Research Proposal


Research proposals are written for graduate projects, usually theses and dissertations. If you have never written one, you may need a quick rundown on writing a research proposal. What follows will be the elements you must include and a short description of what should be included in each of them.

Writing That Research Proposal – Key Elements
  • 1

    Begin with a Research Question. Exactly what question do you want your research to answer? This must be stated in a clear and forceful manner, so that every reader understands exactly what your research will focus on.

    Example: Will a differentiated program for at-risk middle school students improve their behaviors, attendance, and academic performance?

    Your reader now understands the thrust of your research, the population involved, and what you hope to show through your research.

  • 2

    Justify the Research. If you are not sure about how to write a proposal for a research paper, thesis, or dissertation, you may not understand the importance of this element. You have to convince your advisor or committee that your research is important to your field and that conducting your study will make an important contribution, either building on prior research or striking out in a new direction. How will other researchers benefit from what you plan to do?

  • 3

    Provide a Synopsis of Your Early Literature Review. In order to have identified your research question, you have done some initial research in the topic area that led you to this question. You should provide a brief synopsis of the literature, so that your advisor or committee understands that you have an initial understanding of what others have done before you.

  • 4

    Describe Your Design. Your reader(s) need to know how you intend to conduct the study you propose. Will your study be qualitative or quantitative? What will be your population? What instruments will you use? Over what period of time will you conduct this study? What data will you gather and how will you analyze it? If you answer all of these questions, this element will be complete.

  • 5

    Provide a Timeline. Your advisor and/or committee will want to know how long you intend for this project to last, from the proposal approval to completion and submission of the final work. This will differ dependent upon the final piece you are producing – a research project, a thesis, or a dissertation. The basic research project may be a matter of weeks to a couple of months; a master’s thesis should consume a semester; a Ph.D. dissertation may take up to 18 months.

    You should provide a calendar for completion. This, however, must be somewhat flexible. It is the rare that a researcher sticks to his/her calendar. There are just too many nuisance factors and unexpected challenges within some projects. Suppose, for example, that your study is qualitative and that your population is a human demographic that is a bit unreliable. You may have to re-schedule survey taking, meetings, etc., based upon the availability of the participants. This is expected, so do not stress if you do not meet the exact dates you have set.

Important Considerations
  • 1

    It’s important to remember that research proposals are rarely approved the first time they are submitted. Advisors and committee members always have suggestions and revision requests

  • 2

    Your department probably has guidelines for proposal formats. Follow them.

  • 3

    Divide your proposal into sections with proper headings, so that your readers can follow your logical pattern.

Do and Don`t
  • Be sure to craft your research question in scholarly terminology but be certain that it is very clear and specific too.
  • Do base the justification for your project on specific research studies that have gone before you. Remember you are building on a body of knowledge that already exists.
  • Be certain that you are using research instruments that have been validated or that your original instruments will compare well to others that have been validated.
  • Be certain to build flexibility in your timeline – you will need it.
  • Be very specific about your study population. Other researchers may want to replicate your study.
  • Don’t be vague in your research question statement. State exactly what you intend to test.
  • Don’t overload your literature review section. Pick two-three studies that directly relate to your question and focus on those.
  • Don’t ignore any of your department guidelines – the details are important
  • Don’t get defensive if there are suggestions and revision requests. Be amenable to changes.
  • Don’t craft the proposal without seeking input from your advisor as you complete each element. His/her guidance will help ensure final approval.
Mistakes to Avoid
  • Many students are either too brief or too verbose in their proposal document. Find others whose proposals have been approved and try to use those as models as you craft yours.
  • Students who are designing their own instruments often leave out important factors or include factors that are “nuisances.” Find validated instruments if you can and use those.
  • In their enthusiasm, students may construct a tight calendar without giving themselves leeway for events and circumstances that may slow things down. Be kind to yourself.
  • Many proposal writers do not provide enough detail in their design section. Your advisor is looking to see if another researcher could read your design and know exactly how to replicate it. Get enough detail in there.
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