic. The section should include:
- what prompted your interest in the topic
- relevance to previous research (literature)
- what your research will contribute to the research and the field
It may include (if not under separate headings)
- your research objectives/questions or hypothesis
- literature review
What is the research question you are trying to find the answer to? This can also be termed as the aim or purpose of the research. Think about how you finish this statement: “The purpose of this research is …”
The literature review for a research proposal may draw on a detailed review that you have already conducted, or may be specific to the development of your proposal.
Your literature review needs to demonstrate that you have read broadly on the topic and its wider context. It should highlight trends in the literature relating to your research topic, including research areas, methodology, theoretical approaches and findings. Information such as where the literature is mainly coming from, or countries/areas that it is focused on could be considered.
Your review should outline some of the limitations and/or gaps in the literature that you have identified (a critique). You need to draw on your literature review to justify your own research. Indicate the gaps your research is addressing and note the original contribution it will make the field in general.
The literature review helps inform and set up your theoretical framework, methodology and research design.
Note: some assignments have requested students list the literature they will include in their research (rather than reviewing). Ensure that your literature review section reflects the requirements of your assignment.
Drawing on the different theories you have identified in your literature review, you need to identify which theoretical approach (or approaches) will be employed in your research and why.
Some proposals distinguish between methodology (the why of how you will gather your data) and the method or research design (the how).
In discussing the methodology, you need to draw on reviewed literature and consider the different methodological approaches used. Your methodology may include your research paradigm and epistemologies that underpin your research and your rationale for this.
As with the theoretical framework and methodology, it is important to demonstrate that you have read other studies in your area of research. You should be able to address the strengths and limitations of the methods in similar research and justify why you have chosen the method that you have.
In your method, you should discuss the following aspects:
- Participants: who will you be doing your research with (individuals, businesses, organisations? What is your sample size and its parameters?)
- Data collection: how will you go about collecting your information (surveys, experiments, interviews)? This should also include any equipment or instruments that you will need.
- Data analysis and discussion: once you have the information, what will you do with it? Include any tools you will use to assist you with analysis (e.g. programmes, models). Indicate how analysing the data in this way will answer your research question.
- Limitations: look at your methodology and consider any weaknesses or limitations that may occur as a result of your research design. Address the limitations by indicating how you will minimise them.
Almost all research needs to consider ethics. In most cases this relates to the ethical consideration of how the data will be collected. In this section you should outline your awareness and understanding of ethical issues associated with your research proposal. You should consider the rights of those being researched (including informed consent), your responsibility, and how the data will be collected, stored and disposed of. You should indicate whether your proposal will require approval from an ethics committee and if so, which one.
For more information about research and ethics at Massey University visit research ethics.
You may need to consider how the information you discover will be shared with the wider (research/academic) community. In most cases, a written document (report, research paper, thesis or journal article) is an appropriate means of communicating your findings. If your research is intended to assist a broader audience (for example specific members of the community), other forms to disseminate your knowledge could include conference presentations, pamphlets, musical/theatrical performance, film or general media articles.
It is important to convince your reader of the validity of your research. You need to communicate enthusiasm and confidence for the research, arguing clearly as to the contribution it will make to the subject area and discipline in general. This is sometimes a separate section; in other instances it forms part of the introduction or background.
A timeline that estimates how long each task will take helps determine the scope of your research and if it is achievable within a given timeframe. Your research proposal timeline should include time allocation for a detailed literature review, time for approval from ethics committee, reviewing or testing of research design, data collection and analysis and writing up of findings.
It is important to be realistic with the timeframe, consider if you are able to dedicate full time work to the research, of if it is to be conducted while you are studying other papers, working part or full time or have family commitments.
Often when requesting funding for research, a budget is included to indicate where funds will be allocated. A budget may include items such as the cost of survey design and printing, transcribers, software or research assistants. This could be included in the appendicies.
It is important to include all references you have used when writing your proposal. This demonstrates that you are serious about your research and have invested both time and thought into the process.
This may include copies of letters seeking participants, consent forms and draft surveys/questionnaires.
References and further reading
Rountree, K., & Laing, T. (1996). Writing by degrees: A practical guide to writing theses and research papers. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman. [Massey Library link]